A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Never Let Me Go” (2010) 8.23.15

I’ve been anticipating revisiting this film for quite some time as soon as I saw it listed several months back as part of Oregon’s only student run non-profit cinema’s summer lineup. I thought it’d be a perfect choice for my meetup.com movie group as the members of the group have a rather vast taste in cinema and from what I remembered upon seeing it just about 5 years or so ago now, and more than almost any other film that’s come out in the years that have gone by since, admittedly was very little. Though what I do remember was being incredibly moved by the picture and it’s “meta-exercise” in that it blended Science Fiction, romance, and drama all in equal measure. That and it’s directed by the famed British director Mark Romanek, more known in his native country for being a very well-known music video and choreographer, until he delved into the world of film with 2002’s excellent but disturbing “One Hour Photo” with Robin Williams, which showed that he had a deft hand behind the camera in the feature film format as he did in music videos and commercials. That, and it was co-written by the know well-known author turned screenwriter turned director Alex Garland, who recently wowed audiences with his directorial debut – this year’s “Ex Machina”. Featuring a cast of mostly then young British actors Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan (pre-“Drive”), and Keira Knightley (probably the most well-known of the crop upon its release), and supporting turns by Domnhall Gleeson (from “Ex Machina”), Andrea Risborough (Michael Keaton’s mistress in “Birdman”), the oh so very talented Charlotte Rampling, and 2-time Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins (2008’s “Happy Go Lucky” and 2013’s “Blue Jasmine”). It’s a film littered with talent from almost every side – from its screenwriter to director to it’s amazing cast. And one that I was excited to revisit. particularly with a group of people from all age groups, many of whom had never seen it never mind heard of it.

The film takes its source material from the highly acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel of the same name. A very loose synopsis as I tend to like to provide with some of these older films for those of you who have already seen it as the plot begins at a prestigious boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere in the English countryside. It focuses on three life-long best friends who find themselves wrapped up in a love triangle; Kathy (Carey Mulligan) loves Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Tommy is in a loveless engagement to Ruth (Keira Knightley). But as the film unfolds layer by layer, we come to find out that they may not have as much time left (here’s where the Sci Fi element plays into the picture) here on earth, as they once imagined they might have.

“Never Let Me Go” is easily director Mark Romanek’s best work. From a technical standpoint, Romanek does an excellent job unfolding the tale bit by bit, hinting and leading the viewer in, making them work for it in their understanding of the story. It’s filmed in lush frames and gorgeous shots of the English countryside. And has a sad, melancholy feel that perfectly suits the film’s story about the 3 young leads and their disposition once they find out that they’re merely clones. Or better put, organ donors who were selected at birth to only live into early to mid adulthood, whose life expectancy depends on how many “donations” they’re asked to give before they expire. It’s a tragic story, but whose 3 leads bring a certain authenticity and real raw human emotion to their roles. Particularly that of Garfield, who shows here why he’s become the actor that he is today (remember this is pre-“Social Network” where he was virtually unknown). Carey Mulligan, who I’ve had a soft spot for ever since her strong work in her breakthrough Academy Award nominated role in 2009’s “An Education” and 2011’s “Drive”). Knightley, probably the most “well-known” of the bunch, does a serviceable enough job here and is puts in one of her better performances that’s impressive even if it doesn’t quite match the other 2 leads of whom she plays off of. But what was and is still so interesting to me is how universal and philosophical the film’s story deals with that should tug at the heartstrings of almost any viewer. All of us think about mortality and when it’s going to be our own time to “expire”. But what makes the film so interesting is that each of its characters understand that they’re time is limited to their short lifespan of around 30 years. Sure it’s a theme that deals with the notion of knowing one’s own lifespan and the inevitably of death. But the way in which it handles these themes are done with heartfelt emotion and grace. This is a film that will not please all audiences as its tone may be too melancholy for some and it themes exploring things we often don’t like to think about (i.e. our own mortality). But within it contains great direction and a screenplay by Garland that’s handled with care and sincerity. Never mind it’s 3 leads in Knightley, Garfield, and Mulligan, all of whom bring their A game and who being relatively unknown actors at the time, showcase their talent and prove why they’ve all become sought after young actors in Hollywood. This film moved me more this time than it did upon its initial screening, and in my humble opinion, it’s a master work in it’s 3 major components in the writing, directing, and acting fields. This is one that will linger on with me in the weeks to come and will for ever be remembered, despite it being somewhat underseen and underappreciated at the time of its release, as a stunning achievement and a reminder of what I value about certain films within cinema that are not only relatable but that we can find something ourselves within in it while viewing them.

[B+]

Never Let Me Go – Starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield

Sunday, Aug 23, 2015, 3:00 PM

5th Avenue Cinema
510 SW Hall Street Portland, OR

5 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The combination of heart-wrenching drama, romance, and dystopian sci-fi that is Never Let Me Go is easily director Mark Romanek’s best work. The film is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly regarded novel of the same name. The plot begins at a prestigious boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere in the English countryside. We focus on three l…

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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]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

I found it interesting that in the 100 or so+ reviews I’ve written since this blog’s inception in August of last year that I’ve not once discussed or shared how I feel about the works of the most important filmmaker of the past 50 years, Steven Spielberg. It’s probably because well, I can’t say I’m that big a fan of his as guys like him and George Lucas of the “Star Wars” films were single-handedly responsible for the death (I know that’s a big word) of the Golden Age of cinema, the 1970’s, and are noted for giving birth to the rise of the popcorn fare summer blockbusters which ultimately led to the art of film itself becoming commercialized. However one could say film has always been “commercialized” in a sense if go all the way back to the early days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Where the artistic side of the film was taken out and reduced to a mere form of entertainment. Though never was this contrast more apparent in the “change” from art film to that of the more mainstream that occurred towards the end of the seventies and early eighties with films like “Star Wars” and “The Indiana Jones” movies. Both hugely successful franchises that made a large imprint in terms of cinema history. And I deeply admire and respect both filmmakers for their vision and for the way in which they revolutionized the art form of film itself.

But if you look at the rather large filmography of Steven Spielberg (54 films and counting) and take a deep, hard analytical look at them, you’ll see why he’s the most important filmmaker of the latter half of the 20th century. And what interests me the most is more than any other filmmaker maybe ever, is the way in which he has the ability to straddle the line between commercial film and much more personal work, which to me is the most commendable attribute about the guy. I’ve always been a much bigger fan of the latter kinds of films that he’s done – films like “The Color Purple” (1985), “Empire of the Sun” (1987) “Schindler’s List” (1993 – a film I consider to be one of my top 5 favorite films of all time), “Amistad” (1997), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and “Munich” (2005). I’ve always favored these films over his more commercially viable films like the “Indiana Jones” series, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Hook” (1991), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “War of the Worlds” (2005), etc. The latter being all great works in their own right but with a considerable amount of mainstream appeal. While the former, seemed to be more personalized works that were deeply important to him as a filmmaker. And at least from my background as a student of film, are the kinds of films that I have a tendency to admire a lot more.

Within this large cannon of films Spielberg has made within his long and varied career are two of what I consider to be his best films are the ones that seem to be able to tow this “straddle the line” concept between mainstream and art film that I mentioned above. That being the enormously successful and influential “Jaws” (1975) which is really the first film that put him on the map and made him an almost household name. And his follow-up, this film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), both of which stay within a commercial context but showcase Spielberg the filmmaker’s more artistic side. While both films are very entertaining in their own respect, they’re also impeccably done from an artistic standpoint. I learned this first hand when I watched “Jaws” for the first time in high school at the guidance of a teacher of film. It was one of the seminal works in film that made me almost never look at the art form the same way again. And hit me on such a guttural level that putting it into words would be a bit too much of a daunting task to describe in words.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, while a much different kind of film in terms of genre than “Jaws”, is coincidentally not only his follow-up film to that but also my third favorite behind both it and “Schindler’s List”. It has been on my bucket list for quite some time now of movies that I chase to see on the big screen if given the opportunity. And boy was I excited when I saw that one of our local theaters in town was releasing it as a one-week engagement.

What’s so great about CEOTTK is that with the exception of maybe Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) it was the first film to deal with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. At least on the same kind of scope and level as that film. As I watched the film this time around on the big screen closely, I came to the realization of just how well executed it is from almost every single film-making component. The character and acting of Richard Dreyfuss as your simple-minded Joe Schmoe, who, after an encounter with a UFO, goes on the ultimate personal quest searching for answers is both compelling and thoroughly engaging throughout. As is its spectacular special effects and light show, which had my jaw gaping to both hear John Williams’ terrific score and see its astonishing visual imagery projected onto the big screen, with a story that produces both an undeniably compassionate and human one with an emotional core about an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

I also love the film’s timelessness and it’s appeal to both adolescents and adult thinkers alike. And more than any other Spielberg work, it feels deeply definitive in both its style and substance as well as being iconic and timeless. Finally, in what is maybe one of the single most greatest climaxes in film history – the alien mother ship sequence, is a technical delight, which had me looking up at the screen marveling collectively in awe at the brilliance of what I was seeing. This is one of the best Science Fiction films of all time that also works equally well as a thriller, and is a glimpse into the mind of Spielberg’s psyche, whose greatest gift as a filmmaker has always been his ability to grasp a hold of his viewers and allow them access to be able to marvel and wonder at the possibilities of the infinite.

[A]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Alien” (1979)

It is very difficult to talk “fact” when it comes to film. However when it comes to Science Fiction, one could say the closest thing to being fact is that Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), and Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) are the three most influential films to have come out of the genre of all time. And I would argue that all three of them are also the best. But when it comes to using the term best in relation to film, well, that’s a matter of opinion of course. What I will say is this – the fact that I got to see James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986) and its predecessor within the same month, on the big screen no less, is maybe by a mere act of god. But even more importantly, that I came to the realization after seeing both screenings, of how incredibly influential both films are. Not just in terms of their importance in film history, but in how much of an impact the “Alien” franchise has had on our culture and society as a whole. When I saw “Aliens” (1986) a little under a month ago now, I was awestruck by the vast number of people who came out to see a movie that was made almost 30 years ago now. I remember casually getting to the 750-person capacity theater 45 minutes early thinking that I would be one of the first in line. It turned out there were probably 100+ people in front of me. The movie eventually sold out, mind you again this is for a theater that seats 750 for a film that was made almost 30 years ago. It was an experience that’s difficult for me to put into words. It all felt so all inclusive. Like I was an integral part of something special. Which is truly one of the main reasons why I enjoy going to the movies so much, to be a part of that kind of experience.

As was the case with tonight’s screening of “Alien” (1979). Granted I showed up late (if you want to call a half an hour “late”) and was more shocked this time than I was the previous time to see the sheer amount of people in line to see it. This time being at a much larger venue, at Portland’s Empirical Theater which is within our city’s science museum, and seats about a 1,000. Well even arriving a half an hour early I was a few hundred people back. The scene there looked like something more akin to a big rock concert than it did to see a film that was made 36 years ago now. But what struck me even more about it was the age range by the looks of the people waiting in line. Everyone from teenagers to people my age to older adults stood in line at their chance to catch this film live on the big screen. Many of whom like me, were experiencing it for the first time. What’s so significant about this and why I feel the need to point it out is that movies really are timeless, and to see such a film with such a large audience that has made such a lasting imprint on our culture was nothing short of amazing. It finally came time to pile in when the usher announced by megaphone (there really were that many people in line) it was time to be let in. People scrambled in like cattle and to be honest, I just felt lucky enough to have gotten a seat. I buckled myself in as the house lights went down, which conjured up a sense of excitement that only a film of this caliber could possibly summon.

“Alien” is such a landmark achievement in terms of its impact on the film (as previously mentioned in my “Aliens” review – the original “Alien” is both my favorite Sci Fi and Horror film of all time). And to sum up why I love this film so much in a single paragraph is almost next to impossible. What I will say is that Ridley Scott’s film revolutionized the Science Fiction format. A genre which, up to that point, was mostly reserved for cheesy B movies and disaster flicks that came out of the 1950’s and 60’s. What Scott was able to do was resurrect a genre by first adding a high production value, which allowed for big-budget visuals, a breathtaking set design, and one of the most realistic creatures that still to this day, ranks up their with the best (and certainly one of the scariest). The first entry is essentially a meta exercise, perfectly blending and executing both equal parts horror and Sci Fi. The way in which Scott establishes tone and setting is simply a marvel of a feat. He creates a sense of isolation (hence the film’s tagline – “in space no one will hear you scream”) and a foreboding sense of dread and nerve-wracking suspense as the space crew Nostromo encounters some sort of unfamiliar space craft and its subsequent scenes, are all nail-bitingly tense in their execution. Scott rather deftly tracks the camera through every inch of the space craft’s corridor which feels like that of a stretching rubber band. The crew then explores the suspicious space craft. Which is where it really grabs a hold of you about a third of the way in and never lets up. It all starts with John Hurt’s character falling into what appears to be a womb of some sort, filled with egg-like pods. A face-hugging parasite latches on to his helmet, which at that point you get the sense that something is seriously about to go wrong. And it does. Much to the chagrin of Lt. Ripley (played by the first real female action hero in cinema – Sigourney Weaver) Ian Holm’s character forgoes protocol to quarantine the victim and lets him back on board. The scenes following, or shall I say “the scene”, is just as incredibly terrifying, if not more, every single time I see it. You could literally hear the audience gasp as many people like myself, seemed to know and prepared themselves for what was to come…

It’s at this pivotal moment and iconic scene that virtually the rest of the film takes off. Scott produces genuine thrills and scares as the film essentially becomes a game of cat and mouse, with the alien preying on the rest of the crew. And each time we see the beast’s double set of extending jaws, the movie becomes more and more terrifying as each unfortunate victim befalls resulting in one of the more fulfilling climaxes in cinema history.

The film’s true greatness lies within its ability to be both undeniably scary, nerve-wracking, but even more importantly, as a piece of thought-provoking art. The Oscar nominated visual effects by the late H.R. Giger are both highly original and unique. That and unlike its sequel, we hardly ever get to see the actual alien, except only for a few brief moments at a time, and it’s both terrible and beautiful when we finally get to see it in its full form. Another key important thing to note is that is was solely responsible for launching its then unknown actress Sigourney Weaver into an overnight star and film icon. I could go on and on and on about the many things I love about this film, but I don’t think I could possibly do it justice. What I will say is with each viewing, especially this one, given that it was on the big screen with a house full of “Alien” fans like myself, it acted as a reminder of why I hold this film in such a high regard. But even more so, it’s a glimpse into the past at one of the most seminal and important works that would go on to influence generations to come.

[A+]

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.

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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 (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Aliens” (1986) 3.28.15

People ask me all the time what my favorite horror film ever is. I tell them “the answer is easy, Alien“. Then they’ll ask me what my favorite Science Fiction film is of all time is and I’ll provide them with the same answer. When people ask me what my favorite action movie of all time is my answer has always been the same – Aliens. Then people will often times ask me what my second favorite Science Fiction film of all time is and again, my answer to them is always the same – Aliens. I hold the first two Alien films in the same kind of regard that most people hold Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part 1” (1972) and “The Godfather Part 2” (1974) in. What’s so great about the first two “Alien” films is their ability to combine different genres and craft them so perfectly in the way that they do. The first “Alien” (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, and the second, “Aliens”, directed by James Cameron, couldn’t be more different from one another. So that’s why much like the first two “Godfather” films, you’ll find that you meet people who are almost split down the middle or completely divided as to which one they like better. Because they’re both really just so goddamn good. What the first film did so well and why it was and still is so revolutionary for its time is was because it took what was otherwise a cheap genre of the time – the “scary monsters in space” one, and gave it new life adding in exquisite cinematography, a high budget production value, and a mood, feel, and tone that was both downright nerve-wracking and completely terrifying. Director Ridley Scott produced genuine thrills and made incredibly tense dramatic use of the film’s claustrophobic corridors. The first “Alien” also had both an originally unique and brilliant set and art direction along with Oscar-winning visual effects, with one of the most creatively designed looking creatures in genre film created by the late, great H.R. Giger. It also gave birth to star Sigourney Weaver, making her in almost international icon and feminist leader overnight. About a year ago I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to see the original “Alien” on the big screen for the first time, and I have to admit my experience with it that particular night, seeing it among a sea of movie buffs and fans like myself was really something hard to express in words. It was as if I was seeing it for the first time in the way that it was always supposed to be seen, in a packed, dark theater that was so quiet you couldn’t hear a pin drop. A perfect (and really the only) way to see a film in my opinion. My experience that night was so great and left such a lasting impression, that I vowed to myself that I would jump at the opportunity to see the second one under a similar setting if I was ever given the chance to.

Well lucky for me there’s a local theater up the street from where I live that specializes in showing A+ quality prints of older films. To give people like myself and others a chance to see some of their favorite films that they were maybe too young to see or in a lot of cases, weren’t even born yet a chance to see some of their favorite pictures on the big screen for the very first time. And boy do people come out of the woodwork and pile into the theater in droves when these events take place. I’ll put it this way, I was taken aback when I showed up a full half hour before showtime, to a theater that seats almost 1500, and found a line around the block of people waiting to get tickets. Luckily I had got there in enough time, because by 20 minutes before the movie started, I looked around and saw that the theater looked completely sold out. Mind you for a movie that was released in 1986 almost 30 years ago. After a bit of discussion with a fellow film aficionado like myself about the reason why we were there, which was essentially the same, to see one of our all time favorite films on the big screen, the house lights went down and the movie started which was met by quite a bit of applause by its 1500 person capacity theater.

James Cameron’s sequel, which also happens to be arguably one of cinema’s greatest ones, picks up where the first one lets off and finds Lt. Ellen Ripley (Weaver) being recovered in the space craft pod that she put herself in at the end of the first. It’s 57 years later, and Ripley is unfrozen by a military-like group of explorers. This so-called team, led by a great supporting cast of Michael Biehn (who the audience applauded for when his name came up in the opening credits), a young scene stealing Bill Paxton, the iconic Lance Henrikson (who plays the team’s only android – like Michael Fassbender in the prequel “Prometheus” (2013)), and the slimy, lecherous Paul Rieser, who plays the sort of corporate leader in charge whose agenda may be much different from that of the others. An agenda which includes Ripley being sent back to the former colony from the first one with a rag-tag group of soldiers to see what happened to the planet and investigate to see if it still contains any of its former inhabitants. If Ridley Scott’s first entry was more of a haunted house space frightener, James Cameron’s sequel is much more visceral, relentless, and furiously intense. More akin to an action packed thrill ride in which we get to see a lot more of the creatures that come in at about the half hour mark and stay for the entire rest of the film in one suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining scene after the next as the team is confronted with each of the many creatures. Culminating in one of the most exhilarating climax’s and ending sequences in maybe any movie I can think of as Lt. Ripley fights off the mother of the species. As the movie ended and the credits rolled it sounded like every single person in the entire audience was clapping. Which to me is one of the best reasons to see such a beloved film such as this one on the big screen. As you can feel like you’re transported to another place and time almost 30 years ago where one can only imagine the audience might have had this very same reaction. A reaction of almost everyone leaving totally satisfied with a buzz in the air that at least in the humble opinion of this writer, is very hard to find outside of one of our last remaining experiences that can be collectively shared by a group of people in real time. And to me this film is one of the all time greats and yet another fine example of the everlasting power of cinema.

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