Sunday, February 22, 2015

Automata (2014) Movie Thoughts

Much like the westerns of a bygone era, tales of future dystopia pitting humanity against itself as machines grow into sentient beings has created something of a blanket sandbox with which numerous filmmakers could explore both species as kin on a precipice of progress. Whether this is tackled by way of an action thriller,  satire, or even quiet meditation, it often relies heavily on the complexity of human behavior on display. It's pretty easy to lose sight of this in all the sheen of rain-slicked streets, dirty hardware, and visions of a world turned garbage dump. It's plasticine that is open to new forms of examination. And what we largely have in Gabe Ibáñez's handsome but perpetually disoriented AUTOMATA, is a desert vision in a parched yearning for texture. 

An ecological disaster of global proportion has spurred a desperate humanity into creating the Pilgrim 7000, servant robots initially tasked with the creation of a wall designed to protect what remains from an encroaching desert. Years later, their status from saviors has turned inward as dreams of a return to normalcy have given way to despair,  hatred and a general distrust of the Pilgrims has steadily grown, with only two instilled protocols to protect them from harming living beings,  and forbidding them to alter themselves. Insurance claims investigator,  Jacq Vaucan(Antonio Banderas), is burnt out from his life dealing with the struggles of the beat when a Pilgrim is discovered executed by a local cop. Featuring not only smuggled contraband, but modified parts. Eager for a transfer out of the city, and a baby on the way,  Vaucan seeks answers beyond the confines of the city's protective barriers, into grand slums that are often target practice for company guards ordered to shoot looters on sight. Bureaucrats on all sides beset against one another as the world reaches a tipping point.  

Soon,  as Vaucan's search leads him closer to who has been attempting to augment these machines, revelations about the possibility that humanity's grip on evolution has begun to slip. Whether his encounters include run ins with his boss, Robert Forster, bad cop, Dylan McDermott, and robot scientist, Melanie Griffith, Ibanez attempts to instill a personal warmth beyond his impending fatherhood that feels like a series of prefaces. An unusual solemnity is attempted as the film's muted palette and subdued soundtrack makes a plea for a sober atmosphere that is often eschewed for cacophonous action . But when it comes time to milk the drama for anything potent or enlightening, it recoils without anything clear to say. It's just a shame when a resourceful and lush looking attempt at such material finds itself so bereft of a central aim. Even as the script by (Ibáñez, Igor Legaretta Gomez & Javier Sanchez Donate) scrambles for callbacks and echoes of lyrics planted throughout, but all we get are stanzas in bereft of a core.

It's especially disappointing when we share an era of film so often reliant upon CG to articulate the mechanized characters, and here comes a work where the majority of robot scenes are done with effective on set puppetry. These robots may be slow moving, they may lack heavy articulation, but these are a breath of fresh air after years of often laughably fluid early generation mecha. And as characters with dialogue that is limited, not to mention with an often rusty, lumber to their step, it's a definite highlight. But again, despite the film's attempts to help us better empathize with them, the script leaves the film wanting, needing something desperately to counter all the inert human characters. An issue that ultimately leaves the entire affair pretty but ultimately empty.

A great portion of the film takes place deep in the scorching deserts where there seems to be no horizon, with our hero adrift with a group of sentient machines. This could very well be the best possible metaphor for Automata as a whole. We are in the company of some truly unique engineering and craft, but in service of a destination that seems to incessantly escape us. Like a proposal without a reply. It's a piece that for all its ambitious trappings, and potentially mature presentation, often feels borne out of a middling 1990s vehicle; staid, and saddled with a puzzled look on its face upon reaching the podium. The desert can be a great place to ponder, but without a proper guide, it can drive one to madness. Sadly, that probably would have made for a much better deal.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jupiter Ascending (2014) Movie Thoughts

Time can be your greatest antagonist. Just ask the villains of the Wachowskis massive space soap. Or better yet, bring it up to the filmmakers themselves who seem to have found themselves in a dungeon of their own creativity. It's hard to sum up just what happened here outside of overdosing on your own production Kool-Aid.  But despite the incredible production on display in one of the most adventurous takes on filmed fantasy ever attempted, Jupiter Ascending faceplants due to an almost criminal lack of humanity. Upon first reports of delays (the film was initially set to be released July of last year), and occasional mumblings about reshoots and edits, concerns were undoubtedly arising. But to see what has happened, one can see plenty of blame to go around. Falling onto parties both the filmmakers and studio, who felt need to rein everything in, only to create a space epic that feels like space itself; vast, empty, and beautiful to look at. And despite it's thematic targets, the film ends up doubling back on its convictions, making for one of the more unfocused and awkward class struggle narratives to be unveiled in quite some time.

Born into a large russian family, and stuck cleaning toilets for often rich clients, Jupiter Jones bemoans her life and wishes to find her one true love. Meanwhile, a part-human, part canine spliced hunter known as Caine Wise is on Earth with orders to find and retrieve Jones. Unbeknownst to her, royalty flows through her veins as she is the reconstruct of a long lost matriarch of a powerful galactic corporation that is now split between three heirs. Siblings who are quietly squabbling over who gets dibs on earthbound humans as property/resource. Wise and Jones are now on the run from space bounty hunters, beasts, and all manner of alien being as the truth of her past self comes clear. Now with all that has been described, it could be easy to portray this as some contemporary fairy tale, complete with ability to reach out to younger audiences. And yet somehow, Lana & Andy Wachowski find themselves unable to find the connective tissue between premise, and their own predilections. It ends up being little more than a jumbled case of overindulgence. Especially funny as the film wants so badly to be seen as a treatise on objectivism, hegemonic entitlement, and mindless consumption.

And the trade-off here, is perhaps one of if not the most opulent examples of visualized space fantasy one is likely to ever see in a generation. Featuring some incredible starship imagery, over the top costume designs, not to mention alien species that harken to the best of Star Wars. True to the Wachowski brand, it also features some groundbreaking action, most notably with Caine Wise's "sky surfing" gravity boot work. There is an early action scene here on par with anything the pair has done since 1999, with a little Speed Racer in here for good measure. It even goes so far as to wander into Brazil territory at one point (complete with a Terry Gilliam cameo), where it indulges yet again. It's as up front about its wishes as a major production can possibly be. The problems here being that we also have a story and pressing themes that require a little love, which sadly go underserved.

The entire piece feels overcooked in the production, with the soul buried somewhere beneath all the flavor. It's only made stranger by an edit that screams compromise. Scenes build upon scenes that never happened. We're forced along as if producers saw the overindulgence, and aimed to squelch it anywhere they could. So we never get a full idea of who these characters are, and what they serve in the larger whole. It's a frustrating thing to be enveloped in such a rich, potential-laden fantasy world, unable to feel any way about it except for admiration at its ambition. Films like Dune, Legend, and Tron come to mind. Large scale productions that seem largely about indulging the impulses, but lack the ability to let us in and care about any of it.

Now taking the "destiny" angle, the element that for better or worse in the past, into more "feminine" territory could have made for an interesting new bent to an already familiar theme. While the trope  worked to almost classic effect in The Matrix, Jupiter never aspires to be anything more than a Cinderella fairy tale without a heroine worth rooting for.When one really thinks it all through, this at its base feels like the seed of a lot of bad ideas which came as result. To assume that the old saw would connect to an audience weaned on old world ideas about dreaming about how the other half lives, feels not only half-thought, it also feels a little cheap. One might have to look back at older films where young girls were the untrodden territory. Where treading into almost stereotypical waters in hopes of connecting made for some uncomfortable lessons in reality. Have we learned nothing from the days of Supergirl, and the hamfisted need for the central character to need a man? Or better yet, a need to have the character fly over some ponies? There is something painfully wrong about assuming that the Cinderella seed could work well in an overwrought tale of characters eager to maintain profit in hopes of grasping eternal life. To make matters worse, this is a film where the so-called "destined one", never makes any real change from hapless housekeeper to a self-reliant leader. It never happens. And no, wielding a metal pipe over a villain is not a viable euphemism for power. 

That's right; the biggest tragedy of the film is that we never get a full idea of who Jupiter Jones is. Outside of her flailing about, and quipping about going home, Kunis never even registers as a character. Without this simple throughline, we are merely host to all the weirdness surrounding her, unable to connect. It's bad enough that the Wachowskis often troublesome tendency for racial caricature wreaks havoc here albeit unintentionally(one would hope), but her situation never gathers enough grit to make the audience connect to her before all the madness begins. Her choices often ring false, and never seem to be of her own. In fact, she is rescued far more often than she ever takes any matters into her own hands. We never see the shift from victim to hero which is what tales like these are all about. And if this was meant to be a subversion of these tropes, it certainly does a lot to. In fact, by the finale it becomes more of a "both rich and poor are equally miserable" parable, which does nothing to challenge the status quo save for implying that it will be the immigrants of the world who will inherit. While there may be some nodding to such a notion, it feels far too slow, too late to even say it. A message far too dated to jibe with.

Of the people who do come out of this debacle unscathed, it is the always  reliable Tatum as Caine, who makes for an interesting hero in a film where he needed to be counterbalanced. His almost feral sense of self and nobility makes him an inviting doorway to other parts of the film's worldbuilding. Also surviving by a thread, is the inimitable Sean Bean, who's Stinger has plenty of weariness to add gravitas. Again, a serious loss to the final film's compressed state. His circumstances are never followed up to any satisfying degree, leaving his performance to be a welcome but handicapped one. Both of their subplots make for a far more interesting story than the one they are saddled with, and that's an issue that never finds a way to ease off.

Hiding throughout the muddle we have here are musings about family, and the need to perpetuate expansion in the need for shared survival at the expense of life itself. The Abrasax siblings who are the film's puppet masters find themselves ranging from prime YA stock, to outright camp. Tuppence Middleton and Douglas Booth turn in what feel like a perfect facsimile for characters one would see in a Twilight or Hunger Games, while Eddie Redmayne's incredible performance as the psychotic Balem echoes Sting's Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. From droning whispers to a frightening yelp, this is characterization that could only make a mark in midnight movie screenings. It was as if he was in on the mess the filmmakers where creating, and was unwilling to play it any other way. All three make for the bulk of the film's actual agency being liars, schemers, and murderers, and yet they too are underserved as little more than mouthpieces for ideological dogma. When Middleton's Kalique asks for advice on the nature of trust, she is reminded to feel that humans only act in the service of rationalized self-interest. The philosophies of these characters are meant to be mirrored in the more selfish acts of Jones' family, asking to participate in a fertility clinic scheme. Ascending reaches for some understanding between haves and have-nots, but never feels less than forced.

What to make of all this? Again, the blame for this fracas can be laid at the feet of so many involved. And yet here it is, fully bankrolled and released for all to see. A classic example of what can happen when artists have too much, and find themselves drowning in the excess they pretend to decry. When Speed Racer happened, this was suspect, but at least we had the Racer family standing up as a relatable every family. When the heroes here find themselves bereft of any such vicarious metrics, all we get is a character being dragged from set piece to set piece, and us feeling more and more confused to the point of apathy. It's a real shame. This is gorgeous stuff. The last thing we should be feeling about such a emptiness.