The Films of 2015: Ex Machina

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a movie for those who like their science fiction clever, stylish, and elegantly constructed.  Revolving as it does around four characters (only three of whom speak) and confined to a single location, it resembles a well-made play tricked out with a few choice special effects.  It stands as a sharper, more intelligent alternative to the loud, bloated sci-fi epics with which it shares space at the multiplex—the thinking person’s summer movie.  


Six Snow Whites

Fairy tales are currently enjoying a revival (not that they ever really went away): last year gave us Into the Woods and Maleficent, this year we have a new Cinderella (unseen by me—yet), and 2013 saw the release of no less than three big-screen adaptations of “Snow White,” two of which I watched this past week.

Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves scored a number of European film awards but got relatively little traction from critics here in the U.S., perhaps because, coming as it did on the heels of The Artist, its premise seemed derivative.  That’s a shame, because Blancanieves is not only a whole lot better than The Artist, it’s one of the best films of 2013, and one of the most interesting fairy tale adaptations I’ve seen.  Set in 1920s Seville, it’s a silent-film pastiche in which Snow White, here called Carmen, is the plucky daughter of a once-legendary bullfighter.  Her wicked stepmother (Maribel Verdu) is as vain as she is sadistic: she torments Carmen by cooking her pet rooster and feeding it to her for dinner.  In the second half of the film the teenage Carmen is adopted by a troupe of rodeo clowns and eventually gets the opportunity to step into the ring herself.  Blancanieves manages to capture both the Gothic horror and the Oedipal tensions of the original Brothers Grimm tale, and Berger manages the tone of the film carefully, balancing high melodrama with moments of light humor.

Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror is slightly less successful at revamping the “Snow White” story.  It appears to hew more closely to the original story than Blancanieves: its lush sets and whimsical costumes are straight of a storybook, albeit one illustrated by a Surrealist.  But the liberties Singh takes with the story are significant and not always inspired.  This Snow (Lily Collins) teams up with her prince early on, and, with the help of the seven dwarfs, plays offense rather than defense against the wicked queen (coolly played here by Julia Roberts), who barely even gets a chance to try out her poisoned apple.  In its attempt to inject some “girl power” into the story, the film occasionally feels calculated and pandering.  The special effects are also vaguely oppressive.  It’s remarkable, though, how durable this story is.  Even when Singh’s stylistic choices get in the way, the sheer power of the source material remains undeniable.

Walt Disney’s 1937 animated version remains a classic as well as a personal favorite, perhaps in spite of the fact that its characterization of Snow White is probably the most grating of any film on this list.  Where once Adriana Caselotti’s voice may have struck audiences as cute, it now feels shrill.  I maintain that (as with so many of Disney’s films) Snow White belongs to its villain.  The wicked queen—who, halfway through the film, spectacularly morphs into a haglike witch—provides this film with its most terrifying and brilliantly animated moments.

Appalachian filmmaker Tom Davenport’s Willa, which aired on public television in 1998, is another inspired variation.  Like Blancanieves, it’s set in the early twentieth century, when the invention of cinema technology threatens to put an end to the career of Willa’s stepmother, a celebrated stage beauty.  Instead of seven dwarfs, Willa is taken in by a band of traveling players; instead of going off to the prince’s castle, she ends up on the road to Hollywood with a fledgling filmmaker.  Like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Willa succeeds both as a family film and as a film-history lesson for audiences of all ages.  A criminally underseen gem.   

Having grown up with Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre on VHS, I’m also partial to director Peter Medak’s 1984 interpretation starring Elizabeth McGovern as the princess, Vanessa Redgrave as the haughty queen, and Vincent Price in a delicious cameo as her Magic Mirror.  It has a lovely, poetic tone, and McGovern makes a sensitive and thoughtful heroine.

Last—and least—is Erich Kobler’s Schneewittchen, a creaky, kitschy piece of German kidsploitation from 1955, available on DVD from (who else?) Something Weird.  For die-hard “Snow White” fans only.



Sur la plage avec Agnes

I’ve been spending these last several weeks catching up on films from the last fifteen years or so that I missed the first time around—things like 2046 and Letters from Iwo Jima and Silent Light and In Vanda’s Room.  Having screened three films by Tsai Ming-Liang, two by Jia Zhang-ke, and others by Hao Hsiao-Hsien, Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou, Nagisa Oshima, and Hirokazu Kore-eda, I’m certain that I have a better idea of contemporary Asian cinema than I did two months ago when I began this project.  (I’ve learned, for one thing, that I prefer Tsai’s films to those of just about any of his colleagues.)  I caught up with the work of Argentinian filmmaker Lucretia Martel, whose first two films, La Cienaga and The Holy Girl, have left me intrigued but a little baffled, but whose most recent feature The Headless Woman shows a surer hand.  And I looked at three of Manoel de Oliveira’s last features—I’m Going Home, Belle Toujours, and The Strange Case of Angelica, made when the filmmaker was between the ages of ninety-three and one hundred and three, and the last of which, a variation on the story of Sleeping Beauty, has a certain wry charm that perhaps only could have come from a centenarian.  (De Oliveira died in April at the age of one hundred and six.)