Tuesday, May 19, 2015

FIVE KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE END OF MAD MEN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in MAD MEN (copyright 2013)

Now that MAD MEN has completed its network run, a full and complete assessment of the series will start by critics, scholars and fans. And as seasons and episodes and minutia are pored over with a zeal not seen since BREAKING BAD went off the air, it will get gloriously complicated. Who was Don Draper really? Did he ever find happiness? Was that ending cynical, hopeful, what? And that's just the last episode's issues!

MAD MEN was a show that was truly one of the smartest, nuanced and most accomplished programs ever to make its way onto our television sets. Arguably, no other TV show assessed the decay of the American Dream like it. It will be a fascinating treasure to return to again and again and discover more and more each time. There is just so much to revel in there. The great acting across the board, the clever dialogue, the sumptuous production values...they were all extraordinary. 

And as we examine it closer, Matthew Weiner’s brainchild will be seen as even more political than perhaps it was during its initial run. Yet such editorializing was always there. Weiner infused the show with his progressive politics and a disgust for the corrupt world of business. Most of the takeaways of the show, as it is examined, are inarguable. Here are five that made the program so thought-provoking and such essential viewing over the course of its run. In fact, for my money, MAD MEN was the television program of the last decade and easily one of the top 10 shows of all time.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in MAD MEN (copyright 2013) 
IT WAS A SCATHING CRITIQUE OF AMERICA

Sorry, Marco Rubio, but your tweet Sunday about MAD MEN being a reminder that the 20th century was great was utterly inane. If anything, MAD MEN made a case for the complete opposite. Maybe if one was only looking at its fashion and sets, they'd come away with the idea that MAD MEN was a strong endorsement of the sixties, but it was not. Indeed, it appeared to be a scintillating portrait of mid-century America, but that was just its window dressing. It was its con, if you will. Like all those idealized commercials about love and family sprung from Don Draper's fertile imagination, it was not realistic. But make no mistake, under those tight suits, thin ties and Brylcreem, was something quite ugly. Even monstrous. 

Set aside obvious big ticket issues like assassination, war and poverty that everyone can agree plagued the sixties, MAD MEN shrewdly went after less obvious game. It focused on smaller and subtler horrors of the era. Attitudes, mostly. Repeatedly, the show demonstrated how so many in our nation at the time simply weren't grasping modernity. Even while the times, they were a-changing, a large portion of men in power remained stuck in their ways, unrepentant in their sins, and clinging to their entitlement. They were unwilling to bend and thus got lost in a fog as thick as the smoke from the cancer sticks they still deigned to puff. 

These men acted like pigs at the trough. They not only smoked too much, but they drank too much too. And they treated those not in the "club", particularly women, with contempt. And the show always called these men out. These characteristics were often exhibited by main characters like Don and Roger, the guys ostensibly we were supposed to root for, but the commentary was clear. The indictments were obvious. 

The show was darkly comic as it showed just how these outdated men went a little crazy as the world shifted under their feet. Sure the title of the show refers to the nicknames given to Madison Avenue types, but it carries more important meanings. These men went mad in the world as they realized it no longer was going to be theirs exclusively. And boy, did they flail going down. 

And not only did so many of these foolish men not see how women, minorities and other have-nots were starting to move up and wanted more, but they weren't even on trend with the ad biz. It was shrewd how Weiner even questioned if these relics were masters of that domain. You'll remember that in the very first episode, creative director Don sneered at the revolutionary Volkswagon “Lemon” ad, complaining about how he couldn't decide what he hated most about it. Don was really, really wrong a lot of the time, even in his job.

And Sterling Cooper's power elite displayed other botches too. One of their more famous mistakes was when they worked on the big presidential campaign in 1960. They didn't work for Kennedy, the voice of a new generation; they worked for Tricky Dick. The world was evolving and these guys were still driving their fathers' Oldsmobiles. Even when the British were coming to swallow up the agency, Sterling Cooper's leaders thought it would make things better. Don and his cronies missed a lot of the important road signs along the highway, rendered all the more ironic as ad agency folks are supposed to have their fingers on the pulse of the nation and its trends.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Roger Sterling (John Slattery) of MAD MEN (copyright 2015)
IT BROKE MORE RULES THAN ANY OTHER MODERN TV SHOW

Not only did the show roast the old guard of power in the sixties, but also it burned a lot of the Hollywood rule book as it went along telling its story. Tinsel Town strongly believes that people abhor period pieces, but MAD MEN proved them wrong. Like all works taking place in the past, they're really about the present and MAD MEN was no exception. It was about today and that resonated with people. The same issues of men with their heads in the sand during colossal change could be found 50 years after that era. (Wasn't there a lot of Don Draper in Mitt Romney, a man still trying to figure out who he was, what he believed in, and struggling to form a true identity during the 2012 presidential campaign? Even the hair was similar. Again, all that Brylcreem!) 

And who would have ever guessed that a show about people making advertising would become such a phenomenon that enthralled even those who've never set foot in an agency? I suspect Weiner knew that this strange world would resonate with an audience that grew up surrounded by marketing, inundated with commercials and media, and slaves to the urge to consume. Everyone is a potential buyer after all, and MAD MEN was all about showing how everyone then and now is selling something. 

Weiner always talked up to his audience, and I think viewers appreciated having to think a bit more during the show. There was always a lot of water cooler debate on Monday, after the Sunday airing, about the characters and what they really felt, particularly Don. It was fascinating to dissect. Weiner's characters defied convention, so did his storytelling, and we seldom found easy answers. The mystery of it all drew us in even further. 

Weiner truly changed the template for episodic drama even more than his mentor David Chase did during the run of HBO's THE SOPRANOS. It too was amazing TV, of course, but it was about a subject that is always inherently dramatic - the Mob. Then along comes Weiner's show about people who make 30 second commercials and it proved to be just as dramatic and tense as all that gangland warfare was. That was a truly remarkable achievement.

MAD MEN succeeded without any of the surefire scenes that the industry insists upon to keep an audience watching. The show had no action-oriented set pieces. No episode or season finales that resembled anything like a cliffhanger. And few of its characters ever truly found redemption. Every screenwriting book in Hollywood tells you that your script must have such things, but Weiner and his show seemed to thumb their noses at such formula. He resisted. We benefited. 


Original caricature by Jeff York of Betty and Sally (January Jones and Kiernan Shipka) of MAD MEN
(copyright 2015)
IT HAD THE MOST ANTIHEROIC LEAD EVER

And in Don Draper, Weiner created one of the best TV characters ever - a handsome cad who was a train wreck. We just couldn't look away. And Jon Hamm gave one of the greatest performances ever by playing that antihero with such authority and vulnerability. Hopefully, the Emmy voter will finely award him a statue, and shame on them for not doing it years ago! 

And regarding Don, has TV ever seen such an irredeemable lead, a main character so unwilling or unable to change? A man who so often back-pedaled? Don Draper was a cheat, a liar, and a con man so many times that he actually was quite sociopathic in his way. There was a heart somewhere underneath all that, or we'd like to think there was, but Don sure could be the biggest shit nonetheless. At least he was called out on it continually, at work, at home and at play. So why couldn’t Don change? 

Well, as Weiner has pointed out in many interviews, people don’t really change all that much in life. Sure, Don tried here and there, but like most people, he could only venture so far outside his comfort zone. He attempted on occasion to be less selfish and more empathetic, yet for every noble step he took forward, he would seemingly end up taking the proverbial two steps back. It's a credit to Hamm that we always saw the lost soul inside, even when he was wreaking so much havoc.

In an early season, Don bared his soul to his colleague and love interest Faye, and in that moment, he clearly felt like he'd removed a huge albatross from around his neck. But alas, it was too good to last. Don backslid once again, dumping his intellectual equal and moral superior because his ego just couldn't take it. Instead, he ended up quickly courting and marrying his young secretary Megan. She was in awe of him for a while, but she saw his warts soon enough too. Weiner was always on the side of the women Don hurt. And he ensured that they always called him out on his bullshit.

Don did have some wonderful moments of forward-thinking. He recognized Peggy’s talent and often championed her. His shocking admission to the Hershey client about his whorehouse upbringing lost the account and got him fired, but it was a clarifying moment of self-truth for Don. And he reached out to Sally to try to make up for all the hell he had put her through. But Don never quite made it all the way to redemption. It was too easy to turn tail and run.

Don could stand with Tony from THE SOPRANOS in many ways. And that wasn't good. Heck, sometimes Tony came off better than Don because he truly was trying. Despite his sins, mobster Tony was desperate to change, even going so far as to see a psychiatrist. Walter White, too, was another antihero on TV that Don had a lot in common with. Both were always BREAKING BAD, but Walter's motivation for dealing drugs was to secure his family’s future. Comparatively, Don committed most of his transgressions because of a woefully overblown sense of machismo and entitlement. His family never came into the picture. He wasn’t a killer like those other two men, but for a guy whose greatest strength was that he was a marketing whiz, he sure left a lot of damage in his wake.


Original caricature by Jeff York of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) of MAD MEN (copyright 2015)
And in the last moments of the show, when Don is trying to get in touch with his mind, body and soul through chanting and yoga, he likely smiles in that last close-up because the ad wizard in his soul has just thought of an ingenious way to co-opt the touchy-feely youth culture for a soda brand that desperately wants to be the brand in hand. You don't know if such a brainstorm is to be admired or reviled. Maybe both. Don Draper was both tragedy and comedy, a metaphor for that America which Weiner was critiquing throughout the run of the show. He represented a nation that no longer knew who it was, had some serious integrity issues, and took a lot down with him while he tried to figure it all out. 

THE PRODUCTION VALUES CHANGED TV'S LOOK

Sure, we’re now all used to the incredible production design and cinematography of programs like GAME OF THRONES and HANNIBAL. They look like movies. But MAD MEN did it best and set a new course for making every detail count in ways it hadn't before, from top to bottom, socks to props to everything. It revived sixties fashion styles too, particularly in bringing back those tight fitting, small lapeled men’s suits, and you can see them any night that Jimmy Fallon or Bill Maher are on. AMC TV spent a pretty penny on MAD MEN, but every single cent always was there in plain view. Never had the small screen loomed so large.


Original caricature by Jeff York of Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) of MAD MEN (copyright 2013)

IT PERFECTLY MATCHED TODAY'S TIMES

Weiner's finale opted for a cynicism that is perfectly in tune with our times. Clearly, he didn’t want to go for a neat, pat ending and just because Peggy and Stan are together, that doesn't guarantee a "happily ever after" for them. Same with Pete's reconciliation with Trudy. Joan’s business venture could be wildly successful, or not. And maybe Don returns to McCann with a Coke jingle that puts him back on top of the ad world, but I doubt he'd truly be happy even with such fame. 


Original caricature by Jeff York of Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) of MAD MEN (copyright 2013)
And in thinking about the show this past decade, it seemed to me that the show really zeroed in on how badly we handle turbulent times in our nation. 9-11, like the big tragedies of the sixties, didn't bring us closer together. It tore us apart even more and made factions more partisan. Electing a black president didn't make us 'post racial', as Ferguson and Baltimore certainly proved. And even though we know what global warming is doing to the planet, our heads remain in the sand. Is it much different from that bygone era of MAD MEN when too many people refused to believe that cigarettes were killers? (Alas, poor Betty, we knew thee - cough, cough - well.) 

Are we falling like Don in the opening credits, with everything we once believed in falling away too? Weiner's answer was, "Yes, indeed." MAD MEN held up a mirror to all of us and said, "Look America, you're a nation of Don Drapers." Stop flailing, stop falling, and change. Do more than just obsess over the next iteration of the iPhone. Stop being a self-absorbed consumer and think outside your selfies and personal lattes. The world is going mad, after all. So what are you going to do about it?

Monday, May 11, 2015

EIGHT EERIE WAYS "BATES MOTEL" CREPT UP ON "PSYCHO" IN ITS THIRD SEASON

Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norma and Norman Bates in BATES MOTEL.
“Bates Motel” ended its third season May 11 and the show inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film has brilliantly forged its own take on Norman Bates’ backstory, yet it’s also moved closer and closer to its source material with each subsequent season. In fact, this year’s 10 episodes riffed on a number of visual ideas and motifs that any fan of “Psycho” would recognize, and it did so with great wit and finesse. Here are the eight eeriest ways A & E’s hit show inched closer to the 1960 horror classic:

Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) either dresses like a mom or a tramp.
Norman has started channeling his mother’s voice

In the past seasons of the TV show, Norman (Freddie Highmore) has experienced fantasies of his mother scolding him, usually when he was about to have sex. In the movie “Psycho” Norman does as well, but he also imitates his mother’s voice talking to him. Now, that’s happened on “Bates Motel” as well.  This season, Norman truly found his voice, er, her voice. And he’s been caught doing it by everyone from his sensitive brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) to his wayward uncle Caleb (Kenny Johnson).

Norman played the mother role this season. He even wore her housecoat while making breakfast.

Norman is starting to dress like his mom too

Vera Farmiga’s Norman Bates is a walking contradiction. Sometimes she’s the conservatively dressed mother hen, lording her maternal instincts over everyone from her brood to the Sheriff (an often flummoxed Nestor Carbonell). And other times, she dresses to seduce. This season she ran away in a snit and dressed like a floozy, hoping to bed a stranger. Norman was so upset with her exit, he lost his marbles and started channeling her whole cloth, right down to wearing her housecoat. 

Mrs. Bates is starting to sit at the bedroom window

The show has sometimes been hesitant to rely on visuals that clearly come from the movie, but this season a number of shots echoed the film blatantly. Norman observed his mother watching him from her upstairs bedroom window. That is a direct lift from the film, and it added even more chills to the show, as we know that Norman will eventually prop his mother’s corpse in a chair by the window to continue the illusion that she’s alive.


The show frequently employed overhead shots

“Bates Motel” has also started to employ the overhead POV shots to make everything in the hotel more macabre, from shots of the ominous staircase to Norman’s time in the tub. Unusual camera angles like that added to the oddity of the Bates world in the movie, and they did so in the TV series as well.

Good girls are starting to disturb Norman’s libido

Did Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) trigger her own death by mildly flirting with Norman in the movie? Yes, as any stirring of his sex drive triggers his Mother’s jealous mindset. That’s been happening all season long this year, first with the prostitute Annika (Tracy Spiridakos) openly propositioning Norman. He didn't kill her, but he easily could have. And sadly, in the season finale, the forlorn Bradley (Nikola Peltz) made a fatal mistake when she tried to pull Norma away from his home. How will Norman/Norma react when he realizes his old flame Emma (Olivia Cooke) is falling hard for Dylan? The likely outcome is not a pleasant prospect.

Is Emma (Olivia Cole) doomed as a good girl in Norman's world?

The show's tracking shots looked like Hitchcock's

The Master of Suspense loved tracking shots, especially those going up or down stairs, and this season “Bate Motel” added more and more of them to its visual vocabulary. Such shots add urgency and tension to the storytelling as the camera moves us closer into the action. And getting up close and personal with this cast of characters is very frightening indeed.

Norman’s obsession with taxidermy has become prevalent

The show established Norman’s strange hobby in season one, but it’s even more of a recurring visual motif now. It shows he’s becoming more and more comfortable with death. And it's a place he has a sense of control as he seldom does anywhere else in his world. How much longer until he starts preserving some human subjects?

Dylan (Max Theriot) and Emma follow Norman up those famous stairs.


 The soundtrack is starting to echo Bernard Herrmann

As shocking as it is, the show has never vamped on the well-known movie score by master composer Bernard Herrmann. And while the show hasn’t employed the shrieking strings outright, the melodramatic orchestrations are inching closer and closer to it. When Norman goes full psycho in the coming season, as everything is pointing to, can the shrieking strings be far away? Doubtful.

Whether or not A & E renews BATES MOTEL for a fourth season remains to be seen. But if it does, rich story opportunities await as the show inches closer and closer to the movie, and Norman inches closer and closer to his mother and a truly horrible killer. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

FIVE WAYS TO MAKE MARVEL MOVIES BETTER


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON certainly had the big opening that was expected, but it didn’t do nearly as well at the weekend box office like the first Avengers movie did two years ago. It also failed to receive as many glowing reviews. Sequels seldom do get the same acclaim, as they tend to go over the same material and characters, or they fail to expand the continuing narrative far enough to make the new chapter seem essential, but at least they often make more moolah. Not the case here, though Marvel has nothing to complain about really.

We do though. The movie wasn't great. In fact, it was kind of "Meh." This Avengers sequel had a lot of problems, from repetitive action sequences to little character development to no new arcs. Especially troubling was its reliance on CGI once again and the whole second half seemed almost like a TRANSFORMERS movie.  It all felt very, very familiar. 

And the new Avengers movie even has similar stakes as the last one. The location isn't New York this time, but a city is still decimated by all the action. Even more familiar is how the characters work together, as well as carp at each other. There's little new depth of character explored beyond Hawkeye and his family and some romantic moments between Dr. Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson). Unfortunately, the Hulk puts the kibosh on that opportunity by abandoning Black Widow at the end to go and brood on an island somewhere. "Hulk sulk!"

The Hawkeye storyline works decently enough. He's a mortal who doesn't have super human strength so his vulnerabilities are apparent. And he's never had a solo outing so there is still plenty to find out about him. But all the other players feel a bit old hat. It’s probably good that this cast of characters will likely not be teaming together again for more Avenger battles because the franchise needs some new blood and certainly some fresh air. 

And because of their incredible success, Marvel Studios has a whole slew of new movies waiting to be filmed in the coming decade. Some of their new solo movies will be introducing new characters and that's great, especially with the upcoming ANT MAN. He's a one-inch superhero rather than a larger-than-life one, and it looks very different and quite compelling. 

Then there's the upcoming CIVIL WAR movie due in 2016 that promises a lot of character-driven conflict throughout as its storyline deals with superheroes being forced by the government to  come out from behind their masks and go public. That comic book storyline was a real barnburner back when it premiered in 2006. It also polarized fans as much as the sides being taken up in the narrative. You'll remember that the irreversible rift at the core of the story was between Captain America and Iron Man. Cap was against the government registration of superheroes, while Tony Stark was hellbent on doing whatever it took to provide checks and balances. This theme was even set up in the Ultron film with those two exchanging a lot of insults. There's a lot to look forward to with that one.

Marvel needs more conflict like that in its slate of films. When you have superhero leads, there's not a lot of arc for a character as their story usually consists of being asked to save the world again. As director David Fincher has complained, such characters can't die or change too much since they're the franchise, and that means very limited returns. With that in mind, it would behoove Marvel to take a hard look at what their pending slate of movies hold, and see if there's more opportunity to create something that stretches narrative, not just visual effects.

The filmmakers need to ask themselves the following question - What does my hero have to lose here? With that in mind, here are five things that Marvel can do, and should do, to make their upcoming slate of films truly worthy of our Cineplex dollars.

MAKE CHARACTER KING

One of the things that DC does so well on TV with its superhero franchises like ARROW, THE FLASH, and GOTHAM, is that they make character king. Episodic television schedules and budgets don't allow for expensive CGI companies to take months crafting eye-popping special effects and titanic action sequences. Thus, the needs of delivering 15-20 hours of television a season must rely on other things to hold the audience's interest - namely character. Detective Jim Gordon on GOTHAM has dozens of relationships with both good guys and bad guys and the show explores them thoroughly. He's vulnerable, flawed, and interesting. Same with DC's other heroes. Granted, a movie is only a couple of hours long, but it still could stress character building like these TV efforts do.

The earlier Marvel based films did just that. It's there in the first few X-MEN films and those first two SPIDER-MAN movies starring Tobey Maguire. Marvel needs to show us more of who the people are behind the mask, outside of the oversized physical theatrics and ginormous set pieces.  

STOP DESTROYING CITIES

Marvel needs to ensure that their films don’t become just big, dumb, city-wrecking extravaganzas, especially because there have been so many movies defaulting to such tropes for a while now.  The destruction of a city was used as the climax of the first Avengers movie too (Yawn!) as well as the big ending of STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, MAN OF STEEL, and just about every TRANSFORMERS movie that has come down the pike. If Marvel can’t kill its leads because they’re indestructible, and they’re hesitant to accumulate a big civilian casualty account, then property damage is likely all they have left, but it's become boring. They need to find something else at stake other than real estate.

FIND THE CHINKS IN THE ARMOR

Tony Stark builds a virtually indestructible suit of armor, but there’s still a flesh and bone person underneath. You'd never know that though from the way he gets tossed around these days with nary a scratch to show for it. He needs to be much more vulnerable in battle. All of these superheroes should be. Even the Hulk. Bullets can’t stop him, nor can bombs, and the big green galoot can even run through buildings and smash everything in sight, all while barely breaking a sweat, so what can stop him? Even Black Widow gets bounced around in these movies, and yet barely dirties her black leather cat suit. That's silly. Where's the vulnerability?

GO SMALL

The ANT MAN preview is so exciting because it’s zigging while the others zag. Not only does Paul Rudd go against anyone’s version of a superhero, what with his ‘James Garner-esque’ silver-tongued coward qualities, but they’ve got him playing a man who’s shrunk down to barely an inch tall. In such a world even a tennis ball could become a boulder worthy of the one that rolled after Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Placing heroes in a physical world where they’re vulnerable on every level, emotionally and physically, will give audiences more to invest in. They become more relatable and fallible people. I love Thor but I can’t relate to him much anymore. Most gods are out of reach that way, right?

MAKE SUPERHERO MOVIES WITH WOMEN LEADS

Black Widow could have her own movie, couldn't she? What others are there in the Marvel universe? There are dozens potentially. Or would Marvel ever consider creating a new character exclusively for the screen, male or female? One that doesn't have an iron suit, juiced muscles or a god's immortality. Or testosterone, for that matter. Must they all come from the comic book pages, or is there room for a new character that's developed for the movies?

Marvel has truly enjoyed ginormous success on the big screen, and if it ain't broke, well, you know the rest. But fortunes can change in a moment. SPIDER-MAN was once the sure thing franchise but now it's got a host of issues. At least Marvel doesn't have the DC big screen problems. Lots of breath is being held to see if Batman can breathe some life into DC's Superman franchise. But Marvel shouldn't rest on its laurels, no matter what their fortunes are. They need to give us characters and stories that we can truly marvel at. And that doesn't need to involve leveling cities. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

THE FIVE SLY WAYS "EX MACHINA" IS THE BEST FILM OF 2015 SO FAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of EX MACHINA (copyright 2015)

If you’ve seen EX MACHINA, the main themes of the movie are quite obvious. The brilliant new sci-fi thriller about a robot being tested for its humanity enjoyed the year’s top specialty debut at the box office two weeks ago, and continued its ‘indie’ reign when it went wider last week. Buoyed by that, distributor Universal pushed the A24 production to 1,255 screens this weekend and the film came in with a better than expected 5.44 million. There is an audience for terrific science fiction, and this tense, cerebral character study has been proving it for almost a month.

And while the film’s commentary on artificial intelligence and humans playing God are clear, such themes are delivered with complexity and nuance. Even subtler are some of the big ideas that the movie also is trafficking in. All science fiction, even though it takes place in the future, tends to comment strongly on our world today, and EX MACHINA is no exception. In fact, some of its more clever themes are not only its most entertaining tropes, but they are searingly editorial as well. Here are five that writer/director Alex Garland has infused his movie with that you may not have fully realized. (If you haven’t seen the movie yet, there will be spoilers following.)

For starters, EX MACHINA is a clever, new riff on the “Frankenstein” horror story. As you’ll recall, the monster in “Frankenstein” isn’t the creature but rather the doctor who invented him, betrayed him and ruined any chance his ‘invention’ had for normalcy. Much of that is going on in EX MACHINA as well. Only Garland goes Shelly one more here by having not one, but two humans who exhibit the rather monstrous behavior.

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in EX MACHINA.
EX MACHINA stars Oscar Isaac as Nathan, an Internet billionaire who has created an artificial-intelligence robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He flies a top coder from his company named Caleb (Domhnhall Gleeson) down to his remote estate to conduct a Turing Test on Ava to determine the her level of “humanity”.  (You’ll remember that the Turing Test recently received a lot of talk and attention as it was at the center of 2014's Oscar-winning THE IMITATION GAME. It's the test that Alan Turing created to determine if a computer could pass for a human.)

Clearly, Nathan is like Dr. Victor Frankenstein here as he is playing God and trying to create life. And like Frankenstein, Nathan’s ego is monstrously out of whack. Not only does he play mind games with his guest Caleb by constantly reminding him who’s the boss and who’s the genius, but he belittles the slight and timid young man into feeling the need to demonstrate his masculinity. Nathan’s bullying leads Caleb to side with the AI. And when he becomes attracted to her sexually, as well as develops an urge to help her escape her confines, he strays from the mission and soon, all bets will be off.

Alicia Vikander in EX MACHINA.
This predicament leads to another of Garland’s clever conceits in the film - the idea of false gods. The billionaire clearly thinks he is closer to God than most humans because of his brilliant invention, and he positively basks in Caleb's praise when he says so. But he also lords his superior intellect and power over everyone at all times. He controls the comings and goings of Caleb, which rooms he can enter, when they'll venture outside, etc. And Nathan bosses around and controls his ‘girl Friday’/lover Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) as well, though much more cruelly. His treatment of her is misogynist and psychopathic.

Nathan clearly fancies himself a deity in his domain, but the other false god at play is Caleb. Early on in the story, Ava confides to him that Nathan is a liar and warns him against taking anything the scientist says to heart. Caleb decides not to share that conversation with his boss and in trying to rig and effect the test's outcome, Caleb too exhibits a need to control that borders on a God complex too. And it gets worse because it develops into a savior complex.

Soyona Mizuno and Oscar Isaac in EX MACHINA.
Caleb naively believes that he is the one to save Ava from Nathan’s cruelty. And his hubris is similar to that of many who thought they too could make a difference and demonstrate that they were bigger than the gods. He may be outwardly less masculine than the brutish, hirsute Nathan, but inside Caleb clearly has too much testosterone for his own good. 

If you need any more proof that Garland is indicting man's vanity, check out the cutaways and transitional elements he employs in EX MACHINA. They're all nature shots: big, beautiful examples of God's green earth. There's a lot of world outside Nathan’s house but the men inside it are too self-absorbed to give the mighty fortress that is God much due. With those images, Garland is shrewdly reminding us how small a world Nathan has created versus the ginormous one outside. 

Another theme at play in EX MACHINA is its indictment of the Internet. In a way, the entire story condemns what the web has wrought. Not only has his success as a search engine guru enabled Nathan to become an untouchable and reclusive rich man, but everything in his house acts as an extension of those rituals we’ve all developed in the online habitat. 

Everything is filmed. Everything is watched. Everything is made public. It's all part of some data somewhere. Every single move made is methodically chronicled, logged, and stored away. There is no privacy. Nathan's world is like its own version of everything we experience online. Heck, even Caleb's watching of Ava takes on a  voyeuristic ogling as if she's an unattainable object being viewed on a webcam feed. 

Not once, during the entire movie, does Caleb touch Ava. She is always behind glass, boxed in a world that he cannot penetrate, literally or figuratively. Is that much different than our friends and followers we connect with on social media? Are we not being conditioned to think those are real relationships as well, even though we never actually step inside the same room with those 'friends' either?

Writer/director Alex Garland.
Nathan has placed cameras in every corner of his home, which also is a searing indictment of the paranoid world we now accept and live in courtesy of the NSA, homeland security, and our post-9-11 politics. 

And Garland doesn't have kind things to say about search engines either. In the movie, Nathan used his search engine's tracking data of people’s most intimate behaviors online to create Ava's complex and expansive brain. It's also allowed him to pick the perfect guinea pig in Caleb because he was able to study the poor schlub's surfing profile, distressing family history, and even his porn preferences. Nathan has learned just how to manipulate Caleb, not much different from the way that Amazon and Google anticipate our needs and suggest consumer opportunities. Computers are starting to know us better than we know ourselves, and Garland is wondering if we know or care to change that disturbing trend.  

One of the visual themes that Garland threads throughout his film is the idea of duplication. Everything here tends to be a mirror image of something else in the movie. Some of them are more obvious than others. Caleb watches Ava through a ‘glass screen’ as he interviews her while Nathan watches them on the glass screen of his computer. Ava's caged in a very confined area, just as Nathan confines Caleb too. (The place often resembles a prison with card keys, forbidden rooms, and windowless corridors.) And when Ava dresses in human clothing to make herself more human to Caleb, her true intentions seem to become covered as well. 


Garland slyly parallels the band on Ava’s mesh attire to echo the piping on Caleb’s casual shirt. The failed prototypes before Ava are hung in a closet like last year's outdated wardrobe. And the destruction of one character mirrors the fact that she was singularly mute while she was alive. 

Perhaps the best and savviest of the visual doppelgängers is Oscar Isaac's hairline. He shaved his head for the role and it not only underline's Nathan's intellect, but it is pretty much the exact shape of Ava's face line on her metallic skeleton. 

Finally, many have missed the movie's feminist theme, instead believing that Garland is being sexist by objectifying the female characters in this film because they're subservient and often nude in the last third. That couldn't be further from the truth. EX MACHINA indicts men, not women, throughout its story.

And Garland clearly is siding with Ava from the get-go. Thus, so is the audience. We are originally drawn to Caleb as well, but as soon as he betrays both Nathan and Ava's trust, he forfeits our affections. Meanwhile, our feelings for Ava grow. She truly seems to become more of a person throughout, and emerges as the most soulful character on screen. She's an AI all right, but her humanity could teach the men here a lot.


As for the nudity, it's there to show how sexist Nathan is when he was creating companions. The first AI that we see that Nathan attempted was a black female, and that could be because of his sexual peccadilloes or a snide commentary on the virtual slave he was trying to create. How chilling too that the first prototype's remains are left without a head. It's as if Nathan just wanted her body to fetch, have sex with, and do his bidding, but with no questions, no voice, no thoughts. That's a putdown of machismo, certainly not women.  

And Ava's escape is meant to be a triumph for her and the audience. We invest in her, and the victory she achieves at the end is one that parallels the struggle of women throughout the world to achieve their freedoms as well - the quest for their voice to be heard, for their lives to be their own, for their paycheck to be equal. It's a struggle for equality. It's a struggle for basic human value.  


The truth is this film is a million miles away from being sexist. Nathan's caveman tendencies are the ones under fire here. His bullying, his sexual domineering, his binge drinking - these are all ugly sides of men who feel entitled to wreak havoc with little consequence. Nathan casually spits on the floor in his pristine hallway after a workout and you know he won't clean it up. The movie savages men, and if some critics missed that point, well, they weren't paying attention.


EX MACHINA is one of the year's best movies, and easily one of the best science fiction or horror movies in ages as well. And while this film may illustrate the limits of man, it should expand the possibilities for Garland's future as a filmmaker. His film is one great and thoroughly thoughtful entertainment. It passes both the Turing Test, as well as the popcorn one.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

IN DEFENSE OF CINDERELLA


Disney is determined to capitalize on their princess franchise as much as possible these days. Indeed, their current cinematic output is looking more and more like the princess section of their Disney stores. This spring’s CINDERELLA had no less than the estimable Kenneth Branagh directing, and its strong reviews and box office have opened the door for more live action versions of Disney classics to come our way.

It makes sense that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is next on the docket for two big reasons. First, it’s based on what is one of Disney’s most prestigious animated efforts before associating with Pixar. It was so heralded it was even nominated for Best Picture back in 1991 when only five films made the list. And two, despite the success of the live action CINDERELLA, there has been an inordinate amount of backlash, so Disney likely feels compelled to present one of its most modern princesses for the post-FROZEN audience. 

Much has come under fire in this new version of CINDERELLA, from the slender appearance of lead Lily James’ waistline, to the story’s core conceit that the heroine needs to marry into money to escape her economic misfortunes. The latter is going to be inherent in any version of CINDERELLA and that's a fair criticism in this day and age. Still if this is a caricatured version of women, aren't superhero movies similar cartoon versions of manly men? Maybe we should go after DC or Marvel more, no?

Lily James in FAST GIRLS (2012)
Branagh stressed that there was no digital modification of James’ body in this film. Rather, she is a petite actress who happens to be in remarkably good shape, and the design of the dress accentuated the V of her figure. Also, Branagh said, lighting helped add more to her sleek physique.  

Critics shouldn't deride James for being fit however. She's played athletes on film and if you rent 2012’s FAST GIRLS you’ll see that slim waist of hers again playing a professional sprinter. No matter, James’ Cinderella shows a physical poise and strength throughout the film that should be lauded. She’s not a girly girl, wan and weak. She’s strong and agile, whether she’s taking care of her family and household, dancing at the ball, or riding a horse at full gallop.

Perhaps doing another version of CINDERELLA after the more progressive portrayal of princesses is a worthy criticism. This one is still an “old school” fairy tale in many ways, and shrinks compared to the feminism of FROZEN. Here indeed, a woman needs a rich man to rescue her, but the filmmakers at least do a good job of creating an environment where it's logical.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Branagh explain the dire economics faced by Ella (before she becomes 'Cinder-ella' for doing all the dirty work around the house), along with her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and step siblings (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). The death of breadwinner Father (Ben Chaplin) renders them without an income. It's hardly 2015, but that's the story. 

Beyond that though, this CINDERELLA has a lot in common with FROZEN or Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, starting with the way Cinderella is written by Weitz, directed by Branagh, and played by the assured and confident Lily James. She’s not a clichéd damsel in distress this time out, but rather a strong, smart, and courageous woman like the heroines from those more admired Disney movies.

Lily James as CINDERELLA, driven to a life of hard labor.
And James demonstrates the same positive and winning slyness whether she’s playing in scenes with men, women or against CGI mice. Isn't that feminist? There’s a maturity to James too that belies her 26 years of age. She’s got that British brevity to her, and her theater-trained grace and gravitas truly add heft to the movie’s motto of “Have courage and be kind.” This is a Cinderella whose hardships have been created for her by the economics of deceased parents and a stringent kingdom, but her pluck and perseverance will get her out of that abysmal state.

This movie doesn’t create a stereotyped prince either. Richard Madden’s Kit, which he prefers being called, is about as modern as a man can be in fairy tales. He’s humble, kind, sensitive, and actually treats Cinderella like his superior. He worries that he isn’t worthy of such a smart and capable woman. And he’s utterly embarrassed by his royal heritage, not wanting to be adored as a monarch, but rather, loved as a person. 

Derek Jacobi as the King and Richard Madden as Kit, the Prince.
He and Cinderella are kindred spirits this time out. They both struggle with domineering parents and want desperately to forge their own way in life. These are a lot of the same themes you'll find in THE HUNGER GAMES and the DIVERGENT series. It's appealing to teens and their justified fear that this world holds few opportunities for them regarding jobs and upward mobility. In that way, this Cinderella is very much a product of our times.

Screenwriter Weitz has always written great younger characters starting with his film ABOUT A BOY, which he also directed back in 2002. It had similar themes of teen outcasts struggling with parental control. And his heroine is certainly post-modern, laughing at her shortcomings and being as fun and feminine running around in flats as she is in glass stemware. 

Weitz also writes throughout with a nod to modernity. The Fairy Godmother (a hilarious Helena Bonham Carter) has an AB/FAB brusqueness to her that is anything but noble. And he creates plenty of dark-humored fun by having the animals turn into men that aren't fully human for Cinderella’s big night. The two lizards that become coachmen courtesy of the Fairy Godmother’s wand don’t lose their reptilian origins. Their skin keeps a greenish cast, and the tails of their coats swish back and forth suggesting their true appendages. These winks are cheeky and knowing and play well with the adults in the audience. Weitz has modernized the old tale as much as humanly possible.

Director Kenneth Branagh with his leading lady Lily James.
Branagh was an inspired choice to direct too as he’s always worked wonders making stories from yesteryear seem fresh.  Look what he did with HENRY V, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and HAMLET, let alone THOR. All that royal family drama between Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston could have been stoic and stuffy, but it was utterly relatable. Branagh does the same here.

He’s respectful and reverent to the fairy tale tropes, yet he doesn’t let the clichés bog down the fun. He keeps the pageantry from overwhelming the story. And the actors’ director gets marvelous performances from his entire cast. Royals like the King (Derek Jacobi), the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) and the Captain of the Guards (Nonzo Onosie) could have been mere stuffed shirts, but Branagh gets three-dimensional turns from all of them. Even comic Rob Brydon shines in a brief but hilarious cameo as an artist whose tongue paints more vivid pictures than any of his brushes.

Of course, top-billed Blanchett registers vividly, as one would expect, but we understand why her Stepmother feels such spite, and her villain is quite sympathetic. She’s a widowed woman with two children to support and that’s never easy in the best of times, let alone during those years that were practically Medieval. And Branagh ensures that her character’s pain registers in every word, gesture and longing look. He’s even gotten his splendid costume designer Sandy Powell to drape Blanchett in green, ensuring that she always wears her envy of a better life on her sleeve.

One could find more spectacle in the average episode of THE BACHELOR than there is here, and the episode where Farmer Chris took Jade on a “Cinderella date” was more sugary sweet than anything here. Not only does Branagh move through the showy ball scenes quickly and deftly, but he plays them more for humor than romantic idealism. When the pumpkin turns into the golden carriage, it’s played as a burgeoning obelisk, not a spiffy ride, as it nearly smothers Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother while transforming in the pumpkin patch.

Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother in CINDERELLA.
And Branagh doesn’t make too big a deal out of that glass slipper either. Kit knows who he’s looking for; the search for the right maiden's foot is mostly for his Kingsmen, who don’t know what she looks like. And when he finally places the shoe on Cinderella, it’s shot modestly. Even the beautiful score by Patrick Doyle doesn’t overdo the strings at that moment. 

Kit is a character who knows what he’s looking for, and he’s already found her, shoe or no shoe, at that juncture. Has any CINDERELLA ever made so little out of the story's big show-stopper? Doubtful. And yet underplaying the symbolism of the glass slippers is, dare I say, perfectly fitting to the tone and style of this much smarter than usual adaptation.

So why is there so much backlash online? The Cinderella story has been derided for years as being sexist, so what's new? The same criticism was levied at Hollywood’s versions that starred Julie Andrews, Lesley Anne Warren and Brandy, respectively, when they took on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The trouble lies in the dated story, but it’s let's cut it some slack. After all, it is a fairly tale. 

Or should we condemn any work that has an antiquated view of women, or portrays women as subservient figures in a male hierarchy? Should we then condemn Jane Austen for writing about women needing to marry to survive in the nineteenth century? Is it fair game to slander feminist icon Gloria Steinem for choosing to play up her curves as a Playboy bunny to study men? Should something like “Dancing with the Stars” be taken off the air for the revealing outfits that showcase Peta Murgatroyd’s thighs or Kym Johnson’s toned stomach? Sometimes, critiques can go a bit too far.


It certainly is fair for critics and audiences to expect fairer presentations of female leads in movies than something as overdone as the saga of Cinderella. But can’t we applaud this new version of that heroine who equals the Prince in every way accept economically? Can we not admire its portrayal of a young person whose life approach promotes courage and kindness? And while she’s attractive, isn't the fact that this movie makes more of Cinderella’s inner beauty worthy of great praise? 


Let’s remember as well that for all of their strengths, FROZEN traded on cliched issues of frigidity, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST had a heroine named for her looks. Branagh, Weitz, James and team have done wonders with CINDERELLA and it doesn’t deserve its berating. At least Cinderella never gives up her voice to land a prince like Ariel did in THE LITTLE MERMAID. Let’s see how Disney gets out of that one when they attempt a live action version of it.