Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Ex Machina Exceeds Expectations

EX MACHINA (Alex Garland, UK, 2014)
Widely exalted for his works as a novelist including the smash hit The Beach as well as providing screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, Alex Garland's directorial debut is an original work based on many famous facets of robots in cinema as well as expressing his love of science fiction with Ex Machina.

The film begins with Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a competition at his fictional company BlueBook to spend a week with his elusive boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) in his reclusive home in Alaska. When there, Nathan asks Caleb to participate in a Turing test to talk to an AI robot Nathan has constructed and to see if his model Ava (Alicia Vikander) has consciousness.

What follows is a lot of smoke and mirrors as all three play games with one another, Nathan using Caleb to his will to see if the robot has feelings for him, Caleb realising he did not win a competition but is instead a pawn in an elaborate scheme and Ava herself planning to escape from her enforced prison by Nathan.

Garland's screenplay is expertly economical never wasting a word with unnecessary exposition, in essence treating his audience with the intelligence they deserve. Garland also shows a sure hand behind the camera creating an elaborate set design and changing the scene accordingly, helped by his cinematographer Rob Hardy who uses the sessions between Ava and Caleb as an ever increasing stand off as they are lit differently the longer the week goes on.

Garland exudes the movie with a wonderful tempo full of purpose and foreboding, helped by an excellent electronic score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.

All three of the leading players are exceptional, Isaac is all ego but not without the charm needed to succeed at the top of his profession, Gleeson gives Caleb a mixture of innocence and loneliness in contrast to the high minded Nathan whilst Vikander brings the correct type of iciness to her portrayal of a very real robot.

With twists aplenty, the final message from the film is not so much a warning but an extension of the most Darwinist of ideals - if as Stephen Hawking has mentioned recently that AI might well exceed humans sooner rather than later - Garland's film makes the statement that in the end it is very much a survival of the fittest and the final image of Ava amongst humans suggests how would we be able to tell the robot from the humans, our advancements in technology might create our own downfall.

Ex Machina is out now on general release from Universal Pictures.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Roger Ebert celebrated in Life, Itself



Steve James, renowned documentarian of the bonafide classic Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, returns with a paean to one of the great film critics of the 20th century and who morphed into a technological visionary for the 21st century, Pulitizer Prize winning author and Chicago Sun Times journalist, Roger Ebert.


Roger Ebert was akin to a giant in film writing circles, widely respected and more beloved than his contemporaries Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.  Ebert garnered nationwide celebrity in America thanks to his television show partnership with Gene Siskel (of the Chicago Tribune) on At the Movies, where they were famous for the 'Two Thumbs Up' endorsement.

Ebert's legendary grasp of film knowledge and history along with his appraisal of up and coming American filmmakers led to him cementing the careers of many first time filmmakers - among them this film's executive producer, Martin Scorsese.  Others who have been embraced by Ebert's praise in his writings include Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani and Selma director Ava DuVernay. All are featured in the documentary telling them how his positive influence of their work has directly influenced their output.

Following his diagnosis of cancer in his lower jaw, leading to multiple surgeries and operations, Ebert decided to have his lower jaw removed from his mouth and therefore leaving him unable to speak.  However this did not deter Ebert's work, he remained a force of nature in terms of copy, becoming a scion for the internet and a visionary in the power of social media. Without having a voice, he maintained the necessity to have one.  His writing which had become more fan friendly to the actors he adored in the 1990s had rediscovered his verve and produced some of the finest writing of his career in his later years before his passing in 2013.

 

James' documentary is part celebration and tribute piece from the directors whose career owe Ebert's input, his friends from the paper and his family.  Most notably his soulmate, Chaz Ebert, who like Roger was a recovering alcoholic when they met.  This bond they had helped galvanise him and stay focused on his work, sometimes all you need is a good woman.

To this reviewer it is ironic that in the same week I viewed Life, Itself I also had the pleasure of viewing The Theory of Everything; another film about another genius trapped in a wheelchair for the majority of the movie and yet helped by the love of a good woman, sometimes that is all we as men need.

Whilst not holding back punches in depicting the end of Ebert's life, James nevertheless serves Ebert with the dignity of not showing him at his worst, instead we see the final exchange of emails between Ebert and James - these are not only a fan and his idol reminiscing, but a conversation between two friends who have grown close over the production. 

One moment that sticks with you is the admission by Ebert using his voice command on his computer, that he will more than likely have passed by the time the film itself is released. The shock of this realisation is not lost on Chaz and the testimonies of his step-grandchildren who reflect on the films they have enjoyed watching together all the more heartbreaking and tear-jerking.

This is a film not just about a writer and his legacy, but a film about a man fighting the deadly cancer within him and still fighting to combat the debilitating effect it has on you, the film does more than enough to cement the legitimacy of Roger Ebert as one of the finest cinephile minds of this or any era.  His memory rightly lives on and this documentary serves as the warmest of tributes to it.  Two thumbs way up.

Life, Itself is released on DVD from Dogwoof on Monday 23rd February
You can find Roger Ebert's vast work of film criticism at his website http://www.rogerebert.com/

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Time for The Turning preview


Soda Pictures is pleased to release the trailer and poster for The Turning, a unique cinematic experience from Australia. Based upon the best selling short story selection by Tim Winton, ten separate tales from extraordinary filmmakers including David Wenham, Mia Wasikowska and Warwick Thornton.

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The Turning explores the impact of past on present, how the seemingly random incidents that change and shape us can never be escaped or let go of. All of the stories are bound together by recurring themes; the passing of time, regret, addiction and obsession.

Hugo Weaving as Bob Lang, Commission (based on Tim Winton's The Turning) - Photograph by David Dare Parker Commission David Dare Parker

Featuring the best in Australian actors from Cate Blanchett to Rose Byrne and Hugo Weaving to Richard Roxburgh, The Turning is released on February 6th in selected cinemas.

www.sodapictures.com

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Good Kill good preview



Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the writer of  The Truman Show, Good Kill sees Niccol reunited with the star of his other famous work Gattaca, Ethan Hawke.

Hawke plays Las Vegas fighter pilot turned drone pilot Tom Egan who fights the Taliban via remote control for half the day and then goes home to his lovely wife (January Jones) for the other half.
 

Yet following a comprised mission Hawke's character learns to question the objectives of his position in this war pushing away his family when he comes to terms with what constitutes a good kill.

The trailer marks the film out as a character driven piece taking a different slant on the war overseas by focusing on the torment it causes at home. Often soldiers or pilots are away from their loved ones, in Tom's case he goes home every night safely to his bed and his loving family, however the torment of war clouds his emotions and complicates matters such as is Tom creating more terrorists than killing them?

As Lt. Colonel Johns played by Bruce Greenwood states, 'Don't ask me if its a just war. For us its just war'.

With Hawke enjoying a hot streak following the critical acclaim of Boyhood, this allows Niccol to again bring a philosophical and intellectual slant on current affairs - with Gattaca it was about cloning and stem cell research, with the Truman Show it was about everyday celebrity and Big Brother. Niccol again seems to have struck the right note between entertainment and discussion.

Good Kill is out in UK cinemas on April 10th from Arrow Films

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Theory of Everything by Bridget Jones


Based upon the memoir by Jane Hawking Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking, this film directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Shadow Dancer), tells the story of Dr. Hawking from postgraduate at Cambridge 1963 upto the awarding of a CBE by the Queen nearly 30 years later.

This is a lot of years past his supposed expiration date when upon the initial prognosis of the motor neurone disease in 1964 leading to his crippling physical disability, the doctor gave him a maximum of two years left in life.

The willingness of Jane (Felicity Jones) to provide emotional support led to Hawking completing his thesis on black holes as well as the creation of three children.

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This film hangs upon the powerhouse central performance by Eddie Redmayne, who in channeling the best Method style of Daniel Day-Lewis, gives a performance where you see him morph into the Hawking we more commonly recognise. Redmayne is rightly being lauded for this role which shows amazing range and ability from someone so young, his hat is firmly in the ring with Michael Keaton for Best Actor at the Oscars and Baftas.

Whilst the film is more keen on the love story it nevertheless wraps up all of Hawking's theories into pigeon English for this reviewer to understand helped by Marsh's visual tick of incorporating circles or whirls - a spinning staircase, cream in a coffee and the wheels of Hawking's wheelchair - as well as when Hawking preaches his theory to his peers and his friend, Brian (Harry Lloyd) speaks it over a pint in a pub.

Being the female side of the Hawking clamour of celebrity, you see through Jane's eyes the slow dissolution of the marriage as well as her growing affection for Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a winning performance by Charlie Cox (last seen in Hello Carter) who plays it with smiles, when if a male story would paint him as a villain. However, when in opposition to a man in a wheelchair as a handsome gentleman, the contrasts scream to the audience.

Yet this ethical quandary of romance, affairs and relationships leaves a somewhat uneasy feeling in the mouth, as we are well aware that the couple do not end up together it is odd to make a love story where the coupling has ended; this is not a fault of the filmmakers who have made a good fist of making a film with the material at hand, yet much like Foxcatcher when the ending is already known to the audience it is hard to not feel as subdued as Jane Wilde was when writing this memoir.

All in all The Theory of Everything is a pleasing film that tells the story of one of Britain's greatest minds and firmly embodies the notion that behind every great man is a good (albeit surprised) woman. The reason I mention another literary icon in Helen Fielding's creation is that the female authorial voice is clearly apparent, the ability to love above every obstacle is something Ms. Jones would aspire to.  Is it any wonder to notice the presence of the same production company as Bridget Jones' Diary are behind this winning production - Working Title.

Fantastic Carell offers master class in Foxcatcher

FOXCATCHER (Bennett Miller, US, 2014)

Bennett Miller's third feature based on actual or true stories follows the odd occurence of billionaire eccentric John Du Pont (Steve Carell) funding the Dave and Mark Schultz in the run up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics in pursuit of a Gold medal in Freestyle wrestling, having both won gold medals at the Los Angeles games of 1984.

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Mark, convincingly played by the ever improving Channing Tatum, is younger brother to Dave (Mark Ruffalo) the highly respected elder who is both coach, trainer and an accomplished wrestler in his own life.  Post-Olympics you see how even Gold medallists struggle day to day with life going from training session to training session, accepting elementary school speaking engagements for a measly $20.  There is no money once the glory has worn off, and so the promise of a steady income from Du Pont - in this case $25,000 - along with world class facilities and living arrangements is too big of a carrot for Mark to ignore. Team Foxcatcher is born

However, once in the Du Pont circle, things become very psychological between the two as a need for something in the relationship is apparent and something they lack is found. For Du Pont it is esteem from peers and colleagues, having grown up with no friends that his wealthy mother did not pay for; and for Mark the chance to have what resembles a father-son relationship.

Glory comes at the World Championships in France and then Dave with crises all coming to a head in preparation for Seoul, Dave becomes the hand to guide Mark and thus dismissing Du Pont from the circle of trust.  Mark grows resentful of Du Pont and following the Olympics leaves Foxcatcher for Brigham Young University. Dave stays on board as coach for the team but the withdrawl of Mark, Du Pont's ideal man, from his home leads Du Pont to shoot and kill Dave.

Considering the pedestal the United States of America puts its champions and Gold medallists on to during and after their career to this elevated status of immortality, it is surprising that this story involving athletes and billionaires did not garner a documentary or feature film beforehand.  It encompasses those great American traditions - endeavour, wealth and power.

Yet the film which although a great character study in psychological deteoriation and disintegration feels like more an acting showcase for the three fine leads which is let down by some sloppy direction.

This is not to denigrate Mr. Miller who has done some fine work with Capote and Moneyball but he seems to garner great acting performances from his cast and yet he is devoid of any artistic style of his own.  There is no panache or flair with the camera, although the film does not warrant it and no mise-en-scene stylistics with very much an observant camera from the medium distance throughout.  The tone for this film is very grey and unloving, perhaps to reflect the lack of warmth and love in the lives of Du Pont and Mark, the only time colour appears on the screen is when Dave is on screen - from his white trousers of his suit when he arrives at Foxcatcher to his happy BBQ at his home with family and friends in contrast to the drab home of Mark.

Steve Carell more famously known for his comedic roles is amazing in the role of Du Pont, only a comedian could deliver a line like, 'My friends call me Eagle or Golden Eagle', with a straight face and he gets to the core of the character as someone who although powerful and rich is very much unfulfilled. Much like Robin Williams' best dramatic roles, he can find the sorry in the self.

Tatum is continuing this trend of creating a great body of work irrespective of how you feel about his body image and Ruffalo is the calm centre amongs the storm, stooping around the screen and being the equal to Carell.

Foxcatcher is out now in cinemas from Entertainment One.

It garnered Oscar nominations for Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Carell) and Supporting Actor (Ruffalo)

Thursday, 15 January 2015

2015: The Year of Chris Hemsworth


2015 promises a lot in the world of film with undoubtedly the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in December having half the world frothing at the mouth and the other half wiping up the froth and wondering what the fuss is about.

Yet for one actor it may be the year he goes truly global and creates a market for himself, with three known films coming out in the calendar year that may well guarantee box office returns for him and the films themselves.

A few years ago there was a game where you could do a fantasy box office team like pick five actors or actresses that would star in the films that make the most money for example you pick stars like Gary Oldman or Samuel L. Jackson who appear frequently but in films that garner large returns.  For the first six months of the year you should put your money on Chris Hemsworth.

The Australian actor is following a career path not too dissimilar to his fellow Antipodeans, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, like him actors of immense presence, whereas he has not had the great role like Crowe in Gladiator his casting decisions are nonetheless impressive.

Released this week in America is Blackhat, where he plays Nicholas Hathaway, a crack hacker who is the government's only hope of beating an even better hacker.  So far, so Swordfish a la Jackman; but the film is directed by Michael Mann who again films in that digital camera where it feels like the camera is merely floating about the action and yet is very much kinetic when it comes to the balletic gunplay as eschewed in the trailer. And there is no blowjob under the table going on as far as the trailer tells us.


This is one of those roles where Hemsworth appears in a degree of normalcy, of this world and not of his alter ego Thor whom re-appears in the other must see blockbuster forthcoming in May Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Whilst Thor has already had two stand alone films of his own with another Ragnarok scheduled for 2017 from Marvel, Thor is nevertheless critical to the film. In the first film Avengers Assemble, it was his character who had some of the best lines - 'You humans are so petty. And tiny' and the classic 'He's adopted', when having to explain Loki's homocidal tendencies.



That film is guaranteed to be gold at the box office if Joss Whedon can work the magic again, however, the third film of his first half of 2015 may be his most impressive decision and grant him his best role of his career in In the Heart of the Sea.

Like Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, it will show a seafaring Hemsworth who will don the apparel of late 18th century sailors as Owen Chase aboard the Essex the infamous vessel that was attacked by a giant whale becoming the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick



Directed by Ron Howard with whom Hemsworth worked with on Rush, it appears Hemsworth has grasped a mixture of intelligence and charisma to work with such luminaries as Howard and Mann in quick succession.

Hemsworth has hit his purple patch it seems and whilst he will always have the character of Thor to fall back on and it appears he works best in an ensemble. Blackhat gives him the platform to carry a film on his own without a known face amongst the supporting cast, even the love interest is not known to American audiences, leaving Hemsworth to make sure the film can be elevated above a mere hacker thriller but to something more than that.

Blackhat is out in the UK on February 20th from Universal Pictures
In the Heart of the Sea is released on March 13th from Warner Bros.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is released on April 24th from Marvel