Saturday, 11 April 2015

"John Wick" review: excellent action revenge movie

"John Wick" brings back to us Keanu Reeves in a modern ballistic and frenetic action revenge movie. Make no mistake as the trailer is misleading. This one man vs hundreds of noobs vehicle is far more clever and thoughtful than the promotional materials would have you think.
Adrianne Palicki makes a great second antagonist
Direction: Chad Stahelski has worked with Keanu before in the Matrix trilogy as his stunt double. What is quite exhilarating here is the fact that he confidently displays skills not only into staging the raging hand to hand combat sequences but into delivering lots of modern neo-noir atmosphere. 

Keanu Reeves: It is great to see Keanu back. I am always a fan of his work and I think roles like these suit him best. By far his finet work to date, "John Wick" provides Keanu Reeves an emotional platform to base his character. Unlike most action era films, we can related to John's psychological status as a raging pitbull that since it lost its handler-owner (see his dead wife), it does not know what to do with all that rage. There is particularly a great scene that showcases quite rarely if I might add the acting skills of Reeves when he reads the letter from his recently deceased other half. Perhaps, this role brings back something closer to his unfortunately real life (he lost his wife instantly in a car accident) and he sells it REALLY WELL. Besides this, the role of Wick requires a certain finesse and panache and at the age of 48 (when it was filmed) Reeves shines quite a physical proneness with excellent and convincing Jiujitsu throws and grabs that would make any 20 year old to cry (see also the excellent "Man of Tai Chi"). With the grace and the skill of a martial artist, Reeves throws himself from one set piece to another and carries the entire film on his shoulders despite solid support from everything else. Welcome back Neo. We missed you.
I want that poster
Cast: The rest of the cast are good with small yet intriguing roles that have sharp characterization instead of being mono-dimensional filler for the screentime. In particular, Michael Nyqvist is a joy with his deadpan mannerisms and lack of despair who happens to deliver one of the greatest "ohs" in the history of cinema. Ian McShane seems to be having a blast as the owner of the continental (more on that later) and Adrianne Palicki makes quite a solid impression as the lethal assassin-antagonist. William Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Alfie Allen are all solid support to small but key roles that advance the plot.

Story: At the surface, "John Wick" seems to the typical average ageing action vehicle. Total retired badass kills everyone in not necessarily convincing ways for both his age or movie proceedings and lack of creativity - thank you trailer. A closer look though can reveal much much more. "John Wick" has a heart and it is quite surprising that stunt people are behind this production rather than full known talents or even action filmmakers. The enganging touching story of a man losing his wife and getting connected emotionally through her parting gift - a puppy - only to lose it at the hands of Russian gangsters, makes for a compelling take to the much tired revenge thriller. John Wick requires emotional closure and grief and the way the director is handling these scenes is quite remarkable for his first time. With a rich variety of supporting characters and antagonists surrounding our anti-hero, "John Wick" emerges triumphant in the movie scene with a intriguing story.

Mythology: Not only the story does not lose any pace but it manages to establish an interesting mythology around a hidden world in a similar fashion to "Kill Bill" through an applied neo-neoir filter. Hotel like services -continental- for assassins worldwide to check in and out when travelling for "business", "cleaning" services for the reward of shiny golden coins and ambiguous moral codes - you never strike a fellow assassin in neutral ground much like "Highlander" - insert a rather curiosity attracting aspect to the chaotic proceedings and grab the attention of the viewer via clever world building.
The action is ballistic and Reeves sells its fantastially
Cinematography: As his most impressive work to date, the cinematography of Jonathan Sela is among this year's best. A wonderful dark blue, grey and black palette embraces the world of John Wick with sharp chromatic antithesis when it comes to nightclubs and indoor settings. The meticulous camera work and various angles only enhance the neo-noir effect in a similar fashion to that one of "Drive" although without the pretentiousness. Each environment oozes with character and the slick costume design simply compliments that further.

Action: The major selling point of "John Wick" are the staggering amounts of action. While starting as a slow burning movie, once the events occur that will spiral Wick out of his norn, the film never drops the bar. Plenty of fights infused with precise gunshots of a top form Keanu reveal a nasty and beautifully stage ballet of violence and blood. Less noisy than the gun-fu of John Woo and more accurate than Neeson's rampage, Wick begins his vengeance as a dog that shows no mercy, an unstoppable juggernaut that will use every breath of his body to annihilate his opponents till he is the only standing through a careful selection of movements, grabs and shots, lots of headshots. The nightclub sequence with the eclectic soundtrack from Le Castle Vania is sure to be remembered for the years to come as the body count is increasing at each heart beat.

Anything bad: Not really, but if I had to nitpick, I would have chosen the slightly downplayed finale and the rather short screentime of McShane and Dafoe. But I guess anything that follows that onslaught could be a bit underwhelming.

"John Wick" will be remembered as a great action revenge movie that never goes over the top with CGI bullshit or over-acting. A good script, a fast pace with great hand to hand combat sequences infused with thrilling cinematography, direction and the best performance in years from Reeves make "John Wick" a modern action masterpiece.

+ great performance from Keanu Reeves
+ fantastic action set pieces
+ that club scene.....
+ brilliant soundtrack
+ solid supporting cast
+ story is quite engaging
+ world building
+ mesmerizing cinematography
- a bit underwhelming finale
- not enough Dafoe and McShane


Sunday, 5 April 2015

"Furious 7" review: best entry in the franchise

It will be entirely pointless to try to justify the existence of the now seventh film in the fast and the furious franchise. Seriously, if you have not seen any of the previous six, there is no reason to read what I have to say about this entry. It is more of the same and actually a whole lotta more with a new twist. 
Our gang
Direction: Justin Lin, the helmer of the previous two hugely successful installments - "fast five" and "fast & furious 6" - could not return due to scheduling conflicts and passed the torch to horror maestro James Wann. Wann known as the mastermind behind the first "Saw", the creepy "insidious" franchise and one of the scariest films in recent memory "The conjuring" was hired to do the job. Now how can a man who has been used to work with small budgets and a rather decent cast of actors and actresses could pull off such a heavy stunt and action oriented monster? Rest assured he gets the job done and although sometimes he might be using some obvious CGI, he storms through the action test with flying colours. Surprisingly, he even stages good hand to hand combat scenes suggesting that this is filmmaker that could potentially tackle various genres in the future if he wants to effortlessly. Horror geeks will recognise some nice stylistic flourishes towards the fight sequences already present in the "conjuring" and "insidious" giving an extra bit of visual flare that usually is lacking from films of such ...magnitude.

Story: Potentially the most important bit in the sixth sequel now, is the story no matter how silly that sounds. Despite some gigantic plot holes, the screenwriter is trying his best to infuse his now well known characters with a bit more depth and the whole puzzle of plots and subplots is being held up together with a very common and overly used cinematic glue: the theme of family. Toretto and his gang are being hunted by Deckard Shaw, brother of Sebastian Shaw (who somehow survived in a surprising twist). See Toretto tries to protect those whom he considers family whereas Shaw wants revenge from what they did to his little sibling, get it? It is an interesting dynamic that puts Shaw mostly into a anti-hero type rather than in the category of full-blown villain for the sake of it. However, the film does not involve the hunting of the Toretto crew by Shaw and this is where it feels two separate ideas have been pasted together with a thrown in heist that could be a means to an end to the cat and mouse game with their nemesis. After this takes a good chunk of one hour, we are back in game with the final confrontation that frankly at this point it might be a bit tiresome with even more chases and explosions.
Statham having a great fight with the Rock
Action: which brings me to the main point. The car chases and the now worldwide known over the top stunts that the franchise has been well aware that it should deliver. Each film particularly after the fourth segment, has delivered plenty of eye catching death defying stunts. "Fast Five" especially displayed a taste for vehicular carnage at the streets of Rio that so far has been only matched with a tank sequence in the highways of Spain. Here we have cars been thrown off a plane, jumping from one skyscaper to another(!) and been faster than drones and helicopters! Sure, it is so absurdly over the top, that you cannot help but to have a massive grin in your face with the sheer unbelievability of the proceedings. In addition, to the insane car chases, explosions, car flippings, there is a surprising amount of hand to hand combat, more than before. Ronda Rousey gets a glorifying cameo and a nice cat fight with Michelle Rodriguez, Tony Jaa pops in to show off his talented body skills whereas the first fight between the Rock and Statham should go down as one of the best (unrealistically of course) fights in film history. 

The villain: In perhaps cranking up to 11 villain mode, screenwriter Chris Morgan has now created quite the hype after the "Fast & furious 6" post credits sequence. The moment Jason Statham appears as a total badass threatening our heroes, oh no you did not! Statham, in perhaps his most enjoyable role in years, dominates the screen and gets a big chunk of awesome one liners and it is by a mile the best antagonist in the entire series. Unstoppable, determined (with a solid reason) and fierce with a chaotic introduction that brings back memories from Ledger's Joker exit from Gotham Memorial, he is never been reduced as usually these type of films do a punchbag for the good guys at the end. Instead he has been used as a deus-ex-machine type of script device that when things go wrong, they can get a whole lotta worse with him popping in every fifteen minutes like a vicious pitbull that never stops. Nitpick: I must say that I feel his character feels a bit side tracked during the middle segment of the movie - heist et al - when Djimon Hounsou's warlord comes to play only to re-appear energised towards the end.

Characters: Their interactions with each other are still the best bit of the film - and the laugh generator - and despite sorely missing Han and Gisele (:(), the new addition of the hacker Ramsey is quite cool. Diesel stills looks frowned no matter what - seriously when was the last time he smiled? Other newcomers include Kurt Russell's fun to watch "Mr Nobody" who is having the time of his life, Tony Jaa as an expert kick ass one dimensional henchman and Djimon Hounsou in the wasted role of the bad warlord. The only down bit of these characters are their unstoppability because basically they kick all types of ass, surviving impossible odds, beating the crap out of anyone with no military training - a man of Toretto's traits would not even last a battle with Statham's special forces guy - and even enduring horrific injuries without the tiny medical inconvenience being shown off on the screen. But it would be pointless to argue that now in the seventh film. The filmmakers do not ask you if you like this. If you didn't you would not say anything after 14 years! and they are right. Either go for it or don't.

Paul Walker: After Paul Walker died during the shooting of the film, there was word that the movie will not continue. However, through digital face substitution and the usage of body doubles (his brothers), the film was completed with some re-writes. I mentioned above that there is a strong presence of the family theme. Although used previously, here it makes bittersweet sense since Walker was a very close friend to Diesel and the film nicely wraps a farewell goodbye to the actor both in film and real time. 

Conclusion: I guess the "fast and the furious" franchise has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Like Arnie's adventures in the 80's, you know what you are going to see and since each film brings back more and more money, there is no need to stop. Brainless and harmless entertainment never bothered anyone. In a few years, people will look FF for what it is - an insane rollercoaster although an unbelievable one - that offers plenty of eye candy and car carnage with fun to watch characters. And sometimes that is enough. "Furious 7" achieves the unbelievable - being perhaps the best entry in a franchise that now has seven films.

+ character dynamics
+ Statham as the villain
+ vehicular mayhem at its finest
+ surprisingly good fight sequence
+ main theme of family gets strong focus here
+ hugely entertaining set pieces
+ James Wann's directio
- too long
- feels like two films combined into one
- Main villain gets sidetracked towards the middle
- survival of the most impossible odds and injuries


Monday, 30 March 2015

"Seventh son" review: an average fantasy epic

I am starting to notice a trend in Hollywood. When you have massive films with a dodgy script and yet attached to them a reliable cast with the premise of bringing gravitas to your mediocre cinematic vehicle, producers select directors that have no credible history of being able to manipulate such epic proportions well. Take for example "Snow-white and the Huntsman", "Maleficent", "Expendables 3", "47 Ronin", the upcoming "Jurassic World" (which I hope it is going to turn out ok) and now the "Seventh son". So what went wrong? 

Good costumes and that's it
Story: To continue my last sentence above, nothing. It is just so unbelievable average that you would think the script was generated through a random text algorithm that picked the most common concepts observed in the genre and added them in such ease that it is impossible not to look with confusion. Particularly, when other fine examples in the same pattern have showcased much more charisma, authenticity and frankly a bigger entertaining value ("Solomon Kane" and the elephant in the room, "Lord of the rings"). Hell, even the franchise of Narnia had a more compelling story than this. Yes there is the reluctant apprentice, the tough with a gold heart master, the evil villain with no regrets, the unwilling villain's servant, the over protective mother, the arrogant henchmen. Did I miss something? They should have included the wise old king or the tyrannic young monarch for a good measure. Despite a rather solid pace, the movie progress from point A to point B with no surprises and a predictable and frankly disappointing climax that does not even deliver in terms of excitement. The shoehorned love story - taking place in less than a week - is so utterly ridiculous and just a plot turn for the heroes to lose ground that insults my brain cells.

Mythology: Is this the fault of the book that the movie is based on? Probably not. There are quite a few nodes to the world that the book is representing but here we get glimpses of creatures and informative exposition that we do not actually see anything more than the main characters. If you take a closer look to "Hellboy II: the golden army", you can see how the love of a director can transform the entire movie into a massive cinematic box, enriched with such vivid detail and wonderful creature design that even one liners have meaning in the world build up. On the other hand, "Seventh son" is trying too hard to become something it should not - a fantasy friendly flick with not enough witty humour to keep the kids entertained and not enough action chops to attract the adults.
Bridges is having a ball with his role but the script does not give him much
PG-13: The death of films like these is that despite the horrific acts of violence - stabbings, decapitations, burnings, crushings - there is not a single drop of drop. And since the bodies disappear afterwards through-an-innovative-then-due-to-"Blade"-but-now-cliche-visual, there is no real connection or dramatic tension as to what the characters have endured. Sure they may kill hundreds of minions but at the end, they will be standing in an empty field, stripped away from the visual outcomes of their actions.

Action: and speaking of action, is it any good? It is not bad, but it is not good either. There is nothing memorable here - from the early skirmishes to the final "battle", it is by the numbers spectacle that does not thrill nor bore. It just happens. You can have all the four armed men, witches and trolls as you want, but if you do not know how to make the fight interesting, then interestingly you either doing something wrong or you have no idea about how to do something (see for example "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" as a guide to the ultimate guilty pleasure flick of similar genre). 
He is there for like a minute
Cast: I have left for last the cast. A rather big ensemble of actors and actresses comprised by names such as Bridges, Moore, Hounsou, Barnes, Traue, Harington is TOTALLY wasted. Like the films I mentioned in the first paragraph, there is no reason to hire them if they are not going to do something with the material they have to work with. With the exception of Jeff Bridges who tries desperately to infuse some personalized elements into his persona with a bizarre accent, everyone else is in auto-pilot. What could have been an excellent opportunity of Julian Moore to portray an evil and dark witch is a shameful attempt to capitalise on her name with dreadful dialogue and not a single scene that emerges with ... acting. More wasted is Traue - yes that is FAORA! from "Man of Steel" - in a terribly underwritten role and Djimon Hounsou almost a decade after his incredible turn in "Blood diamond" struggles to get good rules. Ben Barnes is just Ben Barnes like he was on "Narnia". Yep same thing.

Is actually something that you liked? The bombastic score by Marco Beltrami is decent and the special effects well made. Costumes and sets are quite impressive but again the familiar look they reveal removes any extra points of awe.

"Seventh son" is not an abomination. But a completely boring, average with lack of inspiration flick that offers nothing new and not even minimum entertaining value. Despite the efforts of Bridges, the wasted cast, the predictably laughable plot and the hideous dialogue make this "son" the last.

+ good and detailed sets
+ nice costumes
+ good special effects
+ Cast...
- ...totally wasted
- laughable plot
- unbelievably predictable
- PG-13 rating
- ludicrous love story
- nothing memorable or entertaining


Saturday, 28 March 2015

Review "Chappie": disappointing sci-fi

Neil Blomkamp - a name that is synonymous to good if not excellent R rated sci-fi infused with clever social commentary. After the interesting and promising debut of "District 9", "Elisium" followed with somewhat disappointing results but the element of intrigue was there. With "Chappie", it seems that Blomkamp was back into the game. "Chappie" contains a mix bag of ideas that at the end of the day, it does not know how to present them and what to do with them. From the heavy theme of self-aware A.I, to the definition of consciousnesses, "Chappie" moves unfortunately left and right without cohesion or dramatic purpose along with a sluggish pace. 

Chappie: The main hero of the film unfortunately comes off as unlikable and annoying with no signs of actual intelligence. For a superior artificial intelligence creation, he sure feels like a failure. The fact that he is committing various illegal acts due to the influence of his "parents" (Die Antwoord) is not surprising but makes us care less about him per minute. When the final climax erupts, I actually forgot that I was watching a film about Chappie and more about the gangsters who are trying to put a big final score. 
Cool design - does not say much
Cast: The cast is solid with Die Antwoord dominating the majority of the screentime even more than the "hero" and the whole film feels like an advertisement for the hip hop band. In a bizarre move, Die Antwoord portray futuristic gangster versions of themselves with lots of promotional material - music, clothes, etc - surrounding them. Usually music artists are kinda terrible in their film debuts but here I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with their performance. They actually manage to have more characterization than "Chappie" himself. Hugh Jackman is clearly having a blast with his role as a jealous electrical engineer and it is such a shame that he does not get enough characterization as his motives are kinda understandable but when he goes full blown villain for the final act, it feels forced and bloated. Finally Sigourney Weaver is it in for like 2 minutes in a similar move of Jodie Foster's in Elisium. Word to the wise: Blomkamp there is not point of hiring these famous actresses if they have no material to work with or any dramatic substance to support.

Themes: "Chappie" tries to too hard too many complex issues - from the socioeconomic situation of South Africa to computer scientific dilemmas and unfortunately it fails dramatically. Unlike "District 9" where the "prawns" were a metaphor for discrimination and racism and the journey of a miserable man into a "prawn" hero showcased real emotions and drama, here the movie is all over the place. We start with socio-political elements and proceed to witness how "Chappie" can paint, steal and move like a cool person whereas every other more interesting character gets catapulted into cinematic oblivion until the inevitable final act that brings everyone together. The always difficult to answer and even to some extent to discuss subject of self-aware artificial intelligence, gets serious mistreatment without any focus to the consequences or ethics behind it.

Serious flaw: The computer science behind the film is ridiculous at certain points and the whole movie feels like an exercise for Sony product placement - laptops, phones, PS4s used for neurological procedures!? Unlike a movie like "Blade Runner" where AI has been established as a crucial and important element of that world, Blomkamp desperately tries to make everything scientifically fancy with words like "terrabytes" and "programming" used as magic concepts: the premise that a 25 year old or something with only coding experience can actually be an electrical engineer, programmer, software developper, psychologist, neuro-scientist in his free time and he managed to program the human brain and to understand consciousness sure he should be able to reach the level of god, no?...............Right....

Anything good: The presentation of Johannesburg is always excellent under Blomkamp's lens and he seems quite familiar now with cinema in his third film. Also, the action is nicely done, a bit up than the chaotic style of "Elisium" and it feels more organic this time around, bringing some hope for "Alien 5". The acting is good enough to elevate at certain levels the whole ludicrous story and certain ideas can and could be raised if only someone might invest in the bizarre and somewhat predicable storyline.

Although not a terrible film, this is one of the very average ones and considering the talent behind it-cast and crew, "Chappie" could have been so much more and a novel approach for AI for the 21st century. Unfortunately, it will be soon forgotten if this has not happened already.

+ cast
+ especially Jackman
+ good action
+ interesting themes....
- terribly executed
- too many ideas
- predictable plot
- Chappie is not that interesting
- the computer science is just ridiculous here
- gauge your eyes Sony product placement


Sunday, 1 March 2015

"It follows" review: interesting concept, sloppy execution

"It follows" has an incredible fascinating premise. A girl has an apparently innocent sexual encounter only to be discovered that something/someone is following slowly and if it reaches her, she will die. 
Great atmosphere
1. Concept: "It follows" is packed with atmosphere and that is good. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the concept of sexual encounter that leads to travesty can be misinterpreted as a STD. The naive? girl  who after her first? sexual encounter feels threatened and constantly tries in vain to avoid something that keeps following in undeniably creepy.

2. Scare factor: Since "it follows" is primarly a horror movie, we should talk about how much of a punch it has. Well, here things are a bit confusing. Although the film is pacted with atmosphere that bring lots of vibes of the early Carpenter flicks ("Halloween", "Escape from NY", "The thing"), the jump scares despite being old-fashioned and strip from any CGI bullshit they are surprisingly not scary. A reason could be that I have a bunch of losers who did not stop talking well for the entire film. But I reckon watching during the night could be more scary than most of the horror films today.

3. Direction: which brings me to the direction. Mitchell has done a wonderful job of creating atmosphere even in the smallest of room or in a large open area like a lake house. His slow methodological approach for "it follows" manages to create a large amount of tension and suspense with "it" being basically always present and unstoppable. DRM seems to have been taken early notes from Carpenter himself as the jump scares, 360 virtuoso panoramic shots, unnerving creepy figures and synthesized music all point out an evolving filmmakers that really stands out in the horror field.
Maika Monroe is a likable heroine
4. Cast: and this is where things get out of my taste. The cast seems to be simply ok but sometimes they strike as real amateurs trying to act. Although the main characters manages to convey enough emotional to follow her towards her hell journey, sometimes her actions are so off key that you cannot relate with her.

5. Story: how can a film has a story that something is following you and if it catches you die? Well, Mitchell, manages to make the "it" slow but steady so you can escape for a bit but then again in a few hours of days you have to run again. So the entire film become a bit like a chase thriller with some solid scares left and right focusing primarily on the emotions of the protagonist. Having said that, there are some plot holes around that really stand out. Why no one is talking to the police? Or to a therapist? Or to an adult? And towards the end, the film really start to lose focus as more and more characters are involved whereas the story does not get the explanation it deserve or even a bit of mythology to establish its monster as if the writer was rushing to finish his idea or running out of ideas for his... idea. Therefore the last 3rd of the film undermines the entire effort.

Who knows though? Maybe with the next flick, DRM could give some pretty neat horror but for now "It follows" is good enough for a nice night with red wine and pizza. Do not expect it though to be a masterpiece as everyone is claiming it to be.

+ excellent atmosphere
+ intriguing concept
+ great music
+ solid direction
+ no CGI bullshit
- a bit amateurish acting
- plotholes
- sudden ending


"Blackhat" review: serious mis-step for Michael Mann

Michael Mann was once a brilliant director. With an amazing eye for night shots and uber-realism towards the representation of dynamic human relationships, he manages to establish himself as one of the top filmmakers of the 90's and early 00's. Get load of this: "The last of the Mohicans", "Heat", "The insider", "Ali", "Collateral". Then came the lukewarm "Miami Vice" and the somewhat disappointing "Public Enemies". So where does "Blackhat" stand? Is it a return to the top form thriller that Mann has used his audience to or a failed attempt to recapture previous glorious moments?

1. Story: "Blackhat" at its core has a rather interesting story that surely would capture the minds of geeks. Someone not only hacked to a Chinese power station but caused a meltdown as well. Nobody knows why, if this will carry on, if there are demands, etc. This is definitely intriguing but the execution is rather sloppy and frankly boring (more on that later). Man desperately tries to inject realism to the proceedings - from real Linux commands to current systems references (android) but everything else falls apart. The story is too slow, the climax well anticlimactic, there is no pathos behind anything we set our eyes upon. Instead of creating a high octane thriller that could easily make a comment regarding the techno race between USA and China, the plot descends into predictable levels territory with a by the numbers end. Shame because with such an unusual attention to technological detail, a more tight and racing plot could have made "Blackhat" the relevant thriller of the decade.
Do not get excited. Not much is happening in "blackhat"
2. Themes: The continuous cat and mouse of game here between potential hackers could have been gripping but it does not resolved properly and neither it does get the attention it deserves. What is the motivation behind...well everyone minor the governments? The constant streaming of data makes an interesting point that anyone can be found easily but some glaring plot holes particularly towards the end destroy any solid block of realism.

3. Direction: Sometimes we do get to see Mann staging some nice (although small) action sequences with realism coming from all sides - bullet wounds, sound effects - but there is nothing here to really makes us care or at least be thrilled about it. Remember "Heat"'s highway gun fight? Not only you cared about both sides - cops and robbers - you were astonished as to how good it looked. Here characters come and go while offering nothing to the proceedings and no matter how many amazing night shots Mann might throw into the mix, there is a veil in front of your eyes and a distant ice bridge between you and the plot.

4. Cast: Most of them are surprisingly wasted - Chris Hemsworth is practically useless in a thankless cliche role and everyone else have zero to almost none character development. In a particular strange role, Tang Wei is proper eye candy and spends the entire time of the film ... looking at screens. Not something you would expect from Mann. The other female lead - Viola Davis - seems to bring some gravitas to her limited role but that's really about it.
Tang Wei is proper eye candy without aiming being an eye candy
5. Action: Not enough action as the majority of the film plays in front of a screen and people typing commands, or observing others at state of the art screens. When the action does fire, is breathtaking but only for a minute or so. Do not expect a shoot out like in "Heat" or even close to that one of "Public Enemies". You will be sorely disappointed.

Is this the first big mis-step for Mann? Of course not as that belongs to "Miami vice". Although the film goes incredible slow and offers nothing more than an interesting plot that gets less interesting by the minute, someone might still have a good time for the various real life easter that have been placed in the movie. Is this a terrible film? No. Is it a disappointing creation from an incredible director? Absolutely.

+ realism in everything
+ some amazing night shots of LA, Shanghai
+ interesting initial premise
- by the numbers climax
- uninteresting characters 
- ... with no development
- very slow pace for a such a speedy concept


Friday, 13 February 2015

"Ex machina" review: interesting take on a difficult subject

"Ex machina" offers plenty interesting and if this is your sort of thing, fascinating ideas for processing and thinking but at the end it comes with a rather disappointing and predictable third act that fails to reach the intriguing levels of the first 2/3s.
Oscar Isaac again dominates the proceedings with an incredible performance
1. Plot: The story involves a young programmer - Caleb - who was been selected by chance to spend an entire week with an eccentric multi-billionaire programmer at his state of the art isolated house. The purpose of this visit is to test a synthetic robot with conciousness? named Eva, designed and constructed by Nathan (the billionaire). A rather intriguing plot if I may add that enables Garland to play with perhaps too many themes that most of uncertain directors would not even dare to approach. 

2. Director: Which brings me to the director. First timer here Garlard, despite having solid flicks under his belt as a screenwriter ("Dredd", "28 days later", "Sunshine"), it is surprising to see him engaging his audience through this computer science and artificial intelligence tale without having to spoon-feed ideas and explanations for every frame, action and proceeding that occurs. He actually displays lots of director confidence with meticulous camerawork applying a Carpenter approach and a photographer of great performances in a rather small plot of three people (or two depending your perspective but more on that later). Absolutely curious to see what his next step is with "Ex machina" surely opening larger budget doors (and hopefully it will enable him to make a second "Dredd" film).
I want to leave in that house, now
3. Themes: It has been quite some time since I saw a thought provoking film regarding robots and artificial intelligence. Although there have been quite a few attempts to commercialize such a difficult subject from terrible ("A.I") to mixed ("I, robot") and great results ("Blade runner") in the forms of various genres (drama, sci-fi adventure, techno noir), none of them really tried to drill down and look this issue with a more scientific, yet entertaining approach. Without shoehorning perspectives and view points, the movie comes truly alive in the verbal exchanges between a shy and uncertain Caleb with a child-like? yet curious Eva. In an underground move, Garlard lets the audience to understand and interpret the proceedings, each one of us with their own spectrum of logic and science that is required to reach a satisfying conclusion as to who is who and what. Cleverly staging the pawns - is Eva telling the truth? is Nathan not to be trusted? what is the real purpose of the experiment? Who is really Eva? - Garland attempts multiple times to misdirect the audience (or not). But what is really fascinating here are the questions (without an answer) that he asks his viewers - what is to be a human? Are we programmed by nature to be psychopaths, to hate someone, to love another one, to be interested in thermonuclear astrophysics or simply to just watch television or it is because a matter of choice? In addition to the following important questions, he is able to provide a bulky amount of confusion regarding our own nature and journey with Caleb, the link in the movie through a rather "Blade runner" scene and at the end he is able to conjure vast theories regarding the complexity and evolution of AI (at what cost and with what point?). All the above bring with them serious ethical considerations and may as well establish the foundation of future science, What I really like here  that this movie does not try to be preachy - we should be technophobic or really pushing the boundaries of science without thinking the consequences - but it allows each participant to think for themselves and discuss a bit further under a nice warm cup of coffee. Others might be disappointed as the numerous floating but really engaging themes might be proven to be tiresome ("who is the villain here?", "what is emotion?", "why create AI?" etc). The lack of definite answers or at least a path that the film should walk and stick to could be fatal and that will show in a couple of years. Whereas others have taken the creation of AI for granted ("Blade runner" and "I, robot" come to mind) and play with the emotions and what makes us different than anything we created, here the constant mixture of ideas could be a lethal dose of pseudo intellectualism.

4. Climax: Garland is spot on at asking and poking the right questions and even better at having not a certain answer for them. Having said that, his climax is rather anti-climactic with multiple theories being thrown into mix - who is manipulating who? and the rather subtle solution destroys any previous idea and clues that you might had and ends in a rather poetic irony. There are some plot holes towards the end that cannot be ignored and leave a strange cinematic taste as why? You were so meticulous building your set up only to finish it really fast.

5. Cast: With mainly four actors in his hand, Garland is able to extract great performances particularly from Oscar Isaac. The man has been giving a string of compelling performances each year ("Robin Hood", "Sucker Punch","Inside Llewyn DAvis","The two faces of January","A most violent year"). Bulky and beardy, Isaac is utterly unrecognisable as the warm/cold eccentric programmer who drinks a lot and considers himself the epitomy of scientific awesomeness. Isaac is playing him with a straight face even in the most subtly scenes as the man who seems to always have an ace in his sleeve. Holding up against him to their own right, Domhnall Gleeson - son of Brendan Glesson - and Alicia Vikander are both great to their roles especially Vikander who manages to be sweet, gentle and mistrusting at the same time and that requires some skill as it is not an easy thing to pull it off.

6. Design: The production design in the film is flawless. Mark Digby who has work in all of Garland's films as the lead production designed, deserves credit here. As mentioned above, the minimalistic principle applied with state of the art touch/neon technology gives life to a house that probably is simply a wonder to set your eyes upon. Like a zen garden in the middle of the jungle, each room consumes the screen with so much character and nicely implemented design ideas that is irresistible to ignore.

Summary: So this is "Ex-machina". I really liked the first 2/3s of the films with well written dialogue scenes and strong suggestions that this could be a film that twists the knife next to the bone (if that is making any sense let me know). However, no matter how good the intentions of its writer and director are, it is miles away from "Blade runner", a film shot in the 80 and still packs more punch than anything today. "Ex machina" is good but it is not a masterpiece and definitely not "I, robot" or "AI".

+ interesting story
+ Oscar Isaac again, exceptional
+ well written dialogue and good computer science (finally!)
+ nicely integrated themes and ask thought provoking questions until...
- the climax which is a (huge) let down
- some gigantic plotholes
- throws many ideas, does not pick one