Sunday, June 07, 2015

Seen in May 

Scene from Ex Machina
Ex Machina

I spent most of May binging on two entirely different types of television shows, yet I also saw some of the best films I've seen all year (Nightcrawler from last year), Phoenix and Ex Machina among them. I find in the summer I tend to watch less television and more films. We'll see if that holds up this year, but the spring is off to a good start.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
The first blockbuster of the season didn’t disappoint… but you know maybe these characters have become too familiar. The Avengers are relaxing at a Tony Stark soiree after retrieving yet another alien gem stone which Stark and Dr. Banner use to power a peace keeping initiative controlled by Artificial Intelligence, when yikes - the Singularity is achieved. The self aware automaton, Ultron decides the only path to peace would be an extinction level event - of humanity (always the humans). It’s hard to talk about “suspension of disbelief” in a film that has a Norse god, an army of robots, and a man who grows to four times his size without tearing his pants, but sometimes it feels these movies are trying to go too big. I mean, levitating a city so you could drop it to create a meteor like affect? Aren’t there enough explosives in Kansas to do the same thing? Oh and aren't we actually in the midst of multiple extinction level events every day? Maybe extinct frogs don't count. There were definitely some groan-worthy moments in this film yet it’s still a thrill ride and a bucket of fun. But you know, the 13-year-old part of this 40-something’s brain is straining to know why it was so much fun?

Penny Dreadful
Set in Victorian London this series is the story of a great explorer’s attempts to rescue his daughter from a den of vampires. Along the way we meet Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, not to mention a werewolf, Dorian Gray and Prof. Van Helsing. But this isn’t really just some typical gore and sex-filled horror show, there’s real drama and enough Catholic guilt and psychological baggage to fill a Spanish Armada. Like other grown-up fantasy dramas (like True Blood, American Horror Story or Daredevil) this series has a formidable cast such as Timothy Dalton as the explorer, Josh Hartnett as an American sharp shooter (and more) and Eva Green as a possessed clairvoyant who is bound to Dalton’s character by history, duty and guilt.

German director Christian Petzold continues to explore a Germany that struggles with its past in this story of a Jewish performer, Nelly, who after surviving a Jewish concentration camp, returns to Berlin to look for her husband. The catch? She was disfigured during the war and has had facial reconstruction and is barely recognizable. Nelly’s friend Esther implores her to plan their move to Israel and leave Germany behind, but Nelly can’t believe her husband Johnny would have betrayed her and only wants to return to her life as it was before the war. I've read the director describe this film as Vertigo told from the Kim Novak character's point of view, which makes this a fascinating take on identity and memory. Nelly as played by the great Nina Hoss is clearly a metaphor of how Germans struggled with the devastation of their nation during the war and the schism between family, friends and loved ones as well as the loss of national pride and identity in the aftermath of the Third Reich.

Ex Machina
This modern retelling of Frankenstein's monster is a slightly more nuanced look at A.I. than Age of Ultron. A brilliant and wealthy Internet tycoon, Nathan, has secluded himself in a remote (and stunning) retreat to create a rather attractive android, Ava, who represents the most advanced artificial intelligence ever created. Domhnail Gleeson plays a software engineer Caleb, selected to help Nathan run a Turing test on his creation (ironically, Gleeson played an android himself in the BBC series Black Mirror). I love this kind of film that leaves us with more questions than answers as Nathan and Caleb argue and converse over the meaning, affect and influence of Ava as the test grows increasingly perplexing. I saw this film with friends and we talked about the movie for hours afterwards. That probably wouldn't have happened after The Avengers (or maybe it would have – if you have comic book luvin' nerds for friends like I do).

Scene from Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an ambitious if amoral young man desperate to succeed at something. He finds his calling in L.A. crime video journalism, a sort of paparazzi for gory violent accidents and crime. Rather than settle for being a modern day Weegee (famous New York crime photographer of the 40s and 50s), Bloom begins crossing the line, sabotaging rivals, entering and manipulating crime scenes to improve the effect of his footage, all to increase the value of his product. This seedy side of L.A. seems such an indictment of America with its black rivers of expressways woven into the Hollywood Hills and sulphurous and neon lights providing the garish palette to a true city of sin. This movie was released around the same time as Drive and both are reminiscent of To Live and Die in L.A. not just for nighttime expressway car chases but in the way the cars and the expressways and the faux dusk light of the city glow become the essential spirit of Los Angeles. Now that I think of it, there's a dash of David Cronenberg's Crash is this movie too.

The documentary chronicling Edward Snowden’s attempts to expose the NSA programs that have revealed privacy is a myth in the modern world. Turn off your phone, pay by cash and never use Gmail, Google, Facebook or Twitter again. The most important thing to know is that if you are using software that is free, you should know that the software isn't the product, you are. You may think, “I’m not committing a crime, why do I care?” You should care because within a blink of an eye (into a retinal scanner?), your bank accounts could be frozen (and not like a fun animated film way), your mortgage payments stopped (and not because you won the lottery), your life and the life of anyone you know could be shut down without warrant, cause, recompense or justification. That and the fact that the NSA is looking at your dick pics.

Jupiter Ascending
From the makers of The Matrix comes one of the most bloated piles of garbage you will see in your lifetime. They say there’s an island of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. Believe me, you don’t have to travel that far to see an island sized pile of plastic crap, just watch this regrettable mistake of a movie. Mila Kunis is a lovely and adrift as Jupiter, and while Channing Tatum wore gravity defying boots, he was let down by a sprawling unfocused story and poor direction and editing. Eddie Redmayne is also surprisingly terrible speaking in a loud asexual whisper one moment and screeching like an escaped peacock the next. Okay, I'll stop now before I pique your interest in this terrible movie.

Archer Season Six
This solipsistic and juvenile animated series about a douchebag ass of a spy slowly becoming a bit of a better person (but not really) is funny and frustrating but mostly funny. Unfortunately most of the gags and jibes are unrepeatable in respectable society so I’ll just keep this gem of crude weirdness to myself. A lesson from Cartoon Academy I recall is one reason to tell a story in animation is because in live action it would be repugnant and socially unacceptable. That mostly sums up Archer.

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