Archives for May 2015

Ex Machina (2015): Build it at Your Own Risk

Written by Alex Garland (scribe of 2002 infected zombie thriller 28 Days Later), Ex Machina also marks his auspicious directorial debut.

The film opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a milquetoast office worker at the fictional tech behemoth BlueBook; he has just won a Willie Wonka-esque ‘golden ticket’ to an undisclosed, remote location. The ticket comes courtesy of  Oscar Isaac, who plays Jay, the wunderkind (in the style of a Steve Jobs) owner of the company. Caleb’s prize as it were, is to interrogate the ‘game-changing’ AI prototype Jay has created, Ava (Alicia Vikander, who reminds me of an updated version of Maschinenmensch from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). The objective is simple – to see if Ava can pass the Turig Test, in which the computer’s behavior is examined to determine if it is indistinguishable from that of a human being.

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What first starts off as a set of sessions, becomes increasingly complex and complicated to the point that you as an audience member, feel uncertain about the true intentions, motivations or actions carried out by any of the characters, both human and artificial human.

From the outset, the plot moves along at a deliberately slow, almost haunting pace, only pick up and hit the audience with a couple of curveballs before coming to a clever, if not partially predictable conclusion that still managed to leave me with an “Oh Sh*t” expression on my face.

At times as we were building up to the denouement, I felt I had entered a cold and isolated world with echoes of a Stanley Kubrick project.

Overall the film is a confident, bold statement with the look and feel of a veteran auteur. Great job, Mr. Garland.

As I watch Gleeson’s performance, I did have a moment of déjà vu with respect to the whole man and machine scenario; only this time the roles were reversed – check out Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode Be Right Back as a point of reference.

Have no fear, it is not all doom and gloom – interspersed among an increasing sense of impending disaster are welcomed moments of levity. That said, Ex Machina also does an entertaining job of raising larger questions about the morality of creating a facsimile of humanity, via a series of wires and mechanical synapses. But at its heart, it’s still definitely a taut sci-fi nightmare that will keep you intrigued until the end.

Since mine is a rather late review of the film so it may be difficult to find Ex Machina in your local cinema (it is playing in many multiplexes). But know that if you miss it in the theaters, the BluRay/DVD will be released July 14th.

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Have you seen this or are you interested in seeing it? Share your thoughts!

Seen at Tribeca (Post 3 of ?): Indian Point

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster several years ago, increased scrutiny has piled on the nuclear power industry. On a local level, residents, journalists and regulators alike are players in an increasingly complex environmental and regulatory space where there are raised concerns over the safety of the nation’s aging plants.. The heavily populated New York City metropolitan area is no exception. Check out this recent New York Times article for evidence; this is but one of several alarming pieces covering the 50+ year-old Indian Point nuclear facility on the otherwise picturesque Hudson River.

Director, Ivy Meeropol  Courtesy of Indian Point Film Productions, Inc.

Indian Point (Director, Ivy Meeropol)
Courtesy of Indian Point Film Productions, Inc.

Aptly titled Indian Point, the documentary, directed by Ivy Meeropol, features Indian Point employees, anti-nuke activists, environmental journalists and a host of other key players who have a stake in the long term outcome of the plant. Two points of interest on this front – a husband/wife tandem of anti nuclear activist and environmental journalist, and most notably, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, who by the account of the film was forced out of his position by a powerful and insular industry hell bent on growth amidst an increasingly alarmist court of public opinion.

In general, Indian Point is very much a paint by numbers documentary, not offering much in the way of ‘entertainment’, per se. But what makes it a watch of interest is that it provides some background information on the history of the facility and raises some questions as to the facility’s sustained viability amid the perceived imminent threat posed to the region.

 

Seen at Tribeca (Post 2 of ?): A Ballerina’s Tale

A Ballerina’s Tale is a “behind the curtain” look at world famous American Ballet Theater soloist Misty Copeland; Copeland is only the fourth African American to hold such a role in the company’s history.

Director Nelson George chronicles Copeland’s prodigious rise from her early days in California, her move to New York City in her teens and ultimately how she challenged people’s notions of what a “traditional” ballerina should look like. From here, the accounting of her life takes us up to the present day, with Copeland’s ascension as professional, including many of her triumphs (Firebird, Swan Lake) and setbacks (career threatening injuries). For me, the real treat of A Ballerina’s Tale, is how her career milestones are accented by the presence of her mentors, many of whom were trailblazing dancers in their own right; in fact, several make appearances in the film.

Sure, there are things I would have loved to see (a little more about her family life and background and the impact it had on her careers), but I will let this pass, given the documentary’s subject and importance. I am allowing myself, just for a moment, to reflect on what watching a film like this can mean for a young woman who has dreams, but feels that they will come to nothing (“so why bother?”). Fortunately, we get a brief hint of this in a scene where Misty meets a few of her younger fans. Moments like these resonate with me. In fact, it made me recall my own childhood days as a ballet/tap dancer. While I did not have great dancing ambitions, save for making it into pointe toes (that did not happen), I imagine if would have felt any different if the “rock star” of ballet during my time was someone I could relate to culturally.

In other words, I am confident that A Ballerina’s Tale can serve as a source of inspiration for others, much in the way that Sally Ride and Dr. Mae Jemison inspired me to want to become an astronaut.

And as we enter an age where appreciation for the various classical art forms is waning, Copeland stands heads above all as a beacon and ambassador that can (and hopefully will) inspire a new generation of dancers. This film is a good advertisement of that ability to transcend.

When Misty danced the solo role Gamzatti in American Ballet Theater’s 2012 production of La Bayadère, The New York Times praised her “worldly allure” and “complexity”. Photo by Oskar Landi

When Misty danced the solo role Gamzatti in American Ballet Theater’s 2012 production of La Bayadère, The New York Times praised her “worldly allure” and “complexity”.
Photo by Oskar Landi

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Before I go on any further, let’s get a couple of things out of the way:

  1. My recap may or may not contain spoilers for anyone who has not seen Avengers: Age of Ultron at the time of this posting. That said, if I were you, I would err on the side of caution and pause on reading any further (that is if you don’t want to be spoiled).
  2. It would be remiss of me not to remind you, my loyal readers, of my recent fatigue with a plethora of super-hero cinematic offerings lately. So in preparation, I can attest to not seeing a single trailer, a preview or a sneak peek. All of this to say, it is not that I had low expectations per se, but rather that I had none and made peace with this fact.
  3. To say that Avengers: Age of Ultron is more of the same may sound like anything but a compliment, but really it isn’t; here is my review of the first Avengers film for your consideration of this matter.

In other words, I enjoyed this film very much and in a way I enjoyed the first installment.

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I have been in a “bad news first” mood lately, so let’s continue that streak. For all the positive I have to say about Avengers: Age of Ultron (read a little further down for that bit), here are a few things that I was less than enthusiastic about:

The Hulk/Black Widow love story? I guess that is what they are going for, right? To be fair there, there is enough ‘there’ there for the filmmakers to do something; I just felt it was not necessary to the story. However, I do have it on good authority (Brother #1) that this relationship may have something to do with the evolution of the Hulk’s humanity. Hmmm… again not a comic character expert, but this sounds like it could be a thing. We’ll see.

No mutants! Well not Marvel’s fault really. But if you want to take this lemon and make some lemonade out of it, we could say that the filmmakers being forced to alter the DNA (pun intended) of the origin story of twins Pietro & Wanda Maximoff (that is Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch for all you mutant lovers out there), it does fit in quite well. In fact, it is analogous with another ‘genetically modified’ human, our very own Captain America.

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3D = Meh. Again, not the fault of the actual filmmakers, but rather my choice, or at the very least, the choice of the person who purchased my ticket (thanks again, Brother #3). IMAX is more than enough for me to get the fully immersive experience. Besides, I feel odd wearing the 3D glasses over my regular specs.

 

So … short list, eh? Of course it is – because, at the end of the day, I enjoyed watching Age of Ultron (didn’t I mention that already?); here are a couple of highlights:

The Hawkeye backstory. If I am to be completely honest, I am rather indifferent to this particular character, but it was nice to figure out that he is just an Average Clint who is out to do his job the best he can. With that, I can honestly say I don’t need to see any more of him. No shade, I just feel like this character’s story has been told and tied up in a very neat bow.

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Amazing fighting action sequences. You pay for some rock-em sock-em action and that is what you get. Sure, a lot of it is CG, but at this point, who cares? Just go with it – it’s more fun that way.

Oh the humor! Part of the appeal for me was the various levels of humor on display throughout the film, from Thor being his intentionally/unintentionally funny self to Iron Man’s shtick and up and including Ultron’s co-opting of the aforementioned Mr. Stark. A great credit to the ensemble gathered because it is clear they are having as much fun playing as we the audience is watching.

Along those same lines .. yeah to all the cameos! Hello to all the familiar faces! Reminded me of a Hollywood review from the 1930’s or 1940’s, except this time the actors are in full cosplay.

Setting the stage … for a change. By the time we reach the closing sequences of the film, we are (re)introduced to some ‘new’ characters, that may or may not be the latest members of the Avengers squad. Although this type of continuity and transition often happens in comic book series, it is not THAT common in film adaptations. In this regard, Marvel deserves some dap. And when you really sit back and think about it, it makes sense for a couple of reasons:

  • A breath of fresh air – new characters, new stories for your audience to engage with;
  • Sheer practicality – this takes into account that at some point in the film series, several of the actors will no longer be willing (or able) to continue to perform their superhero duties. Weaving the new characters in at this stage allows the audience to grow with them on their respective journeys. The possibilities are (nearly) endless.

 

So as you can see, for me anyways, the good definitely outweighs the bad.

One final note for non-comic readers: I too am on the fringes of the comic lore, but in recapping and analyzing this and other adaptations, I have the privilege to consult my friends (Brother #2, et al.) at Superhero Movie Talk (@superheromt) for some insight. It is not necessary for you to do the same, but it might help you as you wade through the behemoth that is the MCU.  Actually, it proves to be a rather fun intellectual exercise, a la Game of Thrones!

Wait, I lied – I do have a few more notes/observations to share, but honestly, this post is entering thesis territory, so maybe you will get some of my additional thoughts and insights in the Comments section below.

In the above spirit, I encourage YOU to share, share, share. Let me know what you thought about the film!

 

Images source: (Obviously) Marvel.com

Tribeca Recap (1 of ?); The Emperor’s New Clothes

Sorry for the delay, guys. Life at the movies has been rather hectic lately.

The dust has settled, giving me the opportunity to sit back and reflect on my latest Tribeca Film Festival experience.

First, a couple of observations:

  1. I LOVE the choice of the Regal Cinemas in Battery Park City being the hub this year. It is easily one of my favorite multiplexes in New York City and really showcases the beauty and spirit of Lower Manhattan.
  2. Sadly, due to the hectic nature of my schedule lately, I did not get the chance to see as many films as I wanted. Nevertheless, granted, what I did see is definitely noteworthy. I will be posting my recaps in multiple parts; but as indicated by my post’s title, the number of which is indeterminate at this posting’s time. Stay tuned!

 

I guess I will start when I finished the festival – with the Michael Winterbottom/Russell Brand collaboration of The Emperor’s New Clothes, an informative and irreverent account of the 2008 financial crisis and its ripple effect in the United Kingdom, the United States and around the world.

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Now that I have had ample time to reflect on the film, I obviously have some thoughts – some things I was a bit “meh” about and others that I found worthy highlighting. Let’s get the “bad stuff” out of the way first:

PLEASE, papa don’t preach (too much): the retort is naturally What else should I have expected? In the end, I did not mind (read further down), but I could see where some could grow weary and wonder where this fella comes off talking about this stuff. To be fair, Brand seems at least minimally self-aware in realizing the interesting position he finds himself in, being part of that “1%” he is banging on about.

Pixelation = NOT okay: The overlaying pixelation of the graphics throughout the documentary was sometimes a bit off-putting, with on at least one occasion, leaving me to wonder if something had gone amiss with the digital projection in the theater. It made me kinda nervous and unsettled. Really it did – to the point where I was concerned that some less passive spectator would say something. Luckily that did not occur.

 

Those two matters are off my chest, time for some positivity:

It’s always easy to like something when you agree with the premise …: In general, I tend to keep clear of being overtly political in this space (I feel these types of discussions are best left for face-to-face chats). However, with this film, there is a very clear political agenda, forgive me in advance if my commentary veers a bit.

Framed by the Hans Christian Andersen tale and through a mixture of archival footage, anecdotal interviews, on-the-nose infographics, and the more than occasional Brand-ian quip, we are offered a balance of channels all driving home the same message – the farcical approach that has been taken in dealing with the financial/fiscal crisis and its direct effect on social well-being of everyday people. To personalize this message, Brand takes us to his hometown of Grays, Essex for an example of the impact to local communities. Even for individuals unfamiliar with the inner workings of the UK political, financial and social life, it is clear as crystal which side of the court our filmmakers are on. That said, a lot of the points do transcend national just the politics, with the reverberations of errant behavior of folks in London and New York; Winterbottom and Brand even hop across the pond where he examines the Occupy Movement; New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio even makes a brief appearance in the film.

Overall, I found myself either nodding in agreement or riled with anger and a feeling of helplessness/hopelessness of the state of the world as depicted in this documentary. I suspect many others had a similar experience. To their credit, the filmmakers do not leave the audience to stew in their emotions for too long, thanks to the comical interludes. In addition, as the film ends, the audience is presented with a framework for a call to action – some ideas are practical, some admittedly a little pie-in-the-sky – but it’s something. Only time will tell if there is any lasting impact.

One final note – timing is everything: in doing my background on this film, I saw that the UK release of The Emperor’s New Clothes took place on April 21 – just in time for the national Parliamentary elections (which take place this Thursday).

 

 

Image credit: Tribeca Film Festival/Studio Canal UK