Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ex Machina (and short comments on The Age of Adaline)

                         “Such a lovely place … Such a lovely face”
                             “Hotel California” The Eagles (from their 1977 album of the same name;
                                                                                have a listen in a link waaay down below)
                 
                                                               Review by Ken Burke
               
                                              Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
             
A young coder wins a week’s visit with his brilliant, reclusive CEO only to find that he’s there to test his boss’ attempt to create an android with realized artificial intelligence, a “female” who seems attracted to the employee and wants his help in escaping from the true intentions of the inventor; this is taut, cerebral sci-fi, well worth your time and attention.
            
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                
What Happens: Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson)—implying an ordinary “everyman” quality with the surname yet something unique with the given name—a young coder (orphaned at 15) working for Blue Book, the Internet world’s by-far-most-successful-search-engine (so whadda think about that, Google overlords?), wins an in-company-contest with the prize being a week shared with his renowned, reclusive boss at a remote estate in Alaska (although those exteriors were shot in Norway; whadda think about that, Sarah Palin?).  After the premise is set up in marvelously-efficient-fashion, we soon find that the isolated home is a high-security-compound that would make an Army base jealous with its ultra-high-tech-features (but no windows; again, security, except for the attractive vistas from the living room area), managed by a very-oddball-occupant, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac)—alternately welcoming and borderline-psychotic (not to mention alcoholic, probably for reasons that will come clear near the end of this summary)—along with his latest invention, Ava (voiced, motion-captured, and facially-identified by Alicia Vikander in a mesmerizing combination of machine and human structure), a robot who’s possibly attained true artificial intelligence.  As things turn out, Caleb’s contest “win” was carefully chosen, given his knowledge of A.I., so that he could apply a sophisticated version of the Turing test (named for contemporary-computer-forefather Alan Turing, the brilliant-yet-tragic-subject of The Imitation Game [Morton Tyldum; review in our December 23, 2014 posting]—Rick Deckard was essentially doing the same thing in Blade Runner [Ridley Scott; 1982, 1992, 2007 in its various editions] to weed out rebellious Replicants, but with much more violent results from those he identified) to Ava in order to determine if she’s truly a sentient form of technology.  Even though Caleb interacts with her only through glass walls that confine her from the rest of the spacious home, it’s clear that he’s fascinated with her, possibly infatuated, even as she seems to be flirting with him especially as she dons a wig (she has many to choose from, just as her face was an option for Nathan) and clothing so that her appearance is now indistinguishable from a human, making her all the more appealing to Caleb.

 However, Ava also has the capacity to cause power outages in the compound (unknown at first to Nathan, or so he implies but as Ava warns Caleb you can’t trust much of what Nathan says), which shuts down the audiovisual-surveillance of every inch of the place, allowing Ava to have secret chats with Caleb, ultimately leading to his plan to engineer an escape for them, especially after Nathan passes out drunk one night, allowing Caleb to swipe Nathan’s keycard and enter the restricted areas of the house, discovering the remnants of previous robots along with clarifying that no matter how well Ava does in her test her memory will be wiped as her organic-rather-than-electronic- “brain” is destined for use in the next (supposedly final) version of Nathan’s humanoid A.I. device and that Nathan’s frequently-abused Japanese servant/dance partner (in the most subtly-unnerving-scene in the film), Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), is also a robot (giving Caleb a fearful concern that he might be as well—which brings us back to Blade Runner in the sense that director Scott admitted that Deckard is a Replicant also, despite the difficult questions that raises for the actions within that narrative—so Caleb has to test his humanity in a chilling blood-letting-scene to verify that he’s not running on some form of anti-freeze).  However, both Caleb and Nathan are one step ahead of each other, as the inventor has placed a hidden battery-powered-camera in Ava’s area so he’s aware of their plan just as Caleb anticipated such a move so he’s already reprogrammed the internal security system, allowing Ava to escape confinement and the other doors to unlock.  Nathan tries to force Ava back into her rooms, slashing off her left hand in the struggle, but between knife stabs from Kyoko (back) and Ava (front), Nathan’s left dying even after smashing Kyoto’s head mechanism, terminating her operations.  Ava then acts swiftly to trap Caleb in a section of the house behind shatterproof-glass, cut the power again so that he has no connection to the outside world, then coldly leaves him there to die as she get a new left arm and complete-body-covering-skin from her discarded predecessors, then exits the compound to leave via the helicopter pickup intended for Caleb, with our last view of her in a crowded urban intersection where she’s free to advance her new form of consciousness into the human world, likely with deadly consequences for us inferior-carbon-based-life-forms.  (Unless she gets destroyed along with the other A.I.-villains-determined-to-eradicate-problem-causing-humans in the upcoming release of Avengers: Age of Ultron [Joss Whedon; review to be posted here next week after the box-office-chaos dies down]; while we’re in parenthetical-land I’ll also note that I still get statements that my comments run on too long, but if you want to see how svelte I look by by comparison check out this Ex Machina summary where there are editor’s concerns that it “may contain an excessive amount of intricate detail that may only interest a specific audience”—yet they say that like it’s a bad thing!)

So What? Not only is Ex Machina (the title, from deus ex machina in Latin, referring to the ancient Greek theatrical ploy of setting distressing plot conditions aright by having a god lowered or raised onto the stage by some device to overcome the terrible-if-not-fully-insurmountable-protagonist-problems—thus “god from the machine”) yet another disturbing entry into the catalogue of warnings about the dangers to the human race if objects truly become sentient (from such movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968] or franchises such as The Terminator [James Cameron, 1984, 1991; Jonathan Mostow, 2003; McG, 2009; Alan Taylor, 2015) and The Matrix (Andy and Lana Wachowski; 1999, 2003] to warnings against such from prominent scientist Stephen Hawking [see the 3rd link about this film in the suggestions far below]) but also it shows how part of what we understand as human consciousness is rooted in mistrust and manipulation, as both Nathan and Ava use Caleb for their personal purposes without him ever knowing how or when to trust either of them until it’s too late.  Despite earlier denials that he didn’t program Ava to act attracted to Caleb so as to further encourage him to declare her as passing the Turing test (as well as using easily-available-search-engine-data to choose a face for her that corresponds to Caleb’s previous Web-porn-preferences), Nathan finally reveals (when he thinks he has the upper hand) that he was using Caleb as an unwitting guinea-pig to be duped by Ava in her attempts to construct an escape plan (as she learned what her fate would be), a self-directed-deviousness which would show her human attributes (so it was Nathan conducting the real Turing test all along).  However, Ava not only responded well to Nathan’s hidden scheme, she manages to up the ante on him by encouraging Caleb to constantly question what was actually going on in this contemporary-Frankenstein-laboratory, enough so that he actually caught Nathan unaware of the actual escape scenario until it was already in place, allowing both men to be surprisingly-overcome by the androids in a betrayal of all that the humans had to offer in terms of giving life (Nathan—although it would be impossible for Ava to procreate [despite the heterosexual urges that were programmed into her, as with the previous robots, all comely females, which speaks to the internal traumas of humanity-aloof-Nathan] but she might know enough about her own creation-methods to be able to build more like herself or seduce other men to do such work for her) or sharing life (Caleb—quite smart in his own right, although presumably a techno-loner without Nathan’s enormous material resources, yet emotionally-naïve-enough to not recognize that his biologically-driven-reproductive-urges [even with a non-viable-“mate”] were being trumped by Ava’s foundational-programming, a human characteristic compelling reproduction but still subordinate to the essential-fight-or-flight-self-preservation-dictate; Ava proved to be all too-human, at our most basic, often terrifying, level).

 Caleb tells Nathan that if he’s truly succeeded at creating A.I. then he’s now in the realm of the gods, which seems to satisfy the disturbed CEO’s ego, but it’s left to us to add either the religiously-based-warnings against such realm-of-the-divine-intrusive-arrogance (as shown long ago in The Bride of Frankenstein [James Whale, 1935]) or the scientific (often agnostic at best) version of such a troubled prophesy by concerned geniuses such as Hawking.  Some say that A.I. is inevitable because of our innate curiosity coupled with the current technological capacity to achieve such a monumental phenomenon, even though the result could be the end of our species; others are either more optimistic that we might be able to coexist with such sentient machines for our greater benefit or that what makes humans unique is so indefinable (as noted in the next paragraph) that it can never be truly duplicated.  The answer to whether such a singularity development can/will occur supposedly awaits us in just a few more decades; until then, usefully-contemplative-sci-fi such as Ex Machina may help guide the process/impact of this critical step in our own self-determined-evolution.  However, just as the “god” aspect of the original allusion is missing from the title of this film, so is Nathan not the god that Caleb implies but at best seems to be a mad scientist with a dangerously-inquisitive-mind, determined to follow his achievement-driven-desires to challenge the limits of human knowledge no matter the impact of formulating, then unleashing, a force that’s clearly beyond his control.

Convergence, 1952
(not the Pollock painting used in the film; 

haven't located that one yet)
Bottom Line Final Comments: Another intriguing idea tossed at us by Nathan is that what we know as true consciousness produces something like a Jackson Pollock painting—it’s not done randomly as would be the case with a lower-life-form that just blindly stumbles around in its environment always looking for food and an opportunity to procreate, nor is it completely focused on a fixed result as with a supercomputer designed to be superior at one activity, such as chess, but really has no awareness that it’s even playing chess, rather it’s simply responding in a highly-sophisticated manner to the task set before it—where aspects of random action and calculated control are modified by an open-ended-awareness that may not yet know the outcome of its investigations but can continue to respond to the progress being made to bring about a resolution that’s not just the most-optimal-accumulation of finite choices.  As we see, though, sometimes those resolutions aren’t mutually-beneficial for all concerned (they probably aren’t most of the time, given what we know of human history or daily headlines), giving us pause to consider whether we really want to create machines that think like us, either because they’ll act too much like us as well (but with superior mental resources that could ultimately out-maneuver our efforts at control) or, like in so many futuristic-sci-fi-movies, they’ll decide that we’re the expendable virus that’s harming the planetary-eco-system, leading to their decision to use their superior forces to exterminate us (in addition to these deep-thought-considerations there are also some interesting trivia tidbits about this film that might also interest you)Ex Machina is extremely successful in maintaining a sense of tension and dread in terms of what’s really going on here, what (whom?) should we believe, and what consequences are there in Ava’s escape, implied but not addressed within this narrative; the soundtrack adds to that tension at times with the whirr of helicopter blades that have no immediate connection to Caleb’s transportation in but not out of Nathan’s fortress, conjuring up (in my mind at least) the use of such sounds of these flying machines in Pink Floyd’s 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon album (with their Vietnam War connotations from back when this epic recording was created), which explores many aspects of human failure, ending in madness.

 In regard to a Musical Metaphor to wrap up what we encounter in the fascinating world of Ex Machina, I’ll turn to my old friends, The Beatles, for “I’m Looking Through You” (from their landmark 1965 Rubber Soul album) at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=_6Geqj Kif8g (with added footage of the Fab Four, unrelated to the performance of this song but more interesting to look at than the album cover or some other arbitrary still for 2½ minutes), as I might imagine it being sung by Ava to her forgotten men, especially as she might focus on Nathan with “Why, tell me why, did you not treat me right?” but she could be equally just as curt toward Caleb singing “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.”  When we first meet her (no point in putting this word in quotes as she’s seemingly made the transition into an acknowledged level of human consciousness), we’re literally looking through parts of Ava’s structure as some of her outer frame is transparent, allowing us to see the mechanisms within; by the end of the film, though, as she’s now covered up and loose in society—with actions that will lead who knows where but possibly with catastrophic results for the unwitting humans that she’s now in concert with—she can easily say to us, “You don’t sound different, I’ve learned the game, I’m looking through you, you’re not the same” (which may lead someday to the last huddled people hiding in caves watching this relevant list of 101 films about “solitude, loneliness, and isolation," at least until the batteries on their non-sentient-devices finally give out).

 Box-office-records may not be the same either by the time I next visit with you to report on  Avengers: Age of Ultron (It’s already opened to a massive $201.2 million in 44 overseas markets last weekend, April 24-26 [which somewhat offsets the $250,000,000 budget] and may eventually join Furious 7 [James Wan; review in our April 15, 2015 posting] in topping the $1 billion mark in international sales [only the 3rd release ever to do that] as well as joining the upper realm of all-time-worldwide-grossers [Furious 7 is #4 at present, behind Avatar and Titanic (James Cameron; 2009, 1997), then comes the earlier Avengers movie (Whedon, 2012; review in our May 12, 2012 posting), with those first 2 being the others to top $1 billion in international-release-income].)
           
Short Takes
             
           The Age of Adaline (Lee Toland Krieger)
              
A woman in a car wreck back in 1937 is hit by lightning which not only revives her but also stops her aging process so that she can’t form close relationships because it’s too difficult to outlive everyone around her as well as not allowing herself to be studied as a freak; she finally allows a lover into her life but he brings unanticipated complications from her past.
             
 But before I depart this time, let me offer you some brief(ish) remarks on another current release (one that’s also doing reasonably well in its debut, taking in a bit over $13.2 million in its first-domestic-weekend), The Age of Adaline, essentially a fairy-tale-type-romance (although with a pseudo-scientific explanation—but you could say that about Superman as well, as far as being “science fantasy,” or even, to some degree, about Ex Machina although the science part there is fast moving away from any sort of fictional fantasy while the “romance” turned out to be nothing more than a clever-machine-consciousness-rebellion-ploy).  Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively), born January 1, 1908, grows up into young womanhood, marries, and has a daughter, Flemming.  Tragically, though, in 1937 her engineer husband is killed in an accident during construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, followed by Adaline’s car running off another bridge during a freak Marin County (just north of SF) snowstorm, leaving her drowned—until a bolt of lightning hits her car, not only reviving her but preventing her body from aging (with a narrator [another device that helps convey a fantasy/fairy-tale-like-mode here] offering some explanation supposedly grounded in science).  From there, Adaline lives through an unplanned Picture (or Portrait, as it's alternatively listed) of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde, 1891)-type-existence up to the movie’s opening scene on December 31, 2014, although she frequently changes her identity in order to avoid inquiries about how her 29-year-old-appearance doesn’t match the chronology of her birth certificate.  She still lives in SF to be close to her naturally-elderly-daughter (Ellen Burstyn) but avoids any other meaningful relationships because she can’t grow old with anyone but a succession of pet dogs from the same lineage.

 She finally succumbs to the charms of yet another Internet billionaire (a bit younger than Nathan Bateman, which is even more frustrating to us mere mortals), Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), only to be shocked on a family visit to find that he’s the son of her former brief lover from 1966, William Jones (Harrison Ford, as subdued as you’ll ever see him).  Complications naturally arise, Adaline tries to flee but flips her car in yet another miraculous Marin snowstorm, then is rescued by Ellis with the EMT’s applying heart-starting-paddles which not only bring her back again but give her the courage to tell all to Ellis as she re-embraces a life with him (as my insightful wife, Nina, points out, though, that should make for some interesting holiday dinners with Dad trying to control his feelings around his 40-year-spouse, Kathy [Kathy Baker]), and a normal one at that, as the narrator explains that the 2nd electric shock restarted her biological aging process.  The Age of Adaline is very touching in its sad situation for the protagonist (belying the age-old-fantasy of desiring both eternal life and youth), heartwarming in Adaline’s decision to finally fully give herself over to love, obviously melodramatic with the father-son-twist, and a bit vacuous in how Adaline’s memory is strong about the events of her years (despite her 107-old-brain, which I guess didn’t age either) but she seems to have little life wisdom to share, except learning how to locate identity-forgers.  If you’re interesting in following up further, you can visit the official site, the trailer, along with the critics' scoring sites at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for details of their respective 54% and 51% semi-positive-tallies.

 OK, now I’m really out of here but will see you soon with a report on the first of this year’s spectacular superhero extravaganzas, with the new Star Wars entry to follow in December.
             
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
              
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepageIf you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!
            
Here’s some more information about Ex Machina:



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tu1ajhotzj0 (8:40 featurette on “Examining Our Fear of Artificial Intelligence” with commentary from Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland, actors Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander giving more context to the film’s scenes in the above trailer; there’s a link at the top of the screen at the end of this clip that will take you to more info on Ex Machina but please note that the link at the bottom of that screen will take into a completely different topic)


             
Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at https://accounts.google.com/NewAccount if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Black Souls, True Story

                            Quiet Storms
             
                                                          Review by Ken Burke
                 
                                       Black Souls (Francesco Munzi, 2014)
             
In southern Italy a local Mafia family run by 2 brothers confronts local rivals when their nephewson of a goat farmer with no interest in his siblings’ activities—creates an offense leading to tensions, then physical confrontations between the 2 clans, as each struggles to enforce their control of the region; for a gangster story this is low-key but simmeringly-impactful.
               
                                      True Story (Rupert Goold)
              
Yet another fictionalized-from-fact-film, this one about former New York Times journalist Mike Finkel, disgraced for fabricating aspects of a major story, and Chris Longo, charged with murdering his family but claiming to be Finkel, which brings them together in an investigative-relationship where we wonder if Mike just wants his career back and if Chris is lying.
            
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
               
 While the films under consideration are very different in terms of settings and details, they link up by involving heinous crimes and moral considerations, with both also being based on true activities (although in the case of Black Souls the factual situations that inform it are taken from Gioacchino Criaco’s 2008 novel of the same name [with this author a native of the town where most of the action occurs], thus making the film twice-removed from its “actual events,” to cite a phrase from the opening statement of True Story) so I decided to stir them together into 1 consolidated review.

What Happens: In Black Souls (Amine Nere), an Italian film set in rural Calabria, the southern-most “toe” region of Italy’s boot-shaped-peninsula, there are 2 rival crime families—part of the larger, very successful ‘Ndrangheta organization—pushing for power in the town of Africo, located at the toe’s tip within the province of Reggio Calabria.  The folks we’re most concerned with are the Carbone family, headed by brothers Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) and Luigi (Marco Leonardi), although their operations are normally run from Milan in the far north of the country where they have quicker access to other European cities to make large drug deals with suppliers from Latin America, as we witness in the opening scenes.  However, chief hood Rocco, a no-nonsense-businessman-type, is appalled that Luigi still shows aspects of a country thug, as we see with a diversionary stop where the more gregarious sibling and 2 of his henchmen steal a couple of goats for a dinner (tossing their furry skins into the local river).  Luigi also serves as an inspiration for their nephew, Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), who’s much more attracted to his uncles' somewhat-high-roller-lifestyle than to his father’s, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), preference for goat farming, as the elder brother has nothing but distain for the activities of his criminal relatives.  To prove himself as an aspiring “family” soldier, Leo shoots up a local bar owned by the rival Barreca clan which requires the mobster Carbones to travel south in order to clear things up, although all that happens is sudden escalation when Barreca gunmen gun down Luigi one night, which brings no sympathy from the local police, likely disgusted from the inter-familial-warfare (or on the take from Barreca).  Despite Rocco’s edicts not to escalate the situation, Leo plans to kill the elder Barreca but is shot himself, probably because he was ratted out to bodyguards by a guy he though to be his coke-snorting-close-friend, likely trying to ingratiate himself with whom he perceives to be the stronger of the feuding factions.  That’s all that Luciano can take (especially with the memory of his father being a victim of the mob's violent actions) so he suddenly whips out a pistol, killing Rocco and a couple of his bodyguards before the film’s abrupt ending, although we have a strong sense that suicide is his next act.

 While we don’t see a lot of death or destruction in Black Souls compared to many gangster movies, the sudden demise of Luigi, Leo, and Rocco—especially with the last murder being done by non-combatant Luciano—are powerful mini-explosions in what is a most-successfully-underplayed-narrative where tensions about what might occur create a very powerful atmosphere of dread, as well as fear that there’ll never be an end to this endless-internecine-warfare (except by the sort of foundational-cleansing that results from Luciano’s unexpected actions).  By comparison, in True Story we also have horrendous murders forming the basis of the story but we never see them taking place (only described, with veracity of these events a chief concern of the film) so the tension built up over what happened and why is the focus of the experience yet lacking the sort of gut-wrenching-yet-emotional-release featured in the other film.  We do get answers at the end, although they seem rather predetermined—as they are—given that True Story is much more directly based on specific events so that even the payoff-drama that comes from the wife, Jill Barker (Felicity Jones), of the protagonist, Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), chastising killer (I wasn’t kidding with the spoiler alerts) Christian Longo (James Franco) just before the jury verdict is undercut not only by Longo’s later admission to Finkel that he did instigate the deaths of his wife and 3 children but also the unsettling note in the pre-end-credits-graphics that the real Mike and Chris continue to be in telephone contact every first Sunday of a month, despite Chris’ attempt to use Mike as a strategy to build confusion and sympathy with the public.  To backtrack to the actual on-screen-chronology, we start with Mike in 2002 as a successful reporter for the New York Times who’s suddenly fired because he fabricated some of his facts in a powerful 2001 story about ongoing slave trading involving young men in Africa, creating a composite character rather than the presented-singular-one that gave the story its impact.  Back home in disgrace, he can find no writing work; suddenly, he’s informed that accused-killer Chris was arrested in Cancun, Mexico, using Finkel’s name.

 Intrigued, Mike travels from Montana to Oregon to interview Chris (turns out he’s a long-time-fan of Finkel’s work) who promises him an exclusive story which Mike pumps up into a book, netting him a $250,000 advance from HarperCollins (somewhat undercutting Mike’s noble contentions that “The truth always matters” and “Everybody deserves to have their story heard”).  However, Chris’ testimony that his wife killed 2 of the kids, tried to smother the 3rd before he accidently killed her in a rage (she was apparently distraught over his desperate inability to provide for them) becomes increasingly suspicious, so much so that Mike tries to turn over evidence to the police who refuse it because of his ongoing credibility gap, although justice is served when the jury returns guilty verdicts along with a death sentence.  The book goes on to be a success prior to Chris privately admitting to Mike that he instigated all of the murders, so Mike’s career is revived even as we’re left with the ethical question of what he may have lost in this process (we also learn that while Mike never wrote for the NY Times, Chris has had several of his Death Row writings published by them).

So What? Black Souls is by far the more powerful of the films being reviewed in this posting (winner of 4 awards at the 2014 Venice International Film Festival, including the Pasinetti prize for Best Film and Akai Award for Best Direction), with its impact heightened by the pervasive background silence in most scenes, not enhanced by the powerful use of appropriate music (as with The Godfather trilogy’s [Francis Ford Coppola; 1972, 1974, 1990] Nino Rota [first 2] and Carmine Coppola [last 1] stirring scores), an observation by my insightful wife, Nina.  Furthermore, you can see some parallels (no matter where Munzi and Criaco got them) between Black Souls characters and those from the much-more-famous Coppola films: obsessively-determined-family-protector Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and stern, calculating Rocco Carbone; hot-headed-trigger-happy-playboy Sonny Corleone (James Caan) and powerful-but-untamed Luigi Carbone, shown in the photo just above (further, both are executed in their cars by multiple assassins—they also both display their generosity: Luigi by bringing gifts for all of the family when he comes back to Africo, Sonny by sharing himself around with many women not his wife, including the mother of his illegitimate son, Vincent); ready-to-take-over-the-family-business-nephews, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) and Leo Carbone (they each focus on eliminating a threat to their respective operations, with Vincent killing Joey Zasa [Joe Mantegna] and Leo attempting to ambush Don Barreca); the similar situations of most of the women in all of these films being in the background while the men determine the flow of their lives, with the frustration of such arrangements more notable in Black Souls (although in The Godfather: Part III, Michael’s sister, Connie [Talia Shire], takes her own revenge on the traitorous Don Altobello [Eli Wallach]); as well as the conceptual similarity between Luciano Carbone wanting nothing to do with the violent “family” vendettas that have decimated so many in his biological family, although his final violent outburst takes us in a different direction from Michael’s decision to turn over his mafia family to Vincent but then a similarity emerges after all when his daughter, Mary (Sophia Coppola), is killed during an attempted hit on her grief-stricken-father—you could even say that Luciano’s rejection of his heritage brings him in line with Michael’s wife Kay’s (Diane Keaton) attempt to take their children out of the realm of “this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years,” although Michael maintains command of Mary and Anthony while Luciano’s actions speak to his lifetime of accumulated anger but likely won’t prevent Carbone capos from building on the remains of the departed brothers’ criminal-structure to further battle the Barrecas (unless the syndicate overlords just have them all wiped out).  It’s a grim world after all in this new Mafia exposé but with little of the glamour that characterized the Corleones‘ empire.

 As for True Story’s explorations of jailhouse-based-manipulations and the difficulty of finding a proper moral direction when there are so many seductive opportunities awaiting those who’ve lost their way on society’s many crisscrossing paths of possibilities, I can’t help but see some cinematic similarities here as well, just not as obvious as with the more-recognizable tales of corruption in the provinces of southern Italy.  With True Story I’m reminded of another film about blatant lies by a soulless criminal intended to throw the forces of the justice system into confusion, The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995) where seeming-small-time-hood Roger “Verbal” Klint (Kevin Spacey, picking up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) leads his interrogator on a conceptual-wild-goose-chase about how so many of his colleagues ended up dead on a burning ship while he was supposedly incapacitated, when in fact he orchestrated everything about the job-gone-wrong in order to take revenge on his “associates,” leading the bamboozled cops to release him without realizing that this mousey, “crippled” character is actually the legendary, deadly (verging on the supernatural) mob boss, Keyser Söze.  Chris Longo’s probably not as evil as Söze (although we get no satisfactory explanation as to why he butchered his family, throwing both his youngest, Meredith [Stella Rae Payne], and wife, MaryJane [Maria Dizzia], into deep cold water trapped in suitcases where Meredith surely was still alive upon being flung into that bay [the other 2 kids were also thrown into local waters but drowned in rock-filled-sacks]) but I do find a parallel with the conniving construction of his innocence (he even claimed that he was essentially out of his mind when he accidently killed MaryJane, then put Meredith out of the hopeless misery she was suffering as a result of the wife’s botched attempt at suffocating her) and the shameless exploitation of needy, naïve Mike in attempting to sway the jury into a sympathetic stance by conning Finkel into believing that his only desire was to support his family, even to the point of major theft to keep their lives stable, but—just as U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) is taken in by Verbal/Keyser’s fabricated-on-the-spot-account of mayhem in a revenge-plot-gone-wrong—Mike Finkel is initially taken in by the manufactured sincerity of Chris Longo (the real guy apparently with enough charisma to entice the actual Finkel to stay regularly in touch, even to this day), earning him the disgust of MaryJane’s family along with police detective Greg Ganley (Robert John Burke—no relation to me that I know of) who’s concerned that Mike’s journalistic skills might build not-guilty-sympathy for this sociopath.

Bottom Line Final Comments: I’m quite impressed with the subtle power of the unnerving story presented in Black Souls, although I’m even more taken with the understanding of how well this film speaks to the reality of mob power in Calabria.  As director Munzi recounts:  “When I said I wanted to make the film there, everyone tried to discourage me: it’s too difficult, it’s inaccessible, it’s too dangerous. It was an impossible film. I sought help from Gioacchino Criaco, author of Anime Nere, the book on which the film is loosely based. I arrived in Calabria full of prejudice and fear. I discovered a very complex and diverse reality. I saw mistrust turn into curiosity, and people opened their doors to us. I mixed my actors with the residents of Africo, who acted and worked with the cast. Without them, this film would not have been as rich. Africo has a very tough history of criminality, but it can help us understand many things about our country. From Africo, we have a better view of Italy.”  By comparison, though, with True Story, while I was able to maintain the necessary “suspension of foreknowledge” (rather than “disbelief” in this case because the “Actual Events” that underlie this film are too easy to find) until the proper revelation in the plot and agree that a reasonable level of suspense is built up concerning Longo’s long-delayed “revelation” as to what happened on that fateful night, I just was never able to get as involved as I did during the mysterious opening shots when a teddy bear shot from above slowly falls into a suitcase where a little girl appears to be sleeping, after which we see in a quick series of images of the bag being zipped up, surrounded by water, then opened to reveal its ghastly contents.  Nothing after that engaging beginning truly captivated me as much (although the scene of Longo in a lavish traditional Catholic church in Cancun lighting “candles” by flipping a switch rather than striking a match is ironically intriguing, even if true to its location), especially the low-key-revelation very late that Longo was simply a devious killer, given that we’d been offered plenty of evidence of his untrustworthiness, including a call he makes from prison to the Finkel home where he talks to Jill in Mike’s absence, giving us a clear indication of how creepy he actually is.

 I certainly don’t find True Story as “boring” as do many of my critical contemporaries, nor would I rate it as poorly as they have (48% positive from Rotten Tomatoes, 50% from Metacritic; more details in the links far below), but it just doesn’t fully allow me to root for Mike (even he’s clear that he needs this unique story with its supposedly-unique-heartbreaking-“truth” to redeem his crashed career) just as it too soon gives me reason to distrust the line of bull that Chris is pitching, along with being visually limited by having to use so many confined-space-jailhouse-interviews where we can expect Chris to always be in the same orange prison coveralls (although he does sport a nice grey suit at the trial) but with Mike so frequently in his own “uniform” of dark blue sweater, light blue shirt, and dark blue jeans it appears that the whole plot is taking place in a few days rather than the many months actually involved.  Unlike Black Souls, this narrative is too constrained by the required limitations of its facts to make it as intriguing, compelling, or revelatory as it would like to be.

Jonah Hill and James Franco help me "phone it in" with
my recycled Musical Metaphor
 In considering my usual use of a Musical Metaphor to address the contents of these choices I kept coming back to 2 songs, each that I’ve used once before (I’d rather not repeat myself, but it’s happening occasionally lately as various opportunities keep presenting themselves—or, maybe, to borrow a line from “My Little Town” [a 1975 post-Simon & Garfunkel collaboration, appearing on both Paul’s Still Crazy After All These Years and Art’s Breakaway albums], “It’s not that the colors [songs] aren’t there, It’s just imagination they [I] lack”; you know, given the misery associated with the Italian town of Africo and the personal “towns” represented by the troubled minds of Mike and Chris, this tune wouldn’t be a bad Musical Metaphor here itself, so just for your extra consideration you might want to give a listen to it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFbJYntmzD4 [with some obvious illustrations], or if you’d prefer a live performance here’s one at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxuEr_p8Z4o [somewhat compromised quality but the best one I could find]), Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which deals—metaphorically at least—with dismissal (by Luciano and Mike) of the sort of no-questions-asked- (or, at least, no-useful-answers-given-) attitude that other characters (Luigi, Rocco, Leo; Chris) in each of these stories wanted to impose upon the more-honorable-protagonists, and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” the lyrics of which would seem to epitomize how Luciano and Mike come to feel about their respective antagonists (made physical in the former with the shooting of Rocco by his bitter brother; shown emotionally by both Mike and Jill at the end of Chris’ trial in their film).  So, in that both of these songs are retreads for me, I'll offer both with
Leo and Luciano (foreground) hope to learn
something about crime from reruns of Miami Vice
It Ain’t Me, Babe” at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=oXg6kNs 0NUo (from the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, although if you spent some time Web surfing for this song you could find covers of it by everyone from Joan Baez and Johnny Cash to Nancy Sinatra and Miley Cyrus; if you’re interested in an alternative, I’ll suggest this oddball version at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=-RPW-zV18mA [with just a few still images to accompany it, though; sorry], sung by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon from the biopic, Walk the Line [James Mangold, 2005], where the singers portray Big John and wife June Carter Cash, with Witherspoon winning an Oscar for Best Actress for her role) and a live performance of “In the Air Tonight” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeDMnyQzS88 (from the 1981 Face Value album), as part of Phil’s 2004 “Finally … The First Farewell Tour” (of course he came back).  This one’s been covered almost to death as well, allowing you to search throughout the Web for alternatives but a famous use of Collin’s actual recording was from the pilot episode of the TV series Miami Vice aired on September 16, 1984, a use of popular music that characterized this program, influenced by the early years of the MTV network and its groundbreaking (for the time) format of music videos, so here it is for your edification at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-aMCzRj3Syg, providing me a nice opportunity to just drive on out of here until we meet again soon.
          
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
              
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepageIf you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!
              
Here’s some more information about Black Souls:

http://vitagraphfilms.com/black_souls/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5gUDIIe67Y (I try to put in at least 2 video links for each review but this trailer is all I can find for Black Souls)

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/black_souls_2015/?search=black%20souls

http://www.metacritic.com/movie/black-souls

Here’s some more information about True Story:

http://www.foxsearchlight.com/truestory/# (although this seems to be the official site there’s a link on this page for “Visit the Official Site” which never responded to my clicks on 2 different Web browsers; however, I did find this one which has considerably more so maybe it’s the “missing link”: http://www.truestorymovie.com/)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_NiP_bqlns

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fdHXG_G20w (3:32 featurette with director Rupert Goold, actors Jonah Hill, James Franco, and Felicity Jones, plus the actual ex-reporter Mike Finkel interspersed with the same footage from the above trailer; then some short clips from the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOfu-mlyIgg [Chris Longo on the lam in Mexico], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkZVLBz4L1s [Mike Finkel is informed that Longo is using his identity], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdrTTX-GBCA [Mike arrives at the Oregon prison where Chris is incarcerated], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9gREaWP3TA [further prison conversation between the 2 men])    

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/true_story_2014/?search=true%20story

http://www.metacritic.com/movie/true-story

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Woman in Gold, While We're Young, and Furious 7

   Too Fast (although aging) To Live, Too Young (or ornery) To Die
    (adapted from The Eagles’ "James Dean" [from their 1974 On the Border album]; this 
    highlighted link is the first in a cluster of many more Eagles videos if that suits your tastes)
                   
                                     Reviews by Ken Burke
                
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                
                                               Woman in Gold (Simon Curtis)

Another “based on true events” story, this one about Maria Altmann, an Austrian refugee from the Nazis who much later works with a lawyer through various courts to recover paintings stolen from her family home during WW II, especially the portrait of her aunt Adele which Austria claimed was left to the country in Adele’s will despite evidence to the contrary.

What Happens: I’ll give you the plot summary in chronological order because the film’s structure constantly moves from the present of roughly 2000-2006 back to Vienna of the early 20th century, then during Nazi occupation in the WW II era.  So, we begin with the prosperous Vienna Bloch-Bauer family where little Maria (played by Tatiana Maslany)—born in 1916—lives a very comfortable life with her sister, her parents, Gustav (Allan Corduner) and Therese (Nina Kunzendorf), and her mother’s sister, Adele (Antje Traue), married to Gustav’s brother Ferdinand (Henry Goodman); great names from all of Viennese society and the arts frequented their luxurious home, including the painter Gustav Klimt who made a striking portrait of Adele in 1907, ornamented with his characteristic lavish use of gold leaf (he’s probably best known for The Kiss, painted 1908-09)Adele died young in 1925, asking her husband in her will to donate their 5 Klimt paintings to Austria’s Österreichische Galare Belvedere (the National Gallery, located at the Belvedere palaces in Vienna; The Kiss is there).  As a young woman, Maria married Fredrick “Fritz” Altmann in 1937, but with German annexation of Austria in 1938 and immediate repression of Jews, including Maria’s family, she and Fritz escaped to the U.S. while the family’s Klimt paintings (and other valuables) were first seized by the invaders, then retrieved by the Austrian government taking possession of them as indicated by Adele’s will.  However, by the end of the 20th century Austria and other European countries were establishing Restoration Committees to explore returning stolen property to its rightful owners so Maria (now played by Helen Mirren), at her sister’s funeral in Los Angeles, approaches a family friend about her lawyer son, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds)—grandson of the famous Expressionist/proto-Modernist composer, Arnold Schoenberg—helping Maria recover the beloved portrait of her aunt.  He reluctantly agrees, but they get no cooperation from the Austrians, who regarding the work as a national treasure (with clear implications that there’s still plenty of hidden anti-Semitism at play, just as there had been back in the 1930s when scores of the Block-Bauer’s neighbors welcomed Hitler’s murderous hoards into their country).
 
 Through some clandestine help, though, they find evidence that the will is invalid because the paintings actually belonged to Ferdinand, who died in 1945 leaving the Klimts to Maria and her sister; however, challenging the government means going to court, where the filing fee is extraordinary because of the estimated value of the artworks.  Randol then finds a loophole that allows Maria to sue Austria in U.S. courts, verified in 2001 by an L.A. federal court, upheld in 2004 by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Still, Schoenberg knew that court expenses, legal delays, and Maria’s age would work against a lawsuit (plus, he’d also quit his job at a prestigious firm to follow this quest, so his funds were short as well); instead he got the Austrians (and a reluctant Maria) to agree to a decision by a 3-abritor-panel, which surprisingly found in her favor in January 2006.  As we learn from graphics just before the closing credits, later that year she sold the so-called Woman in Gold to Ronald Lauder for $135 million (the highest price ever for a painting by that time, now at #6 with Paul Gauguin’s 1892 When Will You Marry? going for about $300 million to an unknown buyer in February 2015) who’s kept it on pubic display in NYC’s Neue Galarie; Maria died in 2011.

So What? You have to admit, it’s been awhile since you’ve seen a new narrative about a young Austrian woman named Maria escaping with her husband from Nazi occupation (although the point of departure here is Vienna rather than Mozart's Salzburg), but this story is very different from the movie version of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) as there’s no singing, little humor (except with the older Maria’s crusty attitudes, especially toward Randol in their early going), and a clear sense of post-war-continuation of resentment toward the Austrian elite, both for their war crimes and their continued resistance to the legitimate claims of an elderly Jewish victim of such atrocities more than half a century later.  (Although I must say I’ve visited Austria 3 times and always been impressed with the warmth and generosity of its inhabitants; my only “insult” there came in 2007 when an older woman somehow recognized me as an American and said bluntly “[G.W.] Bush bad!,” but I agreed on the spot.)  While there’s some understandable sympathy toward the nationalistic pride that Maria’s official opponents feel toward their determined desire to retain Adele Bloch-Bauer’s stunning portrait (they refer to it as the “Austrian Mona Lisa”), that quickly fades by comparison to Altmann’s mix of melancholy, anger, and despair when she’s forced to return to Vienna to confront her opponents.  It’s a depressing reality indeed to be reminded once again of the many levels of horror brought about by the Nazi occupation of much of Europe (including Germany) in the late 1930s to mid-1940s; however, this much more personalized story than what was presented in The Monuments Men (George Clooney, 2014; review in our February 14, 2014 posting)—about actual wartime efforts to recover stolen treasures—is given great gravitas by Mirren’s excellent performance, with Reynolds effective as well portraying a determined young man somewhat out of his depth but energized by his own embrace of the better aspects of his heritage once he initially visits Vienna.  Even though you can easily find out all you need to know about the narrative events of this film without even watching it, the legal maneuverings don’t get dense and complicated, allowing the emotional power of how the horrors of the past still haunt a woman innocently robbed of her home and most of her family by the fanatical crimes of madmen.

Bottom Line Final Comments: According to the documentary, The Art of the Heist: The Lady in Gold (3rd link in the recommendations far below for this film), what we see in Woman in Gold is generally accurate in its structure, motivations, and character presentations, although certain elements have been fictionalized for dramatic effect (most notably, Altmann and Schoenberg didn’t go back to Vienna for the arbitration hearing and decision; he simply received the news late one night via a phone call); however, the augmentations don’t intrude upon the essential story, nor does the narrative as presented weigh you down with complex legal information nor an abundance of historical detail (there are only occasional references to specific years within this vast timeline, but the actions occurring are sufficient to clue you in on needed temporal orientations).  The real focus here is on Maria’s struggle for personal justice and keeping her memories alive, which resonated with me much better than it seems to have done with the critical community at large (see those links below to find that the Rotten Tomatoers gave this only 51% positive reviews while the Metacritics were equally harsh with 52%, with the complaints focused on claims of dull exposition even though there was lots of praise for Mirren’s performance).  I admit that there are multiple other sources to learn what happened with Maria Altmann and the famous portrait of her aunt, but by watching this film you’ll still benefit greatly from understanding the ongoing impact that the loss of home, family, and culture can have on a person even so many years later, even with a generally happy (although economically restrained) life after the time of the atrocities had passed.  For my Musical Metaphor to conclude these remarks on Woman in Gold I’ll offer the “Bookends Theme” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5S5V-Y53ad4 (with some added imagery that has nothing to do with the film, just photos intended to evoke memories, but the last shot—of a train—definitely has its own metaphorical connections to this story, both in the trains that various escapees from Germany, Austria, and other European countries used to flee the oncoming marches of the Nazis and the very different trains that took those not so fortunate to the horrendous death camps) from the 1968 Bookends album by Simon and Garfunkel; it’s very short but poignant, evoking the power of both recalling and reclaiming the past, the ongoing thrust of Maria Altmann and Randol Schoenberg‘s quest in Woman in Gold.  (I’ve used this one somewhere before, but for me appropriateness trumps constant alternatives used just for the sake of variety.)
              
                           While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach)

A mid-40s childless NYC couple befriend another couple about half their ages in an attempt to stay relevant, especially as their lives as documentary filmmakers aren’t going much of anywhere, although there are suspicions that the younger guy (also an aspiring doc-er) just wanted to find new connections and financing for his own work so tensions arise all around.
                
What Happens: 44-year-old Josh (Ben Stiller) was once a noted emerging documentary filmmaker but he’s been working on the same unfinished project for about 10 years (something about life, political theory, and every trendy academic concern of the last few decades [I speak from experience here after a long life of college teaching], with a focus on interviewing elderly Ira Mandelstam [played by—an unrecognizable, to me at least—Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary folk-music-fame).  His wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), roughly the same age, seems to function as Josh’s producer when he’s actually working (which isn’t all that often because he’s awaiting grant funding; in the meantime his editor/soundman, Tim [Matthew Maher], is getting desperate for a paycheck); otherwise, I’m not sure what either of them do for the income needed to support their comfortable Brooklyn lifestyle (in which they convince themselves they’re satisfied even though Josh’s clearly hitting a creative wall and they both are being pressured to join the “baby cult” [Cornelia’s had 2 miscarriages, doesn’t want to try again] by friends such as Marina [Maria Dizzia] and Fletcher [Adam Horovitz, another musician I didn’t recognize—from the Beastie Boys—but this time it’s because I don’t know their music much at all], such a fanatical father that he has their new child’s sonogram tattooed on his left bicep).  One small source of income for Josh is teaching an adult-ed-class on documentary film, where one night he has auditors, young marrieds Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), with Jamie an aspiring documentarian (she makes organic designer ice cream), so a friendship develops; Josh and Cornelia are impressed that these hipsters have retro-tech-tastes for vinyl, typewriters, and VCRs, so they become closer, with Cornelia attempting to keep up with Darby at a hip-hop-dance-class, Josh (sounds like “Yosh” when Jamie says it) getting a trendy hat and reinvigoration for backing (his scenes with potential financier Hedge Fund Dave [Ryan Serhant] are hilarious as the younger guy just can’t conceive of what Josh is attempting to accomplish with his doc; I’ll also note that Serhant is the nephew of long-time Two Guys contributor Richard Parker [I assume; rj says that Ryan is “my younger brother’s son”], who, since his 2006 college graduation, has accomplished a lot as both an actor and a real-estate-broker [you can read his IMDb bio and a review of While We’re Young with a focus on Serhant's role]), then both of them joining the young(er)sters for a cleansing ceremony where you drink a concoction that helps you both hallucinate and vomit up your demons (seems to work quite well for everyone there).

 Jamie finally goes contemporary by joining Facebook to promote his emerging doc about random events (I must admit, I finally overcame my resistance to FB about a year ago in order to promote this blog, which has helped increase readership—especially outside the U.S., with lots of Russian readers recently [odd, in that I have very few FB friends offshore]), leading to a reconnection with an old-high-school-friend, Kent (Brady Corbet), so our foursome heads off to Poughkeepsie to interview him, whereupon they find he was in Afghanistan, opposed the war but still got a Purple Heart for heroic battlefield deeds (I'm proud to say that my Dad did the same in the Philippines way back in WW II), and has considered suicide so all of a sudden this serendipitous encounter is pushing Jamie’s film into intriguing territory, encouraging Josh and Cornelia to introduce him to her famous doc-maker-father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), who’s receptive to the youngest man’s work but still feels that Josh’s current 6 ½ hr. cut contains too much unnecessarily-boring-material, setting Josh off on another one of his tirades against his father-in-law (who, admittedly, despite encouragement and support for Josh, is disappointed that his son-in-law hasn’t yet reached his potential).  As events unfold, Cornelia starts feeling alienated from Josh but attracted to Jamie while Darby’s edging away from Jamie, finding him to be too manipulative, revealing to Josh that their upstate “discovery” was actually her old friend and that they knew all about his life but set up the FB “connection” as a way to make Jamie’s film more dramatic while encouraging Josh and his connections into the needed financing.  It all culminates when Josh, Cornelia, and Jamie attend a lifetime-achievement-dinner for Leslie, with the 2 younger men arguing in private about authenticity vs. functionality, leading to Josh “unmasking” Jamie to Leslie, only to have the honored-authority-figure not be upset by Josh’s revelations because he doesn’t feel that they undercut the impact of Jamie’s subject matter as it unfolds on-screen (there’s also the question of Josh’s hair-trigger-ego here, as he admits he wanted a protégé, not a competitor, especially a more-successful-one).  By a year later, Jamie’s film is a hit at Sundance while Josh and Cornelia have adopted a baby but are appalled one day at a playground when they see another toddler make a cell-phone-call.

So What? Writer-director Baumbach’s done some very intriguing films in his relatively-young-life (born 1969, a year before I finished my undergrad education so I’m a generation ahead of him just as he’s a generation ahead of Jamie and Darby, possibly putting into the characters of Josh and Cornelia concerns that might be very real for him—although he’s managed to establish a notable career in independent filmmaking so far that well exceeds anything Josh’s accomplished; even his debut success doesn’t seem to be generating much in the way of royalties, in that Jamie watched it [for free, I assume] on the Internet—although that’s a bit out of character because he and Darby usually distain such contemporary “brain-rot” options, yet he does adjust to the financial reality of doing his filming with a tiny digital camera rather than the old- (and expensive-) school apparatus of 16mm [regarding the comments about my own aborted career in 16mm noted in the paragraph just below, I must thank haughty professor Ron Policy for keeping me from that eternal-money-drain of a career path, especially given that I seem to think only in still images of paintings and photos, not in the motion world of cinema which I enjoy watching and writing about rather than trying to even conceive of making, even at the scripting stage), with my favorites being The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007), and Francis Ha (2012; review in our May 30, 2012 posting—although I had a few problems with the final impact of that one as well).  Once again, he’s managed in While We’re Young to craft an intriguing concept that blends intra- and inter-generational conflicts; a debate on how much the presence of truth matters in the realm of art (with Leslie’s concerns about documentaries “revealing the world” but without Josh’s tendency to overthink and overload his work—hmm, sounds like a film critic I’ve seen in the mirror a lot); and a mediation on the value of personal sincerity (Josh overplans in his quest for authenticity but it’s pushing Cornelia away; Jamie takes whatever he can—including the works of others, which he feels are for sharing; we’ll see if he still feels that way when others begin to “borrow” from him—but his own type of controlling nature is alienating Darby as well), but despite the value of these individual aspects the whole package feels a little forced, as if Baumbach’s in Fellini/Bergman/Allen self-reflection mode without quite crafting a film that stands alone enough for others to successfully learn from/meditate on rather than it just being about what’s troubling this accomplished cinematic artist in recent years.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Closer than I’d like to admit to a half-century-ago, I was a beginning grad student thinking that I’d like to make a transition from painting to filmmaking, but first I had to get at least a B in a Super-8mm production class to advance into the hallowed (and beyond my resources if I’d been thinking clearly) world of 16mm.  Only 1 of my projects had a partial degree of success, with the others being mundane overall and 1 dismissed by the instructor as “constructing a freight train to carry a teacup’s worth of message” (it was a response to a breakup with a long-time girlfriend so I filled it with various genital-innuendoes and an angry-yet-sob-story-soundtrack; in retrospect I agree with the evaluation and thank the gods that this chunk of drivel no longer exists).  Consequently, I’ll have to say that, despite the humor in the generational-clash-early-scenes of While We’re Young, which Ben Stiller (and, let’s not forget, Ryan Serhant) mine for fabulous comic effect, I think the overall film stumbles into that same “freight train-teacup” problem in that the intent really seems to be about a question of ethics in terms of how a documentary’s content must be stumbled onto for it to manifest proper authenticity (Josh’s position) vs. using “whatever means necessary” to get your work before the public in hopes of enhancing/maintaining your career (Jamie’s attitude, with no sense of irony for a change).  It’s an intriguing philosophical point, but hardly one that needs the high-budget-construct of a feature-film-release, especially one where the implied results are that subterfuge in the name of art fits in the modern world just as succumbing to the mores of your actual age group will bring happiness (and I’m still not sure what Josh and Cornelia are doing to support themselves, let alone their new child).  Maybe Baumbach is just going for under-appreciated-satire (mostly by me; check the links far below to see 85% positive from Rotten Tomatoes, 76% from Metacritic) rather than ponderous thoughts on life and art or maybe I just saw way too much of Woody Allen’s similar-yet-superior Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989; now there’s a film that would finally get a full 5 stars from me if I’d ever start reviewing older releases) in it, but to me While We’re Young was using a lot of effective-culture-clash-humor to set up a conflict of ethical perspectives that just didn’t mesh well enough to generate the best holistic on-screen-experience (or maybe I’m just having my own culture-clash with the work of filmmakers and reviewers who’re generally not of my Baby Boomer generation).

 With that last consideration in mind, I’ll pull my Musical Metaphor for While We’re Young from a Boomer who’s never stopped reinventing himself, Bob Dylan, with “Forever Young” (from the 1974 Planet Waves album) performed by him and The Band (as part of the latter’s farewell concert [Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976; San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom] as recorded in The Last Waltz [Martin Scorsese, 1978]) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtFEzhaNrT4; or if that song’s message sounds too idealistically-optimistic about our pre-middle-aged-years, here’s another take on the (sometimes-misguided) exuberance of youth, again from Dylan, “My Back Pages” (from the 1964 Another Side of Bob Dylan album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tx_hm7brW8M, the original recording but if you’d like another take on it here’s a version with the verses sung by Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dylan, and George Harrison (from the 1992 30th Anniversary of Dylan’s public career at NYC’s Madison Square Garden) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_PAEPEiy6o—I’ve also used this before somewhere (my archives aren’t that detailed), yet it seemed a natural companion piece to the Dylan/Band video that began this massive detour away from whatever Baumbach’s actual intentions were in his film.
             
                                     Furious 7 (James Wan)
               
The Fast and Furious “family” of race-car-based-daredevils returns again, not so much saving others from cold-hearted-villains (except as collateral damage) but trying to save themselves from an ultra-deadly-avenger out to kill them all in retaliation for their actions in the previous installment; a mundane plot but full of special effects and thrilling confrontations galore.
                  
What Happens: As a response to the events of Fast & Furious 6 (Justin Lin, 2013)—but with the action of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (Lin, 2006) interspersed (or so says a detailed summary, if you’re interested in more than I’m going to offer here; I wouldn’t know because this is only my 2nd exposure to the series, having seen Fast Five [Lin, 2011] out of curiosity as a fan of Dwayne Johnson [with the added pleasure in this new one of seeing him perform one of his signature wrestling moves, the Rock Bottom, from his WWE days as The Rock, on ultra-villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)])—we meet the vicious elder Shaw (a stealth-special-forces-soldier—in killing ability if not actual superpowers—“engineered” by Great Britain but now in a rogue-state-of-mind) at a London security-hospital where he singlehandedly disposes of everyone guarding his seriously-injured-comatose-younger-brother, Owen (Luke Evans), then sets out to avenge himself on the Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) “family” (which does include 1 sibling relationship [Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster)], 1 in-law [Mia’s husband, Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker)] and 1 other marriage which long-time-fans would know better than either me or the amnesiac character herself [Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriquez)], married to Dom but not aware of it for most of this movie), beginning with U.S. Diplomatic Security Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) who ends up stuck in a hospital for most of the movie.  In the meantime, the Toretto group endures an astounding motorized battle along the twisting highway through the Caucasus Mountains in Azerbaijan (cars—dropped from an airplane!—trucks, a heavily-armed-bus) to rescue a gifted hacker, Megan Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who’s created a God’s Eye espionage computer program that can tap into every device on Earth to track anyone; attempts to retrieve Megan's device in Abu Dhabi (where Dom drives a car from 1 of the 3 Etihad Towers through its neighbor, then into the final skyscraper from dozens of stories above ground); and finally a faceoff through the streets of L.A. with Shaw plus a terrorist group led by Mose Lakande (Djimon Hounsou), who briefly commanded the God’s Eye until all of the baddies except Shaw are dead (he somehow survived a good chunk of a concrete parking lot falling on him, so he’s now housed in maximum security until another sequel may come along).  At the end, there’s a touching farewell to Brian who simply leaves the “family” activities for a safer life with his wife and 2 kids (but it’s really a final tribute to Walker who died—in a brutal car crash, but as part of his civilian life during a break in filming).

So What? Well, to me, not much, except for highly respecting the production values of this complicated extreme-action/special-effects-enterprise.  In a way this series reminds me of the constraints that confront the scriptwriters (!) of professional wrestling (it’s that Rock connection again) where a very limited set of options (an increasingly-declining use of actual holds; a lot of body-busting-finishing-moves that often are the same action going by different names—Dallas Page’s Diamond Cutter, Steve Austin’s Stone Cold Stunner, Randy Orton’s RKO; the introduction of metal chairs and other illegal weapons, the use of which are often unseen by the referee; outside interference from a manager/bodyguard/partner/sibling, etc.) have to be constantly rearranged for the ongoing drama of these entertainment formats to perpetuate themselves with exaggeration of known quantities being about all that the creators can turn to.  So just as wrestlers now sometimes endure falls from precipitous heights or get slammed onto cars (with Hobbs suffering a combination of these tropes in the near-opening scenes of Furious 7), Dom and his crew are pushed further to the limits in situations that basically revolve around fast cars maneuvering through unlikely terrain, said cars becoming airborne (in 3 major scenes of this movie), and hand-to-hand-battles displaying variations on martial-arts-or-street-fighting skills (another thing you’d find in WWE matches; maybe when Vin’s tired of driving around so much Dwayne’ll introduce him to Vince McMahon).  However, the most difficult challenge for the Furious filmmakers this time was keeping the storyline moving after Walker met his untimely demise while principal cinematography was still active, forcing the special effects folks to use his 2 brothers as body doubles matched up with CGI “face implants” of Paul, along with older footage and voice recordings to keep his character alive in the story rather than just suddenly killing him off (as they seemingly did with Rodriquez in Fast & Furious [Lin, 2009], although she was back with memory loss in Fast & Furious 6, which she just as suddenly overcame at the end of the current Furious 7 when she feared that Dom was dead after his bruising battle with Shaw).  Here’s a short news segment that shows how many of the "keep-Walker-alive"-effects were created; I’m not that aware of him from the previous episodes, so I’ll admit that the special-effects-team fooled me as to when he was actually on screen, although his limited actions and lines in those final scenes did feel a bit odd for such a major character in the series, but there’s only so much you can do to revive the spirit of the deceased without turning this into a zombie movie.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Even though the plot is structured to simply overwhelm the audience with stunning stunts (the airdrop of the 5 “family” vehicles; Brian teetering on a bus about to go over a cliff; Dom intentionally driving a car over another cliff; the Abu Dhabi buildings leap; the collapse of the parking garage out from under Shaw after fair-weather-friend-Jakande riddles the concrete surrounding him with the helicopter’s armaments; Hobbs taking down that helicopter with a hand-held-machinegun, firing from the street) that combine the finest in cinematography and computer-generated-imagery, the whole thing just looked like a product-reel for a combined martial-arts/CGI-factory, requiring a level of suspended-belief that would take you airborne high enough to drop some more cars.  Still, if all you’re looking for is well-crafted-escapist-entertainment, Furious 7 delivers that in admirable fashion, with an actively-appropriate-viewer-response ($252.5 million domestically, over $800 million worldwide in less than 2 weeks of release, pushing the entire franchise to $3.18 billion worldwide as of this writing), possibly to see how the series creators can continue topping their previous extravagances, possibly to see how the whole thing holds together with Walker as a part-human, part-CGI experience himself.  As for a Musical Metaphor to honor the heritage of this most successful series (as does this current movie, with a good number of flashback shots and Dom retrieving his magnificent hotrod from the earlier movies for the final showdown with Shaw; it’s quite a muscle machine, but I know as little about cars as I do about previous F&F movies so just know that it looks like a killer ride—at least until Dom and Shaw intentionally smash head-on), I’ll turn to a version of the Beach Boys’ “Shut Down” (from the Surfin’ U.S.A. and Little Deuce Coupe albums, both 1963) with some appropriate race-car-imagery added for those car-fanatics among you at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nll2r0h8rRE; however, if you’d prefer just the band, here they are, either in their original configuration back in 1964 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsDjAc54A4M or doing their car-medley (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down,” “I Get Around”) as part of the 2012 50th anniversary concert tour at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNtGEKNhlC4 (what I saw in Berkeley was fabulous, no matter their ages).  By the time you read this Furious 7 will likely have soared to even-greater -ox-office-status, but if you’re a fan of this type of thing I’m sure you’ve seen it at least once already while if you’re not I think you can get all that you need from watching the trailer, which well captures the pace of this “furious” assault on your eyes and nerves.  With that, I’ll drive off into the sunset myself until it’s time for my next posting.
             
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
              
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepageIf you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!
               
Here’s some more information about Woman in Gold:

http://womaningoldmovie.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geJeX6iIlO0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ifi3FMtF8uQ (Art of the Heist: The Lady in Gold, 57:00 documentary on the theft of the famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of the fictionalization of this event in Woman in Gold, including interviews with Maria Altmann—sorry that what seems to be the original wide-screen-format has been squeezed into the old 4x3 video format for this posting; directed by Nigel Janes, 2007)

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/woman_in_gold/?search=woman%20in%20gol

http://www.metacritic.com/movie/woman-in-gold

Here’s some more information about While We’re Young:

http://while-were-young.com/splash/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v726Dufa3IU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Qip9FvdOBM (1:15 anatomy of a scene with director Noah Baumback that involves actors Ben Stiller and Adam Driver) 

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/while_were_young/?search=while%20we

http://www.metacritic.com/movie/while-were-young

Here’s some more information about Furious 7:

http://www.furious7.com/trailer (this is the official site link, not just for the trailer)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yISKeT6sDOg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWu1bv4dN2s (40:15 interview with the Furious 7 main cast—well, the hero “family,” not the villains—and director Justin Lin)

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/furious_7/?search=furious

http://www.metacritic.com/movie/furious-7

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.