erik lundegaard

Monday August 03, 2015

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)


“Ex Machina” dramatizes a question that has plagued mankind for decades: What should we fear more—artificial intelligence or women?

Alex Garland’s film is actually smart and moody. It pulses and throbs. It’s a mystery. The biggest mystery is less about A.I., or women, than what the Great Man is doing with the kid.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young, mid-level programmer for the search engine Blue Book, which dominates the near-future market the way Google does the present. As the movie opens, he’s informed, via text, that he won first prize in a contest to meet the Great Man, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who founded the company after writing the Blue Book code at the age of 13. “When do we get to his estate?” Caleb shouts at the helicopter pilot as they fly over what looks like Greenland. The pilot chuckles. “We’ve been flying over his estate for the past two hours!” the pilot shouts back. Eventually they land in what looks like primordial green with no building in sight. But that’s as far as the pilot is allowed. No further. The Great Man is Howard Hughes for the digital set.  

Ex Machina posterNathan’s an odd one but shouldn’t he be odder? Say, more spooked by another human presence? He lives alone in this vastness yet comes across as just another asshole CEO. He’s dismissive in greeting (pounding the heavy bag when Caleb first arrives), then regular-guy in conversation (beer talk and “man” endearments).

But we know he’s got a game. Even after he says his game, we know he’s got a different game.

Nathan’s game
He says he brought Caleb there for a Turing test. He’s created a robot in the form of a beautiful woman—named, Biblically, Ava (Alicia Vikander)—and he wants to see if Caleb can tell if she’s a machine. Except, since she’s unfinished, Caleb can see she’s a machine. Initially Caleb is confused by this. Then he’s confused by Ava. Then he begins to fall in love with her. Her big-eyed vulnerability helps. During their talks, the power generator goes out, meaning Nathan can’t monitor the two of them—or so Ava says—and she uses this alone time to tell Caleb not to trust Nathan. So is Ava causing the power to go out to steal these moments with Caleb? To what end? Or is Nathan responsible for the outages so he can better spy on them? Are Ava and Nathan enemies (with Caleb caught in the middle), or are they in cahoots (with Caleb being used)?

Actually, we know Caleb is being used. The question is: In what way is Caleb being used? And is he smart enough to figure it out?

He thinks he’s smart anyway. He’s told he won the contest because his coding is so good, and for a time he believes this. He even deigns to school Nathan. At one point, he says, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” then adds, pedantically: J. Robert Oppenheimer/atom bomb. Nathan in effect shushes him. It also takes Caleb a while to figure out what is obvious to us: that the fourth presence in the house, a silent servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), is also A.I.

Garland’s game
It’s a smart movie, referencing Turing, Wittgenstein, Jackson Pollock. Ava’s A.I. turns out to be a compendium of the world’s online searches—both what we search and how we search—which is also pretty smart. Unfortunately, there’s only so many answers to the main mystery. What is Nathan’s goal? For most of the movie, I assumed Caleb won the contest (which wasn’t a contest) to see if a man could fall in love with a machine. Nope. Nathan wants to see whether the machine can manipulate the man. Which it does. Better than Nathan anticipates.

I like how easily the knife goes into Nathan’s body—like he’s made of butter. I like how indomitable Ava is in spirit yet how vulnerable in form. (Nathan smashes her arm like it’s an old PC; the Terminator she’s not.) I also like the irony of the ending. Nathan tries to kill Ava but she kills him instead. Caleb tries to free Ava and she traps him instead. There’s no morality to it, just survival. She leaves Caleb behind and goes out into the world—Big Data as a small woman. It’s that rare movie that actually calls for a sequel.

It’s also that rare movie that is open to many interpretations. Is it about Big Data, and how our search results will kill us in the end? Is the metaphor Frankenstein? God? Ava, after all, removes her creator, Nathan, from the equation, as Garland removed “Deus” from the title. Me, I kept thinking of old movie moguls. These guys had vast power, and lived on vast estates, where they created beautiful women with which to manipulate the rest of us. “Ex Machina” is steeped in near-future techi-ness, but you could argue it’s really a movie about old Hollywood.

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Posted at 05:33 AM on Aug 03, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Sunday August 02, 2015

'Less Pro-Left than Anti-Bullshit'

Nice graf from David Remnick's too-short farewell to Jon Stewart, who is relinquishing his seat after 16 years on “The Daily Show”:

There was always something a little disingenuous about Stewart's insistence that he is a centrist, free of ideological commitment to anything except truth and sanity. In fact, his politics tend to lean left of center. He's been aggressive toward, and ruthlessly funny about, unsurprising targets from Donald Rumsfeld to Wall Street. His support for L.G.B.T. rights, civil rights, voting rights, and women's rights has always been unambiguous. His critique of Obama is generally that of the somewhat disappointed liberal, particularly on issues like Guantánamo and drones. But Stewart is a centrist only in this sense: he is not so much pro-left as he is anti-bullshit.

A-fucking-men. And could we get some bullshit detectors on some people on the right for a change? We're tired of doing all the work. 

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Posted at 04:07 PM on Aug 02, 2015 in category Quote of the Day
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Box Office: How Big a Star was Tom Cruise Anyway?

Tom Cruise's “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” won the weekend with a $56 million haul, beating the reprise of National Lampoon's “Vacation,” which earned $14.8 million after a Wednesday release. If you count its first two days as well, the reboot still comes in at only $21.7.

“M:I”'s gross is the 10th-best opening of the year, behind, among others, “Pitch Perfect 2,” but it's the third-biggest opening of Cruise's career, behind only “War of the Worlds” ($64.8 in 2005) and “Mission: Impossible II” ($57.8 in 2000). 

Doesn't that seem startling? Tom Cruise has been a box-office champ for so long you expect his numbers to be higher. In the big three categories, in fact, here are the biggest movies of Tom Cruises's career, along with their rank in each category:

  • Domestic: “War of the Worlds” (2005): $234.2 million (110th)
  • Worldwide: “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” (2011): $694.7 million (77th)
  • Domestic (adjusted for inflation): “Top Gun” (1986): $389.9 million (109th)

Each stat is startling in its own way. 

No Tom Cruise movie grossed from than $235 million in the U.S.? And “Ghost Protocol” was his biggest worldwide hit? And even when you adjust for inflation to compensate for Cruise's early years as a movie star, his biggest hit, “Top Gun,” doesn't even rank in the top 100

I thought Cruise was our biggest movie star over the past 30 years but these numbers don't really indicate it. 

So I looked at other numbers—specifically where each movie ranked the year it was released:

Year Movie Dom. Gross Yearly Rank Key moments in career
1981 Taps $35.8 16  <— Stuns in debut
1983 The Outsiders $25.6 28  
1983 Losin' It $1.2 140  
1983 Risky Business $63.5 10 <— Becomes a star
1983 All the Right Moves $17.2 42  
1986 Legend $15.5 56  
1986 Top Gun $179.8 1 <— Becomes a superstar
1986 The Color of Money $52.2 12  
1988 Cocktail $78.2 9  
1988 Rain Man $172.8 1  
1989 Born on the Fourth of July $70.0 17 <— First Oscar nom
1990 Days of Thunder $82.6 13  
1992 Far and Away $58.8 21  
1992 A Few Good Men $141.3 5  
1993 The Firm $158.3 4 <— No. 4 for the year?
1994 Interview with the Vampire $105.2 11  
1996 Mission: Impossible $215.4 3 <— First M:I film
1996 Jerry Maguire $153.9 4  <— Second Oscar nom
1999 Eyes Wide Shut $55.6 42  <— Kubrick
1999 Magnolia $22.4 80  <— Last Oscar nom
2000 Mission: Impossible II $215.4 3  <— First sequel
2001 Vanilla Sky $100.6 20  
2002 Minority Report $132.0 17  
2003 The Last Samurai $111.1 20  
2004 Collateral $101.0 23 <— Villain role
2005 War of the Worlds $234.2 4 <— Couch jumping on “Oprah,” etc.
2006 Mission: Impossible III $134.0 14  
2007 Lions for Lambs $15.0 127  
2008 Valkyrie $83.0 35  
2010 Knight & Day $76.4 45  
2011 Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol $209.3 7 <— Still Cruise's only sequels
2012 Rock of Ages $38.5 84  
2012 Jack Reacher $80.0 38  
2013 Oblivion $89.1 41  
2014 Edge of Tomorrow $100.2 33  

All numbers courtesy of Box Office Mojo.

Now his status makes a little more sense. From “A Few Good Men” in 1992 to “Mission: Impossible III” in 2006, the only Tom Cruise movies that didn't gross $100 million domestically were two serious art films with acclaimed directors. Hell, he even raised a difficult film like the U.S. remake of “Vanilla Sky” to the $100 million mark. He had two No. 1 movies in the 1980s, and top five movies in '92, '93, '96 (two in '96), 2000 and 2005. He kept cruising. 

Most likely, his box office numbers would have gone down as he aged and his fans grew up and had kids of their own, but obviously his 2005 Summer of Weirdness, which included couch jumping on “Oprah,” chastising Matt Lauer for being glib on “Today,” and berating Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants after childbirth, sped up that process. It also probably dinged the b.o. numbers of “War of the Worlds” in 2005, as well as, a year later, “M:I III,” which is the least lucrative of the series by far.

Ever since that summer, Cruise has been crawling his way back, although rather than taking difficult projects he seems resigned to starring in “M:I” movies and smartish sci-fi and/or action flicks that do meh domestic box office. Before “Rogue Nation,” none of his movies this decade opened better than $38 mil—they averaged only $21 mil per opening—so “Rogue” is a nice reprieve for the besmirched, aging Scientologist. But the poster is indicative. Tom Cruise became a superstar by piloting planes and now he's on the outside of them, hanging on for dear life.

Final thought: This will give you an idea how long the man's been around. When “Risky Business” made Tom Cruise a star in the summer of '83, and became the 10th-highest-grossing movie that year, do you know what movie was No. 11? “National Lampoon's Vacation,” starring Chevy Chase. 

 Tom Cruise movies

Cruise: From flying planes to hanging onto them for dear life.

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Posted at 12:29 PM on Aug 02, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday August 01, 2015

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)


If the subtext of the first three “Mission: Impossible” movie is that we need IMF agents like Ethan Hunt to protect us from IMF agents like Jim Phelps, Sean Ambrose and John Musgrave, traitors all (the fourth movie went in a different direction, thankfully), the subtext of the fifth installment, “Rogue Nation,” is that we need IMF agents like Ethan to protect us from MI6 agents. So ... different.

There’s another related subtext, too, with which almost everyone in the movie audience—all the slovenly, popcorn-crunching and cellphone-checking doofuses—can identify: Don’t trust the boss; he’s a major asshole.

But it’s the first subtext that’s most important. Spy agencies in the “M:I” movies have become self-fulfilling prophecies. We need spies to protect us from spies. So we better get more spies.

Talk about job security.

He’s been going in and out of style
Mission: Impossible - Rogue NationIt’s been almost 20 years since Tom Cruise first played Ethan Hunt. Back then, Cruise was 34, married to Nicole Kidman, and beginning to stretch as an actor: “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Magnolia,” “Vanilla Sky,” “The Last Samurai,” “Collateral.” Now he’s 53 and thrice-divorced, the creepy Scientologist and former couch-jumper who’s maintaining his place in the Hollywood power structure by doing nothing but action sequels. Back then we were in a post-Cold War world (whee!) and now we’re post-9/11 (oh). Digital tech was so new in ’96 that Ethan used the nonsensical “Job@Book of Job” as an email address. Now Ethan and his IMF crew use the latest Hollywood tech shortcut: facial recognition technology. (No one can hide anymore! Anywhere!) Back then, the big stunt was Ethan hanging from a zipline in Langley, Va.; now he hangs from the doors of airplanes in flight. Even Jackie Chan looks at that stunt and goes, “Dude, that’s just crazy.”

The team, such as it is, is back. There’s the big black tech dude named Luther (Ving Rhames), who’s been with Ethan since the first movie. There’s the comic-relief Brit named Benji (Simon Pegg), who’s been with him since the third. Then there’s William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the Ethan doppelganger who didn’t betray him, who’s been around since the fourth.

Almost all the other actors get promotions of a sort. Tom Hollander, best known to me as the comically inept Minister for International Development in “In the Loop,” winds up as Britain’s Prime Minister here, while Simon McBurney, the undersecretary in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” is promoted to the head of MI6. Sean Harris is usually the underling creep (“Red Riding”) but now he gets to be the head creep. Nice work! Alec Baldwin? CIA director! Jeremy Renner? A step below CIA director! Rebecca Ferguson? Instead of kinda betraying Hercules but still being on his side in “Hercules,” she kinda betrays Ethan Hunt but is still on his side here. She’s Ilsa Faust, the Love Interest, replacing, I think, Emmanuelle Béart, Thandie Newton, Michelle Monaghan and Paula Patton. Nice work if you can get it.

The movie is getting positive reviews (93% on RT), but we’ve seen it before. Here’s the IMDb description of the first movie:

An American agent, under false suspicion of disloyalty, must discover and expose the real spy without the help of his organization.

And the fourth:

The IMF is shut down when it’s implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin, causing Ethan Hunt and his new team to go rogue to clear their organization’s name.

Mix and match. As the movie opens, IMF is subsumed by the CIA and Hunt is discredited and forced to go rogue to discover the rogue nation of the title, called, somewhat unimaginatively, “The Syndicate.” His team is loyal to him. But is Ilsa? (Yes.) But will his boss back him in the end? (Yes.) But will hers? (No.) Effin’ Brits.

The act you’ve known for all these years
There’s a big missed opportunity here. The Syndicate, an MI6 plan gone awry, is made up of former agents from all over the world (Mossad, BND), and instead of killing to maintain the status quo they now kill to disrupt things. To what end? Not sure. I don’t even know if they know. But it’s fuel for paranoids everywhere. That plane that disappeared over that ocean? That just didn’t happen, dude. The message of the movie is that there are no accidents. Thanks for that, Chris McQuarrie. Just what we need. 

But this is the missed opportunity. At one point, the lines between right and wrong become so blurred that I couldn’t tell for whom Ethan should be fighting, or whether he was actually the good guy. That was pretty cool. Are MI6 and the CIA too corrupt to fight for? Was Ethan risking too much—as he always does—and would Brandt betray him as a result? But then the roller coaster arrives back at the station with everything as it was at the start: Ethan vindicated, IMF restored, sequel set up. Cue theme music.

“Rogue Nation” is a movie with great stunts, great legs (Ferguson, ouch), exotic locales and a nice rendition of “Turandot.” But there’s got to be a more interesting plot somewhere.

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Posted at 07:53 AM on Aug 01, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Friday July 31, 2015

The False Equivalence of Max Brod in the 'Go Set a Watchman' Debate

Last Friday I posted on Facebook what I thought was a rather straightforward Joe Nocera column on the publication of Harper Lee's long-held manuscript, “Go Set a Watchman,” the forerunner to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Nocera goes over the agreed-upon facts, connects the various Murdoch-Empire dots (the book is published by Murdoch's HarperCollins and was defended in Murdoch's Wall Street Journal), and reaches his conclusion (it's all a rather shoddy business). 

Turns out, to some, the issue isn't that straightfoward.

I'm actually shocked by the number of people—writers even—who are pro-“Watchman” publication. One posted the same column and then wrote that what he finds offensive about columns like Nocera's is the notion that we should never make available unfinished or previously unpublished works of an artist. Which isn't Nocera's argument at all. His argument is specific to Lee's case.

But the main point pro-publication folks make is this:

What about Kafka?

Here's the short version of that story.

Franz Kakfa died in 1924 at the age of 40. On his deathbed he told his friend, contemporary and literary executor Max Brod to burn all of his previously unpublished works, which included the novels “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika,” as well as numerous short stories, letters, and diaries, but which did not include “Metamorphisis,” which was published in 1915. Brod didn't do as Kafka wished. For the next decade, Brod published most of Kafka's oeuvre and made him famous; in essence, he made him one of the great writers of the 20th century.

So if Brod hadn't ignored Kafka, no Kafka.

And if Tonja Carter, Lee's current literary executor and guardian, hadn't ignored Lee's lifelong wish to not publish anything after “Mockingbird,” then no ... Well, no “Go Set a Watchman.” A book that is getting mixed reviews and ringing up record sales. 

Here's the difference. Brod preserved Kafka's work because he considered him an artist of the first rank. Carter, et al. are publishing “Watchman” because there's money to be made. 

To put it in modern terms: Kakfa wasn't a brand before Brod; but Lee has been a brand since 1962. And now that Lee is incapacitated, the Powers that Be are monetizing her. That's why it's a shoddy business. There are ethical gray areas for Brod but none for Carter. There, it's all green.

Franz Kafka 

Franz Kafka in 1905. We'll always have “Metamorphisis.” 

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Posted at 06:00 AM on Jul 31, 2015 in category Books
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Thursday July 30, 2015

'Blue Angels, Ugh'

I was biking into the Bellevue office today for a team-building event when I was stopped on the I-90 bridge by the police. Not for speeding (wucka) but because the bridge was closed to pedestrians and bicycles. Cars were still able to cross for another 15 minutes, then they too were banned for a few hours. The Blue Angels were in town and were practicing over Lake Washington. 

This happens every year so I should have anticipated it. 

Alternate routes? Cars can go the 520 bridge, or drive I-5 south to Renton. On a bike, you're kind of screwed. The 520 bridge doesn't allow for bikes and going north or south around the lake takes a good long while. So I missed the event.  

Why don't they let traffic across I-90 during the Angels practice runs? I guess because they don't want drivers being startled and getting into accidents and suing the city and whatnot. As for how this applies to foot and bicycle traffic, I'm not sure. Wouldn't the lack of cars, for example, be a giveaway to anyone crossing the bridge? Couldn't the same police officers that told me I couldn't cross the bridge stop me and tell me to watch out for Blue Angels? Look! Here they come! FOOOOOOOSH! 

When I texted my predicament to Patricia, she texted back the feeling of a lot of Seattlites at this time of year: “Blue Angels, ugh.”

It's very Seattle being Seattle. We have some of the worst traffic in the country, yet several times a year we close down this major thoroughfare in the middle of the day. We also have drawbridges over the ship canal, and we'll raise and lower these on a dime for boats going from Lake Washington to Puget Sound and back, stopping traffic in both directions. Except during rush hour, which we quaintly designate as something like 4:30-6 PM.

First world problems, I know. In some parts of the world, when similar jets scream overhead they drop things.

I did stick around for a bit today; and while everyone else was watching the Blue Angels I took photos of the bridge without any traffic on it. All that concrete.

 Blue Angels stop I-90 traffic again

Bike cops patrol the empty I-90 bridge before letting on foot traffic. 

I-90 bridge during Blue Angels

A view you don't normally get on foot. 

 I-90 bridge during Blue Angels practice

'And here you are; and it's a beautiful day.' 

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Posted at 03:34 PM on Jul 30, 2015 in category Seattle
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Burnishing Cobb ... to a Fault?

Beyond baseball prowess, Ty Cobb is basically known for two things: being 1) a spikes-sharpening SOB who tore up opponents' legs, and 2) a virulent racist. In his bio “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” Charles Leerhsen attempts to burnish Cobb's tarnished image. 

To exonerate him of the former charge, Leerhsen quotes contemporaries who said Cobb was a fighter within the basepaths but not beyond that. He was fierce and feared but a professional. He didn't take cheap shots. And he took as well as he gave. 

Ty Cobb: A Terrible BeautyIt's a little tougher to exonerate him of the latter charge but Leerhsen gives it a go. Cobb was involved in many incidents, many brawls, that could be construed as race-related. Leerhsen argues, though, that either race wasn't a motivating force in the incident or it wasn't present at all. I.e., his combatant wasn't black.  

It's an interesting angle and it would be easier to take if Leerhsen didn't occasionally slip up himself. 

Example. In a game against the Red Sox in 1915, Cobb is facing Carl Mays, who would, of course, infamously kill a batter, Ray Chapman, with an inside pitch in 1920. Apparently there was bad blood between Cobb and Mays, too. Leerhsen writes:

Mays started him with a fastball very near his face. Cobb said nothing. But when the next pitch came just as close, Cobb yelled “Yellow dog!” and flung his bat, which flew over Mays and came down near second base.

Nothing much happens; Mays simply retrieves the bat and hands it to Cobb. Then Leerhsen writes:

With the count now 0–2 ...

I'm like, “Wait a minute. Two pitches near his face, and both strikes? Who's screwing up here: the ump or Leerhsen?”

He also takes cheap shots at Christy Mathewson for no reason I can fathom. 

It's a minor thing. But if I don't have to leave Leerhsen's pages to find his own contradictions, why do I take the rest of it without at least some grains of salt?

Leerhsen does bring to life the lively, helter-skelter style of Cobb's playing and baserunning—what made him what he was. I'm near the end of the book now, and looking forward to seeing if—and if so, how—Leerhsen tears into the 1994 Ron Shelton bio, “Cobb,” and Ken Burns' “Baseball,” both of which, for modern fans, did great harm to Cobb's reputation.

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Posted at 05:53 AM on Jul 30, 2015 in category Books
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Wednesday July 29, 2015

Lancelot Links

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Posted at 08:01 AM on Jul 29, 2015 in category Lancelot Links
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