The Wonders

April 30, 2015 at 10:07 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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It’s been a while since I’ve attended a film festival. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, I seem to be lousy at picking out the movies worth seeing and, second, I then end up reviewing movies that many readers will never be able to see because they’re not picked up for U.S. distribution. However, I did catch this modest Italian work at the International Film Festival yesterday. This movie did have moments of true beauty, mostly by virtue of its cinematography. It started with the approach of two headlights in the dark and ended on curtains blowing around an empty door. These are stark, simple images that can effectively evoke emotions. There are other smart cinematic choices, as well. As when the image of two children playing is caught in their shadows dancing on a cave wall. It also helps that the Tuscan scenery is stunning; this is a film that’s easy to look at. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to understand. Folks needing a traditional story arch (protagonist, a goal, antagonist, conflict, resolution) will be disappointed here. And, while I certainly don’t need anything so cut and dry, I struggled a bit with where this film was trying to go and the oddly circuitous route it seemed to be taking to get there. It had a jumble of story lines and characters that seemed to sometimes dilute the core story, which seemed to be about a family in Tuscany and, in particular, the relationship between the father and his oldest daughter, both of whom gave lovely, endearing performances. The title refers to the “Countryside Wonders” contest  that the daughter wants her family to enter but her father does not want to. That story was sometimes sweet but could have been sweeter or more insightful or more touching if the film had focused on it. Instead, it all felt a bit like an episode of the Food Network tv show, “Chopped.” As though, the director opened his basket and found: a Tuscan farmhouse, a German man, a boy who can’t talk, a girl with bees in her mouth and a camel.  Okay, now make a movie with all of those ingredients in thirty minutes. Go. To be sure, there’s no shortage of wonder in a movie like that but I would have traded it for a bit more wonderful, instead.

Ex Machina

April 26, 2015 at 4:31 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Artificial Intelligence has always been one of the hottest sci-fi topics, from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to last year’s “her.” This year, we are seeing a return to the classic AI franchise, Terminator, and even The Avengers are getting in on the game. With all of this noise: good, bad and otherwise, it’s hard to imagine there’s much of value another AI movie could offer. Yet, “Ex Machina” is unique.  Filmed almost entirely in Norway and taking place in just one large house, the film focuses on just four actors, two men and two women, as it explores issues of morality, compassion and sexism in a cat-and-mouse guessing game of who’s going to outsmart whom. Written by Alex Garland (“The Beach,” “28 Days Later,” “Never Let Me Go”), the script is razor sharp from start to finish; this near future world is entirely believable and beautifully rendered. In this first directing role, Garland shows an eye for the aesthetic. The scenery, both inside and outside the house, is stunning. Likewise, the technology is elegant and beautifully rendered. The first time we see a close up of the AI’s face, I was struck by how Garland had managed to make it look slightly less realistic than human skin, almost plastic-like in its smoothness and perfection; that’s a little detail that goes a long way for me. The story was a bit slow to take off but, once it did, it had me fully engaged and trying to guess the twists and turns; I almost never did. There is also sly social commentary here, often very cleverly presented. I love a scene that is complex enough to evoke two alternating emotions and, here, there is a brilliant dance scene that is both funny/silly while being deeply creepy at the same time. Make no mistake, this is a film with a lot going on just below it’s very pretty surface (and there’s a metaphor in that, as well).

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

April 12, 2015 at 9:07 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This odd little film is hard to understand, let along appreciate, without some context. It is essentially a fictional story about a true person who believed that a fictional story was true. Kumiko is a depressed Japanese office worker who abandons her job and comes to Minnesota seeking the money Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the Cohn Brothers’ film “Fargo.” She believes the disclaimer at the beginning of the film that the story is real and she cannot be convinced otherwise. This story is based very loosely on the true story of Takako Konishi who committed suicide in the Minnesota woods after losing her job in Japan. It was widely circulated that she was looking for the “Fargo” money, though this was later shown to be a misunderstanding and media exaggeration. This film takes the fictional story of a real girl’s misunderstanding of a fictional movie and makes another fiction about it. The end result is an odd and often aimless film that can move at a pace in keeping with its deep winter setting. Looking not unlike Little Red Riding Hood, Kumiko makes her way from Japan to the deep Minnesota woods, encountering various people who just don’t understand her; they either try too hard or not hard enough but never just right, it would seem. This journey and these interactions are only mildly interesting, particularly as they all seem variations on the same theme.  The one thing that anchors the film is the performance by Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel,” “47 Ronin”) as Kumiko. She beautifully captures this woman’s profound depression and her descent into delusion. Kikuchi is a magnetic actress and is easy to watch here. However, most of everyone else is a caricature: cold Japanese boss, controlling mother, well-meaning cop. Kikuchi’s performance is almost strong enough by itself but not quite. In the end, this film was just too slow and too unfocused to really engage me.

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