New To DVD/VOD And Streaming Platforms: Review – “White God” 9.12.15

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This particular Hungarian film had been on my radar for a while now, and was one that I waited much longer to see than most films I anticipate seeing. I first heard about it the same way in which I hear about a lot films – in doing my research in each of the year’s most prestigious international film festivals, and taking note of which films were well received by critics. “White God” (English translation of the film’s original title – “Feher isten”) created quite a bit of buzz when it first premiered at the Godfather of film festivals – Cannes – in 2014 (and like with most foreign films it took over a year before it found a distributor and was released stateside). It quickly caught my attention when I saw that it had won the Un Certain Regard award. An award that’s usually reserved for international films that tend to be a bit edgier which would in turn have a harder time finding a distributor without its nomination (or winning such as was the case with this film). Past Un Certain Regard award winners include Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” (Greece – 2009) (one of my top 10 favorite foreign films post 2000), Cristi Puiu’s brilliant “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (Russia – 2005), and Marco Giordana’s 4+ hour epic – “The Best of Youth” (Italy – 2003)…to name a few. That’s not even scratching the surface of the films that haven’t won but have been nominated (it’s a rather impressive list I’ll just say that). So when a film takes home the award it’s pretty much stamped with a guarantee that I will flag it and I find a way to see it whenever it gets released here in the States. As was the case with this film, which just under a month ago became available on many (including Netflix’s) streaming platforms. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than the information I’ve just shared with you, I was pretty excited when I finally got the opportunity tonight to sit down and watch it.

“White God” begins with the story of Lili, a young teenage girl riding her bike down the urban area cross-streets of a metropolitan area somewhere within Hungary followed closely by her dog subservient dog Hagen. Lili is the daughter of two parents who have gone through a recent divorce (this notion of “separation” is a constant motif throughout the film), and when her mom needs to travel out of the country for a few months, she rather begrudgingly agrees to go stay with her father. Her father works for the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and is responsible for distinguishing between good and poor quality meat. He also happens to hate animals (not surprisingly given the grisly requirements of his job) so when Lili shows up with her beloved dog Hagen, he is reluctant to let him stay. That and in this particular part of the world, there’s a certain “tax” on dogs that are unwarranted, or rather “non-pure bred”. So when the inhabitants of Lili’s dad’s apartment complex begin to complain, Lili is left with no other option than to leave a home and after getting kicked out of the music program at a junior conservatory she’s involved in for bringing her dog with her, she flees with her dog and runs away from everything. This doesn’t last for long, as Lili is picked up by her father while searching for her, and he leaves the dog by the side of the highway alone and destitute. From this point on in the film, the story revolves around two story archs which jumps back and forth between both Lili and her dog Hagen’s separate journeys that follow.

This film wound up working for me on a number of different levels. It also wound up being one of those films that felt almost “meta” in that it reminded me of several other different works from pictures that I deeply admire. There’s the clear, obvious influence that is Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000) in its depiction and metaphor for canines as a somewhat “lesser than” being, and how they’re terribly mistreated once taken away from their domesticated environments and thrown into a more oppressed section of society. Which to me seemed to metaphorically represent slavery, segregation, homelessness, and refugee people. Then there’s the story of Lili, who goes on her own personal journey through the dark rungs of society and urban living, as she is exposed to a number of different things that we wouldn’t wish any adult to see, never mind a young teenage girl. Equally as harrowing of a journey is the quest of her dog Hagen, who gets captured and is sold and trained into the ugly criminal underworld that is dog fighting (these scenes are definitely not for the squeamish). Or, if you’re a devout lover of dogs, you may not be able to endure the harsh and unforeseen circumstances in which her canine is forced into (imagine Pascal Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs” but replacing humans with canines). Then there’s what I call the grand finale or climax, which takes up the last quarter of the film and had me envisioning both Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999) (replace “rain of frogs” with “rain of dogs”) and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (2002) which presents us with something that resembles an end-of-the-world apocalypse as taken over by dogs. Does it sound strange to you yet? I’m not sure I would label it “strange”. But it surely was something both entirely unique and original to almost anything I’ve maybe ever seen. And depending on the viewer, this could be the film’s strong point or its downfall. I for one happened to fall into the former category, as even despite of its many influences it, at least for me, wound up being incredibly interesting and at the same time hard to look away from. The film’s director does a fantastic job in what must have been quite a difficult task in telling its two separate characters’ story archs and bringing you into their worlds. Never does it even in the remotest sense feel jarring as the story shifts with a confident sense of editing from dog to dog owner. It also contains a great musical store (Lili is a trumpet player and music is “key” to the story) that combines both classical with more contemporary, urban, club-like music. Lastly, were its two stellar performances by both the young Lili and her dog Hagen (I read somewhere that if there was ever the case to give an awards nomination to a dog than it was this film – and I couldn’t have said it better myself). This was yet another great example of foreign cinema worthy of its Un Certain Regard win at Cannes. “White God” should please those like myself of cinema that falls into the more wanting to be challenged mindset, but for a lot of other people, its the kind of material they just might have a hard time getting into.

Dog lovers beware.

[B]

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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

Ex Machina - Original UK Quad

I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.

The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.

This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.

This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.

[A-]