Catching Up With The Films of 2017: American Made (dir by Doug Liman)


Oh, Tom Cruise.

You magnificent and problematic bastard.

Tom Cruise has become so associated with Scientology and all of its creepy excesses that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s always been a pretty good actor and he’s actually getting better with age.  In the Mission Impossible films, he’s proven that he can be a better James Bond than Daniel Craig.  In Edge of Tomorrow, he and Emily Blunt brought real depth to what could have just been another generic action film.  Even as bad as The Mummy may have been, the film failed because of a bad script and bad direction.  Tom Cruise’s performance was actually one of the few things in that movie that did work.

And then there’s American Made.

Directed by Edge of Tomorrow‘s Doug Liman, American Made is supposedly based on a true story.  At least as portrayed in this film, Barry Seal was an airline pilot who, in the late 70s, was recruited by the CIA to fly over Central America and take pictures of communist rebels.  An adrenaline junkie who had grown bored with his day job, Barry quickly agreed and even got a thrill out of the rebels shooting at him as he flew over.  Barry was then recruited by the Medellin Cartel and soon, he was flying drugs into the United States while still working for the CIA.  While the President was declaring war on drugs, Barry was attending secret meetings at the White House.  The CIA set Barry up with his own airport in Mena, Arkansas, where he both trained anti-communist guerillas and arranged for the importation of cocaine into the United States.  This went on until both the CIA and the Colombians decided that Barry knew too much and was expendable.

It’s a pretty wild story and, at the very least, some of it is true.  It is generally acknowledged that Barry Seal worked for both the CIA and the Medellin Cartel and that the little town of Mena, Arkansas was, briefly, the very unlikely center of America’s drug trade.  The film places most of the blame on Ronald Reagan and the Bushes.  Of course, if you ask any of the older folks in Arkansas, they’ll tell you that Bill Clinton not only knew about the cocaine coming in to Mena but that he also snorted at least half of it up his nose.  Director Doug Liman, himsef, has said that American Made was inspired by the life of Barry Seal but that its shouldn’t necessarily be considered a biopic.

Despite a few scenes where the film tries a bit too hard to duplicate the style of American Hustle, American Made is an entertaining film.  That’s largely due to Tom Cruise’s performance as Barry.  Cruise plays Barry Seal as man who, no matter what the situation, always managed to have a good time and, watching American Made, you can’t help but suspect that Tom Cruise was having an equally good time playing him.  Cruise is at his most relaxed and charismatic in American Made, even managing to deliver his lines in a passable Southern accent.  (The rest of the cast is less successful, too often sounding quasi-Texan even though they’re playing Arkansans.)  Even after his whole operation has fallen apart and Barry knows that his days are numbered, you get the feeling that he wouldn’t change a thing.  He just seems like he’s happy to have had the experience.

(For me, Cruise’s best moment comes after Barry crashes his airplane in a suburban neighborhood.  Stepping out the wreckage, covered in cocaine, Barry steals a kid’s bike and says, “You didn’t see me!” before triumphantly riding off.  It’s potentially cartoonish but Cruise sells the scene and makes it work.  I was sad to discover, while researching this review, that this apparently didn’t actually happen.)

I liked American Made.  It never quite becomes the savage critique of American foreign policy that it appears to want to be but it’s still an entertaining film and a reminder that, weird religious beliefs aside, Tom Cruise is actually a pretty good actor.

Film Review: Ex Machina (2015, dir. Alex Garland)


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I know this was already reviewed by Leon last year. I watched it for the first time this March. It has bothered me ever since, so I decided to purge it from my system by writing my own review of the film. Can you tell I didn’t really like it?

The movie opens up and we meet our main character Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He just won the “Staff Lottery”.

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Whatever gets him out of having to program a search algorithm in C++ is a good thing. C++ is not the most fun language to program in, which is why I assume he switches to using Python later on in the film. If you think that’s going to lead to Caleb asking the robot about non-computable functions such as The Halting Problem, then you’re going to be very disappointed. These are functions that to a computer cannot be evaluated to obtain their result. That means there are problems that cannot be solved by machine intelligence. This of course leads to a debate about what exactly does natural intelligence have that machine intelligence doesn’t, and what does that say about whether a machine has consciousness. All things that will not be brought up. These are things I learned in a course I took before a basic ground level Computer Science course. A remedial CS course. Caleb not knowing these things is like making a movie about racing when the main character, who is a mechanic, can’t change a tire.

Now we are off to where Oscar Isaac’s character lives.

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I know his name is Nathan, but I just kept referring to him as Beard while watching the film. When Caleb shows up to enter his place I had to pause the movie.

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I love watching movies on the iPad with the Amazon Prime app because it not only tells you the characters, but it also drops in trivia about the current scene. This is how I know that this takes place at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Alstad, Valldal, Norway. Beard has a pretty nice place. It comes with it’s own Kubrickian hallways…

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The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

and Oldboy (2003) prison rooms.

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Oldboy (2003, dir. Chan-wook Park)

Oldboy (2003, dir. Chan-wook Park)

Beard gives Caleb a key that will only open rooms and let him use devices that he is allowed to use. It’s kind of like a computer game. In fact, that’s how you could describe the whole movie in a nutshell. It’s a game composed of cutscenes with the robot and Beard, except you don’t get to run around in between, and there are no dialog trees.

After showing Caleb into his room, he tells him he needs to sign an Non-Disclosure Agreement. Again, I had to pause the movie here cause I was taking care of my dog while a new ceiling fan was being put in.

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Okay, if you say so, then Beard saying his home is his research facility is a reference to It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Now we get the Ex Machina definition of what a Turing Test is that isn’t what a Turing Test actually is. Caleb says:

“I know what the Turing Test is. It’s when a human interacts with a computer. And if the human doesn’t know they’re interacting with a computer, the test is passed”

Actually, the Turing Test is when you have a “Human interrogator” that is separated by a barrier with an isolated interface that let’s the interrogator interact with two sources that are both separated from each other and the interface. One source is a human being who has never met the interrogator. The other source is a machine that is being tested. If the interrogator cannot distinguish the two sources from each other than robot has passed the test.

Such a test is never really performed in this film unless you think that the point when Caleb cuts himself, he believes he might be a robot because he thinks he is indistinguishable from the robot. It’s not the same, but it may have been stuck in there to allude to that. Regardless, it means that it would be literally impossible for the Turing Test to even be performed since it would require three humans (a source, an interrogator, and someone setting up the experiment), and there are only two humans at Beard’s home. Here’s a nice diagram from the Second Edition of Introduction to Artificial Intelligence by Philip C. Jackson Jr.

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It doesn’t really prove that the computer has “artificial intelligence” either, but that a human being can’t tell the difference. That simply means it can pass for human in this controlled environment. That’s of course why the film will unceremoniously toss it aside in favor of a setup that will allow for a lot of engagement between actors that is done face-to-face.

Thus begins the “test”.

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We see Beard’s office first which is covered with post-it notes. I haven’t seen that since I think either the remake of Oldboy or that episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 where Brandon covered a professor’s office with them. Caleb also sees foreshadowing about previous robots who got a little cabin fever when he enters the interrogation room.

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Yes, that is glass. Does he turn right around and walk out because he has obviously been lied to about taking part in a Turing Test? Nope. We just meet Ava played by Alicia Vikander.

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I have to admit that I feel a little sorry for her. She really was cast in some terrible movies in 2015. You have this movie of course. You have her in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. where she is just there to make a reference to Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (1959) by standing in a fountain while the male leads all but start making out. She was in The Danish Girl (2015) that will have more people asking children about their genitals since it makes being transgender all about bottom surgery. I loved how it didn’t tell you she had a uterus transplant at the end. Probably because leaving it in would mean the movie is actually equating having babies with identifying oneself as a woman like people think Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) did. Then she was also in Burnt (2015), but I’ll be damned if I could find her in it while watching it.

No, I’m not kidding about The Danish Girl having that effect. People ask transgender children all the time about whether they plan to have surgery when they get older and that movie doesn’t help. Neither do other things, but I refuse to review that movie right now.

After some initial pleasantries, he asks how she learned to speak. She says she “always knew how to speak.” She also says she thinks she is clever since “language is something that people acquire” but she can apparently do it out of the box. He responds about language being inborn in the human mind, and that it is only attachment of words to this built-in stuff that allows us to speak. You could say it’s an explanation for why everyone gets a free language. This confuses Ava, but I’m more confused why rebooting Tomb Raider in 2018 with her as Lara Croft is a thing that’s happening. This is also a conversation of foreshadowing because we will get an explanation later that, surprise, surprise, shows again that Caleb really doesn’t know about Computer Science.

Now you’d think they would leave the Turing Test thing behind here, but no. They feel the need to rub their nose in it some more.

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He says that “if I hid Ava from you, so you just heard her voice, she would pass for human.” Maybe, except the Turing Test uses terminals, not voices, since that really wouldn’t be a test of human intelligence, but speech synthesis. Take for example talking to Siri or a similar intelligent agent. The very fact that it speaks instantly makes people start to think of it as human. That’s an example of Weak AI rather than Strong AI, which is what Ava is supposed to be. They’ll bring up Strong AI later, but will conveniently leave out Weak AI because it would open up holes in the film.

He wants to show him Ava, then see if he feels she has consciousness. What he is actually saying is whether he has effectively recreated superficial aspects of a humanoid robot with a reasonably passable intelligent agent controlling those parts. That’s not even close to the same thing. That would be like saying you have proven somebody actually works for immigration because illegal immigrants run when they see someone in pressed pants, a white shirt, and holding a clipboard enter a factory. You’ve simply proven that you can make something that can socially engineer a person. This is why the separation factor is so important to not have in a movie like this that can’t have its ending if it doesn’t ignore these things.

I don’t know why he couldn’t just say that he already had some people test her in a proper Turing Test, but now he wants him to do what he is asking him rather than just claiming that of course she would pass. Oh, well.

Since this movie isn’t very well written, they now have Caleb spout some jargon about her language abilities. Beard quickly shuts this down by saying he isn’t going to explain how she works. By that, he means until later when he decides to do just that in order to remind us of a real world event that happened a few years ago. The power soon goes out after this too for the purposes of foreshadowing that somebody is doing it, and it changes where and what Caleb is able to do with his keycard.

Caleb is now woken up by some speechless Asian lady robot.

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That makes two female robots. There must be a male one around here somewhere, right? Of course not. This would lead any reasonable person to wonder if he is building a brothel for straight men. The actual reason the movie tries to subtly slip in is that part of them being human is sexuality and gender. I’m assuming that means he has to test to make sure their vaginas work, and since they are both straight, then the robots must be women. Nope, still comes across like he is building a brothel.

Now Beard and Caleb have another conversation about how to test her. He basically breaks out more jargon, which Beard says isn’t important because too much thinking gets in the way of the drama and building of tension. Seriously, before it cuts to the image below, he says: “How does she feel about you?”

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It starts off with Ava showing him a picture, but they already want to turn the tables and have Ava ask Caleb questions as if we really are interested in him. But first we find out that Caleb works for Beard’s own version of Google. Then the funniest thing in the movie happens.

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He says that he is an advanced programmer. Sure, Caleb. Sure, and the majority of people knew what a race condition was when they started up Steve Jobs (2015).

Ava goes on to brag about how Beard wrote the code for not-Google when he was 13. She then asks him if he likes Mozart to which he responds that he likes Depeche Mode. What are you trying to say here, Garland? Maybe that people are people? Doesn’t matter because she doesn’t want to listen. She has other priorities like setting up the ending. The movie actually has very little to with robots. It’s about a woman who is imprisoned and uses the dumbest guy she can find to manipulate in order to get out. That’s the real movie in a nutshell. You won’t be asking yourself interesting questions here. It’s all kind of sleight of hand with what appears to be intelligent writing. Then the power goes out again and she takes credit for it before trying to drive a wedge between Caleb and Beard.

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Then the power comes back online.

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I have an idea. Ask her if on a hot summer night would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses. It’s totally random. No matter what she says, you respond that you bet she says that to all the boys. See how she responds. Of course not. This game has you on strict rails and doesn’t give you a dialog tree.

Blah, blah, blah. Now Beard says he is going to show Caleb where he created Ava even though he said he wasn’t going to tell him how she works earlier because it would ruin the test. Remember that they have established that Caleb is an advanced programmer, and at least as a degree in Computer Science. Beard asks him if he knows how he got her to “read and duplicate facial expressions.” That’s easy, you simply get a lot of training data and use it train something like a neural network or some other statistical model. Basic stuff for someone with a Computer Science degree that people use and interact with everyday in the form of a spam filter.

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Moving onward, Beard reminds us of that incident a few years back when it was discovered that Apple was using people’s iPhones to do war driving in order to improve their location services. In Beard’s specific case, he simple turned on the camera and microphone on cellphones to get a bunch of data and used it to train whatever he is using. He says the search engine itself, but that doesn’t make sense unless you want to say that his Google can search by image and sound bite, thus allowing for him to build a language of sorts between the collected data and the meanings humans assign them. That actually is probably what they were going for given the explanation of language earlier. It still doesn’t explain why they just had Caleb throw up his hands to say he has no idea how it was done.

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Next we find out that writer/director Alex Garland is probably a fan of Quantum Leap. I say that because that is Ava’s brain, which Beard refers to as wetware. What that means is that it should be a combination of physical aspects of the human brain interconnected with mechanical parts to create an artificial intelligence. This is what Ziggy on the show Quantum Leap has as its’ “brain”. That’s why they refer to her as a hybrid computer, and as having aspects of Sam in her since the brain cells are his. We also find out that the software running on it is his version of Google’s search engine.

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After showing Caleb another picture, she decides to manipulate him more by putting on hair and clothes. I had to pause the movie again here.

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In other words, they told her to just walk rather than walk while swinging her hips. I’m not sure why that was a thing they bothered with honestly. Without that bit of trivia popping up it would have just come across as someone who was shy rather than someone who was starting to conform to the gender forced upon them by form and/or programming.

Now we get Caleb explaining that AI doesn’t need a gender, so that they can get into a conversation that amounts to explaining how things such as neural networks work by using sexual preference as an analogy. A neural network is a graph formed of vertices and lines that is based on the way the human brain works. The vertices have some sort of function that acts on the inputs that are sent into it in order to spit out a value either as a final result or as inputs to other vertices. The lines have a weight that is assigned to them, which is then multiplied by the value being sent along it in order to create the value that enters the vertex it connects to. Here is a very simply example of a neural network taken from AI Application Programming by M. Tim Jones.

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What this all means is that using certain techniques such as backwards propagation, you can send information through such a network that in turn adjusts the weights in order to change the way it will operate by changing what it will output. In the context of his explanation, it means that if you pass a bunch of black girls through your brain, and you respond in a certain way, then your brain’s own neural network adjusts to having an attraction to them, or developing a dislike of them sexually. It also depends on the structure of said brain initially and how it is formed during your early years. To go back to the mathematical example, it would mean how many vertices you have, how they are linked, and the functions at each vertex.

Caleb doesn’t seem to understand because he isn’t very good at Computer Science. Beard takes Caleb into a room with a Jackson Pollock painting.

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He tries to explain what Automatic Art is to Caleb. It sounds like he is referencing Fuzzy Logic to me, which is when instead of using simple true and false, or 0 and 1, you make decisions based on everything in between 0 and 1. It’s not a fixed algorithmic if this then that, but something more human.

Then Beard references Star Trek by telling Caleb to “Engage intellect”. I’m still thinking he is making a brothel, so I’ll go with Mudd’s Women as the episode of the original series he is referencing. Amazon Prime says it’s a reference to the episode Requiem for Methuselah. I also think of The Measure of a Man from Star Trek: TNG where Data’s designation of being sentient or property is put on trial.

Beard now asks him to reverse the challenge of doing something not partially deliberate and partially unconscious. He asks Caleb what would happen if Pollock didn’t make a single mark if he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. Caleb says that he wouldn’t have made a single mark. In other words, he is describing the difference between how humans operate with fuzzy logic instead of with a strict rule system. I have a feeling that somebody told Alex Garland about how they tried things like theorem-proving software and knowledge systems in AI before Strong AI research collapsed and we switched to research into Weak AI. Weak AI being what we have been enjoying at an ever-growing rate since the 1980s in the form of speech recognition, image identification, and even programs that can write new songs in the style of Bob Dylan. Those things operate on probabilities, which when attached to incoming examples such as speech, images, and lyrics written by Bob Dylan will spit out another probability that is used to make a decision while also creating something that will make the kind of decisions you want based on the samples you gave it. Thus, it isn’t a strict rule, but something in between structure of the model and the current state of the probabilities in that model being used to generate the result. The Bob Dylan example would be feeding his lyrics into a chain that builds a series of probabilities between words so that if you picked a starting word, then it would generate the rest of the words based on the actual lyrics Bob Dylan wrote. You can do this with music as well. They are called Markov Chains/Hidden Markov Models in both cases.

This is all stuff to make you think that the more information you give to Google, then if the model is built correctly, all that data created by human beings will train that model to operate as a human does by becoming predictive of correct human behavior. Unfortunately, that’s not Strong AI. It’s simply Weak AI used on a large scale that impresses us the way a shiny object does a small child.

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Then Caleb comes right out and tells Ava he took a semester in AI. Yeah, sure you did Caleb. I took one and a half of them at Cal. Trust me when I say that if Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) is the worst English major in recent film, then Caleb is the worst Computer Science major in recent movies.

Why does he say this? He says it because the movie wants to get arty by showing black and white shots. No really, there is no other reason. Caleb brings up a famous thought experiment about a person living in a black and white room who has perfect knowledge of color without having ever stepped out of that room. That would mean that the person in question would have never experienced color. However, Caleb screws this up by saying:

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Hmmm…you mean like the colors in the image I just posted that would show up on a black and white monitor, Caleb? He breaks the thought experiment simply so the film can show shots like that. He says that it gives her experience, which perfect knowledge about something doesn’t give you. That difference between pure knowledge and how something makes you feel is supposed to be the difference between human and machine intelligence according to Caleb. That’s why she mentions that she wants to go to a busy intersection if she is ever allowed to leave at a point in the movie. Of course the movie realizes that it needs to move the plot along instead of getting too smart so Ava messes with the power again to try and guilt Caleb some more. Boring.

Time for another session with Beard for Caleb. Nothing really happens here of consequence. Then more artsy shots and Beard banging the Asian lady robot. This is followed by Asian lady and Beard disco dancing to Oliver Cheatham’s Get Down It’s Saturday Night. I’m guessing Alex Garland also played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City since it’s on that soundtrack for the Fever 105 station hosted by Oliver “Ladykiller” Biscuit. It’s also there so that Lisa could have a scene from this movie to include as a dance scene that she loves.

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Unfortunately, Caleb doesn’t want to cool off on Saturday night, or any other night right now. He’s pissed off because the movie can’t really decide whether it wants to be smart about the technical stuff, or whether it wants to focus on that other boring prison break plot.

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There’s numerous questions that are batted back and forth here, but the only one that was important to me is that according to Ava she has an off switch like Data.

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So, why do they fight her before the Ms. 45 (1981) backstabbing ending when they could have simply turned her off? No matter. The conversations with her in this movie really aren’t the actual sessions. The sessions are with Beard. It’s time for Beard to think that Strong AI is right around the corner, and misunderstand what the singularity means.

I love how Beard makes sure to mention that the bodies are kept around after he builds the next model. He does this not for any in-movie reason, but for the horror factor of a bunch of bodies and so that Ava has a place to get skin later in the movie.

Beard brings up the singularity now and he seems to be confusing it for Terminator 2 (1991). The singularity is not when robots take over and replace us. The singularity is a point at which progress begins to outstrip our ability to fully comprehend the changes it creates till we essentially can do whatever we want. It’s like the Krell in Forbidden Planet (1956). Another example would be The Ancients in Stargate SG-1 who shed their material form and ascended into the freedom of pure energy. Not exactly something you whip out the Oppenheimer quote about being the destroyer of worlds when discussing. It’s an evolution, but not at the expense of the existence of humans. However, at this point the film is on autopilot towards its very unsatisfying conclusion, so who cares.

With Beard knocked out from drinking, Caleb decides to write a prime number generator.

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He is supposedly working to free Ava, but he will not use that prime number generator to keep the power system busy like they did in Real Genius (1985). Also, why the comments? It’s almost as funny as in Blackhat (2015) when they didn’t seem to know that comments disappear when you compile code, which means they wouldn’t be present when you decompile something like a virus.

More boring stuff that has very little to do with anything, but looks semi-impressive and atmosphere maintaining if you haven’t already given up on the film like I had long before this point.

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Ava is sitting in a corner to further guilt Caleb along with saying some more stuff and shutting off the power again.

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Good session.

Caleb and Beard talk some more before Ava finally breaks out from her prison. Beard is killed in the process.

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She locks Caleb up and gets away. I was honestly hoping that it would turn out Caleb was a robot, but they made sure to shoot that down by having him cut open his arm at one point. Then they juxtapose that with scenes later in the movie of the actual robots pulling off their skin.

I am part of a social network called Letterboxd. It isn’t a place where I write proper reviews. That’s what this site is for where I can really think about it, and include screenshots. I believe they are crucial. That’s why I use that network for initial gut reactions to what I watch. I try not to bring that over here, but really step through the film. This film isn’t as bad as I thought it was initially. I’m still not a fan though. The film boils down to somebody trying to socially engineer two people in order to make a prison break while we get pseudo-intellectual stabs at real tech stuff while not bothering to maintain consistency throughout the film. It’s not awful as I thought during and after watching it the first time, but it hardly deserves the ridiculous amount positive critical attention it has been getting since its’ release in 2015.

My ultimate conclusion is this: Watch Sneakers (1992), Real Genius (1985), and WarGames (1983) instead. Also, if this movie sparked an interest in AI for you, then run with it, because it is a fascinating subject that is not done justice by this film. My actual semester at Cal in AI was amazing. I had already read several books on the subject prior to taking the class, and it still was some of the most fun I had while at UC Berkeley.

Side notes: The reason for the race condition at the beginning of Steve Jobs is because a race condition is when two or more things try to operate on the same thing that causes unwanted results. Since the film uses Jobs’ brain as a metaphor for end-to-end control, a race condition is a perfect bug that doesn’t jive with what Jobs wants to achieve.

It is interesting that the film has exactly seven sessions with Ava since a byte is comprised of 8 bits. It makes one wonder whether Garland wants you to think it was cut short, there was a zeroth session prior to the official session since computers begin counting at zero, the 8th session is what happens at the very end, or that the missing session that would make it a byte represents that she is truly human and not really a computer anymore. Just something I thought I would pass on.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2015: The Revenant (dir by Alejandro G Inarritu)


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Before I continue to catch up with reviewing the films of 2015 by taking a look at The Revenant, I want to ask a question and I request that you give this some serious thought.  Is Jeff Wells just a troll or is he seriously a moron?  Or maybe he’s both, that’s another possibility.  For those of you who stay out of the darker parts of the internet, Jeff Wells is a film blogger who thinks that, because he voted for Obama, he’s earned the right to regularly use his column to disparage women.  (Wells is the one who publicly complained that the lead of Diary of a Teenage Girl wasn’t, in his eyes, fuckable enough to be a compelling 15 year-old protagonist.)  Jeff Wells tweeted the following about The Revenant:

And Jeff Wells hasn’t been alone in claiming that only men can truly appreciate The Revenant.  On Overland, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has an excellent post about this line of male critical thought.  Now, speaking for myself, I liked The Revenant a lot more than Heller-Nicholas apparently did.  But, at the same time, she hits the nail on the head when it comes to this idea that The Revenant is a film so intense and so full of agony that only men could possibly enjoy it.  Much like her, I felt as if “critics” like Jeff Wells and Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers were personally challenging me, as a woman, to actually sit through The Revenant without running from the theater in disgust or hiding my eyes in terror.

And, quite frankly, that’s bullshit.  Yes, The Revenant is intense and yes, I did have a bit of a hard time watching that bear maul Leonardo DiCaprio but, at the same time, how would Jeff Wells or Peter Travers handle being mauled by a bear?  For that matter, how would either one of them handle being in a high-speed chase or being shot at?  Would either one of them be able to outrun an explosion or do any of the other stuff that regularly happens in films that supposedly only appeal to men?

(For that matter, how would Jeff Wells or Peter Travers handle monthly menstrual cramps or giving birth or anything else that women have to deal with in the real world?  I imagine they’d probably end up begging the bear to finish them off.)

And really, the whole point of The Revenant is that most human beings (regardless of gender) would not have survived being mauled by a bear or being buried alive or spending months exposed to the harsh wilderness or having pieces of their body start to decay.  These are all things that happen to hunter Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) over the course of The Revenant and the film suggests that the only reason he survives is because he’s driven by a desire for revenge.  When Glass’s fellow hunter, the gruff Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), decided to abandon Glass, he also murdered Glass’s son, Hawk.  Still immobilized by his wounds, Glass could only watch as Hawk was brutally killed.

(Interestingly enough, Fitzgerald is like Glass in that he has also survived a terrible injury.  Fitzgerald regularly wears a skullcap to hide the fact that he was scalped in the past.  In many ways, Fitzgerald is almost a shadow of Glass.  Glass has his son to remind him of what it means to be human but Fitzgerald has no one.  And after Hawk is murdered, neither does Glass.)

Though the film focused on Glass’s struggle to survive until he could again track down the men who abandoned him, I have to admit that my main concern was with the character of Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).  Bridger, after all, agreed to stay behind with Glass and Fitzgerald and to make sure that Glass received a proper burial after succumbing to his wounds.  Bridger was not present when Fitzgeralnd killed Hawk and buried Glass alive and expressed remorse after being falsely told that Glass was dead.  Still, The Revenant is a revenge flick and, as I watched, I found myself wondering if Glass would forgive Bridger or if he would take vengeance even on someone who was merely misguided.  (If you’ve ever seen a 70s revenge flick, you know that even sincere remorse is usually not enough to avoid being punished.)  Since the film continually asks whether or not Glass can survive without sacrificing his humanity, how he handles Bridger is one of the most important scenes in the film.

The Revenant opens with an absolutely terrifying sequence in which a group of hunters is slaughtered by a Native American tribe and it maintains that intensity through the entire film.  DiCaprio, Hardy, and Poulter all give excellent performances and special mention should also be made of Domhnall Gleeson, who plays the upright but ineffectual leader of the hunting party and for whom 2015 was a helluva year.  (Along with appearing in The Revenant, Gleeson also appeared in Brooklyn, Ex Machina, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. )  It’s not always an easy film to watch (though, for me, the close-up of a wound oozing puss was a lot more unsettling than that bear mauling Glass) and there’s a few scenes where director Alejandro Inarritu gives in to his more pretentious tendencies but, for the most part, The Revenant is never less than watchable.

The Revenant is currently an Oscar front-runner.  Last night, it beat the highly hyped Spotlight at the Golden Globes.  Personally, as good as the film is, I think there are a lot of films that deserve a best picture nomination more than The Revenant.  It’s been a great year for film, after all.  That said, I do think The Revenant is definitely an improvement on Inarritu’s previous Oscar winner, Birdman.

The Revenant is an intense and harrowing film that can be seen and appreciated (or, for that matter, disliked) by anyone.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently!

The Central Ohio Film Critics Have Announced Their Nominations!


Here are the Central Ohio Film Critics Nominations!

Best Film

-The Big Short
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
-The Revenant
-Room
Sicario
-Spotlight
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Best Director

-Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
-Todd Haynes, Carol
-Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
-George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
-Ridley Scott, The Martian
-Denis Villeneuve, Sicario

Best Actor

-Matt Damon, The Martian
-Johnny Depp, Black Mass
-Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
-Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
-Jacob Tremblay, Room

Best Actress

-Cate Blanchett, Carol
-Brie Larson, Room
-Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
-Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
-Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Supporting Actor

-Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
-Tom Hardy, The Revenant
-Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina
-Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
-Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress

-Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
-Rooney Mara, Carol
-Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
-Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
-Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Ensemble

-The Big Short
Ex Machina
-The Hateful Eight
-Spotlight
Steve Jobs

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)

-Cate Blanchett (Carol, Cinderella, and Truth)
-Michael Fassbender (Macbeth, Slow West, and Steve Jobs)
-Domhnall Gleeson (Brooklyn, Ex Machina, The Revenant, and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens)
-Tom Hardy (Child 44, Legend, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Revenant)
-Alicia Vikander (Burnt, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son, and Testament of Youth)

Breakthrough Film Artist

-Sean Baker, Tangerine – (for producing, directing, screenwriting, film editing, cinematography, camera operation, and casting)
-Joel Edgerton, The Gift – (for producing, directing, and screenwriting)
-David Robert Mitchell, It Follows – (for producing, directing, and screenwriting)
-Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – (for acting)
-Jacob Tremblay, Room – (for acting)
-Alicia Vikander, Burnt, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son, and Testament of Youth – (for acting)

Best Cinematography

-Roger Deakins, Sicario
-Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
-Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight
-John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road
-Dariusz Wolski, The Martian

Best Film Editing

-Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
-Tom McArdle, Spotlight
-Stephen Mirrione, The Revenant
-Margaret Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road
-Joe Walker, Sicario

Best Adapted Screenplay

-Emma Donoghue, Room
-Drew Goddard, The Martian
-Nick Hornby, Brooklyn
-Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, The Big Short
-Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs

Best Original Screenplay

-Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, Inside Out
-Alex Garland, Ex Machina
-Taylor Sheridan, Sicario
-Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
-Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight

Best Score

-Carter Burwell, Carol
-Michael Giacchino, Inside Out
-Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario
-Junkie XL, Mad Max: Fury Road
-Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight

Best Documentary

-Amy
-Best of Enemies
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
-The Look of Silence
-The Wolfpack

Best Foreign Language Film

-The Assassin (Nie yin niang)
-Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, ich sech)
-Phoenix
-The Tribe (Plemya)
-Timbuktu
-Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)

Best Animated Film

-Anomalisa
-The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
-The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

Best Overlooked Film

-The End of the Tour
The Gift
-Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
-Mistress America
-Slow West
-The Tribe (Plemya)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. by J.J. Abrams) Is the Sequel the Fandom Has Been Waiting For


Star Wars - The Force Awakens

[some minor, very minor spoilers]

When I first began this site on Christmas Eve of 2009 I had to thank the excitement I had for event films after seeing and experiencing James Cameron’s Avatar. It was an experience I hadn’t felt since the days of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, even earlier than that, the original Star Wars trilogy. These were films that fired up one’s imagination, appreciation and love for film as entertainment and art. Some of these films would linger on longer in one’s mind than others, but that first viewing in their initial release would always imprint their effect on each viewer.

When George Lucas announced that he would be returning to that galaxy, far, far away with a trilogy of prequels almost 15 years since the world last saw Return of the Jedi premiere first the first time, the Star Wars fandom were giddy, excited and hyped beyond belief. The Star Wars films and the many spin-offs (novels, comic books, video games, etc.) which came about because of it only whetted the appetites of long-time Star Wars fans for more films detailing the adventures in the scifi universe created by George Lucas.

Yet, the prequels’ effect on these long-time fans would be the direct opposite of the effect the original trilogy had on the fandom. These three prequels (all directed and written by George Lucas himself) would do more than disappoint the fandom. It would create a schism between those who saw the original trilogy as the gateway to their fandom and those younger generation who never saw the original trilogy and had the prequels become their gateway to the fandom. Even to this day there would be some of the younger generation who truly believe that the prequels trump the original three films which began the franchise.

When news came down that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and everything which George Lucas had built and cultivated there was no chance in hell that there wouldn’t be another series of Star Wars despite the disaster which were the prequels. Lo and behold, it didn’t take long for Disney to greenlight the sequel to Return of the Jedi and have it set decades after the events of that film.

So, it is with Star Wars: The Force Awakens that the Star Wars fandom get to see whether their continued faith in the franchise was worth it or if they have been Charlie Brown’d once again and had the ball taken away at the very last second. It’s easy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great or it was awful. The true answer to whether this film succeeded in what it intended do was a bit more complicated.

Yet, if one was to look for an easy and simple answer then I’m happy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great. It had it’s moments of logic gap and plot holes, but as an overall finished product the film succeeded in course-correcting the franchise from the nadir it was at with the culmination of the prequels. It wouldn’t have taken much to surpass the very low bar set by those prequels, but The Force Awakens leapfrogged that bar and went even higher.

The film does begin thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and we find out with the now familiar episode intro crawl that Luke Skywalker has disappeared since those events and the galaxy has remained in turmoil with his absence. The Galactic Empire has been defeated, but in its place a new danger in the form of the genocidal First Order has arisen from the Empire’s remains. Opposing the First Order is a sort of galactic force supported in secret by the New Republic and led by General (not Princess) Leia Organa calling themselves the Resistance. It’s the conflict between these two factions and the search for Luke that forms the narrative base for The Force Awakens.

The film doesn’t linger too long in explaining the events which occurred in that 30-year gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. It doesn’t need it as we’re quickly introduced to the series’ new characters in the form of Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the galaxy, who has been sent on a secret mission by Leia to find the clues as to her brother’s whereabouts. Next in line was Kylo Ren who becomes this film’s analogue to the Darth Vader figure of the original trilogy. Yet, the bulk of the film was told through the eyes of Finn and Rey.  The former is First Order stormtrooper who has seen first-hand what the First Order truly stands for and not for the betterment of the galaxy. The latter is a young woman living life on the desert planet Jakku scavenging the graveyard of starship wreckage from a battle thirty year’s prior.

It’s through Rey and Finn that the audience learns through their adventures upon meeting up with each other on Jakku what has transpired since the Rebellion destroyed the second Death Star and killed Emperor Palpatine. To these two characters, the events from the original trilogy seem to have passed beyond the realm of history and become more like legends and myths to the younger generation. Through a combination of fear and awe, Ren and Finn get introduced to some of the original trilogies main characters (Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and even Admiral Ackbar). These are the stories they’ve been told of growing up come to life right in front of their eyes and their reaction mirrors those of the audience who haven’t seen these characters in anything new and relevant since the end of Return of the Jedi. The reaction alone to seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca alone seemed like the fandom’s collective cheer for the good that has been missing with the franchise for over 30 years now.

The Force Awakens is not a perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Like mentioned earlier, the film does suffer from some gaps in story logic and plot holes. As with most J.J. Abrams directed films he had a hand in writing the script and one could see where he sacrificed coherent storytelling beats for something that just pushed the story along the path he wanted the film to take. For those who have been steeped in Star Wars lore and backstory, this would be easily explained as the Force nudging, guiding and, if all else fails, pushing the characters onto the right path, but for the casual viewers it would come off as story beats of convenience.

As a story to bring back the faithful and lure in those still uninitiated to the franchise The Force Awakens straddles the line between nostalgia and trying to bring in something new to the proceedings.

Let’s begin with the former and just say it now that The Force Awakens does follow some major story beats directly from A New Hope (to a smaller effect from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). One could almost say that this film was a sort of soft reboot of the original trilogy with how it lifted ideas from them and through some writing and directing recombination come up with something new, but still very familiar for hardcore and non-fans alike.

Does this decision to lean heavily on the original trilogy for ideas hurt the film? For some it might be a bit too distracting to recognize too many callbacks to those earlier films, but for most it’s a reminder of what the prequels lacked and that’s the sense of adventure and fun. There was never anything fun about the prequels. The Force Awakens brings it all back and for most viewers this is the course-correction the series has needed since the last images from Revenge of the Sith faded away from the silver-screen.

Even the new characters introduced in this latest film were an amalgamation of the main characters from the original trilogy. Where Abrams and Kasdan changed this up a bit was to go beyond just creating new analogues for the classic characters of Leia, Han, Luke, Chewie and R2D2. They opted to take all the qualities fans loved about those characters and mixed them all up to be used in the roles of Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and BB8.

As the standout character in the film, Rey (played by find of the year Daisy Ridley) would bring back memories of not just the young and hopeful Luke from the original trilogy, but also some personal traits of Leia and Han. The same goes for Finn who at times reminded us of Han’s roguish charm to Luke’s naivete of his role in the larger world he has finally witnessed for the very first time. For the half-empty crowd this might look as lazy character development, but those who see the film with the half-full mindset would easily latch onto these new characters. Characters who now take on the responsibility of moving the franchise beyond the nostalgia of the original trilogy and erasure of the disappointment of the prequels to new adventures with the next two films.

So, is Star Wars: The Force Awakens worth returning back to the franchise after the prequels or is it too much of a rehash of the original three films? The answer to that is a definite yes despite some of it’s flaws. For some the very flaws some have pointed out (too many callbacks, sort of a reboot, etc.) was what made the film a fun time to be had. It’s a return to the comfort zone the fandom missed with the prequels.

Will the next two films in this new trilogy follow suit and just rely too much on nostalgia to continue trying to satisfy it’s massive audience? Or will Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (director of Episode VIII and Episode IX, respectively) move into new territory with minimal callbacks to those earlier films? We as an audience will have to wait til 2017 and 2019 to find out. Until then enjoy what Abrams and Lucasfilm has accomplished with The Force Awakens. A film which has reinvigorated a film franchise that has seem some major lows, but one which also happens to be one hell of a fun ride from start to finish on it’s own merits.

P.S.: Some controversy has arisen since the film’s release concerning the character played by Daisy Ridley. Some have been very vocal about calling her Rey character as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the accusation that the Star Wars films have lacked for a strong female lead. An argument that’s as misguided and misinformed as that of the films being whitewashed. The films in the franchise have always had strong female characters. The accusation that Rey as a character in The Force Awakens is such a “Mary Sue” (a female character written and created to be the best at everything, no flaws) ignore the details in the character’s development.

What’s sadder is that some of the very people (film critics and writers) who in the past have complained that major films (especially blockbusters) have been lacking in very strong female characters have been the very same who see Rey as a negative and a character too good. This despite the character following in the very same footsteps in how her predecessors have been written (Luke, Han, Anakin). It’s an argument that is sure to bring heated debate among fans and detractors, but one that takes away from the performance of Daisy Ridley who should be one of the many breakout stars to come out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Film Review: Brooklyn (dir by John Crowley)


Brooklyn_FilmPoster

OH MY GOD, HAVE YOU SEEN BROOKLYN YET!?

If I seem a little bit excited, that’s because I am.  I’ve been excited about seeing Brooklyn ever since it was first acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.  I was excited before I watched the film, I was excited while I watched it, and now I’m excited about the prospect of you seeing it.

The thing is, it’s a little bit hard to explain just what makes Brooklyn such a wonderful film.  I will admit that, in my case, it probably helps that it’s a deliriously romantic (yet realistic) portrait of a young woman who immigrates from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950s.  Since I’m an incurable romantic of Irish descent, I suppose it was somewhat predestined that I would love Brooklyn.  But, ultimately, you don’t have to be Irish to love Brooklyn.  The story that Brooklyn tells is a universal one.

When we first meet Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), she is a quiet and meek girl living in a small Irish town.  She spends her weekends working in a shop owned by the spiteful Ms. Kelly (Brid Brennan) and looks up to her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott).  It is Rose who contacts Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) in Brooklyn and who arranges, with him, for Eilis to come to America.

After a nightmarish crossing that is marked by a Hellish case of seasickness, Eilis finds herself in Brooklyn and living in a boarding house, under the watchful and protective eye of Miss Kehoe (Julie Walters).  At first, Eilis is homesick and struggles to adjust to her new surroundings.  It’s only after Father Flood arranges for Eilis to take a night class in bookkeeping that Eilis starts to discover her confidence.  (Somewhat poignantly, Rose is also a bookkeeper.  Even separated by an ocean, Eilis is still trying to impress her big sister.)

Eventually, Eilis meets and starts to date a sweet-natured plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen).  Now, in the past, I’ve actually been pretty critical of Emory Cohen as an actor.  On twitter, I made some unkind comments about the performance that he gave in the TV series Smash.  (He played Debra Messing’s son.)  Though I didn’t make a point of mentioning it in my review, I also thought he was the weakest link in the otherwise excellent ensemble of The Place Beyond The Pines.  So, when I first heard that he gave an excellent performance in Brooklyn, I was a little bit skeptical.  But then I saw the movie and believe it or not, Emory Cohen gives an excellent performance.  As Tony, he is sweet and tough and funny and truly the ideal boyfriend.  He also flashes the sweetest smile imaginable, which is one thing that he was not allowed to do in either Smash or The Place Beyond The Pines.

Brooklyn handles Eilis and Tony’s relationship with a commendable honesty.  This is a wonderfully romantic movie but, at the same time, it retains a realistic edge.  As characters, Eilis and Tony are never idealized.  When Tony tells Eilis that he loves her, we’re just as torn as she is because we’ve gotten to know both of them.  We know that Tony is a good man but we also know and understand Eilis’s struggle to establish a life and an identity of her own in America.  We know how important her independence is to her and it’s equally important to us.

As a result of unforseen circumstances, Eilis eventually finds herself returning to Ireland.  Though Eilis insists that she’s only going to stay for a few months, she soon finds herself torn.  Should she return to her old home, where she is now viewed as being a bit of a glamorous celebrity and is romantically pursued by the handsome and charming Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson)?  Or should she go back to Brooklyn, to Tony and an unpredictable future?

Brooklyn is a deceptively low-key film.  Eilis changes from being a shy and insecure girl to being a strong and confident woman so gradually that both she and the viewer are initially taken by surprise when the new Eilis emerges from her shell.  This is a film that both demands and rewards your patience.  At the same time, it’s also a film about universal desires and experiences to which we can all relate.  At some point in our life and in some way, we have all been Eilis Lacey.

Saoirse Ronan — oh my God, what can I say about Saoirse Ronan?  How can I possibly describe what a wonderful performance she gives?  Ever since she first came to the public’s attention in Atonement, Saoirse Ronan has been one of the best and most underrated actresses around.  In Brooklyn, she gives her best performance yet.  She deserved an Oscar for Hanna and she’ll hopefully win one for Brooklyn.

(Incidentally, Brooklyn was written by Nick Hornby, who also wrote another one of my favorite films, An Education.  Hopefully, Brooklyn will do for Saoirse Ronan what An Education did for Carey Mulligan.)

See Brooklyn and see it soon!

Japanese Trailer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens Even Better


StarWarsVII

Just a couple weeks ago saw the release of the first and last official trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was teasers before that one. The official trailer was suppose to keep the Star Wars fandom sated until December 18 (or earlier for those willing to brave the early advance screenings before midnight). It pushed all the right buttons to keep the fandom happy and wanting more.

Out of the blue, this morning saw Disney release without any fanfare a new trailer but one cut and edited for the Japanese market. It’s a trailer that includes scenes and images already seen in the previous official trailer and two earlier teasers, but also happened to include newer scenes (that still doesn’t spoil what the film will be all about) involving BB-8, Kylo Ren and more Princess Leia and Chewie.

So, it would seem that when Disney said that the trailer released a couple weeks ago would be the one and only trailer for the film it would seem they meant it would be the only domestic trailer. Sneaky, sneaky there Disney.

Plus, I rather prefer the Japanese trailer. Once again proves the Japanese gets the cool things.