Sunday, April 26, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 10

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers):

Rosewater (Jon Stewart, 2014)
The Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore, 2014)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay--Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

Five Thoughts: 

1. I'm not necessarily opposed to film franchises splitting final installments into "Part 1 and Part 2." I'm a firm believer that all good stories deserve to be told in the length that they need, and if that's two movies, then so be it. When the Harry Potter franchise split The Deathly Hollows into two movies (becoming the first major movie franchise to do this), it felt like a decision based more on necessity and practicality than based on finances, though I'm sure Warner Brothers had no problem with their profits getting doubled. The results worked. Both parts of the final Harry Potter story functioned as a movie unto themselves, and we received an ending to the saga that felt neither rushed nor unnecessarily drawn out. 

That is emphatically not the case with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay--Part 1, which never feels like a movie at all. Here's the entirety of what happens in Mockingjay--Part 1: Katniss becomes the leader of the district rebellion against the capital, and finds out Peta has been psychologically reprogrammed against her. That's it. Seriously, that somehow soaks up 123 minutes of screen time. Basically, this entire movie could have ceased to exist, and just been a Star Wars-like screen scroll to open Mockingjay--Part 2. Except those Star Wars screen scrolls usually encompassed three paragraphs, and I don't even know how you get three paragraphs of plot description out of this movie. It took me 21 words, and I'm catastrophically long-winded. 

Financially, this move makes perfect sense. The Hunger Games movies are making a killing at the box office, so of course Lionsgate wanted to extend that as much as possible, and in an era where most franchises are turning out new films every 2-3 years until the end of time, having only three books in the series is limiting. It just sucks that Lionsgate's desire for an additional movie somehow trumped the problem of not actually having enough material for such a strategy. But then, Hollywood has never been one to let a lack of material get in the way of a quick buck. 

2. There's been some nice April competition from While We're Young and It Follows, but Ex Machina is the best film of 2015 so far. Telling the story of a computer coder attempting to find the flaws in a human-like (and yes, sexy) AI robot at the secluded mountain home of her creator, Ex Machina is the type of science fiction film we'll be discussing and referencing for years--quite possibly the Blade Runner of the 2010s. And as with Blade Runner, the big ideas and philosophies of the film are dressed up in a truly breathtaking production design.

The film is written and directed by Alex Garland, who started as novelist in the '90s, only getting into the film industry when his novel "The Beach" was adapted into the 2000 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. That launched a working relationship between Garland and director Danny Boyle, and Garland wrote original screenplays to two subsequent (and very good) Boyle films, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Here Garland is directing for the first time, from his third original screenplay. For someone who began as a novelist, it's shocking how intrinsically cinematic his talent is. This is a beautiful film, and one that uses every nuance of camera technique to capture its moods and secrets. 

The robot in question is played by Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander (of the Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair) and her obvious sexiness is used by the movie in almost every way sexiness really can be--it arouses us, discomforts us, distracts us, excites us, and misdirects us. It's also quite clever the way the film uses our own expectations against us. Garland knows that a huge portion of his audience will have seen Blade Runner, and have a natural predilection to compare the two, and he uses that to his advantage. 

Garland's stories tend to be about protagonists who undertake extreme measures to find more out of life, and eventually, inevitably, regret it. Ex Machina fits with that. Mostly. 

3. After watching Ex Machina, I'm even more excited to see Avengers: Age of Ultron, because they're sort of about the same thing--the perils of trying to create truly self-aware AI. Of course, the means the two movies use to tell their stories and raise their concerns are a bit different. While The Avengers uses Thunder Gods, Iron Men, Super Soldiers, Hulks, and Mutants whatever Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch are (since Fox controls the X-Men franchise, Marvel isn't allowed to call them mutants), Ex Machina only has four actors, and takes place almost entirely inside a secluded house. In that sense, Ex Machina is really the art-house version of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I love that we have incredibly talented writer/directors like Alex Garland and Joss Whedon to explore the same story through both sides of that entertainment divide. 

4. Rosewater, Jon Stewart's debut as both a writer and director of theatrical feature films, manages to simultaneously prove why he might have a bright future with that path, and why he might not. Mechanically, Rosewater is very well done. It's paced quite well (impressive for a first-time screenwriter), the story elements flow naturally, there are creative uses of camera angle and distance, and good editing that knows when to let us in on the passage of time and when to keep it ambiguous. But for as technically accomplished as the film is, there's no creative soul to anchor it. It doesn't tell us anything (other than wrongful imprisonment is bad, and if you didn't know that going in, I'm not sure what to tell ya), it doesn't seem to have a point of view, and we're never really sure why this particular story is worth dramatizing on film more than any other dozens of stories that are just like it. 

The movie is fine. It's not boring, and it's not pointless, but it's also not really the opposite of either of those things. It stakes out an unimpressive middle ground. It's hard to tell what's more surprising about the results--that someone who's never directed (or really worked in cinema at all) would be so technically adept at it, or that someone who's always had such a great creative voice would suddenly silence that when working in a different medium. 

5. The Song of the Sea was an interesting departure from most contemporary English-language animated films. It prompted a shocking realization out of me about how few animated films are really visually beautiful, instead of just visually impressive. All of the great Pixar and Dreamworks computer-animated movies are incredibly detailed and amazing to behold, but they don't have a painterly beauty to them. The Song of the Sea does, and it is absolutely gorgeous at times. Here's a nice breakdown of the film's visual style: 

But for as accomplished as The Song of the Sea is visually, it's story is very simple and quaint, and feels rather boring and even juvenile in comparison to what Pixar and Dreamworks regularly give us with their animated features. 

It's difficult not to look at this movie and know it kept The Lego Movie out of the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature. I haven't seen The Boxtrolls, but the other three nominees--Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya--were all getting in regardless, so The Song of the Sea sneaking into the field is probably what kept Lego Batman snarling from the sidelines. Thinking about that calls into question what we ought to be measuring when we talk about Best Animated Feature. Purely as a work of animation, I can understand how The Song of the Sea deserved to make the cut. It's the most visually stunning of the bunch. But it's also the least fulfilling movie of the bunch, and if we're judging the totality of the finished product (as opposed to merely the animation itself), then The Lego Movie truly and utterly got fucked. 

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