Thursday, June 11, 2015

DVD(s) of the Week: Frances Ha and Transcendence

I need to do a bit of catching up on some this review stuff, especially the movie of the week, so I thought I'd roll the last couple we've watched together, as they make an interesting comparison. On the one hand, we have Frances Ha, which on the face of I shouldn't like, and the other, Transcendence, which I should. Of course, the opposite turned out to be true, which goes to show you can never judge a film by it's synopsis or trailer. First up, the one I liked.

Frances Ha
A movie shot entirely in Black and White, about the "first world problems" of a 27-year old woman living in New York and her equally directionless friends. Sign me up! Yeah, so on the face of it, this isn't really my sort of thing, and it ended up on the rental pile largely on the strength of good reviews. But, the reviews were right, and my instincts wrong, so what do I know? The secret to the film is, I think, two fold. The first is the engaging and likeable central performance from Greta Gerwig, who pitches Frances so that even at her most annoying you think she more needs a hug than a lecture. The second is that it's actually pretty funny, in a way that many of these formless, rambling comedies aren't so much.

The film captures a period of transition that I guess you could call "growing up" if that didn't make me sound really old. But its a point in Frances life where her current situation - roommate, job, and so on - is thrown up in the air, and everyone seems to be moving on without her, This triggers a sort of existential crisis, as well as stress on the relationship with her best friend, who is suddenly getting serious with her boyfreind and career. In some ways this is a familiar story, and certainly the film has some beats you'll have seen before, but it's witty, and smart, and manages to feel fresh with it. It also doesn't pretend that Frances is always in the right, and allows her to shine through flaws and all.

So this is a small film but a heartfelt one. Structurally a series of vignettes as much as a narrative, built around a succession of places that Frances ends up living, and doesn't really have a plot so much as a sense of emotional journey. Its light, and fun, and well worth the time we spent with it.

And so we come to Transcendence. a movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but really is pretty silly. The directorial debut of Christopher Nolans regular cinematographer Wally Pfister, this wears the Nolan influence on it's sleeve; not just the obvious visual look, but also the attempt to sell an emotional depth to a dry, technophilic story. The setup is this - as we work towards the emergence of true Artifical Intelligences, and anti-AI terror group which for some reason appear to be really effective, attempt to assassinate Johnny Depp's computer genius. As he dies, he is uploaded and "merged" with his proto-AI which they've never been able to make work, only to find that lo! he now exists (in secret) inside the computer.

So the new AI uploads itself to the Internet (because of course you'd let a untested AI do that) and starts to accumulate a secret Super-villian lair out in the desert. Here it manages to iterate nano-technology to a ludicrous degree in next  to time at all, turning former cripples into super-humans that are neuro-linked to the main AI core, and plotting to release nanobots into the planetary ecosystem to upgrade everyone and everything because that will save the world. Meanwhile the US government colludes with the terror group to send a bunch of guys in with guns to shut it all down (rather than say, investigation gross bio-ethics violations) and in the end it turns out that killing the AI will also stop every computer on the planet working.

Um, I have problems with this. First is that there is simply too much going on that the film wants us to consider as serious questions. There is the question about if the new AI has any relation to the dead human - are they the same? What is the nature of sentience? Then you have the "upgrading people and turning them into drones" thing that isn't really addressed but sort of hangs there like a gross violation that the film never talks about. And finally you have the old question of the balance between being able to do a thing, and if you should do that thing, and imposing "good" solutions without consent. All of these are important and interesting themes, but just no in this movie that fails to really address any of them.

Secondly, everyone's motivation is all over the place, and not in a good, I'm-not-sure-what-side-he-is-on sort of way. People do things, but then do different things, and it's never clear why even when it should be. The world it is presenting makes no sense; this AI has a superlair with amazing technology but the rest of the world is this world, tomorrow. It's stated that this anti-AI group has managed to stymie AI research all over the world. Really? For a bunch of folks in a cave thats pretty impressive. And don't get me started on the whole "every computer stops working now" ending. So yeah, Transcendance is rubbish. It should be good, it should be interesting. But it isn't, and that's such a waste.