Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Okay, maybe The Age of Adeline isn't a "small independent" feature after all. Details!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ex Machina: Tech Bro Frankenstein

In the 1985 John Hughes comedy Weird Science two high-school-age geeks combine their technological talents to the only end they find logical: to create a perfect woman. Being 1985 and all, the preferred medium of creation is a personal computer and scanner. The result was Lisa, a magical sexy Mary Poppins who, though she may not have made all of her creator's dreams come true, leaves them far more popular in high school.

Films reflect the times they are created in, and the mid-80s there was a streak of optimism in science fiction.* Maybe it was that fact tech was still on the edge of larger society. We had cool home computers, IBM PC-ATs, Apple Macintoshes and and the occasional Amiga 1000, but no real internet to speak of. We were in full control. Fast-forward exactly 30 years…
"So, what would you little maniacs like to do first?"
It's so charming and innocent in retrospect that
a woman who just materialized out of a computer
would have to even ask that question.

Ex Machina, currently out in limited release and will be available for download June 1st, is the Millennial generation's answer to Weird Science. Caleb (Domhall Gleeson, who played the protag in Frank), a gifted coder in a very large tech firm, wins a contest to spend a week with the firm's CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis himself) in his private underground lab in an isolated corner of what seems to be Iceland. Caleb finds out he is supposed to deliver the "Turing Test" for indisputable cybernetic self-awareness to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android of Nathan's creation. Ava is a stunningly good combination of seamless VFX and perfectly executed, full-body acting by Ms. Vikander, by far the best part of the film. Caleb quickly falls for Ava, who is confined to a glassed-in room. Tension soon develops when, during a power cut when Nathan's cameras are knocked out, Ava says that Nathan cannot be trusted. A strange power struggle develops between the secretive Nathan, the inquisitive (and smitten) Caleb, and Ava, who may well be manipulating him to prevent her erasure and gain her freedom.

All in all, it is a fascinating movie which asks some rather important questions about our current relationship with artificial intelligence, a popular cinematic subject these days (Autómata, The Machine, Chappie, etc.). However, in the late second act the limits of writer-director Alex Garland's vision become apparent. You never quite get ahead the central plot of the film, but you realize there is only one outcome for this story and that is the one that happens. Afterwards you are left with a large series of "what ifs" and "what the hells" similar to the questions audiences had after screening Prometheus: Not nearly as much or as bad (Prometheus squandered a lot of the goodwill of the fans of the Alien film series) but a realization that this film could have been much more if a few more rewrites could have been knocked out. Notes:

We just got our second-round VC funding, bro!
• The world of Ex Machina is both abstract and almost depressingly familiar. From my vantage point here in the Bay Area this stylized science-fiction world looked like something I see every day here. The interiors of Nathan's lab-- clean concrete walls, glass doors, hidden LED lighting-- looks like the inside of every tech start-up I have ever seen (with less stuffed animals and ironic wall art, maybe). Nathan and Caleb are absolutely spot-on Silicon Valley techies: overachieving expert coders with limited social skills. They wear skinny jeans, sweats and hoodies in neutral tones, drink expensive-looking beer and vodka, and eat sushi. They are engaged in the ultimate code geek endeavor: creating the perfect girlfriend.

• Sexy female robots have been around since at least the 1920s (Maria from Metropolis). Ava is clearly a part of this continuum, which explores the fetishization of technology. This is the fist film I can remember where a robot's sexuality is held up as a question: Caleb asks Nathan why he would muddy the waters of a Turing Test by introducing something as distracting as giving the subject AI a female body. Nathan's answer was, amazingly, ten minutes of hanging a lantern on this subject: all lifeforms come gender-specific, sex makes life fun, it makes the Turing Test more interesting, and shut up that's why.

The answer to the encroachment of AI and the
inevitability of both the Singularity and the
eventual extinction of the human race: Drink up, bro!
It was odd to waste so much time on the Fembot question because it has been answered long ago: YES, quite a few men find the idea of female robots sexy. Ask anyone from Japan. Hell, Svedka Vodka is betting their whole ad campaign on it. When you get right down to it,  Ex Machina could be a long mediation on the problems that would arise if the Svedka robot babe was actually created. The tech bro main characters drink enough to qualify as their key demographic.

• Seen at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco, up in the balcony of Theater 1. This is their biggest screen and back when the Kabuki was an AMC theater I saw some amazing stuff there: Jurassic Park, Fargo and the industry screening of Starship Troopers. The balcony is amazing now: there are tables between seat pairs and you can order booze from the 3rd floor bar. I spent half the screening a little ticked off that I wasn't drinking an IPA with my popcorn.

So ultimately I'd recommend Ex Machina-- but you may be happier about it if you wait for the download.

* Doing the research for this piece I have to say the biggest surprise was what a banner year 1985 was for science fiction films. Aside from Weird Science, Back to the Future, Brazil, Cocoon, Enemy Mine, Re-Animator, Legend, Lifeforce and Return of the Living Dead all came out that year. The only franchise installments of note were Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, both rather good films.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Correction: I'm just getting word that the subtitle of FURIOUS 7 is not STILL FURIOUS; STILL FAST. Also, thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Weekend Box Office

thanks to Box Office Mojo, and possibly Claritin if this doesn't clear up soon

Monday, April 6, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to BoxOffice Mojo for the info. And so long, Paul!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Not an April Fools Joke! Thanks to Box Office Mojo as usual.