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My thoughts on The Artifice Girl, Carmen and Sisu
The problem with writing about The Artifice Girl, the debut feature from Franklin Ritch, is that in order to derive the maximum impact, one needs to go into it knowing as little about it as possible, so you should probably set this review aside until after you have already seen it if you don’t know what it is about. Divided into three sections, the film starts as computer programmer Gareth (played by Ritch himself) is taken into a room for questioning by government agents Amos (David Gerard) and Deena (Sinda Nichols) and while the conversation is circuitous at first, it eventually comes out that Gareth is engaging in a side project working to trap child predators online. The concern is that he seems to be using a young girl named Cherry (Tatum Matthews) as the bait and the agents are on the verge of taking him in for child endangerment. As it turns out, Cherry is not a real girl at all but an incredibly sophisticated artificial intelligence program that Gareth has developed in conjunction with the skills for creating digital replicas that he honed working on the visual effects crews of films. Although initially troubled by this revelation, the agents are undeniably intrigued by Gareth’s creation and over the next two sections of the film—both of which take place years in the future—the implications of Gareth’s creation and the subsequent repercussions are examined and discussed.
With real-life developments in AI technologies and the moral, legal and ethical concerns inspired by them becoming a greater concern, The Artifice Girl could not be more timely if it tried. While it is technically a science-fiction narrative, I suppose, it definitely leans closer to the science side of things and the extremely low-fi approach utilized by Ritch—each of the three sections consists of little more than a couple of actors talking in an anonymous room—gives it a sense of verisimilitude that would not have been there if it had been more reliant of elaborate special effects. As a director, Ritch handles the material with enough flair to keep it from feeling repetitive and the screenplay does an effective job of voicing all sides of the constantly evolving questions in ways that force you to ponder all of the aspects being laid out. The performances from the four actors are strong and there is also an effective performance in the final section by Lance Henriksen in a role that I will leave for you to discover. The Artifice Girl does not offer any easy answers to the questions that it raises but it presents its issues in a gripping and thought-provoking manner that should lead to spirited conversations long after the film has ended.
Anyone going into Carmen expecting a standard-issue screen version of Georges Bizet’s 19th-century opera classic, which has previously inspired film versions starring Harry Belafonte and Beyoncé, is going to be in for quite a shock. Not only is it a modern-day take with a mostly new plot, most of the original score has been swapped out (save for a few snatches of the libretto sung by an offscreen choir) for new songs as well. And yet, the power of the famous tale of star-crossed lovers—here embodied by Carmen (Melissa Barrera), a young Mexican woman who has slipped across the border into America after her mother is murdered by the cartels, and Aidan (Paul Mescal), a former soldier working with the Border Patrol, who go on the run after he saves her from a murderous fellow patrolman—still packs a lot of power despite its different form.
The direction by Benjamin Millepied is visually ravishing from start to finish but also proves to be fairly solid from a dramatic standpoint as well as he helps to breathe new life into a familiar narrative. Millepied is perhaps best known for doing the choreography for Black Swan and indeed, dance proves to be an important aspect of his take on this story as well. Not all of the dance elements quite work, I suppose, but the best of them—particularly a climactic sequence in which Paul, desperate for money, finds himself taking part in an intricately choreographed bare-knuckle brawl—are genuine stunners. Also stunning, albeit in a different way, is the undeniable chemistry between the two leads throughout—even though they don’t directly speak to each other that much over the course of the film, the rapport between them is so electrifying that even those comparatively few lines of dialogue seem almost unnecessary to the emotions they churn up just by standing next to each other, let alone when they are dancing. Purists may howl, I suppose (that is why they are purists), but those looking for an audacious cinematic explosion of sound, movement and emotion will find themselves swooning to the strains of this particular Carmen.
I don’t mind deliberately over-the-top gonzo action spectaculars in which blood, guts and body parts fill the screen in one wildly staged setpiece after another. However, if one is going to attempt such a thing, it is important to do them in such a way so that the big action beats keep doing new and dazzling things as they progress. For example, both Mad Max: Fury Road and John Wick Chapter Four managed to continually ramp things up as they progressed until they arrived at their breathtaking respective conclusions. The trouble with Sisu, the latest effort from Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander (whose previous efforts have included Rare Exports and Big Game, is that it starts off on an undeniably big and bold note but soon becomes frustratingly repetitive and one-note.
Set during the end stretch of World War II in Lapland, the film opens with aging Finnish miner Aatami (Jorma Tommila) hitting upon a large vein of gold. While heading back through the countryside with a bag full of gold, he happens upon a retreating platoon of Nazi soldiers who, once they learn what the seemingly helpless old man is carrying, decide to kill him and take the loot for themselves in order to buy their freedom. What they don’t realize is that this seemingly ordinary man is a feared soldier whose unshakable determination in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds has made him a legend who many believe cannot be killed. After making quick and very messy work of an initial round of soldiers, he takes off and when more and more Nazis take up pursuit, he proceeds to slaughter them in increasingly grotesque ways. As the body count rises to astonishing levels, it appears that he simply refuses to die—even when he is captured at one point and strung up, he manages to get out of via a particularly nasty piece of business.
And that, alas, is pretty much it, at least in terms of actual invention. Oh sure, it is filled with wall-to-wall action—much of it accompanied by gallons and gallons of gore—and I suspect that it would probably play like gangbusters at a horror film convention with an audience cheerfully willing to lap up every lopped limb and landline to the face. However, before too long, it eventually proves itself to be a one-joke affair in which the first telling is only mildly amusing at best and does not improve upon repetition. Even taken on their own, the scenes of excessive brutality are not particularly impressive—the fight sequences are hyper-edited to the point of distraction and even those with a fondness for seeing Nazis hacked to tiny bits (which I would like to think includes most of us) will find it growing monotonous after a while. To be fair, Tommila does make for a suitably imposing and taciturn presence throughout—it is just too bad that Sisu fails to make effective use of it or much of anything else.