Saturday, April 19, 2014

Transcendence(2014) : Pfister's Directorial Debut Is Lost At Sea

I cannot help but be curious about the origins of Wally Pfister's directorial debut, TRANSCENDENCE, and what mindset found the premise worth exploring. Outside of some truly regressive feelings on the nature of technology, versus humanity's inability to let go, there seems to be something both frightened, and sad happening here. If the film's inspirations lie within decades of technophobic cinema, then TRANSCENDENCE plays well as a bizarre spiritual throwback. And while Pfister's connections to major Hollywood (He has long been the Director of Photography for the films of Christopher Nolan) are impressive, they seem to be in the service of something both unsettling, and hopelessly "disconnected".

Five years before a technological apocalypse, computer research luminaries, Will and Evelyn Caster (a sleepy Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) are on the verge of a breakthrough in artificial intelligence with the hope of making the world a better place. But after an anti-tech terrorist attack leaves numbers in the computer development community dead, and Will poisoned by a radiation-tainted bullet, things seem grim. Until Evelyn considers the unthinkable. Based on a previous experiment involving a primate's uploaded consciousness into the Caster's incredible computer creation, PiNN, she considers doing the same with her ailing husband's mind. Upon agreement, and his inevitable passing, the computer rendition of Will is stunningly convincing. But this digital version of the AI genius seems far more ambitious than anyone (even Evelyn) could ever hope to control.

Without any further plot details, the film almost instantly falls apart once one considers the world that is established, and how these characters operate. While the Casters are one-noted, and hopelessly facile in their portrayals, the "luddite" terrorists that see this merging of flesh and machine to be feared, are laughably thin. Read back that last sentence for just a moment. The very idea that a faction that is against technology seems pretty comfortable in tracking and inevitably killing those who seem to empower them. An early line implies that these individuals are "ironic", and irrational feels like an attempt to justify their lack of depth. But it only leads to bigger questions regarding the theme of the piece. It doesn't help that the Caster's one close friend, scientist Max (Paul Bettany) , seems to espouse a more cautionary perspective regarding computation, and an inherent lack of a perfectly replicated soul. The argument ultimately whittles down to an almost old fashioned notion that decries the possibilities inherent in science. While Jack Paglen's script so badly wants to portray Max's perspective as a moral compass to the film's central questions, it cannot help but come off as shallow. Even Kate Mara's terrorist character seems primed to be a set of eyes to view the dilemma, but is undercut by having nearly nothing to do. A lot of underwritten characterization only serves to grant viewers no compass with which to work with, leaving the film in a confused fog.

But what truly burns about this whole debacle, is that as Pfister's debut film (not to mention an expensive one), this is one that reeks of an almost anti-futurist, but also anti-pluralist spirit. While the film wants to offer up good reasons for what takes place by the finale, there are also all the wet paper thin portrayals of both the terrorists and the common people that inhabit the story. Once the story takes us to a remote desert town, and Will's powers begin to fully manifest, there is a sinister air about the film that threatens to derail all that had come before. To make matters worse, the notion that technology empowers the poor in a way that is unbalanced is one that never feels any less creepy. While not stating it explicitly, there is a feeling throughout that such technological empowerment is akin to a zombie revolution; something also to be feared. And we haven't even covered the film's voice in who is to blame for all this. While technology is indeed an extension of who we are, the film seems more than comfortable in the blaming only two major things:

Both unchecked science & women.

And while the authorities inevitably swarm the burgeoning complex in the dust bowl, the film so vehemently wants us to question where our allegiances lie. Problems arise when it becomes clear that there is really noone here to identify with. And that becomes the largest thorn in TRANSCENDENCE's side. If the goal was to keep the perspective elusive until the very last minute, mission accomplished. With such one-dimensional characters and situations making the sound system rumble in the theater, the lack of focus never diminishes in annoyance. In a story regarding such heavy moral questions regarding existence and our evolving place in the scheme of life, an identification  figure is necessary. Sadly, Pfister and company never settle on one. Not one. And by the finale, hardly anything matters since caring has suddenly been removed from the art of filmmaking. The final product could not be more indifferent and illogical.

One cannot help but start wondering if Pfister did more second unit directing on The Dark Knight Rises than has been recorded. So much footage here echoes a lot of that film, and in the worst possible ways.

In the ever rapidly changing organic/tech landscape we are all living in, it is vital that our stories begin considering matters beyond fear. Jonze's Her, remains a shining example of this new philosophical direction. We live ever more connected to our devices than ever before. The world has begin to see incredible change. Not all positive, but nowhere near the melodramatic levels as displayed here. And the negative effects of this bold new realm cannot simply lie in the hands of the software itself. The heart of drama lies in our own failings, and in how we navigate life with ever new tools at our sides. TRANSCENDENCE implies our struggle to go beyond our limitations. And as a film that seems to rally against all the wondrous cultural, political, philosophical, and environmental changes that have come in the wake of the internet, it could not be a more misused title.

I hate this film.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Under The Skin(2013)Movie Thoughts

In a sea of blackness, we are immersed in a universe of circles, lulled towards the escalating tense sound of grinding strings. What looks to be an alignment of several celestial bodies moves across the frame as the strings grow louder and aggressive with intensity. As the alignment shifts into locked position, we also hear human vocal bites layered onto the almost organic collage of sound. And just as the tension could not grow any louder, the shapes blink, forming the center of a single human eye.

Black out. The noise cuts.

Late one evening in the hilly outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland..

A man on a motorcycle stops by a parked van near a darkened cliff, and pulls from it what seems to be the body of a young woman. A moment later, in a vibrant void of white, the dying woman’s clothing is taken by a nude female form, who then journeys to flesh out this new ensemble with items from a downtown mall. From here, the now fully decked out brunette takes control of the van, driving almost aimlessly through the city, seeking men—men without a clue of this woman’s origin, or what omen lies ahead for them.

Told with nearly zero dialogue (save for Johansson’s attempts to pick up non-actors off the street), and often with an almost voyeuristic zeal, Under The Skin is by no means an easy film to describe. Superficially, its premise seems lascivious and perhaps a bit eager to shock. From the outset, we know that our main character is not from any familiar world. But we do know that she requires the male gaze in order to complete what seems to be a singular mission on this planet: to seek male subjects. She mysteriously induces a compulsion in men to follow her to most certain doom. Even in one of the film’s most standout moments, she is so driven to acquire what she needs regardless of circumstance that, at a local beach, she neutralizes a swimmer who was amidst attempting to rescue a couple caught in the harsh waves. She even fails to recognize her fault in orphaning the baby of the lost couple, left crying alone on the windy shore. Nothing else matters. She may resemble one half of our species, but is without morality, nor basic human understanding outside of a compulsion to entice and entrap, making her a most unique audience surrogate.

From this already suspicious premise, one might mistake this as yet another excursion into the seedy underbelly of the urban Euro experience. All the telltale signs of films akin to the works of Von Trier are evident in regards to female protagonists, and their often ill-fated relations with men. However, what Jonathan Glazer(Sexy Beast, Birth) has in store is far more experiential and honest than even the Danish malcontent might consider. Scarlett Johansson’s turn as the mysterious figure in his Under The Skin, is much more than a dive into the darker sides of gender relations. It is an unrelentingly eerie and thoughtful daybreak bad dream where the audience is made an unwitting accomplice to a most unearthly series of fates.

Which seems to be the core concern of the film, the means by which females have been and continue to be viewed and treated in many corners of industrialized society. As we follow the figure’s exploits from the occasional van pickup, to the noisy clubs of downtown, and even to the overcast countryside, each new encounter is a rendition, an example. From drunken pickups, to pitiable meetings with the lesser seen, there is change and response that is accumulating within our lead. It’s in this, that we are as voyeurs, a part of this cycle. One that plays itself out in often languidly paced drives across town, and into her makeshift lair, where the unimaginable seems primed to happen again, and again.

Without the internal mindset hindered by emotional, political, and psychological baggage, we are in the realm of shape as definer. That she is seen as a type that is without fear of perception, her male suitors behave in numerous, often telling ways. Each variation a means of getting closer to another for a great variety of reasons. Through a character that is such a blank slate, we are now in the hands of filmmakers who are unafraid to tackle some of the more subconscious anxieties regarding such relations. As such, the film’s title denotes a dual meaning. With our lead shape’s journey through the film as some form of lifecycle, we are host to what it is to be perceived as a woman of the night. And what she encounters is at times disturbing, beautiful, and then ultimately tragic.

And let’s not go too deep into her motorcycle riding “minders”, who often clean up her occasional messes, and never speak a word. A striking addition of theme as these leather-clad riders are the only other elements in her functional world. Almost as if these are the men of infrastructure, facilitating that the experiment continue unabated.

This is the world that Glazer has fashioned with the confidence of a master. And while much of it does not impact as harshly as some may have declared, there is indeed something defiant & deeply humanist happening here. Johansson’s work here is both revelatory and spooky as a most bizarre, hyper simplified protagonist.  Everything conveyed in how she regards the surroundings, her gestures toward strangers, and even her own body is captured in ways that no films dealing with this so-called “alien female” archetype have done before. When she takes home a new specimen, it is portrayed with often a similar shooting and editing style, allowing prey to follow her into darkened, almost anatomical chasms. When she does this, it is a matter of course. Part of a ritual. Often without her reaching full state of undress. And what we do witness of this, is something that defies proper description. While the film may start by taking an angle that might bode negatively regarding women, there is a sharp counterpoint lying in wait. One that sneaks up on viewers as the story draws to an abrupt, painfully beautiful close.

Again, this is not a simple film to parse through. Glazer and company have successfully concocted one seriously nightmarish voyage that doesn’t offer any simple answers. That her life is comprised of reaching out to willing males, even to the detriment of her own identity, is possibly an admonishment of sorts. In an age where subtext is often the text and experimentation is often discouraged, this piece of work feels like a welcome throwback with new toys. Its visuals are often composed to a fault. Environments, while clearly urban and at times rain soaked, are tinged with an almost supernatural gloom. Even when our main character shares dialogue with unaware non-actors, the look is simply haunted. The music and sound design work almost as a stand alone project unto themselves. Mica Levi’s debut score is something of a wonder. Strings and beats often bordering on horror parody, then back into pure dread as rhythms mimic the cadence of a lone windshield wiper. As a whole, I may still be attempting to grasp what was achieved here, but it may just be the work of burdened inspiration. Something very personal had to be unleashed onto the world stage, no matter how discomforting. And even if the film never goes for deep shocks, its reverberations are indeed the kind that stick well beneath the surface long after the lights go up. This is by all accounts a fierce auteur work that could only happen with miraculous funding, and it is a most refreshing miracle at that.

So perhaps Under The Skin works best as a painterly summation of our current sexual impasse. Even as the world becomes more privy than ever regarding our relationships to other physical beings, there is a nagging fear that closeness will never be enough. If Glazer indeed sees the classic heterosexual model as merely one endless series of loops, then perhaps the film posits that perhaps the shape is far from enough to break it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Movie Thoughts

Often the very best genre has to offer is rife with text that is either telling of its time, or universal in its themes. They emphasize greater concerns in broad swings and strokes in the guise of popcorn diversion. This is even better when the whole is wrapped in an effective character drama that carefully just enough depth and enthusiasm to support the main idea's foundations. Now imagine my jaw hitting my lap as I caught the latest Marvel production, only to be stricken by just how big a leap they have taken. It's officially now hard to call where making a new Marvel movie constitutes "business as usual". When your second film centered on one of the most spiritually milquetoast of its roster hits on all cylinders, it becomes a truly baffling case of "where to now?"The megabudget film debut of Community's Russo Brothers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is much more than your now expected superhero checklist with A-list stars. It is a sincerely thrilling & effective action piece, with the best understanding of what superheroes can be in the movies.

As Marvel Studios has taken some bold steps in the wake of The Avengers(2012), their return to the life of long asleep super-soldier Steve Rogers is rife with revelation. The beloved boy scout has been spending his days post New York taking orders and defending his ideals through SHIELD. Ever the busybody, and rarely with time to settle down, his catching up with the modern world has begun to hit some murky waters. After a mission to liberate an overtaken SHIELD vessel at sea, his own faith in what he does is placed into doubt. Even after taking it up with his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in his best showcase with this character-period,), who lets him in on their organization's biggest defense plan to date, his concern over the morality of his own actions weighs heavily. This upcoming Project Insight seems bent on "stopping threats before they happen", to the point of almost unnerving levels. And it isn't long before matters spiral out of control when it becomes clear that even Fury cannot seem to trust his superiors.

Something awful has overtaken the security monolith over time. And the future of it, and (naturally) the world are in for some grave danger unless Rogers, occasional partner, Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) , and newfound friend, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) can devise a means of stopping it.

Further complicating matters, remnants of Rogers' past are about to return in force - and is a heartbreaking, terrifying one.

Loosely based on years of Captain America stories (most notably the works of Ed Brubaker), TWS is perhaps the best possible synthesis of classic superhero drama with the carefully executed topical and character fireworks required. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, the stakes are made all the more potent by way of never forgetting Steve Rogers' life as a dutiful soldier out of his element. That his ideals and still-risible innocence has yet to be tarnished by the greyness of the current day. That he is representative of a world where anyone can strive to be good, even as the fog threatens. Before things slip into a desperate run and search for answers, we gather how much he has learned about our current time, and even finds kinship in unusual places. Most representative of his philosophical spectrum comes from his connections with Sam, also a war veteran who helps at the VA hospital with traumatized soldiers, his growing trust with the often evasive Natasha, and even his brushes with Fury. The backbone of the entire film relies heavily on these bonds/rifts as the world seems on the brink of outright paranoia, and circular logic. Trust, and the role of soliders lies at the heart of TWS, and it often hits these notes with the rare precision that most films of this scale fail to.

And due to such a careful script, we are also hosted to some of the best performances yet for a Marvel piece. There is no exaggeration in saying that the film's moral weight lies in how Steve Rogers is portrayed, and to say that Chris Evans has embodied him is an understatement. Everything from his quiet moments, to his comedic, to action beats, he is unerring. It's a truly spirited performance. Scarlett's return as Rogers' co-worker/friend, Romanoff is easily her best work to date. With several quiet moments shared here, it's pretty clear that this is a character who has long lived many lives, and is faced with becoming her truest self while the world seems ready to disintegrate. It's well-nuanced, and empowering character work for her. Also, Jackson's Fury is both frustrating and human. A perfect moral foil for Evans. Also worth noting is Robert Redford, who's take on Alexander Pierce, head of SHIELD, is gravity granting, Mackie's Wilson (AKA- Falcon), who makes for an impressive new ally, friend, and thematic bridge, not to mention Cobie Smulders and Emily VanCamp, who deliver solid work. So much seed planting here, in a film that seems hellbent on shaking up the game board. It's enough to make all players tweak their amplitude to impressive levels.

More than merely shoehorning the political text in ways that most major films have done recently, there is meat here that smacks of better grilling. With the NSA/surveillance themes right up front, there was a sense of worry that came over me during the initial viewing that were alleviated as the character work filled in the gaps. Crossing philosophies of varying eras is a smart move in a story about soldiers, and their role in world affairs. And even as the horrific ultimate plan is revealed, it is done so with just enough reminders that this is a moving comic book. It knows when to pull in deep, then release. This is the film, Star Trek Into Darkness so badly wanted to be. 

Not merely a stylistic shift from the adventure fantasy period piece that was The First Avenger(2012), The Winter Soldier, is a bold, hard action drama with a greater emphasis on story than has yet been attempted. Now that the first film works as prologue, this one feels ready to dish out the kind of haze and conflict that only makes the Steve Rogers character so effective. It truly feels as if the minds at Marvel knew what kind of mileage they could get out of him: Placed him in our current milieu, and watch him struggle, learn, and change. So when we see him taking on adversaries with the kind of hand-to-hand action that would make the cast of The Raid take notice, it feels reasoned and natural. When the action comes, it is well-choreographed & intense, always supportive of the story, with zero fat, and the stakes are emotionally clear.

The Russos want it to be very clear; The Cap is in for the fight of his life.

It may not sound like a big deal, but to consider where these films have come since the days of Iron Man, this is a bold shift. While the tone here is much darker, and more character driven than usual, this is well balanced with the kind of levity one expects from the comic book world. Perhaps more than most of its kind, The Winter Soldier knows how to dance between tones and moods, making for one brisk and thought-provoking ride. Not merely a great superhero film, it is a solid, important reminder of what the blockbuster can be.

(Recently heard word that Marvel has films planned for as far out as 2028 - Big talk. Count me out soon, TWS is a very hard act to follow.)