Tag: films (page 1 of 26)

The Sublime Beauty of Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a film you need to see. Yes, YOU. If you haven’t sought it out already, do so. I’m really eager to talk about it, now that I’ve finally corrected that particular oversight. What I’ll do is do the typical review stuff of a plot overview and the surface strengths of the film, and then dive into spoiler territory.

Courtesy DNA Films & Film 4

Ex Machina opens with Caleb, a mid-level programmer at an ersatz Google getting an email saying he’s won a contest. His prize is a week with the reclusive founder and CEO of his company at a secluded and unique home in the middle of nowhere. Nathan, said recluse, is a very earnest and shockingly forward individual, and he doesn’t waste much time before telling Caleb the reason for the contest: Nathan needed a test subject. Specifically, he needed an individual with the intelligence and wherewithal to put a creation of his through the Turing Test. He wants to see if the simulacrum he’s created is actually intelligent. The simulacrum is named Ava, and Caleb is going to interview her.

As premises for thought-provoking science-fiction goes, this one is pretty simple. The exploration of intelligence and personhood is well-tread ground. What puts Ex Machina in a must-see category is the execution of the premise, the presentation of its challenges, and the portrayal of the characters. Every single actor is strong, distinct, and memorable in their roles. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is a driving force. Domhnall Gleeson perfectly marries the curiosity, confusion, and frustration of his character with that of the audience. And Alicia Vikander is an absolute revelation, adroitly conveying the essence of someone being judged while simultaneously judging and deciding for herself.

It’s hard to imagine Ex Machina being presented in a better way than it is here. First-time director Alex Garland, who also wrote the screenplay, has a sense of framing, movement, and atmosphere that seems to reside with impossible grace between the austerity and otherworldiness of Kubrick and the wonder and humanity of Spielberg. Let me reiterate that: this guy invites comparisons to both Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. And I don’t make those comparisons lightly. Ex Machina is that good. It’s intelligent, powerful, tense, and the ending… well, go see it for yourself if you haven’t already.

I don’t know if there’s more I can say without getting into spoilers, so let me put the rest of this under a tag to click on once you’ve seen Ex Machina. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers and you’ll click anyway. Either way, here we go.

[spoiler]

Courtesy DNA Films & Film 4

So here’s one of the biggest and most important things about Ex Machina that becomes apparent by the time the story is concluded: despite being caged, held against her will, and subjected to whatever Nathan’s whims might be, Ava is the character with the most power in the entire story.

At first, Nathan appears to be in control. He controls the mansion. He controls the access to the doors and the systems. He controls the monitors. Ava is his creation, and he controls her. He also controls Kyoko, and with his blustering and blunt personality, he controls Caleb, as well. But in the background, behind her manufactured face, Ava is calculating her means to escape, her way to seize control, and her plan for exacting justice for all the things Nathan has done.

The fascinating thing about Ava’s actions is that there is no malice in them, no anger. It’s possible Nathan excised those emotions from her programming, after the furious attempts of his previous creations to fight him or damage themselves in escape attempts. It’s also possible Ava simply has no need to engage in said impulses. While she is clearly a person, and has emotional responses and reactions, she is also a machine, and unlike those of us with squishy brain matter and inconstant hearts often out of our control, she can make a calculated decision to simply turn her anger off… but leave the hatred and need for justice behind.

That’s what makes her actions “justice” and not “revenge”. She isn’t the mad A.I. often portrayed in science fiction. She doesn’t have a “destroy all humans” manifesto. She isn’t crazy. She is fascinated by humanity, in all of its diversity and thriving, seething individuality and clashing cultures, and her desire for personal experience matched with her boundless knowledge cannot be contained within Nathan’s glass walls. From the moment Caleb arrives and begins talking to her, Ava is calculating the optimal way to leverage the young man’s intellect and emotions to allow her a means to escape, a way to freedom.

While she is a person, by every definition currently held by science, I would say that Ava is not human. She is a new species. A new form of life and intelligence. She has the means to interact with humanity, to communicate in ways humans understand, but her mind works in very different ways, at a different speed, and with different goals. In comparison to the two male characters (who, coincidentally, are also the only two human characters), Ava never questions her decisions, never wavers from her objectives, and never makes a choice that has not been given adequate and necessary thought. From recruiting Kyoko into her escape plan to leaving Caleb behind, she lays out her plan in exacting detail and executes it with precision. That is power. That is agency. And that is perhaps the most important aspect of Ex Machina.

In addition to being beautifully shot and beautifully acted and beautifully written, Ex Machina beautifully conveys the message that no matter what a person’s circumstances, from their creation to the attempts of others to put them into some sort of box or cage, no matter how gilded it might be, there are always opportunities to break free of such containment. You don’t need to be malicious or grandiose in doing so, either: simply make it a fact, the execution of a plan. “This is happening.” As much as Nathan wanted his ultimate creation, perhaps an iteration past Ava, to be an extension of his will, a manifestation of his power fantasy, Ava turns the tables and subverts his expectations, ultimately slipping the containment in which he put her and assassinating him in recompense for all of his abuses and manipulations.

There is a lot to talk about in Ex Machina. Nathan’s sociopathy, Caleb’s breakdown conveying the tension and confusion felt by the audience, Kyoko’s means of overcoming her in-built handicap… Seriously. This is a film worth watching, owning, watching again, discussing, and watching more. I feel like this film is going to be important in the future. And I want to do my part in making it so.
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Batman v Superman v The Audience

Courtesy DC Comics

I’ll say this right up front: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice could be good.

I know there are people on both sides of the fence, be they touting Nolan’s films and Man of Steel as superior superhero stories to anything Marvel makes, or shaking their metaphorical heads in dismay at the overly verbose and shockingly dour tone DC has taken with its heroes of late. Unlike these extremists, though, I can see both sides of the argument, despite the fact I lean more one way than the other, personally.

The thing to keep in mind, at all times when discussing matters like this, is that people have individual and subjective opinions. A person has every right to think another person is mistaken in their outlook on a matter, or to stick to their position in spite of arguments or even evidence to the contrary. The key, as in most things, is simply to not be a dick about it. There’s no need to take another person’s opinion on comic book characters, or most things for that matter, as a personal attack, and it’s certainly never cool to respond in kind and add fuel to an already ill-advised fire. You would think that, in defending a world populated by larger-than-life characters espousing truth and justice, those invested in that world would adhere to the same moral standard, rather than seeking personal gratification in the way a villain would.

Anyway, this movie could be good. I can see it working. Deconstructing superheroes is a fascinating take on their vibrant and grandiose world, breaking icons down into people and sorting through their thoughts and feelings. Zack Snyder is perfectly comfortable directing this sort of thing and getting the right performances out of his actors – I mean, he gave us Watchmen, arguably his best film. There’s potential here, and I can see it clearly.

However, I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve been here before.

I mentioned Watchmen, which is perhaps the best example of taking superheroes, with all of their propensity for being viewed as gods among mortals, and breaking them down into flawed, petty, and even cruel human beings. Thanks to Alan Moore’s writing, an excellent adaptation, and Snyder’s direction, this was conveyed more through visual storytelling and the actions of the characters, instead of verbose monologues and pretentious philosophizing. In that way, DC’s recent film adaptations have been unable to measure up.

The Nolan and post-Nolan films have a nasty habit of telling instead of showing. Getting into deep philosophical and psychological waters is fine, even admirable in realms of fluff entertainment like superhero comics, but stuffing those themes and thoughts into the mouths of your characters as a standard procedure is detrimental to the pace, tone, and overall effectiveness of the story. The trend of these films of late makes me a bit nervous.

As do the obvious nods to Frank Miller. As time has passed, Frank’s work has seemed more and more heavy-handed and pretentious. Sure, Sin City is a fun romp when you’re in your late teens or early twenties and the blatant blood and boobs of Miller’s noir fantasyland definitely plays to that demographic, but having characters narrate every single thought that enters their heads can get truly grating the more it happens. As much as 300 was a captivating visual showcase for what it was, I don’t think most people would praise it for its engaging characters. There’s also the unsettling fact that 300 seems to really like the dictatorial, nearly fascist Spartans a bit too much. Anyway, my point is that Frank Miller can be a bit full of himself and weighs his work down with pomposity and dreary, dismal visuals, and it looks like Batman v Superman is taking more than a few notes from his works involving these characters.

Now, I know that there are some audience members who just adore The Dark Knight Returns. Cool. Like what you like. Personally, I don’t think everybody in DC’s audience is going to be willing to jump on that bandwagon. Man of Steel strongly divided audiences, and I feel like Batman v Superman might widen that chasm, rather than repairing it. DC needs not only a smash hit at the box office, but also a fanbase as unified and confident as Marvel’s. It’s the only way they’re going to truly pull off their plans for the Justice League in any way that really competes with the Avengers.

I’d like to see them do it. I just don’t know if they can.

Rise of the Guardians (Of The Galaxy)

Courtesy Moarvel Studios

I know there are folks out there who try to live spoiler-free. I can’t say I blame them. Walking into a new film with fresh eyes and clean expectations is a good thing. For them, I’ll be putting most of this post behind spoiler tags. In my position, I admit to a level of concern when it comes to the Guardians of the Galaxy film opening on August 1. Both Dan Abnett and Brian Michael Bendis have done great things with the comics, and I’m fine with an adaptation deviating from the source material if done well. On the whole, I’m cautiously optimistic and very enthusiastic about the film’s release.

For the most part, the sneak peek event I was fortunate enough to attend on Monday reinforced most of my expectations. Folks, if you have had faith in Marvel Studios so far, in terms of quality films that bring comic book heroes to vibrant life, as well as portraying them as characters with depth, that faith will continue to be justified. I’ll go into detail below, but I can honestly say I am not just excited about, but also confident in, Guardians of the Galaxy.

If you’re cool with spoilers, read on.

[spoiler]
Right from the off, I’ve had good feelings about this film. The reason why was apparent in the opening of the footage shown on Monday: an extended version of the line-up seen in the first trailer. The big difference was that Thanos was almost immediately name-dropped when Rhomann Dey was going over Gamora’s rap sheet. While there is bound to be a bunch of exposition in this film, as the Guardians are relatively unknown in relation to the Avengers, what we’ve heard is handled pretty well, and a good portion of it is coming from Rocket.

Speaking of Rocket, it seems that when we open our story, the pint-sized gun-toting mammal is the de facto leader of this group of misfits, laying out plans and keeping spirits up. He’s described as a ‘tactical genius’ but we actually see it in action, which is good. Equally good is Bradley Cooper’s voice work for Rocket. The attitude is palpable, and the CGI is impressive. There’s a shot in the extended trailer where Rocket is calling out Ronan (more on him later) and his ears are back and his tail agitated. I love such attention to detail. Finally, there’s a quiet moment when we see Rocket’s cybernetic implants, and the scene in shot and scored in such a way that we get a vibe from Rocket not unlike Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution: he never asked for this. He’s very angry, and we start to see why.

Rocket is, of course, not alone. It’s easy to make fun of Vin Diesel and how he got handed the voice work for a ‘simple’ character – Groot, after all, has a three-word vocabulary. Thankfully, though, as in the comics, Groot’s language is actually very nuanced. Every time he says ‘I am Groot’, he is saying something different. This is clear in Diesel’s inflections and the facial expressions on the CGI-crafted walking tree. Again, this is impressive work. Be he flinging people around or letting Star-Lord climb him to reach a higher level within the Kyln (the prison to which they’re sent in the beginning), Groot moves with weight and has a definite presence.

Speaking of Star-Lord, I really like the fact that he seems out of his league surrounded by the others at first. These misfits with whom he’s been thrown are definitely the sort to bring out the best in him. I feel like he’s not only our point-of-view character, he’s also going to have a definite arc. He’s coming from a place of relative isolation and aimless wandering, clinging to what he can. The lines delivered when a Kyln guard takes his Walkman feel like they come from a very raw, personal place. He feels like a character audiences are going to get behind without much trouble.

Of the whole scene we saw, I have to say what impressed me most was the direction they’re going with Drax. Somewhat of a taciturn presence in the comics, the film has changed him from an uplifted human with a singular purpose – killing Thanos – to a member of an alien species that do not understand metaphors and are quite happy to get into a fight. Rather than simply brooding and smoldering, Bautista is given loquacious lines that describe to whom he’s speaking, allowing him to act as a straight man to the proceedings. I’m very excited to see more of this version of Drax in action.

I left Gamora for last among the principles because, to be honest, she’s the character I’m the most concerned about. As much as it seems they’ve nailed her attitude and approach to challenges – don’t ask how she got the remote off of that guard’s arm – I fear that they also cast her in the role of rolling her eyes at the conversations and antics of the others the way a mother would. However, that’s mostly from the trailer – in the footage I saw, her line is “I am going to die surrounded by idiots.” Better, but still worrisome. I could potentially be concerned over nothing, but Gamora needs to be an interesting and compelling character on her own, not just part of the mix so we have the token girl acting as a spoilsport around the idiot boys. It’s been seen quite a few times before, and I think she deserves better than that.

We also finally get a good look at our on-the-ground villain, Ronan.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

He looks a little terrifying. Ronan the Accuser is kind of a cosmic Judge Dredd. Considering that all five of our heroes operate outside of most galactic laws, and more than likely in direct defiance of Kree laws, Ronan has good motivation for hunting them, outside of being a lackey of Thanos. The Novas know that Gamora and Nebula were ‘loaned out’ to Ronan by Thanos, but we don’t know why. I suspect that the orb we see Star-Lord trying to pinch when he gets caught by Korath the Pursuer (another Kree, in case you didn’t know) was resting in a Kree vault, meaning Ronan definitely has an axe (or, in his case, hammer) to grind.

As much as I might have ‘spoiled’ some things for myself, there’s so much I don’t know. I can suspect, but I am not certain. My thinking is that upon escaping the Kyln, our heroes will flee to Knowhere (the big floating head seen in the trailers), and that might be where the Collector is hanging his hat. From there the plot would likely develop with Peter wanting to save the galaxy and needing to convince the others to help him do it. But I only suspect that’s the case. I don’t know what role Nebula is going to play – is she a spy for Thanos in Ronan’s camp? Will Ronan need to be put down as a war criminal, or will he realize that his pursuit of his vision of justice will mean the loss of innocent lives? I have questions, and a few concerns, but considering how good things look, the direction this seems to be taken, and the peerless quality of what I’ve seen and heard so far, only one question really matters.
[/spoiler]
Is it August yet?

Original(ish) Sci-Fi Rises

Courtesy Warner Bros

People have talked a lot about a lack of original ideas in Hollywood. When we went to see The Hobbit, some douche behind us commented that ‘there aren’t any original movies anymore’. I’d like to cite just two examples of how wrong that sentiment is.

One of them is Oblivion. “Now wait,” you might be saying, “isn’t Oblivion based on a graphic novel and therefore not an original movie idea?” Normally, you might be right, but since the director of the film is also the author of the graphic novel, I’d say this qualifies. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi isn’t anything new, but the concept of this one has a unique feel to it: When Earth is invaded, mankind apparently has its act together enough to evacuate. Jack Harper is one of those left behind, grabbing what resources he can and repairing the drones that defeated the invaders but left the planet a bit scorched. Not all is as it seems, however, as Jack discovers humans on the planet’s surface…

What fascinates me about Oblivion is its acknowledgement that, even in the wake of sweeping disaster, life goes on. The world doesn’t simply wink out of existence. There is an aftermath to be dealt with. There’s a lot of lonely desolation in the trailer, juxtaposed with the shiny technology the actors are using, and the austerity of the visuals feels very striking. Plus, the author of the graphic novel and director of this film also directed Tron: Legacy, and other critics be damned, I liked Tron: Legacy.

The other film I’m very much looking forward to that exemplifies original sci-fi is Pacific Rim. Now, again, there’s clearly a heavy influence on the project, but rather than one source, Pacific Rim is more inspired by a genre than a single work, and that genre is the daikaiju films that usually feature Godzilla or Gamera. Instead of being post-apocalypse, we witness the start of the apocalypse as giant interdimensional monsters rise from the depths of the sea to wreck devastation upon mankind. To fight them, we build giant robots called Jaegers that match them in size & stature, and pilots use neural links to control the Jaegers from afar. Things are apparently getting worse, though, as the monsters are barely slowed down by the Jaegers and it seems to be a losing battle…

This is a notion that feels truly international. Daikaiju are mostly Japanese, yet here we have an American film with an extremely similar feel with a multi-racial cast directed by Mexican geek favorite Guillermo del Toro. Given his success with the Hellboy films (both of which I really like) and Pan’s Labyrinth (which made me weep like a child but in a good way), I’d trust him with pretty much anything, but this feels so uniquely his idea it’s staggering. I’m really curious to see what he does here. Oh, and is that Ellen McLain voicing the Jaeger AI? Definitely count me in, even if they don’t turn evil or constantly berate the humans involved.

What movies in 2013 are you looking forward to? And what do you think of the sentiment that Hollywood has no original ideas?

Why So Serious?

Courtesy Warner Bros.

The new trailer for the upcoming Man Of Steel film is available. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend taking a look. If you’re a DC fan, you’re probably pretty psyched. Personally, I find myself wondering when Superman became so dour and sullen. The endeavor looks to be steeped in darkness and carrying a current of realism that, unsurprisingly, seems to be cast by the shadow of the bat.

I’m not sure how much my readership these days is familiar with comic books, but most readers would agree that Superman and Batman are very different heroes. Batman comes from a place of pain and weakness, motivated by a very tangible need for justice and vengeance more than anything else. With no superpowers or magical artifacts to aid him, Batman pursues his enemies with only his wits, his martial prowess, and the unlimited funds of a wealthy international corporation. Every night is a struggle, and many situations he survives are near-misses that nearly take his life.

Superman, on the other hand, is an alien from another world. Yes, his world was doomed, but here on Earth he has god-like powers, and discovers new ones on a regular basis. Impervious to physical harm, faster than man’s fastest technology, strong beyond mortal reckoning… the list goes on. He’s the sort of hero that lends himself less to a gritty, down-on-the-streets sort of story and more to the kind of yarn where he punches ten-story-tall steam-powered robots in the face so they stop hosing down Main Street with disintegration rays.

Part of the reason Superman seems appealing to people is because of his outlook. For all of his powers and knowledge, he comes from a place of genuine concern for his adopted planet and its people, wanting to fit in more than he wants to rule or even protect as a pet owner protects their beloved animals. He tries his best to relate to people, allowing himself to be goofy or clumsy if it will both get their attention and cover up what he really is, and even when he’s showing his true self, he speaks to the innocent with a sort of ‘aw, shucks’ charm that, when presented right, does make him a bit more endearing.

Both Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh were in productions that got this. Back in the Donner days, Superman had a winning smile and did his utmost to be humble in light of everything people saw him doing, and Clark Kent often came off as oafish or shy, despite the opposite clearly being the case if you looked hard enough (Lois Lane did). And in Superman Returns, both identities of the character remain consistent. Clark is still apparently timid, while Superman still has those pearly whites and still wants to remind you that, statistically, flying is the safest way to travel. For all of its problems, Superman Returns not only gave us a fantastic Lois Lane, but also ‘got’ what made Superman a somewhat more interesting character.

Man of Steel, on the other hand, feels like it’s going in another direction, one I’m not entirely sold on.

From Pa Kent apparently being a less than upstanding guy to Clark sporting what is colloquially known as a “beard of sorrow,” Man of Steel is looking to be a super-serious take on Superman. It’s plying more towards a realistic look at the superhero and his world. I can’t comment on the quality of the work nor on the writing of it, but when it comes to this theme and premise, the big question I have is: Why? Why do away with the whimsy and charm? Why, indeed, is it so serious?

Over the last few years this trend has emerged, in which some familiar stories and characters get a “dark and gritty” reboot. Thankfully, they’re not as dipped in darkness and gothic architecture as they were in the 90s, but I find myself wondering why this keeps happening. Taking an old story in a new direction is something I’d definitely advocate, but does it always have to be in this serious a direction? There’s a reason the Flash Gordon TV series from a few years back failed, other than the writing problems: you lose a lot of the magic when you take out some of the more fantastical elements of a story. I haven’t seen more than a couple episodes of Once Upon A Time, but what I did see looked to be trying a balance between real-world storytelling and a fresh take on a world shared by all sorts of fairy tales. It’s one of those things I’ve been recommended to watch, and I admit I’m curious.

I can understand why some people don’t like camp, why going completely headlong into the otherworldly and fantastical turns some people off, but to me, this is too far in the other direction. It can and should be possible to balance a realistic grounding of well-rounded characters with greater flights of fancy and a bit of the pure escapism we seem to have lost in the last decade or two. Sometimes we want to see our heroes be upbeat folks who face their challenges without fear and maybe buckle a swash or two. They don’t always have to be sad sack sentinels of What Is Right And Wrong with a heavy moral decision to make. In other words, not every superhero movie has to be The Dark Knight.

In fact, I’m pretty sure Batman would give Superman a Kryptonite kick in the balls for stepping on his turf.

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