Ex Machina

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Source: Wikimedia.org

Ex Machina is an engaging new science fiction film that is highly philosophical and surprisingly low on action for the vast majority of its screen time. As a film, it is an interesting exercise in some key philosophical and ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence, such as freedom, guilt, and love. The amazing thing about this film is that it is highly suspenseful, even though the action is sparse. This beautiful and well-though-out film accomplishes a lot in a relatively short period of time (108 minutes) and with only four actors of note. The tightly-scripted dialogues between these few characters drive the plot as well as any moral or ethical questions surrounding the film. The performances of the three primary characters, Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander were all phenomenal. It is truly impressive as a piece of genuinely original material. So often now, the film industry is afraid to create original stories and relies solely upon adapting stories that have proven popular first as a book or graphic novel. However, in this case, Ex Machina is a rare story that feels new and exciting. Written and directed by Alex Garland, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Original Screenplay and Special Effects, and won the latter. Its minuscule $15M production budget was positively dwarfed by its competition in the Special Effects category, but it beat out powerhouse blockbusters like James Bond: Spectre and Star Wars: Force Awakens.

Delving into too much detail is liable to only ruin the carefully crafted and suspenseful story. I recommend watching the film just as I did, with no preconceived notions or expectations as to what might occur. That viewing experience makes it all that much more enjoyable. One very quick negative note, however, is that I find it odd that there is so much of a sexual element to this film, which, to me, doesn’t necessarily seem crucial. Though Isaac’s character (Nathan) does touch on the very subject, suggesting that love/lust is a critical element of life and gives “motivation” for survival and desire. Perhaps that is the case, or perhaps that entire notion lends to the notion that Nathan, himself, is flawed and that they indicate his arrogance or shortcomings as a creator himself. Some of the resolution at the end of the film did feel a little rushed and may not have been sufficiently explained, but the statement made by the film does come through abundantly clear. Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed the film and recommend it to all mature fans of science fiction, especially harder science fiction that delves into the “hows” and “whys” of progress, humanity, and our place as creators. Rating: 8 of 10

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Into the Woods: AKA Meryl Streep Can Do Anything

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Source: Wikipedia

It was only within the past week that I finally got around to watching last year’s musical movie spectacular: Into the Woods. I was already familiar with the story, having seen the stage play a couple of times back in my *cough* musical theater days in high school. It’s a fun story that is classic Sondheim — good and entertaining music that is easy to listen to. The music is definitely kind of catchy and will stick in your head for a few days after watching it, which is certainly not a complaint. It has a lot of humorous moments too, providing levity for the somewhat perilous adventure the main characters are thrust into. For those not familiar with the plot, it is a sort of fairy tale mashup, amalgamating different pieces of classic fairy tale lore into one story, and often self-referential humor that simultaneously pulls from and mocks the fairy tales from which Into the Woods takes its inspiration. Much of this is all a credit to the original screenplay and score, so while a great plus, isn’t really something the movie can take credit for. For the director, Rob Marshall, and his cast, it is really the interpretation and production value that can be critiqued.

Stylistically, Into the Woods was perfectly done. The dark and ominous lighting in a somewhat surreal fairy tale forest had a nice blend of mysticism and reality, which presents a very different feel than can be achieved on stage. The tone and quality of the singing was also pretty well done. The cast seemed well-balanced, and there is no doubting the acting and singing talents of Anna Kendrick or Emily Blunt. James Corden also definitely impressed as the Baker, especially for a comedic late night talk show host. And the kids seemed plucked straight from Broadway. But, to be sure, the main draw is Meryl Streep – proving, yet again, that she can do anything. She is captivating and talented and most certainly deserves the Best Supporting Actress nomination she got that year. Even so, my favorite scene was the Princes’ song, performed by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. It was funny and sufficiently self-aware to embrace the silliness of the song and the moment in the play. I laughed out loud as the two actors frolicked and pranced through a small stream-fed waterfall. The actors were mocking their fairy tale roots, with a tongue-in-cheek melodramatic scene. It’s all good fun.

I certainly enjoyed the film for the most part, and though it was pretty easy to pull off once the solid cast was cemented, the director did a good job of filling in the blanks. However, there were a few moments where the style seemed to fall apart and there were some inconsistencies with how the film sought to balance its stage play roots with the fact that it had a modern film’s CGI budget at its disposal. Why is there a CGI beanstalk and green-screened Giant, but the wolf is just Johnny Depp in a weird hat? Why did Little Red’s ingestion by the wolf look like a weird rip off of Shakira’s She-Wolf music video but we saw magical swirls of computer animation when the witch cast spells? It was in these moments that I felt the director lost some focus and could not make up his mind. Either stick wholly to a stage play feel with the costumed wolf and a make believe giant or simple voice over focus on the foot, like a play would see, or fully embrace the movie effects and make a singing CGI wolf. Either way would have worked, just look at how cool the new Jungle Book movie looks. But meeting half-way was odd and definitely distracted from the final product. I still think it is worth watching, but it is definitely not as good a final product as it could have been. Acting gets an A, but Directing gets a C+. Overall, a good film and definitely a fun story that’s worth watching if you enjoy musicals.

2016 Oscars: Spotlight

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Source: Wikipedia

Spotlight was this year’s surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and though very few thought it would actually win the award, I would be surprised to hear many people say it was not deserving. The film was actually rather unique in the modern era – it was entirely dialogue-driven and featured no action sequences. The only suspenseful moments had to do with the information these brave journalists were unraveling and the sensitivity of the subject matter. The premise of Spotlight is that a small group of investigative journalists for the Boston Globe stumble across some old press clippings and case files that lead them to dig deeper into the, now famous, Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. The movie shows these intrepid reporters’ journey to unravel decades of cover-ups, misinformation, and even outright collusion between church officials, Boston area lawyers, law enforcement, and even media executives. As the truth comes together, it becomes enormously clear just how horrible and how rampant the abuses were, making the cover-up that much more horrific. Plot-wise, the subject is certainly worthy of a film and makes for an important topic to be reminded of today. It is a timeless lesson in the importance of standing up against abuse and protecting our neighbors from systemic problems; a message that certainly resonates in today’s world, where media outlets, political agents, and corporations are becoming increasingly intermingle.

Regarding the film’s stylistic choices, the director, Tom McCarthy, deserves a lot of credit. The film is perfectly cast, and undoubtedly features the strongest ensemble cast of any film this year. The performances of Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, and everyone else were incredible. If there is any doubt that Mark Ruffalo is much more than just the Hulk, look no further. The format is also very enjoyable, with minimal film effects or dramatic lighting, it feels much more like a documentary in tone and feel. This makes the information being relayed and the heartfelt acting feel incredibly real and important. The content of the story is very upsetting, but the tone of the film is relies on dialogue and portrays the story’s development much more how it would have felt to the reporters who uncovered it. The result is that Spotlight is a must-see film and one of the most important stories of the year. Though it tells a very specific story in great detail, the film’s importance is much more far-reaching and its message is timeless. An unexpected, but well-deserved win for Best Picture. Academy Pick: Best Picture

 

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2016 Oscars: Creed

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Source: Wikipedia

First, let me say that Creed is a good film. It starts off kind of weak, but after the first 40ish minutes, it really picks up and the whole middle and end are quite good. If it hadn’t been for the initial under-development of Adonis (played by Michael B. Jordan), I would say it should have been nominated for Best Picture. Some have called it a snub, but I’m not so sure. It’s better than the two weakest Best Picture nominees (The Martian, and The Revenant) in both story development and cultural significance, but it struggles to find itself up front and that may have cost it. In my opinion, the movie did not sufficiently set the stage for Adonis in California before he moved to Philadelphia. The foster care scenes worked and added a deep dimension to the film, but I think they should have done more to show the white-collar life Adonis walked away from. Audiences were told he was a successful employee and a smart, go-getter, but I would have rather seen 2-3 additional minutes of him cutting deals in a board room and making a splash at the office or something. That would make his decision to quit mean a lot more. Without it, Adonis seems like a rich kid with a chip on his shoulder instead of the natural fighter destined for greatness that Director Ryan Coogler intended. The film did certainly regain its footing and strong acting from Jordan and Stallone along with a well-written script by Coogler delivered a modern and relevant reinvention of the classic boxing genre. It’s very good. I recommend it for sure. Side note: I am very excited to see Coogler take on the Black Panther in the MCU!

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Look at Rocky training Adonis, doesn’t that remind you of something? Source: thelegacyofthejedi.tumblr.com

I also want to mention something odd I noticed about Creed: there are a weird number of similarities with Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back. Hear me out. Adonis is obviously Luke, orphaned and rash, and his whole shtick is about overcoming his father’s legacy. But the even better case is that Rocky is Yoda. An anachronistic old guy who makes Luke, er, Adonis, go through a series of weird and cryptic training regimens: jumping ropes, balancing acts, and chasing a chicken (no that is not a euphemism). I’m surprised Rocky didn’t make Adonis carry him on his back. Mild *Spoilers* the illness and futility of the quest (“you have not yet finished your training”), not to mention Stallone’s cryptic style of speech, are also very Yoda-y. Plus *SPOILER* Adonis doesn’t even win, the message is that he’ll be back to fight another day. That’s sooo Empire.

 

 

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2016 Oscars: Mad Max: Fury Road

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Source: Wikipedia

Mad Max: Fury Road: is a crazy, relentless action movie blockbuster about a post-apocalyptic world decimated by atomic war, drought, and lawlessness. Plus, it’s a reboot of an ’80s cult classic action series. Despite all of that, it was not only nominated for Best Picture, but considered by many to be a front-runner to actually win the award. On awards day, it cleaned house in a lot of the smaller, secondary awards categories such as Film Editing, Costume Design, Set Design, etc. But the truly amazing thing about this movie was just how complete it was. The artistic touch and authenticity under George Miller’s directorship were phenomenal. Many scenes were sped up slightly to create a visual representation of the stress and adrenaline-fueled action sequences. The make-up and costumes made the world feel dirty and hellish; characters are disfigured by radiation and a horrible, unforgiving landscape. And the society, if you can even call it that, is brutal and barbaric. The result was an almost overwhelming and psychotic world view that the audiences felt a part of. Mad Max also looked REAL — from the costumes and makeup to the series of actual explosions, the film presented a nice relief from the standard summer blockbusters that rely so heavily on CGI landscapes and characters. This seemed to learn from Peter Jackson’s ridiculous Hobbit trilogy (ugh I can’t believe it’s a trilogy): orc makeup in LOTR = awesome; CGI orcs in Hobbit = stupid.

Another impressive thing about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it could have easily been another cheap ’80s action movie reboot. The original starred a pre-crazy Mel Gibson and the special effects were a lot cheesier. Most of these reboots focus on improving special effects and replacing characters with CGI monstrosities, but Mad Max instead focused on creating a truly good film instead of following the failed formula of Terminator, Robocop, and Total Recall. It is the rare summer blockbuster that impresses the Academy’s voters, and Mad Max sure did impress. Rumors were even floating around that it had a chance to take Best Picture. It retained all of the weirdness and artistry of an Oscar film, while showcasing enough violence and explosions to earn the money of a summer action flick.

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Source: wiccan92.tumblr.com via giphy.com

Though Mad Max is such a coherent film experience, it does have one weakness that affects its rewatch-ability. Much like the classic interview question, its weakness and its strengths are kind of intertwined. The lack of exposition, the relentless action sequences, and sparse dialogue, especially between main characters, adds a touch of realism to the world Miller created. However, it also gives the audience less time to really get to know the characters and see them develop. The result is that the movie is highly enjoyable, but it’s less engrossing and personal because we lack those connections to developed characters. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and Nicholas Hoult are certainly compelling, but I didn’t feel like I really knew anyone’s motivations. This is no fault of the movie, but more of a style choice. All in all, this is definitely a unique action film and is tremendously well-made and a lot of that credit goes to Miller’s direction. Go see it. Blorg! Pick: Best Director

 

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2016 Oscars: Bridge of Spies

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Source: Wikipedia

Bridge of Spies is a classic political historical drama under the proven directorship of Steven Spielberg and led by Tom Hanks’ dependable acting. Bridge of Spies is a beautifully crafted movie about an important, but dark time in our nation’s history: a prisoner exchange with the USSR during the early years of the Cold War. The US is in the grips of the Red Scare, as anti-communists like Senator McCarthy incited fears of anti-Americanism and paranoia. The lighting throughout the film is dark and shrouded in shadow, which lends itself well to the elements of mystery, espionage, and subterfuge that underlie the movie’s plot. The film follows a controlled, linear plot that successfully built suspense and set the stage for the internal conflicts of its characters. The depiction of occupied Berlin in the late 1950s as the wall is being built was jarring and made more real than any history book could achieve.

The true strength of the Bridge of Spies lies in the acting talents of its two main characters: Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance (who actually won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). The relationship between Hanks’ character, the lawyer who becomes the unlikely catalyst for a prisoner exchange, and Rylance, the accused Soviet spy, show the complicated political and emotional factors at play, while still relaying the story in a very personal way. The mutual respect of Hanks and Rylance crosses the Cold War and guides the plot through an empathetic lens. Though hardly groundbreaking, with its period piece style and classic dialogue-driven format, Bridge of Spies is a well-executed film that is very worthy of a nomination and well-worth the time to watch. Academy Pick: Best Supporting Actor

 

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2016 Oscars: Brooklyn

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Source: Wikipedia

Brooklyn is a personal story about a young girl’s journey to find her place in early 1960s Brooklyn. It is a very compelling story about the emotional ups and downs the main character, Eilis (prounounced Ay-lish) experiences as she uproots her life in small-town Ireland to move to Brooklyn in pursuit of opportunity. Saorise Ronan as Eilis is very believable and endearing, bringing the emotions of homesickness, hope, and desperation into the fore. Brooklyn is also a love story, depicting a cute and timeless romance blossoming out of Eilis’ loneliness, as she meets Tony (Emory Cohen) and quickly the two become inseparable. Though the film has no action sequences, the plot certainly drives the story, and key events in Eilis’ life do create a sort of emotional suspense. The whole cast and the direction by John Crowley make Brooklyn a wonderful and enjoyable film, and Cohen’s performance as Tony could easily have won himself a nomination as well.

This is the kind of story that is difficult to describe, since it is truly a personal story about a character evolving and finding herself in a new place, and the few plot points that could be outlined may give away too much of the story. Also, like Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn is not really a groundbreaking story or style so much as it is a nearly flawless execution of a classic format, making it definitely worthy of the Best Picture nomination, but not unique enough to win the actual Oscar. I feel that a film should win the Best Picture Oscar for taking a few risks and executing properly, without any real risk, a well-crafted film doesn’t really push any boundaries. Nevertheless, I definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoys a classic dialogue-driven, emotional story of love, loss, and personal growth.

 

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2016 Oscars: The Hateful Eight

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Source: Wikipedia

Do you like Tarantino? If the answer is yes, go ahead and watch it. This movie, like all of his other stuff is not for those of weak constitution. Buckets of blood and way more “N” words than I would prefer to ever hear. My personal opinion is that Tarantino should use that word less. I don’t think that it’s helping anything and is most definitely gratuitous. His style is consistent and the plot is very engaging with a fun twist, but the acting is really the reason to watch. Samuel L. Jackson is awesome. Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, and the other cast members are also very strong. Jennifer Jason Leigh was great and, without having watched about half of the Best Supporting Actress nominee films, she seemed like a deserving choice to have won. Her sputtering crazy violence drove a lot of the plot and definitely kept audiences engaged. It’s kind of like a Pulp Fiction plus Little House on the Prairie in a disturbed hyper violent alternate history. I’m glad I watched it, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Blorg! and Academy Pick: Best Supporting Actress

 

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2016 Oscars: Room

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Source: Wikipedia

If you are looking for a happy, fun movie for a relaxing night in, Room is not that movie. It is an emotional, stressful, and evocative tale about a young woman, Ma, played by Brie Larson, who was kidnapped as a teenager and has lived hidden away in captivity for seven years. Her captor, a creepy man she calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) brings her the bare necessities to survive and consistently rapes her and abuses her. During captivity, she gave birth to a son, Jack, who is 5 at the time of the movie and played by Jacob Tremblay. This horrific description is scarring and leads to many high-stress emotional moments throughout the film. Room is successful as a film just for showing all of these emotions in a genuine fashion, but its true achievement is the amazing ability to relay the story through Jack’s eyes. He has a child’s wonder and naïveté ‎that keeps him from seeing just how horrible his situation is. Jack’s entire life has occurred in the confined shed that he knows only as “Room,” to which the movie owes its name. Jack’s concept of reality is distorted, thinking of things through the lens of his extremely limited spatial understanding: things exist either in Room or in TV. Since he only knows of this limited reality, he refers to most objects with the “zero article,” treating things like unique objects with personal names rather than using definite or indefinite articles to identify a particular objects. For example, he refers to “chair,” “room,” and “door” rather than saying “the chair” or “the door.” This adds to the completeness of how Jack’s world-view is depicted and makes each interaction fascinating, horrifying, and terribly engrossing.

*Spoiler* watching Jack’s reactions following his and Ma’s escape is also very telling for some real-life victims of these kinds of horrible acts. He struggles to adapt to the direct sunlight, the prevalence of germs, and he is afraid of all of the things he’s never seen. The complex emotions of watching Jack experience the World for the first time is truly wondrous and simultaneously depressing.

Overall, Room is the kind of amazing film I never want to see again. I was blown away by this film and was glad I watched it during the day time. Everyone should watch, just prepare yourself a few hours afterward before trying to sleep. Amazing acting by both Larson and Tremblay, the kid definitely could have gotten a nomination and Larson most definitely deserved her awards. I picked Room for Best Picture because it really challenged and affected me more than any other film this year. I think it made the rash of captivity stories in recent years into something more personal and even more horrifying. This film did something unique and took risks, but it succeeded in making an unforgettable experience. Blorg! and Academy Pick: Best Actress; Blorg! Pick: Best Picture

 

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2016 Oscars: The Revenant

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Source: Wikipedia

The Revenant, AKA, Leonardo DiCaprio tries everything he and a crazy Spaniard can think of to get him an Oscar. This film is the elephant in the room (or should I say bear?) Everyone has been talking about it for months. “Oh, Leo, simply must get his first Oscar!” This movie is beautiful. The landscapes and on-site filming definitely paid off. Gorgeous Chilean landscapes pretending to be Wyoming, overlaid with a CGI bear that was actually tastefully done, and some killer makeup work for all of Glass’ (Leo’s) implausibly severe injuries. While watching the film, I actually really enjoyed it. DiCaprio and Tom Hardy were absolutely captivating. I know, I know: it seems like I’m just buying into the hype, but DiCaprio’s physical acting worked remarkably well with little dialogue. However, I felt that in many scenes Hardy seemed to steal the show, creating the most complete character in the film, whose motivations and selfish brutality came through in every interaction he had. So between the strong acting, beautiful camera work, and some really startling, shock-value-type scenes (eating bison liver, neck cauterizing, Tauntauning*, and other nasty stuff), the movie is definitely good.

However, the more I think about it, the less this movie makes any sense. It’s shot and played like a period drama (or at least historical fiction), but the level of implausibility keeps escalating as the movie progresses. Quick *Spoiler* for the number of things Glass survives: bear attack, waterfall, riding a horse off a cliff, and all of the sanitary, injury, and climate-based complications he encounters. He crawls for miles, survives being shot, heals really fast(?), can swim with a broken leg, spends a night Tauntauning in his dead horse, and still is only barely behind Hardy the whole time? Eh, plot-wise it gets kind of lost in all of the fantabulous stunts that DiCaprio (or really his stunt double/CGI-workers) go through. Also, sorry, but the ending was dumb; there are huge plot holes with the Native Americans’ subplot and their role at the end is confusing. Also, the final fight scene is kind of anticlimactic after all of the lead in, the decoy horse, etc. *Spoiler* Hardy and DiCaprio clumsily rolling around in the snow seemed too drawn out and didn’t fit with the grit of the first 2.5 hours of the movie. It’s hard to see how there’s any emotional resolution for Glass, since he doesn’t have anything left to live for, presumably.

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Literally Oscar bait. Source: ivassalkapcsolatosproblemak.tumblr.com

 

Overall, the movie is worth watching for the views and the acting, but why does the academy keep giving things to Innaritu? I completely disagree with the Academy’s choice two years in a row to give the Best Director award to this dude who continues to artsy fartsy his way to Oscars. Boo. Blorg! Pick & Academy Pick: Best Actor; Blorg! Pick: Best Supporting Actor; Academy Pick: Best Director

 

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*Tauntauning (verb) the act of cutting open and climbing into a dead animal to keep warm in a wintry night. Anyone who doesn’t know what a Tauntaun is needs to drop everything and watch the original Star Wars trilogy (Ep. IV-VI, obviously). The act of Tauntauning was made famous by Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back and replicated unironically by Innaritu’s The Revenant.

The medical feasibility of Tauntauning has been rigorously documented in this brilliant and amusing article by Keith Veronese.

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Cute critter until you have to sleep in its gut. Image Credit: i09.gizmodo.com