Review: Ex Machina

ex machina movie poster one sheetWhat makes us human? It’s a philosophical puzzle that goes back as far as human history is recorded, something we’ve wrestled with since the dawn of time. In the modern era, it was savant Alan Turing who suggested the definitive test for the “humanness” of an artificial intelligence, now known as the Turing Test: if you interact with an unknown entity through a computer and cannot ascertain whether it’s an AI or an actual person, then it should be considered human.

Cinematically this has been a ripe area for exploration too, including the chilling 70’s sci-fi film The Forbin Project, the teen-focused Wargames and, of course, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, almost all science fiction set in the future assumes that we will have sentient, self-aware computers, they just disagree on how malevolent they’ll be. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics might not be enough to save us after the singularity, the moment when “they” become more intelligent than we humans are.

Into the middle of this drops the fascinating Ex Machina, which revolves around the AI robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) who has been created by quirky genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and is going to be evaluated in a face-to-face Turing Test by the idealistic loner Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). The key question becomes profound: If Ava is sufficiently self-aware to have a chance of passing this Turing Test, what happens if she doesn’t actually pass? And what behaviors will it inspire in her to improve her chances of having Caleb confirm she is indeed sentient?

Director Alex Garland brings a surreal, at times metaphysical tone to the film with its beautiful wilderness setting where inventor Nathan has built his underground research station below a Fallingwater-inspired ultra-modern home. The cold, unfeeling beauty of the home, where concrete walls and rough stone from the existing terrain directly parallel the cold finish and appearance of Ava, a robot designed to be beautiful in all but the kinesthetic.

Continue reading

Review: Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police

can't stand losing you: Surviving the Police one sheet posterEvery guitar player in every garage band in the world dreams of hitting the big time, of having sold out concerts, worldwide acclaim and screaming fans who are willing to do anything to spend time with you. Musicians don’t just make it overnight, however, there’s a long, sometimes decades long, journey, and if you do attain that level of success you quickly realize it has a dark side too.

Andy Grieve’s biographical documentary Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police is about guitarist Andy Summers of The Police and serves as a splendid example of the highs and lows of rock ‘n roll stardom. Narrated by Andy and featuring many of his black and white photos from concert tours, recording sessions, and home life, Can’t Stand Losing You also mirrors his life, with a narrative pace that slowly runs out of energy as the film proceeds.

Summers was born during WWII in England, during a time when housing was in such short supply that his Dad bought a gypsy wagon for the family. Growing up in Birmingham, he was given his first guitar at 11 and absolutely fell in love with the instrument, becoming a virtuoso by his late teens. Summers headed to London where he joined Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band and enjoyed early success until the band reinvented itself as the psychedelic Dantalian’s Chariot.

Dantalian’s Chariot soon fell apart and Summers bounced to The Soft Machine for a few months, then flew out to Los Angeles to join Eric Burdon and the Animals. The big time! Except Burdon broke up and reformed his band less than a year later. Without Summers.

LA wasn’t a compete bust, however: He met his future wife Kate and the two of them flew back to London (with money borrowed from his Dad) where Andy became a studio musician, notably showing up as a soloist on Mike Oldfield’s album “Tubular Bells”.

Continue reading

Review: The Protokon

the protokon one sheet movie posterClassic science fiction often involves filmmakers trying to portray what’s ahead for mankind, whether it’s the Empire versus the Rebel Alliance, the relatively near future of 2001: A Space Odyssey or a dark future as portrayed in Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green or Gattica. It’s rare for a modern filmmaker to try to create something with old-school verisimilitude, however, so while The Protokon might not stand up as much of a thoughtful cinematic experience, its retro 80’s look and style make it worth a viewing anyway.

In fact, writer director Anthony de Lioncourt runs the entire finished film through a digital “aging” process to add visual artifacts and even sneaks in a copyright in the opening titles that places it as a film from 1983. It also has the dark, over-saturated colors of its genre, along with semi-mystical elements, some of which are straight out of Logan’s Run and others from Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

The story revolves around James Tain (Mark Mattson), whose life is shattered when a band of thugs attack him and his fiancée, leaving him unconscious and her dead. His entire world focuses on revenge and when the mysterious Elijah (Jaiden Kaine) makes him the proverbial offer he can’t refuse, a chance to wreak his revenge in return for unwavering loyalty to The Order, the film becomes a choice between good and evil. Th real story then is the same as that explored in 80’s films like Rambo and the 70’s films Billy Jack and Walking Tall: what happens to a man after he’s wrought the revenge he’s so long imagined?

Continue reading

Review: Space Pirate Captain Harlock

space pirate captain harlockIt’s the far future and all of the human colonies around the galaxy are failing. Everyone wants to head back to Earth, but there are too many for the planet to sustain and after the Homecoming War, a consortium called the Gaia Sanction declares Earth off limits, leaving humankind to die off in various spots throughout the universe. The only person who doesn’t respect the edict? Captain Harlock, space pirate.

With his band of fellow pirates, they fly through the galaxy placing 100 detonators at various spots to move the “Genesis Clock” and create a time node that restarts everything, also recreating Earth as a paradise along with many other planets. Meanwhile, Gaia fleet commander Ezra gets his younger brother Logan to infiltrate Harlock’s ship and foil his plans. But Harlock might just know all along that Logan is a mole.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock is an interesting, dark storyline based upon a Japanese manga book series written and illustrated by Leiji Matsumoto, which led to a Japanese TV series and then this 2013 cinematic release. It’s the highest budget animated film Toei Animation (Tokyo) has ever created, costing over $30 million to create.

Continue reading

Review: Furious 7

furious 7 one sheet movie posterCan a film be successful purely because of its special effects? That’s the key question around this seventh entry in the Fast and Furious franchise, and the answer is unfortunately obvious: yes, it can, and Furious 7 is going to be a success, in spite of the fact that there’s so much wrong with the movie.

A franchise built around flawed action heroes whose superpower is the ability to drive cars quickly is on shaky ground to begin with, but to squeeze film after film out of the same flawed group of archetypal underdogs means that the odds really are stacked against the “family” of street racer Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his partner Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), however earnest their motto of “family, not friends” is applied to the storyline.

In this installment, the crime boss that they foiled in Furious 6, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), turns out to have a super tough, former special forces brother Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who is hell-bent on revenge against Dom and his “family”. The film is propelled by a highly improbable story about genius hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) creating a program that can tap into all smart phones and surveillance systems to track down anyone, anywhere in the world. She’s been kidnapped by bad guys and it’s up to Dom and Brian to rescue her for the US government.

Federal agent Hobbs (fan favorite Dwayne Johnson) is injured by Shaw early on and spends most of the film off-camera recuperating in hospital, which is too bad as he has far more charisma than just about anyone else in the movie. Fortunately [tiny spoiler alert] he does reappear in the closing action sequences after a great scene where he pops a cast off his arm by simply flexing his massive biceps.

Continue reading

Review: ’71

71 movie poster one sheetYears of ceaseless tension between the Protestants and the Catholics in Ireland spawned “The Troubles”, as it was called, a name that doesn’t begin to suggest the horror of neighbor fighting neighbor in cities like Belfast, cities where an alleyway, or a courtyard between two apartment buildings served as the front lines.

Set in 1971 at the height of The Troubles, this riveting thriller follows young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) as his squadron’s pulled out of basic training to head to Belfast as reinforcements for the troops already on the ground. He’s green and his only family back in Derbyshire is his little brother, who lives in a rather grim orphanage. Part of  the Parachute Regiment, Gary and his squad at first think Belfast is going to be an easy assignment when Catholic children ambush them with water balloons.

The tension skyrockets, however, when their next encounter with the locals is exacerbated by the civilian police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who viciously assault a woman in full view of the crowd. The RUC seek information from the woman, but they’re clearly just a bunch of jackbooted thugs enjoying their brutal work as the crowd gets increasingly restive. The situation soon explodes and after a young boy breaks the line and steals a rifle, Gary and his mate Thommo (Jack Lowden) are racing through the crowd on the shouted command of their CO. “Get that bloody gun!”

The riot continues to escalate and when the two soldiers reach the thief, they’re beaten by a half-dozen Catholic youth until a woman intervenes, saying “We’ve had enough for today, damn you!” But they haven’t, and when an IRA gunman walks up and calmly kills Thommo, Gary bolts rather than be next on the list.

Continue reading

Review: The Gunman

the gunman movie poster one sheetIt’s no surprise that the blockbuster The Bourne Identity has inspired more than one subsequent tough guy action thriller. While The Gunman isn’t a complete rip-off, there are definitely a number of aspects of the story that are inspired by the exploits of Jason Bourne.

The title character of The Gunman is Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), a sniper who assassinates the Minister of Mining in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, and is then immediately whisked out of the country for his own protection. Problem is, he was in a relationship with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a medical volunteer and part of a non-governmental relief organization and that’s a very ungraceful way to end things. He vanishes and she has no clue what’s happened, never hearing from him again. Fellow assassin Felix (Javier Bardem) has also fallen in love with Annie and it’s he who consoles her when Terrier vanishes from the DRC. Awkward.

Eight years later Terrier is back in the Congo on a relief project of his own helping drill water wells in the still impoverished nation when a hit squad targets him and violence ensues. It seems that all those years later the assassination squad is blown and Terrier’s life is at grave risk. He heads back to London, meets up with mate Stanley (Ray Winstone) and former squad leader Cox (Mark Rylance), where he learns that  Felix is now based in Barcelona and married to Annie.

The cat and mouse game begins in earnest from that point, with Felix the ambiguous, slightly off-kilter head of a global security firm and manipulative husband to Annie, who quickly accepts Terrier reappearing in her life. Is Cox clean? Can Stanley be trusted? And what of Interpol and its savvy operative DuPont (Idris Elba)?

Continue reading

Review: Kumiko The Treasure Hunter

one sheet poster movie kumiko the treasure hunterIt’s hard to know where to start with a review of this extraordinary, depressing and intriguing Japanese film. At times it’s banal and trite, random and without coherence, and at other times it is a provocative essay on expectations, how our environment defines our life and the importance of having — and pursuing — our dreams, however crazy everyone else may think they are.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a young Office Lady who works at a soul-numbing bureaucracy somewhere in Tokyo. At 29 she’s not married, not dating, and lives in a tiny apartment where she consumes instant ramen out of a styrofoam cup and dreams of a better life. Except for when she’s so downcast and sad that it’s hard to even watch her on screen, let alone hope for her to find happiness. It’s a slice of urban Japanese life that will repel all but the most earnest fan of Japanese culture, a dismal existence that makes clear why Kumiko lives in a dreamlike state.

She sees herself as a modern day conquistador, an explorer who has a goal and will stop at nothing to find and achieve it. She finds a battered VHS tape of a film “based on a true story” that seems to suggest there’s a briefcase full of money buried somewhere in the farthest reaches of Fargo, North Dakota. In America. The film: Fargo.

Continue reading

Review: Run All Night

run all night one sheet posterJimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) is a retired hitman with the colorful nickname “The Gravedigger”. Quite possibly, he’s retired from the Taken movie series, though I fear there are more of those in the pipeline. But Neeson’s basically the same character in Run All Night. The difference this time is that he’s protecting his estranged son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) rather than rescuing his kidnapped daughter or wife.

Everything goes south when Jimmy’s childhood buddy, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) rejects an opportunity to facilitate a group of Albanians smuggling heroin into the country, brokered by his ne’er-do-well son Danny (Boyd Holbrook). Jimmy tells the Albanians to get the $#@$ out of the house, and when they show up at Danny’s apartment to collect on money they’d advanced him, everything falls apart and non-stop violence ensues.

Problem is, the Albanians hired Jimmy’s son Michael to drive their limo to Danny’s place. Wrong place, wrong time, and soon Shawn has his goons running all over New York trying to find, and kill, Michael and Jimmy, friendship be damned.

Continue reading

Review: Chappie

chappie movie one sheet posterThere’s lots to like in Chappie, a gritty sci-fi crime thriller from the director of the District 9. So much, that at times it felt like this was a retelling of that film with robots instead of aliens. If you imagine a mashup of Robocop and District 9, you’d be on the right path to understanding Chappie.

Like many films in the sci-fi genre, however, this also tries too hard and wants to cover too many stories, including an exploration of the meaning of consciousness and life, an industrial intrigue about competing researchers and their willingness to undermine each other to get their own project funded, a story of bureaucratic corruption and incompetent police, and even a sort of redemption story of a gang of small time thugs who gain heart by helping raise an infant child/bot.

Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the bright young engineer who has created the semi-autonomous Scout police robots for the Tetra Vaal Corporation, but at home he experiments with more sophisticated, self aware AI. His rival at the company is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who has a much larger, more aggressive robot known as the “Moose” but which looks a whole heck of a lot like the infamous ED-209 from Robocop.

Continue reading