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December 29, 2015

Movie Reviews: Unbranded, Ex Machina

Both worth watching, both recommended.

I also would recommend Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but I'll do that as a separate review tomorrow.

Ex Machina: Trailer here.

I can't really talk about this one too much because it's a double-reverse okie-doke movie, but I will say that it's watchable, interesting most of the time, and explores much of the same stuff that Blade Runner did, though on a less blockbustery budget.

If you're into sci-fi, I'd say it's a bit of a must, even if you wind up not liking it, though I think you will.

It's currently available on Netflix. Free. (Well, if you have Netflix.) It's on Amazon, free if you have Amazon Prime.

I give it three stars. The chick who plays "Ava," the android, is the hot chick who played the female spy in Man from UNCLE, and, unless there's some CGI going on, you see what's goin' in there, if you know what I'm talking about.

She's pretty good in the role.

There's one weird thing: The android puts out a strong pedo vibe. It's not that she's underage (though she is pretty young, like 22 or something). But an AI that just came into being a couple of months ago is essentially a child in her mind. She's completely innocent -- like a child.

She doesn't look like a child (well, sort of, 22 year olds now look like children to me), but she thinks like one or at least acts like one.

Just a weird, uncomfortable thing as she begins demonstrating a curiosity about sex.

I think it works to the movie's advantage, because it's a movie about a lot of odd questions, and this is one of the oddest ones.

If, in the Blade Runner world, you had sex with the "pleasure model" Pris, who was three or four years old, are you a pedophile? Yes, she's a replicant, but she has childlike tendencies (something merely suggested in Blade Runner, and pushed more explicitly in Ex Machina).

Three stars.

Unbranded. Trailer here. I talked about this movie a couple of weeks ago, before seeing it. I got the Blu-Ray just before Christmas.

Good movie, and I'll get to its strengths, but let me first talk about some weaknesses.

First of all, it's not not really what I would call a documentary. A real documentary explores a real situation or occupation or historical event.

The event in Unbranded is not "real." A team of college friends (allegedly), one of whom is suspiciously model-handsome, drives a team of ten wild mustangs from the Arizona-Mexico border up three thousand miles to the Montana-Canada border.

Why? Well... to dramatize the plight of America's wild horses, commonly called mustangs. There is a real controversy about what to do with the feral horses, because they share the public lands with cowmen. The horse population has increased beyond the land's carrying capacity, and they both eat all the grass down to the ground, and then die of starvation and thirst in the winter. (They cannot migrate, as wild horses used to do, because there are so many fences and highways in America cutting across their natural migratory lines.)

Because there are too many mustangs on the land, the government is keeping 50,000 excess horses in small pens, basically putting them in jail for their lives, because the other possibility (euthanizing them) is too politically unpalatable. But I'm not sure keeping a beast that wants to roam in a small pen is much more merciful.

So, this documentary exists to dramatize this issue, and to prove the worth of mustangs, in hopes that more will be adopted. The Bureau of Land Management used to put 10,000 mustangs a year into private ownership; but with fewer people wanting mustangs, that number is now down to 3,000 per year, as the mustang herds continue to grow, and the BLM puts more wild horses into horse prison.

So, the issue is real, but the 3000 mile trek is merely a stunt conducted to provide a dramatic manner of exploring this issue -- no one would ever really drive 10 horses border-to-border. There's no reason for it. If you had to move them, you'd put them on a horse-carrying truck.

So you feel a little odd watching this "documentary" which is not really a documentary. What I would call it is a Reality Drama Movie -- like unscripted (real) reality tv, these things actually happened are aren't fake, per se, but the entire situation is contrived for the express purpose of being filmed.

The next problem is this: When they pitched the idea of the movie, some backers proposed a reality tv show to unfold over eight or ten episodes. They refused, for whatever reason.

I think they should have done it that way. Because a 3000 mile horse trek over a bad trail takes four or five months, and thus this two hour documentary is an extremely condensed narrative of the journey.

I feel like the pace of a mustang-driving narrative should be "moseying" -- the horses are only moving about 4mph most of the time. They're walking. The documentary should have that sort of an unhurried feel, with lots of long shots of guys at camp, or admiring the view on horses, or admiring the scenery.

But condensing a 3000 mile, five month trip into two hours doesn't have a moseying feel. It's a pretty quick telling -- and a lively one (you won't be bored).

But I could help but feel that with all this incredible scenery -- and it is incredible, and it is beautiful -- I didn't want two second establishing shots; I wanted twenty second establishing shots, and more of them, at every twenty or thirty miles of the course.

So, I guess this is a both a criticism and a compliment: I wanted more, and easily could have watched like eight or ten episodes of this. I didn't like that if I turned my head from the screen for just a second, I could miss a really wonderful shot.

They drive the horses into, and up out of, the Grand Canyon. Obviously this isn't the way you'd really go if you were driving horses. They do it to get incredible photography, and here's the thing: It is incredible. I have never been to the Grand Canyon, and now I am cursing myself for having never made the trip.

They do a good job of getting some very vertiginous shots, too -- these little cut-trails in the sides of the canyon are not wide. And these horses are not trained for this. (They were briefly trained for three months before the drive.)

They do this a lot, choosing a trail based on its scenery rather than its ease, and scenery usually means "mountains" and "difficult, rock-studded paths." In some cases this seems to border on cruelty to animals -- they misunderstand how difficult ascending a non-trail up a rocky hill littered with loose rocks, soil, and broken trees; the slope of the hill appeared to me to be about 35 or 40 degrees, and think about how damn steep that is, especially for a horse.

My heart was in my mouth for this sequence. The odds of a horse being killed or getting a leg broken were high.

There are in fact casualties in the trip, owing to a boneheaded bit of animal-handling or a flat-out mystery of a mishap.

So there's plenty of drama.

It's all very contrived, but it is gripping nonetheless.

The last point is that the film gets into the issue of the wild horses and what to do with them, and the battle between mustang advocates and cow ranchers. This material is brief but informative, and the movie actually does a scrupulous job of presenting the advocates and arguments on both sides.

A "documentary" of a completely contrived type, for entertainment, for commercial exploitation, and for advocacy, yet a successful movie anyway.

Three stars.

The film is available on Amazon for instant download (and I imagine iTunes, etc.), but I bought the Blu-Ray from Amazon, because I wanted the highest possible picture quality. They also sell the Blu-Ray from their own website.

One Note: I saw one critic point out that you never really get to "know" the horses, because the movie flies by so quickly. (You also don't really get to know the dudes, but I don't really care about the dudes.)

That's true. Another reason this might have made more sense as an 8-10 episode docudrama.

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posted by Ace at 04:54 PM

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