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Do robot children dream of android sheep?
In his debut feature film director Kike Maillo went out on a limb when he chose to make a film set in Spain in the not-so-distant- future about the moral dilemmas of artificial intelligence. Spanish sci-fi? Sounds risky but why not? We're getting a new robot-themed film each month now: Chappie, Big Hero 6, Ex-Machina, Age of Ultron, Elysium to name a few of the most recent. So why not a Spanish robot film for a change?
The world "Eva" is set in is indeed intriguing. It is set in an idyllic alpine village so perfect it looks like we're peering inside a souvenir snow globe. People drive around in 1970's SAABs, wear wool sweaters, unwind in pubs with cozy fireplaces and go ice skating every afternoon. The only signs that you are in the future is that there are robots everywhere politely and discretely doing secretarial and house cleaning jobs. There are no drones, no self- driving cars, and no robo-cops (Spain should be optimistic of its future apparently). Robots are either doing menial labor, or, apparently, have been geared towards emotional gratification and the companionship of their creators.
Our protagonist, Alex (Daniel Brühl) is a robotics software developer who is hired to go after the holy grail of robotics: building a prototype of a robot child that is both realistic (that is, spontaneous) as well as safe (that is, predictable). The strength of this film is to show reconciling these two is impossible, and that the essence of being human is precisely that we cannot be both. The secret sauce that makes us human, capable of spontaneity and charm, turns out to be also what makes us irrational, impetuous and dangerous.
After masterfully setting up the premise of the film, the actual execution of the plot starts to falter. The protagonist is supposed to be a genius cybernetic engineer, but his character is mostly a drag and a bore to watch. You start wishing that his robot cat had more screen time. The story also hinges on a love triangle that feels contrived and inane. The robot butler is considerably more entertaining and I ended up wishing he somehow played a bigger part in the plot. The core of the story revolves around how Alex tries to model the emotional life of the android child on his niece (fantastically played by Claudia Vega) and it is these interactions that anchor the film and give it substance. The best scenes deal with the "Turing tests" that Bruno develops, trying to tell apart real child from robot child. The last half hour of the film has some twists which ultimately make the entire film seem better than it felt it was while watching. Still, it is not easy to forgive the director for wasting so much time on love triangle sub-plots and creating hollow characters. The film gets seven stars for its elegant cinematography and its smartly framed premise, but doesn't break much new ground.
A nagy füzet (2013)
An Intimate, Brutal Portrayal of Childhood During War
In one of the most remarkable scenes of 'The Notebook', twin 12 year old brothers methodically, coldly trade punches. Each swings at the other, and then stands still, face expressionless, as he receives a slew of punches back. Gradually the punches are harder, and eventually they start using belts to ratchet up then pain threshold. They are children but this is no game: they are toughening up, physically and psychologically, to survive the war. They have realized that cuddling together and wishing the war away will not save them, and they better be prepared for hunger, pain, betrayal and daily humiliations. And survive they do, although they decide that in order to do so they must blackmail priests, steal from corpses, bully their grandmother and plant explosives in someone's kitchen.
The director competently handles deep staging and the use of long lens, very apt for the emotional distance the story takes with regards to the acts it depicts. The film works in large part because of the performance of László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt, real life twins, who give a stupendously restrained, controlled performances, often consisting solely of intense stares and vengeful glances. Color is mostly bleached out, music is sparse and some of the best moments consist of static, unnervingly long shots.
The film is set in a small village straddling the Austro-Hungarian border during world war two. But it is not particularly interested in providing context of the war, or of Hungary's terrible plight in it, or in Nazism or in any other details of the historical setting. So don't expect to learn much about world war 2 in this film as it is merely the backdrop to a story that is really about survival and what happens to children's moral compass during war.
Hungarian films are their own sub-genre. Perhaps no other country has produced such consistently bleak films, soaked in pessimism and mostly focused on moral corruption and confusion. This small gem of a film is yet another example of this cinematic tradition. This is not quite at the level of masterpieces such as 'Come and See'or 'Time of the Drunken Horses', my two favorite films about childhood during wartime, but absolutely deserves to be seen, or, to be more precise, endured.
The Green Prince (2014)
Riveting documentary on a Real Life Story that is Stranger than Fiction
This documentary has one of those life-is-stranger-than-fiction premises. The son of one of the founders of the terrorist Hamas organization was successfully turned into an informant for the Israeli secret services, the Shin Bet. The story of Hassan Yousef would have remained one of the best guarded secrets of Israeli history had he not voluntarily exposed himself as a mole while living in the US after retiring as an Israeli asset. The story that gradually unfolds throughout the Green Prince is full of unexpected twists and intense political intrigue and family drama that one day needs to be turned into a full length feature film. But for now, we have this very competent documentary. Much of the film is a protracted interview with the Hasan with little camera movement, and simple lighting. This may sound like an overlong CNN special report, but the interview has such intensity, and Hassan narrates episodes of his life with such expressiveness and honesty, that the chronicle itself is gripping. It is interspersed with scenes that combine drone, night vision and CCTV like imagery, real news footage and some recreated acted moments, all heightening rather than replacing the narration. The storytelling and editing is tight and economical. Instead of taking a merely journalistic approach, it opts for a character study that slowly unfolds, turning a spy thriller plot into a story of betrayal and redemption that goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What the story does particularly well is show how gradually Hasan distanced himself from his father politically without ever disowning him. He simultaneously undermined him tactically and tried to avoid any threat to his life. At the same time, his "handler" Gonen Ben Yitzhak became a father- like figure. This bonding could be dismissed as no more than a predictable "Stockholm syndrome" denouement but for the fact that it was reciprocated by Gonen, who ultimately must also make a decision between advancing his career and protecting Hassan. The material never feels preachy or sanctimonious and it refuses to turn characters, even the Hamas founders, into cartoonish villains. A truly great documentarian like Werner Herzog or Joshua Oppenheimer might have taken a few more liberties with the material, and perhaps an even more cinematic approach, but this still deserves to be watched. In my case, the story lingered in my mind for many days after I had seen it.
A Flawed Visual Spectacle to Nineteenth Century South America
Historical drama in Latin American cinema has experienced a comeback in recent years (Morelos, 5 de Mayo, The Conquest) with mostly disastrous results, as the ambition of these projects rarely is met with adequate resources or talent. This film is somewhat of an exception. The most expensive South American film made to date, The Liberator cannot be accused of being unambitious. The 50 million dollar production deserves to be seen if for no other reason than to find out how the money was spent. Venezuelan director Albert Arvelo spared no expense in creating spectacular sets that recreate Madrid, Paris, Bogota, and Caracas, among other cities, and in mobilizing armies of extras to re-stage 19th century battles. The result is convincing. The camera-work and cinematography of Xavi Gimenez (The Machinist, Agora) is equally first class, whether it is drone-shot aerial vistas of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada or hand-held following a fleet of canoes over the Orinoco river. The score, by the phenomenally talented Gustavo Dudamel, elevates the visuals and, while mostly conventional, punctuates orchestral lushness with Amerindian instrumentation much like in Moriccone's The Mission.
If only the script were on the same level. Part biopic and part cinematic history lesson, the film ties to capture almost the entirety of Simon Bolivar's life in under two hours. Instead of choosing a slice of the life of one of the most complex historical figures of the nineteenth century, as Spielberg's Lincoln did effectively, Arvelo foolishly tried to rush us through his entire career, from his time as a young landowner, to a dilettante in Paris, to an almost Moses-like figure liberating an entire continent. Such ambition is nearly impossible to pull off, and what we get is a Wikipedia-like biography on celluloid. We follow Bolivar around without ever understanding motives, emotional or political. The narrative devices are equally problematic. Forced, unnatural dialogue is mixed with shots of Bolivar penning letters while we hear unconvincing voice-overs in Spanish, English and French. As the movie progresses, the less time the director has in explaining the historic or personal issues, and mere minutes are spent in political battles that lasted years. During the last half hour, the film opts for slogans, name-calling and unashamed hero worship.
Edgar Ramirez, who was riveting in Assaya's Carlos, plays the title character and doesn't quite know what to do with the role. He has a screen presence, but he cannot do much with a film has little time for character development. Ramirez is most comfortable in the early scenes, as a sorrowful young widower, but the progression from aristocratic landowner to military commander and towering political leader is unconvincing and he becomes increasingly unlikable. The English banker Torkington (the great Danny Huston), is the only other memorable character, but later in the film is turned into a capitalist-cartoon villain that seems like something out of a propagandist's imagination.
Arvelo, the director, confessed in a Variety interview that "screenwriting is quite possibly the weakest element in Latin American filmmaking." How could I disagree? Still, the accomplishments of the film are undeniable. The film is a visual spectacle, best seen in a large screen, and at the very least left me wanting for someone else to try a real character study of Bolivar.