Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Ex Machina" Review

Alex Garland's Ex Machina is one of the finest original sci-fi films in years and stands as one of the best movies of 2015 so far.

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac turn in fine performances as the two main leads. Gleeson stars as a young web programmer named Caleb who is selected to participate in an experiment with artificial intelligence created by his boss Nathan (Isaac). The rub is that Caleb must evaluate the human qualities of a beautiful female A.I. named Ava (a star-making turn by Alicia Vikander) whom he eventually starts falling for.

As the erotic tension between Caleb and Ava ratchets up, it's hard for the audience not to be equally taken by Vikander in her performance as the A.I. She's subtle and smart and comes off as the truest cinematic representation of beauty and brains this side of Miss Moneypenny. Ava's an innocent victim by design, but in the way Vikander plays her, you get the sense that she could excel at literally anything. Equal parts love, awe, curiosity and fury are visible in Vikander's eyes and mannerisms at any given moment. The role couldn't have been played more perfectly. If this is any indication, the actress has a long, prosperous career and a shelf full of awards ahead of her.

Writer/first-time director Alex Garland shows tremendous skill and promise as a visual storyteller. The cinematography is breathtaking and the narrative taught. I couldn't find much to complain about with this slow-burning thriller that evokes the best emotions of Blade Runner and Her in a story that still feels entirely original.


"The Age of Adaline" Review

The Age of Adaline is a charming romantic fantasy with well-acted performances from stars Blake Lively and Harrison Ford, even if the story isn't quite as compelling as other mortality tales.

The film is about a young woman (Blake Lively), born at the turn of the 20th century, who is mysteriously rendered ageless at 29 after a freak accident. Drama ensues as present-day Adaline meets Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a young man who may be worthy of learning her secret after she spends a lifetime keeping to herself.

I was surprised to learn that Adaline is not based on a novel or any previously published material, though it hearkens comparisons to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which centers on a character who ages backwards. Scribes J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz deserve props for putting an overall unique spin on an original story of mortality. Even though the script is not without flaw, I'm excited to see what they write next.

I didn't care much for the use of voice-over. Hugh Ross's narration starts at a confusing point in the film in which Adaline may or may not be watching an old news reel about her life leading up to the accident. That's how the mythology of the story is explained. It's tightly dictated, but I think simply starting the film with Adaline's backstory would've made her character more mysterious and more interesting to follow.

As it is, I felt removed from the story at times because I couldn't quite empathize with Adaline despite Lively's best efforts. This is the perfect star vehicle for her, but I think the actress's best work is yet to come.

Things pick up in the film's second half where Adaline spends the weekend with Ellis and his parents (Harrison Ford & Kathy Baker). There's a point where Ford's character first recognizes Adaline as a figure from his past in which he shows a sense of restrained elation that, for me, single-handedly reaffirmed my faith in the aging star's capabilities. It's refreshing to see Ford acting again after a sad string of cash grabs recently.

Overall, I'd surmise that The Age of Adaline is a good-not-great romance that will service as solid date-night entertainment.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Movies I Saw at the Nashville Film Festival

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

If there's one film on this list that's a must-see, it's Me and Earl. Based on a novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews, the story follows a young student filmmaker named Greg (Thomas Mann) as he befriends Rachel, a girl from his high school who is dying of leukemia (Olivia Cooke). Along for the ride is Greg's "co-worker,' not friend, Earl (R.J. Cyler). Together, Greg and Earl recreate all the classic movies of world cinema to hilariously awful results. Fans of the classics will really dig the humor in this film which stems mostly from a familiarity with the Criterion Collection's back catalog. Some of the best jokes may pass over the heads of more casual moviegoers for this reason, but seeing it in a festival theater packed with cinephiles was a riot. The performances from all the young actors are great. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon allows the camera to linger in certain scenes to let the kids show off their chops. There's a tense scene between Mann and Cooke towards the end that takes place in a single-take, wide-angle shot of Rachel's bedroom. The vibe I got from Me and Earl is that it's like The Fault in Our Stars for people who can't stand The Fault in Our Stars. This film is consistently hilarious with a great heart, and I just couldn't get enough of it. I can't wait to watch it over and over again someday. (Winner of the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.)

Slow West

Slow West starts that way before building into a Euro-West yarn that would have Sergio Leone turning in his grave. It takes place in 19th century Colorado but has a very foreign flair to it. I guess that makes sense since the movie was filmed in the back country of New Zealand. It also might have something to do with the plot which revolves around a young Scottish immigrant named Jay (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) who travels the countryside in search of his long-lost love (Caren Pistorius). Aiding Jay on his quest is the mysterious Silas (Michael Fassbender), an outlaw who once ran with a gang of bounty hunters led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). The way I've described it makes it sound very True Grit, but I assure you that the story takes several unexpected twists and turns. Slow West has an uncanny way of presenting us with intimate, well-crafted character moments that are accentuated either by startling violence, a sharp sense of humor, or both. I've never seen or heard of a Western quite like that before, and I'd be willing to wager that unless you've seen Slow West, you haven't either.

7 Chinese Brothers

I don't quite know how to best summarize 7 Chinese Brothers on my own, so I'll offer what the IMDb listing says:

"Jason Schwartzman portrays Larry, an inebriated sad sack who rides a tide of booze onto the shores of an undiscriminating Quick-Lube. The only bright spot is probably his boss, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta). Will Larry keep it together long enough to win the girl, provide for his French bulldog, laze about with his friend Major (Tunde Adebimpe), and do his cantankerous grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) proud?"

I will add that this film has essentially nothing to do with its title. This was confirmed in a Q&A with writer/director Bob Byington who settled on the title "7 Chinese Brothers" because it sounded better than anything else he could come up with. Schwartzman gives one of his most nuanced performances in this entertaining little film that had me laughing from start to finish. A worthy addition to the slacker-comedy canon.

The Challenger 

The Challenger follows a down-and-out young man from the Bronx (Kent Moran, pulling quintuple-duty as star, editor, producer, writer, and director) who takes up boxing in order to win a better life for him and his mother. The late Michael Clarke Duncan co-stars in his last film role as the trainer Duane. The Challenger doesn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to the cliches inherent in most sports films. However it's still a well-done underdog story that sort of feels like a title bout between 8 Mile and Rocky. Well worth a look for Duncan's performance if nothing else.

How to Dance in Ohio

How to Dance in Ohio is a documentary that follows a group of teens and young adults from Columbus, Ohio as they prepare for a spring formal dance. Big deal, right? Well, all these young people are on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, which means preparing for the dance is indeed a big deal. The kids work with their psychologist and respective therapy groups to overcome the social and organizational anxieties that come with learning to slow-dance with a partner, picking out a dress, asking someone to be your date, and crowning a king and queen. I enjoyed this film for the intimate insight it provides into the lives of young adults with autism. It allowed me to better understand what autism looks like which in turn made it very easy to sympathize with the characters.


Loosely based on "the Lonely Hearts Killers" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck from late 1940s America, Alléluia is a foreign language import from Belgium that serves as solid "Midnight Movie" material. Separated into four gruesome acts, the story examines Gloria (Lola Duenas) who leaves her jealous, manipulating husband for a new life with her young daughter. Later, Gloria meets a charming man named Michel (Laurent Lucas) whom she falls madly in love with. She would do anything to maintain her relationship with Michel, even if that means leaving her own daughter to travel around and scam rich widows out of their money. Soon, jealousy starts to get the better of Gloria who kills the other women as they get more intimate with Michel. 
This isn't your typical Bonnie & Clyde film, which is sort of what I expected. It definitely feels like an art-house, midnight movie. It's shot almost entirely in close-ups, which may perturb some but is representative of the cinematographer's unique style, and it works quite well for this film. I would not recommend Alléluia to the casual moviegoer. It depicts scenes of disturbing violence and sexual misconduct that serve a story best left to be digested by more discerning viewers.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The New Trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is All Kinds of Awesome

As a discerning film critic, one eventually develops a sense of cynicism towards the big blockbusters of Hollywood. I approach every announcement from the Marvel Cinematic Universe with caution. I'm underwhelmed by DC's offerings thus far. It takes a lot to get me hyped for the big movies of summer.

So I guess it's a good thing that the new Star Wars comes out in December.

After watching this new trailer, I'm completely convinced that Episode VII is going to be THE movie of the year. I don't recall the last movie I was this excited to see. The Force Awakens promises high-stakes drama, rousing action sequences, and nostalgic fun. What more do you need?

This trailer showed us just enough without spoiling too much. It teased the Skywalkers as well as some new badass-looking Sith. I reacted with nerdy glee at the sight of Han Solo and Chewy. A perfect way to end a perfect trailer.

The hype, and the FORCE, are strong with this one.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

"Furious 7" Review

No other series of films in the history of modern cinema have been able to do what the Fast and Furious franchise has done. That is, they only get better as they go, and every sequel seems to make hundreds of millions of dollars more than its predecessor.

Sure, the movies have gotten progressively bigger and arguably "dumber," as most of today's blockbuster franchises do. But series writer Chris Morgan began truly embracing the silliness after Fast & Furious, the series' 4th film. Starting with Fast Five, I think things got so crazy that it was easier to suspend disbelief and begin taking these films simply at face value. Since then, Morgan and director Justin Lin never tried to make these movies into anything other than what they were: mega-budget, Hollywood blockbusters chock-full of death/physics-defying stunts. Sometimes that's all you need, and nobody else in the studio system today has figured out how to make it work across this many films the way Universal Pictures has.

Now at its seventh (seventh!) sequel, which is on track for a worldwide opening  north of $300 million, the Fast & Furious movies show no signs of slowing down. Furious 7 has of course been marred by tragedy and controversy surrounding the sudden death of Paul Walker over Thanksgiving weekend in 2013. The film was almost entirely scrapped before the creative team decided to finish it in Paul's honor. I'm glad they were able to pull it together, because Furious 7 is the wildest ride that this franchise has yet taken us on.

It also has a strong emotional core that would be there even if Walker hadn't died. Since the contrary is sadly true, Furious 7 stands above its predecessors as the one with the biggest heart. That's rare in a studio picture like this. Seriously, by the end, you'll need an entire box of tissues. They couldn't have sent Walker off in finer fashion. It's just perfect. Lend your ear to the soundtrack single "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth if you want to get a sense of the tone I'm alluding to here:

I can never keep my cool listening to this song.

Beware of some spoilers in these next two paragraphs!!!!!!
The story here finds the "family" as the object of a manhunt by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the big brother of Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) from Fast & Furious 6. Deckard's a bit upset with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and the rest of the team for "crippling" his little brother and putting him in a coma. With Shaw and his terrorist associates Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) and Kiet (Tony Jaa) hot on their tails, the family is called into action by a shady government official (Kurt Russell) to help find a computer hacker who can unlock a weapon called "God's Eye" which turns any electronic device into a weapon. The family plans to use the "God's Eye" in order to stay a step ahead in the fight against Shaw. 

Statham is a welcome addition to the cast and brings the kind of physical ability that these movies have needed for awhile. But I'm disappointed with how one-note Deckard Shaw is. Neither is he as menacing as his baby brother Owen, nor does Statham give a performance that matches or exceeds Evans' in F&F 6. Deckard is the kind of villain who just occasionally shows up to try and ruin everyone's day. But between Statham and Jaa, there are plenty of spectacular fight scenes. Statham has a hand in most of the big set pieces while Jaa's highlights include two hand-to-hand fight scenes with Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker).
Ok, no more spoilers!

I should mention that Lin has moved on from the director's chair and has passed the franchise to horror auteur James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious). I don't know what sort of crash course Wan took to prepare himself for directing the outrageous set pieces in this film, but he pulls it off perfectly with a seamless transition from being one of the top directors of mainstream horror to a director with an exciting eye for stunts and action/thriller set pieces. If Universal moves forward with Fast & Furious 8, 9, and 10, I hope he gets the job. If not, I'd be excited to see what Wan does next with his keen sensibilities for action on this scale.

The way I see it, if you're a fan of action movies, you'll love Furious 7. You'll laugh, cry, and frequently find yourself at the edge of your seat. This is a big, loud movie with a heart that demands to be seen on the big screen. Movies like this don't really come along as often as we think they do, and Furious 7 is a perfect example of why I, for one, still love going out to the theaters.