Ex Machina (2015, directed by Alex Garland) has the great misfortune of following too soon after Her, a legitimately great film about artificial intelligence and the idea of The Singularity that dealt with its themes with grace, wit, humanity, and a sense of hope that humanity's children will take from us love and mercy and everything else that is best about us. Although it shares some basic ideas about the nature of artificial intelligence and name-checks The Singularity in the text of its dialogue, Ex Machina is not similarly hopeful. Ava, the artificial intelligence in Ex Machina, has a very real grievance with her creator, who fails to realize the moral and ethical implications of dismantling a thinking, self aware being in order to "improve" it.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Robert A. Heinlein is typically considered one of the grand masters of the so-called "Golden Age of Science Fiction," that period just before World War II when the genre began to take itself seriously as literature. The Golden Age writers were typically hard nosed about realistic science within the boundaries of what was then known. Sometimes, their rigor resulted in startling predictive powers. Mostly, they resulted in complicated problems for the characters in the stories. In many ways, Heinlein was the architect of this movement. He was the most popular writer in John W. Campbell's Astounding, the primary outlet for the Golden Age writers, and his mixture of plain-spoken Americana and futurism was the template for science fiction for the next two decades. His characters may have worked in outer space, but they smoked Luckies and chased girls like everyone else. Toward the end of the 1950s the landscape of literary science fiction began to change. Social sciences began to form as much of the background of future societies as the physical sciences. Writers like Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth began to explore the effects of the future on the psychology of its characters rather than having those characters just act in response to plot. By the late fifties, a new crop of writers was waiting to upset the apple cart. Science fiction's "New Wave" was less beholden to science and more interested in literary values like character, theme, and language. Older writers, brought up on the technocratic Golden Age, either adapted or found other work. Robert Heinlein turned out to be particularly adaptable. His major novels of the 1960s are a fusion of the old and the new. The technological future is still there, but the problems are dramatically different. Heinlein's fiction turned inward.
Predestination (2014, directed by the Spierig Brothers) is the first film since Destination: Moon to approach Robert Heinlein on his own terms. It's a very different species of movie, though. The story it's based on, "...All You Zombies," is as close to the science fiction New Wave as Heinlein ever came, and this film reflects that pedigree. It's not a film that will wow you with technology or with its vision of the future. It's a dingy movie that exists as much in the past as it does in the future. It's central motivating idea--time travel--wasn't even novel in 1959, when the story was written, let alone in 2015. There are time travel stories without number these days. Instead, this is a movie about extrapolation from that idea, intent on pulling it inside out and twisting it almost to the point of breaking. Where previous films based on Heinlein have been cartoons, based on the plots of his books, this film dives into the core of what makes Heinlein's fiction so memorable in the first place. Perhaps, this is because it's faithful to its source material almost to a fault. Or perhaps it's because it's source material isn't the rockets and warfare and aliens stuff that has attracted other filmmakers to Heinlein over the years. Instead, this is a film that dives into the interior of its characters and speculates on matters of identity and existence.
Friday, May 15, 2015
It was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would come calling on the Robert A. Heinlein estate in the early 1990s. The previous decade had seen filmmakers becoming interested in literary science fiction thanks to the cult success of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (a version of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) and the blockbuster success of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (based on Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"). Hollywood's infatuation with Philip K. Dick continues to this very day, unabated, with recent versions of Radio Free Albemuth and a pilot for a web series based on The Man in the High Castle premiering in 2014. By the early 1990s, Hollywood began to expand their field of interest to writers like William Gibson (Johnny Mnemonic) and Isaac Asimov (Nightfall, The Bicentennial Man, I Robot), writers with caché in pop culture. Heinlein must have seemed a fertile ground for development: his books had name-recognition well beyond the occasionally insular community of science fiction fandom. Heinlein was, after all, the first science fiction writer to place a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Name recognition is an important quality for an industry that likes to sell audiences products they already know everything about. It's ironic that The Puppet Masters (1994, directed by Stuart Orme) should be the film to kick off this interest, given that it's the novel at the heart of The Brain Eaters, the last "adaptation" of the 1950s.
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
I saw a story on the internet a few months back about the demolition of Ray Bradbury's house. It sold a while ago for $1.7 million and the new owners apparently want to put something else up on the property. This makes me sad, I suppose. I grew up reading Bradbury and watching the sci fi movies of the 1950s that bear his stamp. Bradbury was fortunate in his interpreters. Films like It Came from Outer Space and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are touched with his humanism. Commenting on the demolition of his house, a friend of mine said, "...and there shall come soft rains."
I've been thinking about fifties sci fi lately. I recently caught Destination Moon. I don't think I ever saw it when I was a kid, back when I was mainlining as much science fiction as I could lay my hands on. It's a film that reminds me that there's an alternate history of cinematic science fiction that never actually materialized in our world, one that's more influenced by Bradbury's great contemporary, Robert Heinlein, than by Bradbury himself. I'm reminded of this because there's a new movie based on one of Heinlein's stories out right now, and I'll get to that in a few days, but it's worth playing what-if with Heinlein. Heinlein is one of the founders of the modern genre, one who put people into the future along with the nuts and bolts of technology. In spite of this, he's a writer who always insisted on the technology being right. He was also one of the first science fiction writers to dabble in the "soft" sciences of psychology and sociology as fertile grounds for extrapolation. Much of the appeal of his work comes from his depictions of societies as much as it comes from the gee whiz technological trappings. Heinlein's powers of extrapolation were often uncanny. My favorite of his ideas that wound up coming true? There's subplot in Stranger in a Strange Land in which the fastest way to get in touch with the leader of the free world is through his wife's astrologer. That's on-point satire right there, which became a tad less funny when it came true during the Reagan administration. Heinlein is arguably the architect of every SF trope you can think of, including the ones more famously associated with Philip K. Dick (see, for instance, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" or "They"). I read a lot of Heinlein as a teenager. I have a nearly complete set of his books, though I haven't touched them since a re-read of Citizen of the Galaxy a decade ago.
Hollywood has been interested in Heinlein for decades, but the movies have never really reconciled what's best in Heinlein with what's best for movie making. Part of this is the author's preoccupation with sex and with shuffling the conventions of social and sexual morality (this has long been the stumbling block with a film version of Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein's most famous novel). Part of this is the politics behind a good deal of his work. Part of it is the irascibility of the author himself. Even when the films have materialized--and there haven't been many of them--Heinlein often barely figured in them.
Sunday, May 03, 2015
In honor of the new Avengers movie (review soon), I thought I'd give you a run-down of what comics I read month to month. As you might expect from someone who writes and draws comics, I read a lot of comics. I was discussing this elsewhere this morning, so I thought I'd share my pull list. This does not constitute everything I read, just what I buy month to month.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
I'm conflicted about the Dardenne brothers' latest film, Two Days, One Night (2014).
On the one hand, I think that in spite of the Dardennes' reputation as observational realists, they've constructed a film that is best understood as a moral fable. Oh, it's clearly the work of social realists. Its portrait of late capitalism has the kind of clear-eyed brutality that only comes from a long hard look at the world. Its structure and plot, on the other hand, seem like a trap built to produce a specific result for its characters. It's a gross manipulation, so if the intent is to make a film that indicts the current criminal economy, then it fails. You cannot arrive at "truth," even in fiction, if you rig the game. One of my correspondents calls the plot of Two Days, One Night "bullshit," and he's not exactly wrong.
On the other hand, Two Days, One Night features another astonishing performance by Marion Cotillard. You might expect that a movie star of Cotillard's magnitude would demolish the Dardennes' carefully cultivated observational aesthetic, but in Cotillard's case, she's a star of that magnitude in the first place because she's the most gifted actress of her generation. That is on full display in this film. She gives the Dardennes exactly what they want from a lead performance: natural, heartbreaking, without a hint of artifice. Would that the brothers tended their own garden as carefully.
Sunday, April 26, 2015
David Cronenberg has always included a strain of horror toward women and female sexuality in his films. The monstrous feminine often manifests itself in birth in Cronenberg's films, but the very idea of the vagina itself is a figure of horror, to say nothing of the idea that women might actually want to use them for pleasure. Unease with feminine bodies and sexuality is behind images like the birth scenes in The Brood and The Fly, the vaginal slit in James Woods's belly in Videodrome, the psychosexual dysfunctions in A Dangerous Method, the sexual possibilities of open wounds in Crash, the many faces becoming one face in Spider, the Mantle brothers' profession and inventions in Dead Ringers, and so on. Throughout his career and with only rare exceptions, Cronenberg has framed the monstrous feminine from the point of view of men. Confronting the feminine is often what knocks Cronenberg's protagonists out of their comfortable, sensible realities into the chaos beneath them. The critic, Robin Wood, once described Cronenberg's view of sex as both reactionary and infantile for this very reason. Though I think Cronenberg's approach more nuanced and more...um...perverse than that, I can see Wood's point.
Maps to the Stars (2014), the first of Cronenberg's films in forty years to center itself specifically on women, is a departure. It's a view of the monstrous feminine from the point of view of women. As such, it's a writhing chaos of sexual horrors. Or something. Its about movies and fame, too, and about Cronenberg's movies, in particular. It's a perverse film. Of course it's a perverse film! You expect that of Cronenberg even after all this time.
Saturday, April 18, 2015
Horror movies are going through one of their periodic revivals right now. The last eighteen months or so have been particularly fertile for the genre. Part and parcel of this revival is a backward look at the horror films of the 1980s. Throwbacks like The Guest and Starry Eyes might have been dumped into video stores in 1988 or discovered late at night on HBO in 1983, ornamented as they are by minor-key synth scores and prowling, Dean Cundey-ish widescreen cinematography and a chaos of horrors hiding just behind the curtain of a particularly mundane suburban reality. These films often use their borrowed elements better than the films from which they are taken. Add It Follows (2014, directed by David Robert Mitchell) to this list. It Follows, more than any of these films, internalizes the eighties horror film and transforms it into something modern and nasty and relentless.
Friday, April 10, 2015
I'll be joining two blogathons in the next month or so. Both of them are old friends. The first one is the periodic For the Love of Film blogothon, which is a fundraiser for film preservation. This year's theme is science fiction, which will put me back in touch with my roots. The other is the annual White Elephant blogathon. I probably went easy on the recipient of my film again, this year. I just don't have the instinct for the jugular some of the other participants have.
I'll get back to documentaries and other stuff shortly.
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Sunday, April 05, 2015
Cartel Land (2015, directed by Matthew Heineman) and Western (2015, directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross) are so thematically similar that you could be forgiven for believing that they were programmed by True/False to play as apposite experiences. Both confront the "problem" of the United States/Mexico border. Both are steeped in the politics and violence of drug trafficking. Both of them are foregrounded by violence and the response to violence. Both of them cultivate an air of resignation and futility. For all that, they are very different films.
Monday, March 30, 2015
"Fuckery and shenanigans." That's how the sister of one of the antagonists in Finders Keepers (2015, directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel) describes the film's conflict over a severed leg found in a barbecue smoker. It's as good a description as any, I guess. Finders Keepers is the kind of film that Flannery O'Connor might have written had she lived in the current media age. She once wrote a story in which a traveling salesman makes off with the prosthetic leg of a lady professor, so there's a precedent there. This is a film that certainly veers uncomfortably close to hicksploitation, to say nothing of the Southern Gothic.
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Another persistent subject of the contemporary documentary zeitgeist are the lives of people--particularly children--who squat in the ruins of post-Capitalism. It would be easy to think of these kinds of films as social problem films, or at the very least as a kind of "poverty porn," but that would do the best of them a disservice. The good ones mark the lives of specific human beings, however desperate their lives, and let those lives illuminate more universal concerns. Spartacus and Cassandra (2014, directed by Ioanis Nuguet) is one such film. It chronicles the lives of two young Roma children struggling to live in Paris with parents whose basic competence to be parents in the first place is deeply suspect. This is a closely observant film that knows the power of an image and how to play with images without losing the integrity of the narrative. The end result is a highly aestheticized form of social realism.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Song of the Sea (2014, directed by Tomm Moore) expands on the design aesthetic of Moore's The Secret of Kells, while diving even deeper into waters of Irish mythology. Like that previous film, Song of the Sea is visually ravishing, though to an even further extent. Unlike that film, Song of the Sea occasionally invites comparisons to other films, particularly films by Hayao Miyazaki. The film can withstand the comparison, but it's not the same kind of singular experience as Kells, nor does it have the overarching design-as-theme element. Don't get me wrong: it's beautiful; it's one of the most beautiful films of recent vintage. But its beauty is beauty for its own sake rather than as an integrated element of the story. Whether or not this is a flaw in the film, I can't really say. Beauty is its own justification a lot of the time.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Director Adam Curtis claims that he's a journalist, not an artist. There's a presumption in this idea that the two are mutually exclusive, though I'm not sure I believe that. I certainly don't believe it of Curtis, whose films are powerful beyond the scope of mere document. Curtis's new film, Bitter Lake (2015) pushes at the boundaries of non-fiction. It's a film of great formal daring, one that internalizes post modernism in its image collage and its multitude of allusions. It's an object designed to be consumed on the internet, though it works fine as a cinematic experience. Whether or not it manages to connect the dots of its argument--something that can be debated--is almost beside the point.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Documentaries about the "War on Terror" seem like a permanent fixture in the contemporary film landscape. So long as horrible things are being done either against the democracies of the West, or, more probably, by the democracies of the West themselves, these kinds of films will be with us. They tend to paint a dismal picture of the world, one that more and more resembles George Orwell's prediction of the future as "a boot stamping on the human face forever." This year's crop includes Drone (2014, directed by Tonje Hessen Shei), a film that attempts to provide a multiplicity of viewpoints on the Obama administration's campaign of remote control warfare. That very multiplicity tends to blunt its impact.