A Trip To The Movies: Review – “The Gift” 8.29.15

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for The Gift

My friend and I happened to decide on this film, after we showed up at another, only to find out that it was sold out. Initially I was reluctant – as even despite of seeing its many fine cumulative scores on the movie websites I frequent, it just looked like something that all seemed just a little bit too familiar like something I’d seen before. That, and while I really like 2 out of its 3 main leads in both Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”, “The Town) and Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom”, “Warrior”, “Zero Dark Thirty) who also wrote, starred in, who made his directorial debut with his film here. It’s also Edgerton’s second writing credit, as he also co-wrote 2014’s “The Rover” collaboratively with his “Animal Kingdom” director – David Michod. Though outside of this, and probably my major reason for my reluctance to wanting to see it, was the casting of Jason Bateman. An actor most known for his work in comedy (and mostly bad comedies might I add) and who I really couldn’t possibly envision playing a serious role such as the one it looked like he played in this. This idea of my not wanting to see a film because it has a specific actor or actors is somewhat of a new thing for me (at least in the past few years). Bateman is among that list of actors alongside Vince Vaughn (who in my humble opinion was terribly miscast in season 2 of this year’s “True Detective”).There are a slew of other actors like Bateman and Vaughn, who have made a string of so many bad films, that I develop what I call my own form of “blacklisting”, in that I don’t even have to hear anything about a certain film if I know it stars one of these actors of which I am referring to. That said, this looked to fit into a genre of which I personally can attest to really liking – the psychological, thriller, mystery one. And given Edgerton’s already proven gifts of being a proficient actor and writer. I was able to overlook the fact that it starred Bateman and walked into it with a clean slate, not really knowing anything about it other than it was Edgerton’s directorial debut and the 3 main leads who starred in it. That, and I read one blurb that described it as this year’s “Gone Girl” (2014) so I was intrigued.

“The Gift” centers around a young married couple named Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who at the start of the film, are relocating back to California from Illinois because of a huge promotion that Simon has received. This said town in California is also very close to where Simon grew up before him and his wife moved to Illinois several years back. After some setting up of the story, mainly the introduction of the married couple and their characters. Simon has a chance encounter with a former acquaintance from his former school days, the slightly off-kilter Gordo (played by Edgerton). Edgerton seems incredibly happy to reconnect with Simon and starts showing up unexpectedly, always bearing gifts. To Simon, he feels threatened by this. Whereas his wife, Robyn, while admitting it is slightly strange, likes to think a bit more highly in people and views Gordo’s gifts as just good faith gestures and simply nothing more than that. So when the gifts start piling in more and more and certain valuables of theirs go missing, Simon becomes more and more increasingly threatened. And somewhat to the dismay of his wife, let’s Gordo know explicitly that he is no longer welcome at their house. This sets off the wheels in motion for the rest of the film, as secrets are exposed and lies covered up, and as Simon and Robyn distance themselves further and further from one another as certain truths are brought into light. We as an audience learn that there are layers and layers of lies and deceit that unfold as we try to figure out who’s responsible for all of it.

The film wound up being a highly rewarding experience even given that my expectations of it were admittedly slightly below average going into it. It took me by quite a surprise in several different areas. It’s a fine example of a of the “stalker” family drama genre. Drawing comparisons, at least to me, to the 1990 film “Pacific Heights” that starred Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, and Matthew Modine. Another film about an unsuspecting couple who deals with a rather unruly tenant who is willing to go to any lengths or cost to expose the truth. Bateman does a serviceable enough job as the husband, and doesn’t necessarily add or detract (which I thought he would) from the film. As does Rebecca Hall as his wife, an actress who, at least in my opinion, always brings her A game to whatever project she involves herself in. But the real credit here is due to writer, actor, and director Joel Edgerton, who in his directorial debut, handles a rather complex and intricate script with a deft hand and a sense of confidence in his cat and mouse setup. The thing I personally would like to highlight about the film, which I personally feel like only the best ones do, particularly of films of this genre, plays with audience expectations and keeps them second guessing throughout almost the entire duration of the film. Just when I thought I had the film figured out within its first act, the film defied everything I thought it was going to be about, and proves to be a smart and refreshing psychological suspense thriller, with a creepy and dark tone throughout like last year’s aforementioned “Gone Girl”. Where we as a viewer (and I will say we because the rest of the theater patrons seemed to have a similar response – at least from the vocalizations I could hear from those seated around me) are stretched out like a rubber band and left on the edge of our seats trying to figure out the many of its plots intricacies. Even given that it got a wide release (probably because of the casting of Bateman), it still felt entirely indie, and none of it (and I mean none) played to audience expectations like so many other films do. It takes a lot of work on behalf of the viewer to constantly disassemble and reassemble its many different changes and shifts in plot developments. Which I personally thought was its greatest strength. And despite it becoming slightly confounding towards the end, it’s something that I think I would and could recommend to just about anyone.

[strong B]

Advertisements

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]

 photo VTS_01_4_20090418163025.jpg

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: “’71” 3.14.15

Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.

‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot

This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.

[B+]