Film Review: “The Pod Generation”

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rosalie Craig
Directed by: Sophie Barthes
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes

Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

The word AI is beginning to permeate the landscape as humanity navigates an exciting, yet dangerous future. “The Pod Generation” has arrived at the near perfect time to comment on the machine learning phenomenon we’re all experiencing. The film is about NYC couple Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Rachel works for an AI company that makes little eyeball products that are like some kind of 22nd century nightmare version of Alexa or Siri. Alvy on the other hand, is a botanist that teaches at a nearby college.

They’re polar opposites in their careers, whereas Rachel sees a bright digitized future, Alvy seems to yearn for a return to nature. This style clashes when the Womb Center, exactly what you think it is, says that they have a limited number of spaces for couples to have their baby in their pod-shaped incubator. Rachel is eager to sign-up, while Alvy is a bit hesitant. They both want children, but disagree on the path forward. Rachel eventually wins out, mainly signing up behind Alvy’s back, but Alvy warms to the idea when he watches the artificial insemination process. This is all fascinating and interesting, but that fades as the movie progresses.

The biggest issue in “The Pod Generation” is that it’s too long and only has surface level commentary that approaches the story like a shotgun blast of ideas instead of a sniper rifle of wit. While the film could have simply honed in on technology versus humans’ animalistic need to procreate, the film seems to throw every idea at us without rhyme or reason. For instance, we see women protesting the Womb Center, but never hear their counterpoint or why. We see these eyeball products everywhere, but never get a full idea of how intrusive they are. We see an entirely robot run school, but never get an idea if it’s beneficial to the children in it. We hear about how there’s a serotonin bliss meter being monitored by the government, but that’s about it. All these neat sci-fi ideas are just vomited on us without any kind of idea or point behind them.

Unfortunately, this continues for over 100 minutes, which begins to make your mind wander during the film. Which meant I began to poke holes in the various sci-fi tropes it’s utilizing. For instance, at one point, Rachel and Alvy begin seeing a marriage counselor that’s just another big AI eyeball that talks to them. You’re telling me that in this future, the human brain has been unlocked to the point that AI can articulately offer psychological advice, yet there’s still a need for human botanists to teach college kids? At one point the couple are watching “March of the Penguins” on a 32-inch TV and I had to wonder, because this is in the 22nd century supposedly, why is a couple watching a 100-plus year-old movie on what’s most likely a very tiny TV at this point in technological evolution? Also, we never made TV’s better than standard definition? I wouldn’t be having these nitpicky thoughts if I wasn’t so bored by its lack of in-depth philosophical ideas and unnecessary runtime. Then there are just scenes of Rachel dreaming like it’s an episode of “Black Mirror,” which just made me want to open Netflix.

I would hate this movie more if it wasn’t for the performances by Clarke and Ejiofor. They really ham it up in some scenes, even if I never believe that these two people are in an actual relationship, much less banging. I can’t help but wonder if this kind of plot and idea would have been better served in a “Black Mirror” episode with a twinge of despair or horror. I say that because the movie just kind of ends without any kind of climax of note. We’re just kind of left wondering, “That’s it?” In a contemporary world begging for AI satire, “The Pod Generation” may have actually benefited from an AI editor.

Film Review “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case”

Starring: Ai Weiwei
Directed by: Andreas Johnson
Not Rated
Running time: 1 hour 26 mins
International Film Circuit

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

A couple of years ago the film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” gave many their first look at the man often referred to as the most influential artist in the world. Known as much for his politics as his talent, the film followed the career and life of the man before and after his rise to fame. A new documentary, which deals with the after-effects of Ai Weiwei’s “disappearance” courtesy of the Chinese government, has recently been released and it’s just as insightful and powerful as the artist himself.

The film begins as Ai Weiwei returns home after he has been held in confinement charged by the government with tax evasion. After almost 3 months away he is surrounded by journalists who hurl questions at him about his time away. Resignedly, the artist informs them that he “can’t say anything.” Now home, he spends his days quietly, spending time with his son. Whether meeting the neighborhood dog or picking vegetables from the garden, the two are inseparable. It is obvious that being away from his family has taken its toll.

We later sit in on a conversation between Ai Weiwei and his mother. Her husband had also been persecuted by the government and she sees many similarities in the way her husband and son have been treated, with one major difference. “It’s like living on the top of a wave,” she says, noting that if it was 1957 the Chinese government would have “already killed you.” While working on various art projects he quietly talks about his situation. He relates that when you are arrested by the government you are not allowed a lawyer…you cannot contact your family. It is like being kidnapped.

Because of his status, he is often besieged by foreign journalists, looking to get an interview. Not about his art, but about his ideas. They fawn over him, hoping to be the one to get the exclusive. But Ai Weiwei has learned that to say anything too negative could once again cost him his freedom. He is content to work in his studio or relax in his apartment. The view from his high rise windows include the United States Embassy right next door, a reminder of the freedom he longs for in his native country. A freedom he knows can be taken away in the blink of an eye.

Alison Klayman talks about directing “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

A 2006 graduate from Brown University, Alison Klayman is a documentary filmmaker and a freelance journalist. After graduating college she went to China where she spent four years producing radio and television stories for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Associated Press Television, Voice of America, Current TV, and CBC. She reported the story “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?” for PBS’ “Frontline” and currently completed her first feature documentary film, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” Her documentary short, entitled “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993,” was shown as part of the artist’s exhibition at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing from January through April of 2009. She also adapted a shorter version for the Tate Modern’s online channel. Ms. Klayman recent sat down with Media Mikes to talk about her film and the inspiration she draws from it’s subject.

Mike Smith: What was your inspiration to make this film?
Alison Klayman: I had been in China for a couple of years. And the reason I went… after I graduated from college, my goal was to make a documentary film. And in meeting Ai Weiwei I knew I had found a character who was not only very charismatic and complicated but, after our initial meeting together, I felt he could expand my ideas about China. I thought that an audience would enjoy watching him.

MS: You worked in China for several years. What brought you there?
AK: What brought me to China was a desire to go abroad…have adventures…become a journalist and do foreign correspondence work. The reason I went to China was very random. I had a friend who had family there. I went on a trip with her and ended up staying. I just wanted to go abroad…to anywhere in the world. I ended up in China. But I really threw myself into it. I worked in a lot of different industries. My dream was to one day feel like I deserved to make a documentary film. And in Ai Weiwei I found a great subject.

MS: How did you come to meet Ai Weiwei?
AK: Another story that’s more random than anything else. My roommate at the time in Beijing was working for a local art gallery and she was curating an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s photographs from the decade that he lived in New York. How I actually initially heard of Ai Weiwei was though these photographs. And in 2008 she said to me that she thought it would be nice to have a video to accompany the gallery show. Something to show in the lobby that offered a deeper story to some of the photos. She asked if I wanted to make it and I said “yes.” In December 2008 I was brought over to Weiwei’s studio along with the gallery team. And on the first day we met I already had my camera in hand. And I started filming right away. I was so lucky that I had this introduction and was given this great opportunity.

MS: This is kind of a two part question. Until he’s detained by the Chinese government you seem to have almost total access to him. Were you able to communicate with him once he had been detained? Also, because of your association with this project, did you have any fear for your safety while in China?
AK: Nobody was really able to be in touch with him during his detention. His wife was brought to visit him once. She was the only person to see him during those 81 days, apart from those who were guarding him. She wasn’t told the location where she met with him and she was only allowed to be with him for 20 minutes. And during his detention I was in very close touch with people at the studio. I was very active on social media…giving interviews on what was happening. I was able to meet with him about two months after his release in Beijing. That was very important because we showed him the film before we headed out to Sundance. As to my safety…it was a good thing that I was already used to living in China and doing work as a journalist. I know there are certain ways to behave so that you won’t necessarily run into trouble. So on the whole, I did not fear for my safety. I did fear for the safety of Ai Weiwei and the other citizens who were engaged in his work. There were the ones that were really taking the serious risks. For me there were a few scary moments during filming, particularly when Weiwei was heading towards the police stations and the court houses. I was along for the ride, one of many cameras. I think when you watch you can see those moments and see that we didn’t know how they played out. Those were the only experiences where I experienced any interference from the authorities….trying to take the camera…trying to take the tapes.

MS: Due to the rather unflattering light that you shine on the Chinese government would you ever return to China?
AK: Definitely. I really hope to do more work there. I’m hoping that life will take me there again.

MS: Do you still communicate with Weiwei?
AK: The best way we talk is very open through Twitter. And what’s great is that he often re-tweets my posts, like, “just saw the film in Europe at a film festival.” He re-tweets that and I know he was able to see where the film had been shown. That’s the main way we stay in touch. We do also text and occasionally will talk on the phone, though it’s not necessarily safe to talk on the phone. I last talked to him about two weeks ago and he was blown away by the reach and the impact the film was having.

MS: Have you decided on your next project yet?
AK: I wish! I’m just developing ideas…not sure if they’re ideas for short films or a series of films. I’m coming off a really exciting project. I had a healthy respect for documentaries in college and I’m constantly curious and fascinated by their stories. I want to find another story that makes me feel the same way.

Film Review “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

Starring: Ai Weiwei
Directed by: Alison Klayman
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 31 mins
IFC Films

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

If you spent any time watching the 2008 Summer Olympics you most probably saw the amazing art work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (pronounced “Eye Way-way”), most notably the “Birdsnest” stadium. But it is not only for his art that Weiwei is known. He has been very vocal about his political leanings and his troubles with the Chinese government are well known. And though this film purports to be about the man and his craft, it’s much more than that.

Ai Weiwei is a man whose vision is often achieved with the help of others. “I’m his hands,” explains one sculptor, working on a piece for an upcoming exhibit. As we get to know Weiwei we also get to know those around him, from his friends to his mother to his young son. He is very charismatic and it’s easy to see why those close to him love him.

But even those he is closest to can’t often protect him. After reporting an assault a year ago with no assist from authorities in solving the case, he marches to the local police station, followed by a camera crew, to find out why. Eventually he angers those in charge enough that he is detained for 81 days, only allowed to visit with his mother for one twenty-minute period during that time. When he is released he seems contrite, but soon he returns to his “in your face” ways and attitudes. When his fellow countryman Liu Xiaobo is awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, an award that was mostly kept from the Chinese people because of Liu’s beliefs, Weiwei is shown celebrating the award, going as far as to mention the prize on Twitter. He shares a favorite saying of Weiwei’s that permeates his character: “Never retreat – – -Re-Tweet!” This allows the outside world to learn of crucial things happening in the country, 140 characters at a time.

A powerful film that teaches us as much about ourselves as it does it’s subject, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” is a sure bet to be nominated for an Oscar come January 2013.