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-]

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Review: “Stonehearst Asylum” 12.14.14

I used to speak director Brad Anderson’s name under the same breath as I did with some of my all time favorite filmmakers. As his one-two punch of both 2001’s “Session 9” and 2004’s “The Machinist” introduced to a new kind of psychological horror director. Particularly with that of the former, which I still consider to be one of my top 10 psychological horror films of all time. Following these two films he made a nice, 1 hour entry to the “Masters of Horror” series, and then for the most part, pretty much bottomed out. His next 3 subseqent films – “Trassiberian” (2007), “Vanishing on 7th Street (2010), and last year’s “The Call”. All wound up being totally duds and were panned by most if not all critics (with the sole exception being “Transsiberian” which got mediocre reviews…fitting for a mediocre film) and gave me and a lot of his other fans the impression that what we had was someone whose career which had started off so promising, had practically vanished and he became just another studio director who makes low quality films at the expense of his audience. Which I viewed as was and still is a complete and total shame. I had just about written Anderson off as a director, but I saw this film’s title among a new release calender that I check monthly for titles to add to my Netflix queue. The film more or less looked like a return to form for Anderson, at least in terms of genre, as the synopsis of the film said that it was a psychological thriller set in a mental institution. Strikingly similar to what I still consider to be his masterpiece in the aforementioned “Session 9” (2002). Though unlike his “has been” type casting of his crop of recent films, this boasted a rather impressive cast in Ben Kingsley, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Strurgess, Kate Beckinsale, David Thewlis, and Michael Caine. The story itself also deriving from an old Edgar Allen Poe story called “Eliza Graves”. So this seemed to be like it could be a possible return for director Anderson as it appeared from the surface that put him back into a position working within a genre that he became a big part of and was instrumental to in the early 21st century.

The film starts out simply enough. We are first brought into a classroom of apparent aspiring young medical students whom are being taught by a professor played by Brendan Gleeson in 1899 at the turn of the 20th century. To help in his presentation of this particular lesson he brings in one of his patients, played by Kate Beckinsale, a woman who is plagued by some sort of mental illness. Gleeson makes the case that she’s uncurable. But there seems to be something much greater going on here that is both aiding and abaiding her specific case. We then flashback and meet a young doctor (played by the great British actor Jim Sturgess), a recent medical school graduate from London’s prestigious Oxford University, who takes a job in the country at a mental institution called the Stonehearst Asylum. Upon his entrance there he meets the asylum’s director and overseer (played by Ben Kingsley, a role reminiscient of the work he did with Martin Scorcese in 2010’s “Shutter Island”). He quickly learns that the asylum operates both very unconventional and unorthodox ways as they see it as being somehow therapeutic to integrate the patients with that of the hospital staff. Sturgess’ doctor first meets and lays his eyes on one seemingly gifted patient (Beckinsale) who appears to be some sort of piano prodigy named Eliza Graves. It almost seems like love at first sight, and the young doctor doesn’t seem to have a care in the world for the young Eliza’s mental illness. And as strange events begin to occur he starts to doubt her mental illness, as he starts to do with the asylum in general, in one of those situations in which things aren’t quite what they seem at the surface. Especially when Sturgess’ character stumbles upon a basement containing one of the asylum’s best kept, deepest, and darkest secret. A revelation that pretty much sets the stage for the events that transpire as the rest of the film plays itself out.

This a mostly unwatchable and forgetabble effort. One that finds itself consistent with much of Anderson’s recent work. A film that felt like it had almost zero originality, by a director who continues to show us that he is more or less a studio director without any remaining semblance of his own sense of individuality. Really the only thing worth mentioning is that the film at least slightly kept my attention by the oddly overqualified cast of seasoned actors. Sturgess is the lead here and makes the most out of the minimally written and drawn out character he is given. Kingsley is also serviceable here as well, but his performance comes across as strikingly all too similar to the role he played in “Shutter Island”. I thought David Thewlis (whom I haven’t really seen in anything since Terrance Malick’s wonderful “The New World” (2007)) and Kate Beckinsale (who admittedly I really like in the “Underworld” series) are both standouts in an otherwise weak script. Michael Caine (who one can only sit back and wonder why he would sign on to a project such as this one) is also nice to see up on the screen and has a pretty considerable role. But again, the weak script and shoddy story narrative make it difficult to highlight some of the films stronger points like the acting. Outside of that I found it mostly flat and not even remotely scary. I also thought it’s underlying message about the mentally ill to be ludicrous and borderline laughable, as someone who works with this population I feel like I’m qualified to make such a statement. Do yourself a favor and skip this one, as well as anything that director Brad Anderson does from this point forward throughout the rest of his apparent continued failing career.

[C-]

Review: “Calvary” 12.6.14

Writer/director brothers John Michael McDonagh and Martin McDonagh may be 2 of the best filmmakers out right now on the current scene. Unlike The Coen Brothers and more like Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony but catered more towards the intellectually minded moviegoer, they both make their own films as they seem to each have their own unique approach and take on cinema. I was first introduced to the pair by way of brother Martin’s brilliant and often unspoken of “In Bruges” (2008). A film about 2 hitmen, played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Ferrall (in what I still consider to be the latter’s best performance to date), as they hide out in a small Belgian town called Bruges. Then came the writer/director of this film, John Michael, and his bravura debut film “The Guard” (2011). A crime film about a dirty cop, once again played by Brendan Gleeson, and the detective brought in (Don Cheadle) to help him infiltrate a drug smuggling operation in a small Ireland town. I still consider “The Guard” to be one of the better crime comedies of the past decade that had a knock out, razor-sharp script that proved John Michael had an undeniably gifted knack for writing as well as directing. Then the year following, we got another fresh and exciting new film from his brother Martin in the form of “Seven Psychopaths”. Martin’s second film about hitmen boasted an incredible cast by the likes of Colin Ferrall, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and Michael Pitt. All 3 of the aforementioned films earned Honorable Mentions spots on my “best of” lists from those years. Enter 2014 and we now have the second film by brother John Michael, fresh off of “The Guard”. One that once again starred Brendan Gleeson, who as mentioned above, has starred in 3 out of the 4 of the brothers’ films to date. I’ve always considered Gleeson to be one of the more gifted actors currently working in film who seems to almost always impress me both in and outside of the studio system. That and he’s earned himself 3 Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor for 2 of the films mentioned above, ironically enough 2 films by different brothers, both of which I already mentioned, those being both Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” (2008) and John Michael’s “The Guard” (2011). Because I thought so highly of all 3 of the films by this writer/director/brother team, who mostly work independently outside of one another, and are a great example of my approach to movie watching ethos, I decided to put this one high up on my list when it came out. Having missed it during its theatrical run, I drew up quite a bit of anticipation of seeing it once it became available on DVD.

The film grabs our attention right off the bat with a man who while in confession conveys a dark secret to the church’s priest Father James (played by Gleeson). A confession that possesses certain ramifications to both Gleeson and one of the other fathers. This sets the wheels in motion automatically straight from the get go as Gleeson then goes on a mission to find out information from other members of the Irish community in which he lives in. Along the way he encounters a multitude of different townspeople. None of whom seem to have respect for the honorable priest, who seems to be ridiculed and mocked in just about every said encounter. Gleeson’s Father James is a troubled, wounded man, who seems torn by his profession. As he is both a servant of the Lord and an a man of principles outside of the faith, who seems to just want to know the truth, regardless of whatever evilness he’s willing to come across while trying to find it. Throughout the story we are introduced to several characters – his suicidal daughter (played by “Eden Lake’s Kelly Reilly), town mistress, writer friend (M. Emmet Walsh), doctor, nemesis (the wonderful, scene stealing Chris O’Dowd from the hit TV show “The IT Crowd”), criminally minded mechanic (played by Jim Jarmusch regular Issach De Bankole), and rather very wealthy but stubborn financial backer of the church. Not one of them seems to have one iota of respect and/or care in the world for Father James and he only finds opposition from his many parishioners who seem to be doubting both their own faith in themselves as well as the Father’s in his own personal quest to seek the truth. A journey of self-discovery that finds him testing his faith in spirituality and religion, both inside and out.

This was a remarkable film from almost every cinematic standpoint. First is yet another brilliantly gifted performance by Brendan Gleeson, who seems tailor-made for this type of material, an actor who seems to be a muse for writer/director John Michael and his brother Martin. In one of his more finer performances to date. He is enigmatic here as he carries weight of this complex and emotionally resonant material on his back. He is the meat and bones of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he earns his third of fourth Golden Globe nomination working for this unquestionably talented writing/directing team of brothers. The second thing that should be pointed out is the assured and flawless script and direction by John Michael McDonagh. It’s a landmark achievement from both a writing and directing standpoint. Since the film relies heavily on its script, as did McDonagh’s last directorial effort “The Guard” did. He utilizes his trademark dark comedy and humor to reveal a story that winds up being much deeper than I possibly could have ever imagined going into it. The scenes between both Father James’ Gleeson and his daughter (Reilly) are particularly strong, poignant, touching, and heartfelt. McDonagh makes sure not to waste a single frame here as it features some gorgeous cinematography of both the Ireland coast and countryside. The Mise-en-scene (the setup of images within each shot) on display here is nothing short of dazzling. The lighting radiates across the screen and both it and the film’s framing are impeccably shot. It also boasts a very well put together soundtrack, one in which its music of classic oldies, more traditional Irish folk music, and melancholic piano and string sounds is perfectly aligned with the material. Last, but certainly not least, it does an incredible job at exploring such difficult themes such as questioning faith, morality, the evil that men do, and prejudices about the priesthood. All done with a sense of authenticity and grace that is so rarely done of movie of this kind (an exception being 2008’s Academy Award nominated “Doubt”). While admittedly I thought the first third of the film dragged a bit, I soon came to realize that it was done so in a way only to effectively set up the story and characters. This wound up being a refreshing take on one man’s morals, principles, religion, and faith, that totally won me over and in my opinion is so far is right on par with both the writer/director brothers’ best work to date. Along with a spellbinding performance by Brendan Gleeson. This one is sure to make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end, and just might wind up vying for a spot on my top 10. A sharply written, brilliantly directed, and well acted film. “Calvary” is a phenomenal film that just happens to fall somewhere just slightly below the slew of this year’s best.

[strong B+]

Review: “Frank” 11.30.14

This film had been on my radar for quite a while as it had gotten a very strong reception while on the festival circuit this past year. That and almost everything I read for each of the festivals in which it was shown highlighted the fact that Michael Fassbender gives yet another strong performance in a series of Oscar worthy performances like the ones he put in in all three Steve McQueen films – those being 2008’s “Hunger” (how he wasn’t nominated for this was a major oversight on behalf of the Academy), 2011’s “Shame” (where he landed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor), and last year’s “12 Years A Slave” (2013). A film in which he would pick up his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I also thought he’s done some incredibly strong work in “Eden Lake” (2008), “Fish Tank” (2009), “A Dangerous Method” (2011), and “Prometheus” (2012). He almost always seems to pick good roles and is one of the most sought after young actors currently in Hollywood. I also liked the director, Ireland born director Lenny Abrahamson’s, previous film – “What Richard Did” (2012). A film which focused on a Irish teenager who is completely devastated when his once promising life gets thrown upside down. It’s an incredibly sad film which also happens to be a very good character study of a young man’s emotional disintegration following a tragic accident. Within it he showed a certain knack for feeling and emotion that is hard to truly capture in a lot of films from this genre. So given these two aforementioned reasons and the fact that it was also very favorably reviewed. I made it a point to seek it out as soon as it became available.

The story first introduces us to Jon, played by Brendan Glesson’s son, Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring musician type who seems to dislike his mundane computer job. That is until one day when he comes across a band manager, played by Scoot McNairy, who employs him last-minute to fill in for one of his band’s gigs. While at the gig he meets his soon to be band members, two of which include both Clare, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the titular character, Frank, played by Michael Fassbender himself. Frank seems to be some sort of enigmatic and incredibly gifted human being as we see him spout poetry like he’s channeling Jim Morrison of The Doors. Except one could make the assessment early on that Frank is far from your average, or “normal” human being. Frank hides under a blown up head that he wears like a mask, which according to McNairy’s band manager – “he never takes off”. None of the other band members have ever seen the man behind the mask, nor do they seem to care, as they seem to recognize his true genius. Gleeson’s character Jon seems to realize this to and is quick to say yes when they give him the offer to come onboard and join their band full-time. They then travel to the countryside to record a long gestating album. But because Frank is such a perfectionist they wind up over staying and go completely broke and wind up totally out of money. That’s when Jon steps in and offers to save them and the album, while also coming up what he sees as his own ingenious idea of capturing the process or making of the album. And soon after they become well-known across the country, and are asked to come play the prestigious South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. It is here where the story really starts to develop, and both Jon, Frank, and the rest of the band members try to take full opportunity of their first shot at fame.

“Frank” is one incredibly bizarre, subversive, weird, and quirky film even by art house and independent film standards, and plays out like some absurdist tragic-comedy. Though along with that it’s tender, touching, heartfelt, and undeniably human. The first third is like something straight out of a Wes Anderson or Richard Ayoade film. It is strange and whimsical and contains some very well choreographed shots and segments. As we the viewer are transported directly into Frank’s highly unsual world through the eyes of its main character Jon. Some of the musical segments here are downright hilarious, and seem to want to take a satiric stab at what constitutes itself as being indie music these days. It’s while during the recording and capturing of the recording of the album that some of “Frank’s” more funny, clever, and delightful moments take place. Then comes their “calling” by way of the South by Southwest music festival, and the movie takes a dramatic shift in terms of story. Which I can’t say I was really all that big of a fan of. The way in which Austin is portrayed is like something out of Portlandia – where everyone’s a hipster and are drawn out to be slightly cliché. As is with a lot of the indie music scene these days. I thought the whole Austin part of the film, while I understood it in terms of context, was also the weakest and most contrived part about it. Then comes it’s mostly compelling and thought-provoking part of the film, which in my opinion should have come a lot earlier. Even in a 90 minute film. It is here that we learn about the man behind the mask and his mental illness, and this is when the film shines through somewhat, if just for the mere brilliant turn from Michael Fassbender, who in both inside and out of Frank, shows a certain range and depth that only an actor of his caliber could possibly pull off. I would recommend the film solely for Fassbender’s performance alone, as the rest of it is filled with either moments of grandeur, or moments that seemed to ber lifted straight out of other films I’ve seen like it (cough cough “Lars and the Real Girl”). Recommended for fans of Fassbender and for something completely outside of the box. Everyone else might find this movie to be much too strange and bizarre, even for fans of films that are a more acquired taste.

[B-]