I have to admit that I feel uninspired by most science-fiction… MoreI have to admit that I feel uninspired by most science-fiction offerings of the last few years and even when I am entertained or tricked into feeling enlightened, it's obvious there are intellectual pieces still missing and little worth discussing afterwards. Ex Machina solves this problem and does something that CHAPPiE and Avengers: Age of Ultron failed to do - spawn an interesting robotic character and get us thinking about the possibility of Artificial Intelligence again. The plot revolves around a "lucky" computer programmer who travels to the remote mansion of the C.E.O. he works for, so he can administer a "Turing test" to a newly created female robot in order to establish the validity of the AI program she contains. Said test and the interactions between our protagonist and "AVA" form the core narrative, and is somewhat reminiscent of the Voight-Kampff exams from Blade Runner.
The protagonist is brilliant and interesting, but also smacks of arrogance. For all his intellect he fails to recognize that he has placed himself in a trap. The trap metaphor is completed by the large glass cage structure that he willingly places himself into when he interrogates AVA. Oscar Isaacs continues to win the world's most underappreciated actor award as an aggressive, alcoholic tech billionaire who places the technological achievements of his company above all else, including the future of humanity. (I'm sure this is some kind of Parthian shot at Google.) But the true star is AVA, brought to life by Alicia Vikander. Her performance avoids the clichés used by the genre and we are looking at a creation who not only is learning what it means to be alive, but what life means to humans, and how to reconcile her personal desires and goals with the expectations placed on her. It also helps that most of the time AVA is little but wires, tubes, and a human face pasted on an exoskeleton, reminding us that while she is attempting at becoming human, she is anything but. This goes hand-in-hand with the other visuals which are strikingly beautiful and restrained in terms of color palette and tasteful use of digital effects. Ex Machina may not reach all of it promise and I do wish there was just a little more material at the end, but the fact that I was left wanting more is a good sign. This is excellent thinking man's hard science fiction and one that has justifiably earned its reputation among cinemaphiles.
Deserving more attention that it has thus far received, The Water… MoreDeserving more attention that it has thus far received, The Water Diviner represents Russell Crowe's directorial debut and the result is relatively successful, if unspectacular. While the plot involves an Australian man traveling to British-occupied post-Ottoman Turkey, trying to recover his sons' remains in the aftermath of WWI (all three were presumably killed at The Battle of Gallipoli), it is framed as a journey of self- discovery with light romantic elements. Crowe proves to be a competent but not exceptional director. His true talents lie in front of the camera and he is still an able lead, provided he has something to work with. Olga Kurylenko perks up the picture a bit with her charms, even if her casting as a Turkish woman is questionable. (She's French Russian, but Hollywood has been doing this shit forever, so who cares right?) There are many historical elements that go nowhere - the British Occupation, Turkish Nationalist movements, the Greek Invasion, women's lack of rights in an Islamic society, among others that just form noise and an interesting backdrop. What proves more substantial is the film's true subtext about the aftermath of the WWI itself. I would argue that The Water Diviner is a light, somber epitaph to the generation of young men lost on both sides of the Middle Eastern campaign and the people they left behind. It's not perfect and lacks the punch it might have had, but the topic is something more Americans need to be familiar with, and you could do far worse things with your time.
The original Avengers was a game-changing pop culture phenomenon that… MoreThe original Avengers was a game-changing pop culture phenomenon that also happened to be a pretty damn good action movie. Its sequel, Age of Ultron, also happens to be a damn good action sequel, having more in common with Die Hard 2 and Star Trek: Into Darkness then anybody cares to admit. And by that I mean both its strengths and weaknesses. Age of Ultron is bigger and somewhat funner than its predecessor but lacks its focus and the magic that made it everyone's favorite popcorn movie of choice. Age is a bloated action sequel, but a fun one that benefits immensely from Joss Whedon's humor and charms of its veteran cast.
This time around new characters are introduced and they add quite another dimension to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver succeed as worthy enemies/allies of the Avengers and I do look forward to seeing more mutants make their way from X-Men over to this franchise. (Although I have to point out that the version of Quicksilver in X-Men Days of Future Past was superior). Vision (Paul Bettany's Jarvis made manifest as a godly superhero) was wild to see and easily the most interesting thing on camera in the final act. But it was Hawkeye who ended up the best character here, as he was given true personal motivation, great dialogue, and moments of pure ass-kicking awesomeness that he was simply denied in the first Avengers outing. (Plus Jeremy Renner is just plain underrated.) The Hulkbuster Iron-Man vs Hulk fight was the stuff of little boy's dreams, as were most of the action sequences.
Of course there was just a bit too much action by the end, to the point I felt numb to it all, yet I doubt many people will agree with me on that. But I think we all can agree that the Bruce Banner/Natasha Romanoff flirtation was forced, creepy, and pointless. It served no true purpose, stopped the movie dead, and went absolutely nowhere. Yes we know Black Widow was never going to end up with Hawkeye, as he was an unpopular character last time around. But this was just plain stupid, and the writers surely know this by now. Expect that subplot to be unceremoniously dropped next time around. Oh and the near endless scenes of Avengers saving civilians got annoying. Yes Marvel/Disney, we know you are currently king and that Man of Steel was a disappointment. No, that wasn't necessary. And what's up with Tony Stark still being Iron Man? Wasn't he done with this at the end of Iron Man 3? The first thing we see him doing here is flying around blowing shit up with no latter explanation of why. Oh who cares.
There is also the problem with Ultron himself. While James Spader certainly enjoys himself voice acting the titular villain, Ultron does little to distinguish himself from every other example of the rogue AI rebelling against humanity trope we have seen a thousand times before and was done better recently by Ex Machina. His plan is obviously doomed and relies too heavily on cannon fodder robots for convenient action sequences. It's obvious that our heroes are never in any real danger and victory was never in any doubt. And that's the biggest problem in general - we're mostly just marking time until the Marvel Civil War and Infinity Gauntlet arcs, when the REAL villain shows up to wreck everybody's shit - DARKSEID (cough, cough) I mean THANOS. But until then we do have an enjoyable popcorn experience that has something for everybody. You have probably already seen it and I am just wasting my time here nitpicking about the minor flaws of an unstoppable juggernaut. But such is my life.
A fascinating take on a real-life topic, True Story examines… MoreA fascinating take on a real-life topic, True Story examines journalistic integrity, lies, the court of public opinion, and adherence to the truth. Jonah Hill and James Franco display restrained character actor skills as two frauds who have more in common with each other than would appear at first glance. Felicity Jones has a notable scene or two as a cold, direct Greek chorus - clarifying the opinions of the filmmakers toward Christian Longo and his attempts at redemption. I was struck how blunt, simple, and unpretentious True Story manages to be for its entire runtime, despite the fact that I'm sure half of the events on screen are exaggerated or entirely fabricated. (Ironic, isn't it?) I will recommend it, even if lacks the oomph or staying power that I'm sure it would have had under David Fincher's twisted hand.