San Andreas / Ex Machina Review

Expectations ruin everything. I remember when the first Avengers came out, people were talking about that movie for months after its release. It’s not a perfect or a great film, but it was fresh. There was no superhero team up film that had existed at that level before, and its novelty made up for a lot of its flaws. But at the same time, it followed a very generic action-movie structure that was hard to fuck up. Bad guy wants to take over the world, good guys won’t let him. It worked, still works, and that is where action movies thrive. Grafting a story on to explosions often ends up in a mess, and its often the most simple plots that leave the most lasting impressions on an audience. Sometimes being fresh is just keeping it simple.

Shark is terrorizing town. Must stop Shark – Jaws

Aliens are terrorizing town. Must stop Aliens – Aliens

Furiosa wants to get to the Green Place. Must survive bad guys keeping her from green place – Mad Max : Fury Road

Action films that try to pile on the political allegories and oh-so-serious moral dilemmas find it very difficult to not get bogged down under the self-important weight of all that bullshit. Audiences are neither dumb nor intelligent, they want to be entertained and different people are entertained by different things. Action films select for an audience that prioritizes visceral experience over intellectual stimulation. This isn’t a judgement of either, and that doesn’t mean that a smart film can’t be an action film, or an action film can’t be a smart film. Today i will review two films, San Andreas and Ex Machina: The action film and the smart film, and how at points either of those types of film can both fail and succeed according to their own merits.

SAN ANDREAS, or how I didn’t know i wanted a Sim Copter live action film.

san-andreas_nws9

Sometimes you just need a disaster movie. Disaster films used to be a thing, but not so much anymore. The 70’s did it for awhile, then the 90’s tried to bring it back, and the formula is always the same. Hero dude – usually a fireman or rescue type dude who saves the day, Scientist Dude or Dudette (but usually a dude) who predicts the disaster, and sometimes an obstructionist bureaucrat that causes more lives to be lost. The hero dude and scientist dude can sometimes be combined into one character, and the hero dude sometimes is just a regular guy thrusted into being the hero.

Part of the reason I believe the disaster film has lost its attraction is a side effect of easy special fx, leading to ‘EPIC’ set pieces in EVERY action movie. It’s kind of like asking why dinosaurs got so big, the answer being because other dinosaurs got bigger. When every action movie nowadays has to have WORLD-THREATENING bad guys as the default, wiping a city off the map is no big deal. The Disaster Film has been folded into other popular subgenres of the action film.

Just look at these scenes from G.I.Joe – Retaliation, Transformers – Age of Extinction, Man of Steel, and Avengers – Age of Ultron

That last one? That was San Andreas. There is nothing in San Andreas you haven’t seen before, except that there is nothing in San Andreas but these scenes. Its an interesting juxtaposition to see a movie remove almost all of the genre trappings that dominate the current trend of action movies and leave just the explosions and big noise. Its doubly interesting to see an actor like Dwayne Johnson, use his physical presence convince you that he’s just as superhuman with or without an origin story. There’s no funny skin-tight suits, just a dirty tightly fitting tshirt. There’s no flying around in an red armored suit, there’s just a bright red helicopter. All these movies we think are these new stories, are just set decoration. Its the same old shit. San Andreas is fresh just because there’s no costumed dudes trying to pretend that there more than that.

I enjoyed San Andreas just cause it was that old shit, no frills attached. Whereas Age of Ultron creates a villain in two seconds, and then tries to convince you that he’s a real deal villain with #deep motivations, San Andreas is just like “Hey guys, there’s gonna be some earthquakes. Good thing we have the Rock.” There are no long slow motion montages of characters having major ego-shaking crises. A terrible script isn’t a better script cause it tries and fails to tell a morality tale of how we approach war. There are laughable lines in San Andreas, but it adds to the charm, where you know the movie is just doing the requisite character arcs. Rock is a divorced dad, Rock wants to get together with family, lots of rocks are falling apart, but Rock’s family is gonna come together. Its no one’s fault but San Andreas’ fault. Paul Giamatti does his best sad-yet-resigned acting.

San Andreas succeeds at setting the bar low and putting the Rock on it. I have to give it props for reversing the usual Damsel-in-distress role and making the daughter the capable one, saving two British boys. Unfortunately, gotta take props away by still not passing the Bechdel test, when it could’ve been just as easy to have the british boys be british girls and the movie wouldn’t be changed at all.

Those boys could’ve easily been replaced by two small dogs and it’d make no difference. I call it the Clifford Test, can a man be replaced with a dog and the plot would remain the same?

Everything else is gravy. Won’t be rewatchable on a small screen, but neither will Avengers 2, so if you don’t feel like watching Pitch Perfect 2, already saw Fury Road, then watch this. Avengers 2 failed at believing it was better than just a dressed up San Andreas, and thats the tightrope that every action movie tries to walk. Be smart or be big, try to be both and it easily falls apart under its own weight. I didn’t walk out of San Andreas feeling like i was ripped off.

It was 2 stars out of five, but its interesting how two stars for some movie can feel like a complete failure, and two stars for a terrible movie can feel like a real success. The difference is i can watch Paul Giamatti do pathetic in almost every movie and love it, but a superhero movie is pathetic cause it wants you to believe that it’s anything but pathetic.

EX MACHINA, all the questions Age of Ultron tried to ask but didn’t know it was a 4 year old farting on a plate of spaghetti.

What is Artificial Intelligence? How do we know if a computer intelligence is actually intelligent? How do we know if WE are intelligent? If we encounter a true intelligence but it is fundamentally alien to us, could we recognize it as intelligent?

Those are the questions Ex Machina wants to ask. But it also inadvertently (or not so inadvertently) asks:

Is sexual objectification okay if its an actual object? If you design an object to be sexually attractive and endow it with an intelligence so that it knows you think of it as an object, is it wrong if it simply treats you as a means to an end in turn? How do systems of power just create a pattern of force to be recreated forever?

There’s two concurrent themes throughout Ex Machina. One is the obvious, about the Turing test and approaching intelligence. But the other is an emergent property from the film based on our own social-political realities. There are only 3 main characters in the film, 2 men and a woman robot. These two men are in charge of determining if this woman robot is actually intelligent i.e deserving of rights, equality, etc. or an object i.e deserving of nothing but exploitation. There is the ‘nice guy’ who is chosen to evaluate her, and he only can evaluate her as valuable as she becomes more attracted to him. As he himself is validated as a person, so she is considered validated herself. Her designer, the Frankenstein in this film, proves they are human not by validating himself, but by seeing how far his robots can be pushed before they can’t take anymore and either attempt to kill him or kill themselves. I don’t believe it’s deliberate, but the film ends up recreating the conversations white people, often straight men, have with minorities and women and other disenfranchised groups. They either are trying to be your friend, but you must educate them, or they only pay attention to your problems when you become violently frustrated. Spoiler alert: both dudes are killed. The ‘nice guy’ dies a slow death, and you’re left wondering if he really deserved it. Perhaps he didn’t, perhaps he’s just a victim of the same power dynamics that kept the robot in a cage. Frankenstein dude says early on in the film that he’s replaced God, and you know he’s gonna get killed. He is stabbed, in the front and the back. He sees it coming, and he doesn’t. The robot he considers safe, stabs him in the back. The robot he considers dangerous, stabs him in the front. But he designed a test that also ensures that he would be killed if a robot passed it, in the same way that there is often no way out but violent action for subjugated peoples.

This is how a smart film can be successful. It doesnt simply present a question with a simple answer, but a question that leads to larger questions. Science fiction is rarely about science. Although that is the framing device used to examine these larger issues, it is a naive approach to science fiction to only focus on the science. Even worse, if you then take a simplistic approach to the science that is the framing device, the larger questions you are trying to ask end up muddled and distorted. Its like trying to paint a Rembrandt with crayola markers. You aint gonna get the full depth of shadows and light with some washed out highlighters. Ex Machina is effective because the framing device is tightly crafted, and the story remains simple and trimmed of all fat. It would reward multiple views.

The questions that percolate under the surface are not a flaw, but a lens to approach how even scientific endeavors which are believed to be neutral are also completely affected by gender and racial realties. In a way, all the ways race, class, sex, gender, etc intersect have created their own frankenstein monster, often tearing at their oppressor at the same time tearing at itself.

There are many moments where the skin of the robots is literally torn off, revealing the working parts below. On the inside, we don’t know how we work, what makes us human and what makes us different. What makes us one ethnicity and what makes us male or female or something in between. Ultimately, the robot escapes into a world where she can blend in, no one asking her to justify her own existence. That’s what anyone wants who’s felt different in their own skin. No one can see below her skin to tell her she’s something she’s not.

Avengers 2 : Age of Boredom

Neither are two scenes from the trailer

This scene not included in actual film. Don’t get hyped

Everyone knows that Marvel has become good at churning out superhero films. Its almost mechanical at this point, like they are coming off an assembly line. When you sit through this latest variation of the same shit you’ve already seen, you’ll notice how similar it is to the main villain of this installment. Although Ultron goes on and on about ‘evolution’, he simply makes bigger and dumber versions of himself to be torn apart and somehow thinks its an improvement. The sad part about this film is although they had the opportunity to really make something memorable and change, they are now becoming weighed down with the dozens of poor decisions that have come before. Avengers 2 is another drone, thinking it has created an unstoppable force but really has just spread itself thin with weak copies.

Everything that is good in this film, you’ve seen before. Cool circle pans that show the whole team engaging an army of identical mooks? Check. Hulk doing hulk shit? Check. Black Widow being angsty about her past but never showing what bad stuff she’s actually done? Check. People taking issue with Tony Stark’s selfishness? Check. A Villain who wants to take over the world for spurious reasons? Check. There is one scene to watch this movie for, its the HulkBuster vs. Hulk fight. Everything else you’ve seen before, just a little slightly less polished. So what happened to this movie? It’s what happened in all the previous movies, or rather what hasn’t happened.

The Marvel Universe has amazing superheroes, who constantly talk so seriously about big threats, that never come to pass. There is not one amazing villain in the entire Marvel Universe. Instead, it is padded with these jobbers who you know won’t make any significant impact. For all the melodrama, the invasion of the first movie was a small local skirmish of a few hundred soldiers, all of which were as easy to defeat as just throw a bomb at them. Seriously, all you had to do was go up into the wormhole and throw a bomb at them. When you think back at the solution to this movie, it’s really fucking dumb. It’s made all the worse, because the threat is Loki’s making, but not really, cause we have to keep hinting at a larger universe, so despite Loki being the best chance at being a major threat, he is neutered. Loki wants earth just cause. The entire genesis of this plot is based on Tony Stark being supposedly scared enough of that invasion to create Ultron, despite the fact that it was very clearly handled by five dudes and a girl, one of which uses a bow & arrow. Tony Stark says at one point “I want to put a suit of armor around the world,” when so far, a kid with a sling shot would probably make a good part of the team.

We keep being lead to believe there is this looming threat of Thanos. Its been like a half decade of hearing about Thanos, and once again, they have never shown him do anything directly villainous. Sure, he’s making some back room deals, but that’s not why we hate Hitler. This is a character who should be in love with death, and we should’ve seen the genocides left in his wake. No, we see him in a chair. Dude has been chillin’ in his space lazy boy with its cute little hoverpod arm rests. Once again, we get a teaser of Thanos saying something menacing. Once again we end up with the actual villain doing fuckshit. At this point, i do not care about Thanos, and i dont believe that these heroes or the world they are protecting is at any risk. They’ve cut out any feeling of dread in these films because they can’t commit to telling a story in one film.

You end up with Ultron, who is created in a corny montage of science dudes doing science stuff. You see a lot of clear computer monitors with cool numbers, like 98% synchronized, then the word FAILURE. You see coffee cups and scattered papers. Then they walk away and Ultron makes himself. In no part in this science fiction film, do they even try to give you any science. Forget that, you don’t even actually see what the scientists did. In two major scenes in the movie, the Scientists walk away before they are done, and the EUREKA! moment happens on its own. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner keep talking about inventing solutions to save the world, but they do not invent one single thing. They basically mixed all the ingredients to make cookies in a bowl, left them in an oven, and when they came back into the kitchen, they had magic cookies. Ultron wants to “save” the world, in robot-speak that means “destroy the world”. Why? Who cares, he drops any pretense of wanting to save the world after like 30 minutes anyway and just skips to destroy the world. They do the usual scene of showing some bad times in global history and BAM! BETTER GET TO GENOCIDING! I JUST WOKE UP AND I HAVE ALL THE WORLDS INFORMATION IN MY HEAD, AND EXIST IN ALL THE WORLDS INFORMATION, BETTER JUST BLOW THIS PLACE UP! Jarvis asks why. Ultron says “SHUTUP BRO! I’M GENOCIDING!” Probably the absolute dumbest shittiest origin of a super villain. They try to do a lot of “Tony Stark would destroy the world to save it,” dialoguing, but its such bullshit since dude has never done one morally dubious decision in any of his movies. He’s never killed the village to save the village, so you can’t be throwing some Mai Lai Massacre shit on this dude’s character and expect it to stick.

Ultron is a failure of a character, who fails because no villain is allowed to be truly villainous, even Thanos cant be truly villainous, but to justify the WORLD’S MIGHTIEST HEROES tag line, you gotta front like they are world threats. But among the Super heroes, you have Avengers that barely can justify their existence, or you wonder why some don’t exist at all. Despite the fact that Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackey have way more chemistry than Jeremy Renner on his best day, they are sidelined for inexplicable reasons. Sike. These reasons are very explicable: Racism. Despite the fact that War Machine and Falcon are both much more useful in a fight against flying drones with energy cannon arms, they got a dude with a bow & arrow hanging around. Despite all of this, the worst most obviously poorly developed character in the whole franchise is tried to be put over by Marvel Studios.

Hawkeye is a terrible character. Whether that is poor writing or wooden acting is up for debate. I haven’t seen Renner in enough films to say he’s unwatchable, but i know he’s had a few leading man vehicles that most people decided to un-watch. So guess what, you’re gonna hang out with Hawkeye on his farm for a half hour, and have his lovely wife tell the audience how he’s the center of the team. Thank you Marvel Studios, for creating an embodiment of why we should care about this character. He now has a wife and kids. Oh for fucks sake, i wish they killed those little brats and his pregnant wife, just so he’d have an origin story where he decides to kill the Avengers. That’d be a dope movie. But no, we just get this ham sandwich shoved down our throats. Black Widow, the more useful useless character, is now puppy-eyed in-love for Bruce Banner, and doesn’t share one line of dialogue with any other female. (Keep in mind, there’s been 6 Marvel films since she was introduced and Fast & Furious franchise has more dope women in it than THE ENTIRE STUDIO in just 3 movies) So although she justifies her existence more capably than Hawkeye, because she is the only female on the team, of course one of the dudes on the team she’s gotta fall in love with. Thats what cold heartless murdering assassins do. What a fucking mess. What a disappointment. So many plot holes. I can’t even stand it. Because i’m so frustrated, here is just a list of stupid shit i kept thinking after i left this movie.

  • Why does Ultron buy all this vibranium for his evil plan, makes at least four versions of himself in the movie, does not make a version of himself out of vibranium, even though he has enough to build a rocket ship out of a city?
  • Why does Ultron want to destroy the world? Is he just trolling? That’d’ve been a better explanation.
  • If Ultron wants to destroy the world, and has access to all the information in the world, why doesn’t he just make his drones into nuclear bombs that go off if injured?
  • Why does Ultron love meteors? Why doesn’t Ultron just build a large giant rod of vibranium and drop it onto a city from orbit. Cheaper, Easier, Harder to deflect, Can’t be destroyed by shooting at it with lasers.
  • Why is their so much time discussing how they can’t turn off the big bad guy device or it’ll blow up, and then they shoot it with lasers and blow it up anyway?
  • Why am I on Hawkeye’s farm?
  • Why doesn’t everyone have Falcon’s wingset? They weren’t implied to be experimental or hard to use.
  • The world’s about to end, but War Machine and Falcon are off doing other things. Thanks bros
  • Why am I on Hawkeye’s farm?
  • Why is Nick Fury in this movie? Where’d he get that helicarrier from?
  • Why is the dude who’s faster than a speeding bullet, get shot twice and surprised another time with a speeding bullet.
  • What are enhanced people? Why can you just get powers by gene-testing in the Marvel Universe now?
  • Why are all the infinity gems just “do whatever the fuck you want” gems? Stuff goes boom.
  • What the fuck is Thanos waiting for?
  • How is Ultron burned off the internet, but couldn’t think to send someone a flash-drive with his program on it?
  • Why didn’t Ultron create any kind of contingency plan in case of being deleted from the Internet. Is that even possible?
  • What the fuck is up with Vision’s cape? Shit is made out of yellow tin foil.
  • Why does an artificial intelligence that has reached the conclusion to destroy the world, grossly misinterpreting the meaning of “Peace”, have a strange sense of humor and humanity and jealousy? Where’d that personality come from? Whats the use of it?
  • Why does Ultron have lips?
  • Why does Ultron even care if humans are fuck ups. You can pull a Dr. Manhattan bro.

ugh.

Just go watch Fast & Furious. Its about cars jumping through skyscrapers. It happens, movie ends. Avengers 2 is always about something happening in the next movie, but its just a carrot dangling in front of a donkey. Its tedious, and the nitpicks i could ignore in earlier installments have snowballed into long boring over-serious cutscenes you wish you could skip. Please don’t make me watch more Hawkeye Home Shopping Network.

Superheroes and Family

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy so much. I don’t think it’s the best movie of all time, but that just makes me think of the limitations of best-of lists. I remember over the past week, having a discussion about the best wrestler of all time with my cowriter Erick Freitas & Jarrett Williams (creator of SuperPro KO), and we all had wildly different ideas of who the BEST was. Sometimes, you love something so much, you don’t need reasons. In fact, reasons never do the object of affection justice. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an instant classic. And it does what every superhero movie has been struggling to do since the genre began roaring at full steam in the early 2000’s: Simply have a happy ending.

Despite the genre having to be by necessity, about heroism, i’d argue that every blockbuster superhero movie has been a movie about heroism in spite of itself. Spiderman should be about responsibility, but is overwhelmed by loss. X-men should be about Justice, but its really about survival. Avengers should be about teamwork, but settles for sacrifice. All these movies, that we want to enjoy like how we did on Saturday Mornings as kids, fails to truly satisfy. You want to be a kid again, you want future kids to be inspired, and you want it to stay with them as they grow into adults.

Guardians of the Galaxy takes a completely new approach. It abandons the Hero-At-All-Costs for the Rogue, and it finds happiness in the most universal superhero theme – family. Every Superhero story is about family, but somehow that simple concept has escaped modern Superhero movies. Batman loses his parents, but there’s barely any family relationships in the Nolanverse, this universe’s Batman retires in anonymity and leaves all family behind. In Man of Steel, Superman inexplicably allows his Father to die, and only a few scenes earlier is told by his father that letting people die, might be okay. Captain America – The Winter Soldier, is a beautiful tragedy of two brothers losing their bond. Regardless of the quality of the movies, we are unable to leave a superhero movie and believe “Things worked out for the best!” There are no cowboys riding off in the sunset, no knights being saved by the princess, no astronauts experiencing the wonders of our galaxy. But it is a disservice to the genre, to abandon optimism, because there’s only one reason a kid puts a towel on his back as a cape. They believe they can save the day, not that they’ll keep the worst from happening or stave off genocide for one more day. They believe they can fly.

That is what is so damn good about Guardians of the Galaxy, thats why you watch it and it feels familiar and new all at the same time. There’s a scene where Rocket Raccoon can’t take being called Vermin anymore. Being called “a pet”, “a rodent”, and it’s maybe the most convincing CGI emotion i’ve ever seen. “I didn’t ask to be torn apart and tortured and put back together again a million times!” he yells and almost cries, and you can see his frustration at even letting himself get this upset, and you feel it. You know you feel it, because its no secret that hundreds of us were the kid called vermin, or rodent, or so many different names. So many of us got beat up and shoved and got hurt. For some of us, the torture was worst than we can really ever express, but we can’t do anything about it, we just are how we are now. This past year, i remember feeling so constantly frustrated, revealing how constantly angry i am. There’s a lot of dialogue about depression, but i often feel pretty alone when it comes to anger. There’s a reason i read Superhero comics, because it is a power fantasy, but its not power to defeat others, its power to simply protect yourself. Rocket Raccoon’s protector is the infinitely patient, majestic and immensely powerful Groot. Groot doesn’t judge him, Groot only wants to help him. We all want a Groot in our lives. This is why his final words are so important.Each character in the Guardians of the Galaxy, is dealing with some aspect of dealing with family. Losing a mother, being abused by a Father, being betrayed by a Sister, not knowing where you stand in these relationships, and finding security in new relationships. Worst than just having a broken family, is feeling broken yourself, knowing that the mechanisms you’ve created to survive are not enough to make a life on. Each new person you meet, is another affirmation that you can’t be loved, that you can’t do relationships, and it just plain sucks. When Drax reveals that all his rage and anger are simply covering up his sadness, it quickly cuts through all the moments you laughed at him as he raged impotently. Guardians of the Galaxy simultaneously allows you to see their foibles, lets us laugh at them, and lets you forgive them for their faults.

(spoiler alert) The final scene of the movie, we are at a familiar trope. It is always darkest before dawn, and almost every action movie needs the moment where you must honestly believe that this might be it. If you’re an art house film, it’s usually where you end the film, roll the credits, and collect your laurel leaf crowns for Best Picture at Film Festival. But for the more sophisticated tastes of children, thats where you prove your mettle, and show the audience what type of movie you are making. Man of Steel, had no darkest before dawn moment, it simply never ever relented with depressive imagery. The Avengers has it right before the Hulk arrives, when those giant technowhales arrive. The most recent Spiderman puts Gwen on a string, and she falls and brings his world down (and your mood) with her. In GOTG, our band of adventurers and scallywags, sits together, as if on moist dirt after a long summer’s day and you find out your best friend is moving away. They all might die in a fiery crash, but Groot decides to make a shelter of himself, knowing he will die. He’s only said the words “I AM GROOT” in different tones throughout the film, but when he says “WE are GROOT,” he says everything this movie is.You are not just your pain, you aren’t alone. Even though you feel like no one understands you (I am Groot?), all you want from your family and your friends, is to feel like their love is your shelter, and your shelter is your love. We want to believe bullies will turn into friends, because we let them borrow our walkman. We believe that Drax is trying his best to say he’s your friend, but he’s better at just showing it punching someone for you.

A lot of people have compared this movie to Star Wars. It’s interesting, because if you think that Peter Quill is this generation’s Han Solo, it’s because he’s a softer interpretation. By now, the Han Solo anti-hero IS the Hero, so Peter Quill ends up being truly rebellious by being sweeter. He looks like the once chubby dude, the kid on the bleachers who just let you have his snickers bar for NO REASON, the kid that even the teachers laugh when he’s getting in trouble. In Star Wars, Han Solo shot first, but in Guardians of the Galaxy, he leaves a little troll figurine in your pocket and you smile, and think “Oh, Starlord.”I think it’s much closer in style and approach to the Princess Bride movie, but both Star Wars and Princess Bride are movies that remind you how much you actually like a happy ending. Heroes gotta go up against some big bads, and as you get older and older, you realize that the evil of a man in a weird suit isn’t much compared to the evils of shrapnel wounds inflicted on children, or ideological fear mongering, racism, sexism, all kinds of crap. But if you really want to fall in love with a superhero, you got to let them win. Eventually, after some struggle, there’s gotta be a clear and amazing victory. You gotta pick up the big bad, symbol of all evil, and solve the problem by throwing him into a hole. That’s what puts the super in superhero. Actual heroism is the sad kind that happens on 9/11. But when we want to believe in something bigger than just the grey and greyer world we have, we need the lush colors of costumes and lasers. We need the saturated color of fiction, so that our often grey world doesn’t descend into a black hole of depression. More importantly, when you’re a kid and your whole world IS your family, sometimes you need to believe you can fly, with your friends the Raccoon, the Tree, The Brute and the Ninja.

Best Friends Forever

Also, consider donating the price of a ticket to helping with Rocket Raccoon’s creator, Bill Manto’s healthcare costs. More info here: http://comicsbeat.com/on-bill-mantlo-rocket-raccoon-and-guardians-of-the-galaxy/ http://gregpak.com/love-rocket-raccoon-please-consider-donating-to-writer-bill-mantlos-ongoing-care/