A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “The Terminator” (1984) 5.3.15

This film officially wrapped up the end of the series of films at one of my local area theaters who showed several Science Fiction classics throughout the month of April. All of which (with the exception of “Blade Runner” (1982) which I chose the original “Alien” (1979) over as the two were playing on the same night) that I got to see on the big screen. Which has become a new passion of mine in revisiting some of the older classics for the first time in the theater. I’ve added several Sci Fi classics to my “bucket list” and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite some time. In this past month plus some I saw Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), as mentioned above, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), James Cameron’s (x2) “Aliens” (1986), and the recently released “Ex Machina” (2015). Alex Garland’s cerebral head trip which wound up being the best Sci Fi film I’ve seen since Duncan Jones’ groundbreaking “Moon” (2009).

I have to admit the “Terminator” franchise is one of my least favorite Science Fiction ones as I remember watching them as a kid, and while I admired the second one, I really never could find myself getting into any of the subsequent sequels. Similar to how I felt and still feel about the “Alien” franchise after its second installment. That and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even really remember seeing the first “Terminator” except for maybe bits and pieces when I was a just a young lad. And in thinking back my reason for not doing so probably had a lot to do with the fact that I saw the films out-of-order, with the second one first, then the third, and fourth. Since I didn’t much care for parts 3 or 4 seeking out the first one wasn’t necessarily high on my list. At least in my more formative years. Though since then, in becoming a student of film, I’ve come to learn that the original is highly regarded in many film circles to be one of the all time classic entries into the Sci Fi genre. So I thought to myself I should make it a point to check it out, now that I look at films analytically, to see if it earns the moniker of being up there with the all time greats like some of the ones mentioned above.

James Cameron’s debut film is a dark, dirty, post-apocalyptic vision of the future that seems very much influenced by the many films of the genre that came before it. Films like John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) both seem like direct influences on it in terms of look and style. Except where those films were much brainier, Cameron seems to change the playing field a bit here. Not really caring much for character or plot, he appears to be much more interested in style and sheer entertainment value. As there’s not really much on display here in terms of any kind of narrative. What’s different, and done quite I should add, is his ability to bring an almost new kind of kinetic energy to the genre. His ability to engage the audience while keeping the cat and mouse plot moving along from scene to scene is really the film’s greatest strength. In relation to some of the other big-budget pics of the genre, this film in especially feels more sadistic, but with a certain playfulness about it with its splatter-violence and singular vision that I call “cyber punk”. In terms this vision I speak of it breaks new ground in the genre with its seeming admiration for over the top violence and energy. Something I hadn’t been privy to of some of the more contemporary films of the genre up to that point in film history. It’s maybe the most visceral and action packed genre picture for its time.

There’s also the flat-out bad acting but which actually suits itself well to a story that doesn’t seem one bit concerned with how the actors come across but based much more around visual style and hyper violence. Arnold (Ahnuld) Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton read their lines like they’re reading off of a teleprompter (though to his credit Schwarzenegger has maybe only a dozen or so lines in the entire film). The best thing about it acting-wise was the other cyborg sent from the future played by Michael Biehn, who gives some life into what is otherwise a pretty laughable script. Though at times I felt like it reveled in the irony of its poorly acted script. The Schwarz seems perfectly cast as his bland facial expressions, thick accent, and Frankenstein body language suits itself rather well to the role of a menacing cyborg. Hamilton on the other hand is more of a feast for the eyes, as she clearly seemed to be cast more for her gorgeous looks (lucky you Cameron) than for her acting chops.

What I will conclude by saying, is that while “The Terminator” is considered to be a master work and essentially the platform for starting James Cameron’s career. It also marks the turn of big budget Sci Fi going for a more action packed, style over substance, entertainment thrill ride approach. Which for the most part it succeeds in doing. Its influence is embedded in several Sci Fi films that proceeded it. As did its kitschy one-liners (“I’ll be back”). But for all of its nicely looking visual splendor and style it feels devoid of the brainer elements that I’ve learned to love from the genre. So for that mostly personal reason, it wound up being fun to watch and critique. But in terms of its place as being considered one of the “the greatest” Sci Fi films to me it barely makes the cut. That aside, I could still sit back and both admire and understand why its considered such an important work for its time.

[strong B]

Advertisements

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-]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Chappie” 4.12.15

Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in 2009 with the Science Fiction game changer, “District 9”, which many could say (minus maybe Duncan Jones’ “Moon, also released that same year), is one of, if not the best Science Fiction films of the past decade. It carved out a new niche in Science Fiction infusing faux-documentary elements, guerilla filmmaking, and a visceral-like quality usually only found in War films. It also contained many allegorical themes, mainly using his story of alien life forms who land on earth only to be ousted and pushed into “ghettos”, clearly Blomkamp’s take on the rising number of illegal immigrants and how they are treated once they enter into this country. Blomkamp’s follow-up, 2013’s “Elysium”, once again saw Blomkamp digging into more allegorical themes in a movie about classicism and two planets that separate the rich from the poor. “Elysium”, at least in my opinion (and most likely the opinion of everyone else) wasn’t half the film “District 9” was. But that would have been a tough feat to pull off. Considering how influential the former film was. As for his more recent film, what first piqued my interest about it a long long time ago was that film news websites were saying things like “Neill Blomkamp teams up with rap/rave group Die Antwoord on his newest film”. I immediately took notice as many people who know me know how much of a Die Antwoord fan I really am. And it seemed to make sense that the most unique voice coming out of Africa in film would team up with the most popular musical group from the same country (that and both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have expressed their deep love and admiration for one another to the press). It was only befitting that the two would team up for a film. What also drew me to this particular project, despite its less than favorable reviews, was not only the casting of Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er), but Hugh Jackman (who I have a newfound respect for because of 2013’s “Prisoners”), the legendary Sigourney Weaver (any Science Fiction director’s dream to have cast in their film), Dave Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), and finally third-time collaborator Sharlto Copley (playing the voice of the robot of the titular character. Even in spite of it not getting such great reviews, given the film’s pedigree it was almost a given that I would see it while it was still in theaters.

The film first introduced us, as did “District 9” did, to a decaying, crime ridden Johannesburg, South Africa. And through a series of interviews with Ph.D types, discusses the city’s elite police force, robots which are manufactured by a company called Tetravaal. The company is the leading distributor of the droids. Within the company there are two developers, Deon (played by Dev Patel) whose sight is set on making a more human-like robot. One that can think and feel emotions on the same level that humans do. The company’s other developer, Vincent (played by Hugh Jackman) has developed his own machine called MOOSE, which can be remote-controlled and handled solely by the company employee’s themselves, which puts the two in competition. Both developers are assets to the company, but are given very little help financially in getting their prospective projects off the ground by the head of the company, Michelle (played by every Science Fiction director’s dream of having her star in their film – Sigourney Weaver). A shift in plot brings us to a visceral car chase scene after a drug deal whose occupants include both Yolandi Vi$$ser and Ninja from Die Antwoord, playing fictionalized versions of themselves (or are they?). Ninja is threatened and told by the city drug lord, “Hippo”, that he needs to pay back $20 million dollars lost in the deal or else they will both be killed. Desperate and not knowing what to do, Ninja and Yolandi come up with a plan to kidnap Deon so that he will help them manufacture a killer robot to help them pull of a heist so they can pay back the money the $20 million they owe. It’s at about this same time that Deon finally figures out the right formula to create his project of making a robot that closely resembles a human. While in transit of taking hardwired parts to make said robot, he is kidnapped by Yolandi and Ninja and taken to a remote, abandoned factory in which he is forced at gun point to create this human-like robot by the two gangsters (or shall I say “ganstas”), and completes putting together a robot that can mimic humans of whom they name “Chappie”. After doing so, Deon isn’t needed anymore, so Chappie becomes Ninja’s and Yolandi’s project in teaching and training him to become the first robot “gansta”. So that they can use his bulletproof armor and apathetic conscience to pull of the heist that will allow them to pay the money back.

Does the premise of creating the world’s first A.I. gangster sound silly? It sure does. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun if you don’t take the movie too seriously (which I think is what turned off many critics about it). This is essentially Die Antwoord’s film. Both Yolandi and Ninja get the film’s most screen time, and for a musical duo of non-actors (except for their starring role they did a few years back in a short filmed by Harmony Korine) their characters are mostly drawn out well and come across as believable. Both artists/actors essentially play themselves, and Blomkamp seems to have clearly been inspired by the group’s aesthetic. As everything from the set design, music, graffiti, costume, and film’s music seems lifted from what I call the Die Antwoord aesthetic (otherwise known as “Zef” culture which broken down into laments terms is the band’s own “gangsta” lifestyle). The two of them essentially teach and educate Chappie on said lifestyle, which is in conflict to his creator Deon’s, who wishes for a more law-abiding and morally conscious Chappie. It’s within these so-called “training” scenes in turning Chappie “gangsta” that the film produces its most laughs, poking fun of itself and never seeming to take things too seriously (much like the band members themselves). Yolandi takes on the role of “Mummy” to the robot and Ninja taking on the role of “Dada”. Ninja being the one most responsible for turning Chappie into a gangster robot (imagine a robot version of James Franco’s “Alien” from Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”). It’s from here that the plot grows increasingly more and more preposterous, as Chappie is conflicted by both the “gansta” lifestyle of his kidnappers and the more morally conscious embodiment of his programmer Deon, who desperately tries to get him back.

I had a lot of fun with this film, even though as hinted at I’m partially bias being in that I’m a fan of Die Antwoord, whose performances in the film are borderline if not full on self-parody, which I found amusing and interesting to watch when put into the context of the film. It also has a great electronic throbbing score by the legendary Hans Zimmer (whose work up to this point in film composing has always been more orchestral). The concept of the film itself is strong enough even if the plot is jarring and the execution seems funny and pointless.

This wound up being a film that I was much more entertained by than I was in its ability (or lack thereof) to be believable or to be taken too seriously. As you have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to enjoy it. As I was able to going into it which ultimately wound up being the case here. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anyone, except for die-hard fans of the genre and even more so, fans of Die Antwoord. But for those looking to kick back with something that doesn’t require much thought on behalf of the viewer other than to be somewhat of a standard slice of contemporary Science Fiction, I can assure you there are a lot worse ways that you can spend your time outside of watching this film. However, that being said, let’s just hope that Blomkamp takes his next project, the “Alien” reboot, a bit more seriously as he’s going to have quite a bit of fine tuning to do.

[B-/B]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Nightcrawler” 12.7.14

This was the second to last of my crop of movies to see to wrap up the end of 2014. The other being Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” which is scheduled to be released here in Portland later this month. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” doesn’t open here until January, so unfortunately it’s just going to miss the cut and therefore won’t be considered as a 2014 release even though it’s already opened in NY and L.A. I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding this one, and like I do with pretty much every movie I know I’m going to see these days, especially those in the theater, I shut myself off from talking to anyone who’s seen it, didn’t watch any trailers, nor did I read any reviews. As I’ve found this new approach walking into a movie with a total clean slate has made my moviegoing experiences a lot more exciting since I implemented it at the start of the year. To be truthfully honest I saw this film merely because of genre and the few blurbs I had stumbled upon unintentionally about it. But even more importantly because it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Who since 2009’s “Prince of Persia” seems to be doing everything right in terms of picking projects that he seems to find interesting, seemingly without a care in the world for what’s going to draw the people to the box office or what’s going to earn him the most money. In fact, I am so impressed by Gyllenhaal’s career trajectory since then that he has slowly inched his way into my top 5 favorite actors currently working in the film business today. He has put out one string of good films after another over the past few years. Which started in 2011 with Duncan Jones’ (“Moon”) brainy Sci Fi trip “Source Code”, then David Ayer’s (“Fury”) 2012 “End of Watch”, and the back-to-back films he’s done with French director Denis Villenueve in last year’s “Prisoners” and this year’s “Enemy”. The latter two performances which I considered to be right up there with Gyllenhaal’s best, if merely from an acting stand point. Sure he’s done some other great films like Richard Kelly’s cult hit “Donnie Darko” (2001) and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007). Those are certainly great films in their own respect. However up until this point in his career never has he been so consistently good. I personally thought he was nabbed of a Best Actor nomination last year for “Prisoners”. As I truly thought it was one of his strongest, most compelling performances to date. Then after having seen “Enemy” earlier this year and loving both the film and his performance as much as I did, I vowed to myself that I would pretty much see anything that he’s attached to from this point forward in his career. Then came the second Gyllenhaal film this year, “Nightcrawler”, a film that once again looked like it had the potential to be yet another great film from an actor who over the last few years has proven that you really can’t go wrong with seeing whatever this undeniably gifted young actor does next. It is because of my strong affinity for Gyllenhaal as an actor that I decided to catch this one while it was still playing in theaters, as I heard a very strong response to both the film itself and his performance.

We are first introduced to Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou, a man living in L.A. who is desperate for a job and is willing to take just about anything he can get. He seems to have zero qualifications or any kind of prior job experience but proclaims that he’s a “hard worker” to the employers he tries to persuade to give him a job, any job, at the start of the film. He seems to have no family, girlfriend, kids, or anything that would link him to the rest of the world. Except for the fact that he’s smart, persistent, and has a considerable amount of drive and ambition. One night he stumbles upon an accident and has a sort of epiphany as he sees the race of the reporters desperate to cover whatever story happens to be the biggest one of the night. Gyllenhaal’s Lou then decides that this is his calling and what he wants to do with his life. So he grabs a cheap camera and police scanner and begins to crack the codes of police dispatchers calls in hopes that he will be the first one in line to capture footage of whatever break out news story happens to be going on any given night. It is here that he meets his adversary in the form of Bill Paxton, a fellow freelance reporter who is the man who seems to have broken down this method of beating the cops to the scene of the crime or accident, all in hopes of capturing whatever footage he can get so that he can be the first to sell it to whichever news station will pay him the most for it. On one unsuspecting evening he documents a grisly scene of a murder, and gets his first taste of the potential of his newfound endeavor through a local news station whose director, played by Rene Russo, gives him his first paycheck and the promise of much more money to come if he sticks with it. Lou then begins to slowly fine tune his craft with the addition of a new camera, fire-red mustang, and an intern whom he hires on to help him become faster and more proficient in his almost addictive-like quest to get to the scene of the crime first, and over time he succeeds at doing so. And is in turn employed full-time by Rene Russo’s news station to bring them a story, night after night, which in turn increases his drive and ambition to be the absolute best freelance reporter in all of L.A. Then one night, he stumbles upon a scene of extreme violence and its aftermath, a pivotal scene that goes on to drive the rest of the film and the events that unfold after it.

This was a spectacular film that exceeded my moderate to high expectations. Throughout it made me think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to and who ironically enough I came to find after was produced by the same team as it. Mainly because I felt like part of the beauty of it lay in its subtext. Some people will view the film, much like “Drive”, as a straight ahead action-thriller. Which is fine and all. But underneath it all in its subtext I thought it was trying to say something much deeper than what appeared to be at its surface. Oddly enough I looked at it as something similar to that of “Scarface”. About having the drive and ambition in the pursuit of the American dream and wanting to be at the very top by whatever means necessary. Every decision Gyllenahaal’s character does seems to be driven by Capitalist thought. He becomes so incredibly obsessed with the prospect of delivering the next best news story that he’ll do just about whatever it takes even at the expense of those of others around him. Gyllenhaal once again amazes with his spellbinding performance in which he totally immerses himself into his character and puts on one hell of a show. His sunken face (apparently he lost a considerable amount of weight for this film) and beady eyes that look like they’re going to pop out of his head make him look like some kind of insect and acts as one of the many ways of reading into the film’s title. But besides the transformative piece he also really brings a certain depth and range to his character that border lines on someone with a serious mental illness who falls so deep into his craft that he begins to flirt with insanity. A character that brings to mind the late great Robin Williams in 2002’s “One Hour Photo” or better yet even, Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece – “Taxi Driver” (1976). He delivers thoughts, ruminations, and words at a mile a minute and comes across as a likely candidate for someone with Autism or Asburger’s Syndrome. It’s a piece of method acting that truly shows his incredible range as an actor. The story itself is utterly and completely captivating from start to finish and has a great sense of pacing. As while on his quest to capture the best news stories the film becomes highly riveting, tense, and psychological. Not to mention that it seems incredibly dark for a studio film (much like “Prisoners” was). His physical and internal transformation is simply an awe to watch. As he starts off as a nobody and brings himself on some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to uncover the truth, he becomes almost blinded by the world around him and loses his sense of self and identity, turning into some kind of monster. The supporting turns by both Bill Paxton and Rene Russo were also perfectly cast, and help anchor Gyllenhaal’s astonishing performance. This is a film that worked for me on a lot of levels, but mostly in the “can’t look away” turn by Gyllenhaal, that should garner him at least a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, if not an Academy Award nomination. Like “Enemy”, this is the second Jake Gyllenhaal film to totally blow me away this year, and is also his second film to likely wind up making my top 10 best films of 2014. This film both shook and rattled me and had me thinking long after the credits rolled. Which in the humble opinion of this writer, only the best ones seem to do.

[that sweet spot between a B+ and A-]