Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ex Machina

Outstanding. Caleb is a young genius programmer who is invited to his reclusive boss's home in the arctic wilderness for a weeklong retreat. When he arrives, he finds he has been summoned as the questioner in a Turing test for an AI that the boss has created. Aside from ridiculous premise that a single reclusive programmer could create the hardware that we see, this is fantastic. Caleb is charged with determining if the AI is truly sentient, and the boss (Nathan) is pointing him in directions that make Caleb question motives (his own, Nathan's and Ava's). A few times throughout, this film is on the verge of flying off the handle, but writer/director Alex Garland masterfully walks that ledge, never letting us go "too far". The psychological tension between the AI Ava and Caleb fills the emotional space and bleeds into every other relationship. This very much had the same feel and sense as Moon in its sci-fi pedigree. And looking back at that review, I notice that I connected Moon to Solaris (aka Sunshine), which is also from Alex Garland. If you want to have an AI fest, watch this with Her and you will be happy.
5 stars (out of 5)

Pitch Perfect 2

It can't be as perfect as the first. That one came out of left field and surprised everyone with quality, catchy songs, quirky characters, etc. that nearly everyone loved. Now we know the quirk and will not be pleasantly surprised. The danger is that we need to crank up the intensity resulting in over-the-top wacky/slapstick or try too hard to force the next catchy song, or maybe even worse, just phone it in and do exactly the same thing. Fortunately, the writers did a pretty good job of walking this fine line. The Barden Bellas, on top of the Acapella world having won the national championships, need to be broken down so that we can recreate the come from behind, underdog story. This happens quickly with a presidential faux pas and then later with a strange underground acapella slam that they don't win, sending them off with tails between legs. {Aside: tell me I am wrong that Reginald Watts in the Tone Hangers is a mutant cross of Questlove and James Harden - so weird I couldn't take my eyes off him}.  Transition to rebuilding process for world championship competition. As in the original, I love hearing the singing and harmonizations so was willing to sit through the connective dialogue. I do think that the aca-commentary that happened at every competition this time around was more shock-comedy that funny. I didn't hear anyone laughing, and found it to be unnecessary racism, genderism, etc. and was a missed opportunity for some actual comedy. But overall, the music was good enough, and I enjoyed my two hours.
3 stars (out of 5)

Mad Max: Fury Road

Science fiction generally comes in one of two flavors, both of which require the suspension of disbelief. Either you accept a premise that is in its foundation false (but the story told holds to that premise and treating it as truth maintains integrity throughout), or you start with a premise that is plausible and accept an ongoing parade of hyperbole to push a story forward. Mad Max is the latter. The plausible premise is that sometime in the future, a post-nuclear world exists in which most all reproduction is marred by genetically mutated offspring (see the opening two headed lizard) and water is such a scarce resource that whoever controls it holds power. The parade of hyperbole includes (as a sampling) a petroleum based society where the only visible use of petroleum is transportation to get more petroleum, a harem of women who travel through the desert wearing only the barest shreds of gauze and are the only "non-mutant" creatures in the film, and a plan to drive a motorcycle for 160 days through a desert on an apparent single tank of fuel. But that is all OK. You are seeing this film to enjoy the spectacle of desert and machines and a world where just a bit crazy is the norm. There are some astounding vehicles that are so clearly impractical, and so awesomely impressive that you don't care. There are mechanical battles at high speed with Cirque du Soleil style boardings and kidnappings that blow your mind. So in effect, the hyperbole helps. I have seen some commentary about this being, at its core, about female empowerment. I am not going to say it isn't (being of the wrong gender to saw what is empowering and what is not), but I don't see it. Yes, Charlize Theron kicks ass as Furiosa, but I don't see this as being about gender. There is still too much objectification to go there. It is more about class struggle and fair distribution of resources in a tyranny if it is, at its core, anything more than visual spectacle. In the end, for me visual spectacle is enough.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

I read a review of this by a film critic. While that particular critic did not look favorably on this latest installment from Marvel, I do believe that it was because he was confusing film and movie. This is clearly a movie. Not intended to be successful in any Oscar category other than special effects. Speaking of which, I was enthralled by the technical detail. This is clearly a master integration of live action and CGI, and I was never even noticing CGI. I only mention this because of one scene where Captain America does a roll/jump/kick/twirl to avoid a bullet and I laughed out loud because the thought popped into my head "I bet that looked funny without the background". It would have been something you saw in a university experimental dance routine. I bet if you watch the entire movie with "no CGI eyes", it would be quite hilarious. But I was caught up in the visuals and the story, so did not partake of that particular joy.  The story follows along the Marvel storyline begun in earlier movies, with the power sceptre of Loki occupying the center of the plot. Add in a couple new Avengers, bring back a couple old timers, wrap up the current story in a quick 2.5 hours and set yourself up for the next installments. What's not to like.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Mardaani

An Indian cop drama where the protagonist is a female detective pursuing a human trafficking ring. To start, we have to stipulate that she is a rock star detective, highly decorated and highly motivated... and can kick ass in a fight (both literally and metaphorically by out-smarting everyone). I love that his is not just action, but we see the angst and effort put into the chase. We see the doubt, the family life, and the determination. And we see beautiful storyline that never leaps too far and never leaves us bored. Excellent.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Furious Seven

This is a franchise, and I am a franchisee (see four, five, and six). I have liked them all (even Tokyo Drift which no one else seems to enjoy). Of course this film has additional sentimental issues because of the death of Paul Walker mid-filming, and the writers/directors did an excellent job of finishing this film without making it feel pieced together, including the final scene which was a fabulous tribute. Otherwise, you get what you expect here. Car chase, car crash, car hide-and-seek, car chicken, car v. helicopter, car flying between adjacent high rises, etc. The entire cast has signed on to the absurdity of this scenario and plays it completely straight, allowing us to enjoy that absurdity to its fullest. The plot, if you care, is the brother of the bad guy from the the last film is seeking revenge on the team. The team circles the wagons to protect themselves. You can tell that this is a mature franchise because there doesn't need to be any storyline other than the team itself. And you get flat out, summer action.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Insurgent

A fine cinematic interpretation of the 2nd book in the Divergent series. Visually dramatic, but the plot felt to me like it dragged. The story follows the political machinations of trying to run a city after a coup, while there is still a quite powerful rebellion. In addition, we as viewers are trying to understand the truth of what this city is and why it came about in the first place. But the pacing/story telling made me feel like it was the middle story where the good stuff is in the first and third installments. This is unfortunate because I did not feel this way with the book. What fascinates me is the dream serum (not used effectively here) and the social construct of factions, and what happens when one particular character trait faction is allowed to set the societal rules. Explore and push this issue to dramatic effect and see if the viewer can then draw connections to Republicans or Democrats in this country, or to any single ideological political party in any country. This is what is fascinating. Use science fiction to pull the masses into intelligent discourse.
3 stars (out of 5)