May 21, 2015

50 Shades of Grey: Review

Dakota Johnson in 50 Shades of Grey is my perfect storm of film frustration. Not because her performance is bad, but because it's great in just the way that will make people dismiss it.

I was originally down on her as a choice to play Ana Steele. This was due to one very silly fact: I didn't like the way she smiled on the red carpet. A kind of closed-mouth, pursed-lips thing that, in the way of all humans, I was tempted to read as an indication of her personality. I chided myself but didn't really get over it until I saw her KILL IT on Saturday Night Live. Then I was genuinely stoked. I assumed Jamie Dornan would be good because his modeling career indicated a total comfort with expressing sexuality.

Did you want to see this film in a public theater with a bunch of teenagers and possibly a neighbor or two? Yeah, me neither. So it was just this week I got around to renting it. The direction and writing were all nicely done, even if there were some pacing problems (Ana goes from having her first encounter with Christian to being frustrated with his limitations way too quickly) and some clich├ęd encounters and imagery (dancing sequence: barf). That being said, I admired how grounded it all seemed. The biggest weakness of the film is without a doubt Jamie Dornan, who seems completely out of his depth. There's a vacuum where his personality should be, though I wonder how much better he might have been if he didn't have to maintain an American accent. Seems like acting in a foreign tongue would be very difficult.

Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, gives us a fully formed Ana Steele. She manages something rare: portraying someone quiet and vulnerable who doesn't seem weak. Americans can be so hung up on "personality," as in "She's got a lot of personality!" Which means she has a certain type of personality: loud, brash, conspicuously confident. Johnson forgoes all of the mannerisms regarding strength and assertiveness that we've come to expect from women in film, without actually forgoing strength and assertiveness. She isn't deferential, but she also doesn't overcompensate by being  "spunky." Her acting is something very, very rare in cinema: truly naturalistic.

It's that naturalism that's bound to kill most people's assessment of her. We've become so accustomed to the stylistic nature of most acting that we don't even see it as a convention any more: People hang up the phone without saying goodbye. They leave huge pauses in conversations or speeches or toasts. The social niceties that are second nature in real life—smiling, being talkative, engaging in gossip or filler—are absent, as are the everyday gestures that are often considered tics in acting, like touching your hair or twisting your mouth around or tapping your fingers. We tend to perceive stoic, serious turns as good acting, with quirky individualism coming in second.

So Johnson hits it out of the ballpark in building a naturalistic personality for her character, and she's also capable of expressing great emotion, the second, and much more common, virtue of good acting. Her anguish in the last fourth of the movie is completely compelling, and it's in this last quarter that Jamie Dornan does best as well, when he's not called to just be—to walk around and interact with people and have us believe he's a real person—but to be still and express emotion. Still, I wish I could see what the movie would have been with Charlie Hunnam as Christian Grey. 

Also: random shout-out to the costume people. There are so many small trends that grew out of the Twilight movies (or, really, the first Twilight movie, directed by Catherine Hardwicke), and one of them was putting young people in real young people clothes: skinny jeans, flannel shirts, jackets they could have gotten at Old Navy. The 50 Shades team did a good job with this.

May 18, 2015

Hoist by My Own Petard: The Suffering Male Body in Outlander

I don't even know what a petard is, but I bet it's something they use in Wentworth Prison.

Wentworth Prison is where the latest episode of Outlander takes place. The beautiful hero Jamie Fraser has been imprisoned by the sadistic British officer Jonathan Randall, who intends to abuse him before sending him to his death. Randall had flogged Jamie five years before, and the incident has haunted and delighted Randall ever since:

Now Jamie is back in Randall's hands, shackled in his dungeon. Randall wants to break Jamie, wants to feel Jamie's surrender to his own power and even charisma. At one point in the show, Randall gazes on dirty, brutalized, but still handsome face of Jamie as he talks about his obsession, and I thought to myself, This is where obsession can lead. And then I thought, That's a good lesson. And then I thought, Didn't I just blog about how, in film, a purported "lesson" based on plot is less important than the message communicated through images? Petard: hoisted.

This episode, called "Wentworth Prison," is being rightly hailed as a masterpiece, heartbreaking to the point of tears. The writing, direction, acting . . .  just look at Caitrona Balfe as Claire, absolutely breaking apart as she sees Jamie's torture:

Balfe was amazing in this episode. True sobbing is hard to fake because there are involuntary physiological responses that kick in when you're that emotional: your airways constrict, your voice is lowered or elevated. The deep, gruff sobbing that came out of Balfe's throat in this episode was so terribly authentic.

Actor Sam Heughan is equally amazing as a strong, masterful man being slowly mastered. The power and beauty of Sam's body is really the lynchpin of the series, carrying so much of the emotional weight of the show, not to mention so much of the plot. Fans are enthralled by shots like this:

And this:

And this:

But equally by this:

And this:

Yes, that's his back, after the flogging.

And this:

Scottish pieta.

And God help us, this:

The spectacle of the suffering male body has always been powerful, from The Dying Gaul:

"Dying Gaul" by BeBo86 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

To the dying Christ:

(pending attribution)

These images are powerful because we project onto them our desire for endurance. They are battered and yet somehow resistant to battering. There is an almost God-like ability to sustain and not break, or break but not be destroyed.

But it's confusing to feel my own craving for these images and wonder if they're just as exploitative as Ex Machina's naked Asian automatons (see blog post here). Ex Machina's use of those images feels less honest, especially contrasted with the type of romance art women create and consume, where the desire for male beauty is unabashedly The Point. But perhaps Jamie Fraser in Wentworth is just a bit too close to torture porn for comfort, even if the craving is not for pain or control (like true torture porn) but for the portrayal of male endurance and the promise of female comfort. The image of Claire hovering over the broken Jamie above evokes the Pieta, the ultimate image of female succor:

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It offers a proposal that is deeply appealing: As a woman, I can offer you a healing that no other can. And recognizing that provides an unsettling feeling. In one of the episodes best moments, Jamie's back is turned to Randall, and Randall reaches out with his hand in a shot that mimic's Randall's POV. As a viewer, you feel eerily identified with Randall at that moment, wanting to reach out as well.

Ultimately, I believe in that instinct to reach out. Art serves some deep needs, even if the delivery is as complicated as in Ex Machina. It's also been interesting to read fan reactions to the Wentworth Prison scene, which of course has existed in book form for years. I had always wished that Randall's subjugation of Jamie had not existed, so total was Randall's triumph. But in the week leading up to the episode, several fans wrote about how this story line helped them deal with their own sexual assault. It sounds simplistic to say it this way, but as they read, they thought, "If Jamie can survive this, so can I." Those who have read the book series know that recovering from Wentworth is a long process for Jamie, but even the lastingness of the pain may give comfort to those who feel like the nightmare keeps coming back.

May 11, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria: Review

Holy crap this is a good movie. Both Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart won Cesars for their roles as an aging actress and her young assistant, and I can't imagine any more deserving performances. These two are head to head the entire time, and they throw their strength around without fear the other will shatter. The intensity and yet naturalness of their performances is almost unlike anything I've seen.

Sils Maria is the town where Binoche's Maria has holed up with her assistant Val to run lines for a new part: that of a sad, aging woman obsessed with a young, beautiful coworker. Maria is regretting taking the part, perhaps because it hits too close to home, or perhaps because it doesn't and she doesn't want to give the impression that aging actresses are sad specimens. Or perhaps she feels that inhabiting that headspace for too long will turn her into that sad specimen. Three plausible interpretations. Multiply that by the dozens of interactions and issues in the movie, add in the debates over art and celebrity, and you have a sense of the film's complexity.

I always knew Juliette Binoche was a good actor, but I didn't realize what a truly great actor she is. Kristen Stewart's naturalistic manner of acting is so unconventional that audiences and critics, accustomed to the stylized conventions of most performances, often mistake it for amateurishness. She's always been brilliant at vulnerability and quiet strength, but she lets loose here in new ways. I could have watched these two for hours.

The clouds of the title refer to a real-life phenomenon called the Maloja Snake. High in the Alps, clouds are funneled into a series of valleys, moving through them like a snake. The Maloja Snake is a harbinger of bad weather, but can be difficult to spot at first. When Maria is on the mountain early one morning, she goes back and forth: Is it the Snake? No, it's just mist. Or is it? The scene comes at a point when she is about to commit to the role she has been dreading and an additional twist leaves her wondering whether her next move will end up a moment of bravery or a misstep. Despite her perch high on the mountains of fame and success, it can be hard to make out.

The Maloja Snake.

May 9, 2015

Ex Machina: Review


Hoo boy. Ex Machina. The critics like this one. A full six reviews were assigned a score of 100 on Metacritic, with raves like "A riveting sci-fi investigation into humankind's experiments with A.I." (Philadelphia Inquirer) and talk of "the narrative’s multiple, amusingly deployed dualities: confinement and liberation, agency and submission, mind and body" (New York Times).

In some ways, the movie is easy to like. It's a puzzle movie: A coder working at a Google-like company wins a week at the reclusive, brilliant founder's compound. He arrives at a high-tech facility that's part home, part laboratory, and is arrested by its stark, modern beauty, tight security, and spooky emptiness. The founder is an eccentric named Nathan, a muscular, cocky genius who is by turns controlling and avuncular. The coder is a smart everyman named Caleb who is overwhelmed at meeting his hero but unsettled by all the automatic locks and Nathan's moodiness. Nathan eventually reveals his purpose: Caleb is there to perform a Turing test on Nathan's latest attempt at artificial intelligence.

Nathan's latest AI model, naturally, comes in the form of a fabulously beautiful young woman called Ava. Caleb spends his days in "sessions" with Ava, standing or sitting behind unbreakable glass with Ava before him, looking lovely and mysterious and slightly tortured. As the days pass, Caleb realizes that Nathan has a thing for his female robots. Once Nathan discovers their flaws, he assigns them to a closet in his bedroom, taking them out for sex or erotic dancing while he moves on to build the next, better model.  Caleb decides to help Ava escape, and the denouement follows.

My list of grievances with this movie runs long, so let's start with some positives: It's well made. Sets and cinematography: very nice. Acting: ferocious. Nathan is played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac, and Caleb by Domhnall Gleeson. It's hard to believe Gleeson is the same actor who played both Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and Levin in Anna Karenina (in which, as Levin, he was married to Kitty, played by his Ex Machina costar Alicia Vikander). These guys are major talents. It's hard to evaluate the acting of the women because they're, you know, robots. And since Nathan is a sick bastard, they are crafted to look sexy and behave with only stoic allure.

In a basic way, the movie is fun. Nathan is a charismatic beast, and viewers get to juggle scenarios in their heads, making bets on the outcome. I don't know that the film is any kind of brilliant meditation on consciousness or freedom or the limits of humanness. The AI models are robots, and you either believe robots can attain consciousness or you don't. Characters are either lying or they aren't. Scenarios are either what they are or something darker. In the end, there are a limited number of ways the movie could go, and the way it did go seemed no more inevitable or logical than any other. For all its apparent complexity, the film felt very, very simplistic to me.

Plausibility is another issue. The movie tried to provide cover for some of the most implausible aspects: Caleb has always idolized Nathan, and that's why he stays at the compound despite the extreme weirdness he encounters almost immediately. Ava is hand-crafted to appeal to Caleb, and that's why he ends up staring moonily at her by day two. Nathan is a security-obsessed paranoid, and that's why he passes out drunk every evening . . . no, wait, what?

All of these things detached me from the movie, but it's the ideology of the movie that really rankled. No movie can be reduced to a "message," but I'm sure the filmmakers and critics would say the movie is about questions of autonomy, freedom, maybe even female empowerment and the male desire to control or rescue. But the medium is the message, as we know. And the medium here is two hours of imagery of stereotypical female allure. Ava is beautiful in that blank, tragic way we know so well. Kyoko, the other female part, is an allegedly Korean servant whom Caleb mysteriously fails to recognize as a robot. She's beautiful, Asian, demure; she serves, she kneels, she displays herself naked. I'm sure the actress, Sonoya Mizuno, was glad to get the work, but she was probably thinking, "Oh fer god's sake . . . " 

I'll use the term "cover" again: The filmmakers have cover for themselves in this regard. Nathan's construction and use of Kyoko is sick. Caleb's estimation of Ava as an adoring object of desire is wrong. But can you simultaneously condemn and indulge these instincts? Does watching two hours of specific, vivid male personality counterposed with stereotypical, anonymous, suffering female beauty truly chip away at our cultural bias? I'm reminded of a comment that Anthony Swofford makes in his memoir Jarhead. Swofford was a Marine in Iraq and tells of watching antiwar films like Full Metal Jacket in the barracks. He notes that, for soldiers like his fellow jarheads, there is no such thing as an antiwar film. Because all antiwar films shows war, and that's what they get off seeing. And in a film like Ex Machina, whatever lofty concepts the film may use as scaffolding, its prime materials are images of female beauty enhanced by emptiness and exploitation: the sad eyes, the quavering lips, the tragic intelligence, the utter subjugation.

My issue is not with the portrayal of female beauty, by the way. Our attraction to beauty, both male and female, is profound and deserves a central place in art. My issue is how heterosexual male desire gets naturalized in art and how heterosexual female desire gets pathologized. If a movie is focused on female beauty, it's barely worth mentioning; it's natural, it's thematic, whatever. If a movie is focused on male beauty, it's fetishistic, it's mommy porn, it's ridiculous. There's an uber-awareness of the display of male beauty in film, not to mention pushback: Everything from the celebration of Dad Bod to the mocking of pretty boys serves as pushback in hopes that male beauty never gets naturalized the way female beauty is.

It's interesting to compare Ex Machina with Her, the 2013 AI rom-com dramedy starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely schlub and Scarlett Johanssen as his bodiless AI girlfriend. Despite both films being about lonely men falling in love with lovely, constructed women, I never felt unease at Spike Jonze's masterpiece. Part of this is undoubtedly that Scarlett Johanssen is only a voice. And part is probably that Jonze creates a subtly distinct world for his film. Ex Machina takes place in our world, with one disturbing technological advance. Her takes place in a world that is subtly but comprehensively different. Clothes are different. Work is different. Social relations are different. The protagonist doesn't feel like a Mary Sue.

And Her really does delve into the implications of a relationship with an AI in a deep way. In Ex Machina the question is essentially, Is she sincere? In Her the relationship is sincere and deep—and when the protagonist and the viewer realize that the AI is conducting equally sincere and deep relationships with thousands of other people, the sense of disequilibrium is enormous. This is not does she/doesn't she. This is a profound insight into the incommensurate nature of such a relationship.

On a final note: Movie posters are always telling. Here are the posters for Ex Machina and Her

"Investigation into humankind's experiments with A.I." my ass.