FlixChatter Review: Ex Machina

ExMachinaPosterThere have been a plethora of films about man and machine or man vs machine in Hollywood. From cult classics like Blade Runner, Terminator to most recent ones like Robot & Frank, Chappie, etc., clearly not all are created equal. I’d say that this Alex Garland’s original story has some striking similarities to the 2013 tiny-budgeted British indie The Machine, given that the creator and the machine are the main key players of the film. However, Ex Machina explored the eternally-fascinating topic of ‘what it means to be human’ in a much deeper and more immersive way.

The film started out with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) being dropped by a chopper into this secluded estate of a billionaire scientist in the side of a Norwegian mountain. He’s supposed to spend a week with the CEO of a large internet search engine company, but other than that Caleb has no idea what’s in store for him. As it turns out, he’s invited to participate in a breakthrough experiment in testing artificial intelligence. After meeting the mysterious tech baron Nathan (Oscar Isaac), things just seem to be even more cryptic. I love the initial interaction between the two actors and the unpredictability and suspense of it all. First time director Alex Garland infused the scenes with a sense of appropriate eeriness, as well as a dose of humor that prevents the film from being too heavy handed or frigid.

ExMachina_Still3It’s when we meet the subject of the Turing test, a luminous female A.I. named Eva (Alicia Vikander), that things starts to get REALLY interesting. Even though Eva’s robotic parts are visible, unlike some other films where the droid looks fully human on the outside, she is as fetching as ever. It sparks intriguing questions about why Nathan created her with sensuality, with the ability to flirt and emote. The unhurried pace allows for a lot of reflective moments, thanks to the sharp and focused script by Alex Garland himself.

“One day the AIs are gonna look back on us the same way we look at fossils and skeletons in the plains of Africa” Are the arrival of droids and drones mean we’re on the verge of extinction? That seems far-fetched perhaps, but the way Garland made this film, this scenario seems almost entirely plausible. His idea of the future is ‘ten minutes from now’ and companies like Google or Apple are certainly capable of creating the future we see in this film even today.

The spirituality aspect, whether intended or not, is one of most thought-provoking aspect I’ve seen in a sci-fi film in a long time. Humans may think they can replicate ourselves and build something with *consciousness,* but is a soul something we can create? What these sci-fi films prove is the always-present and increasing desire of humans to become God.

ExMachina_Still1I’ve been a fan of Garland’s work as a screenwriter (especially 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go), so we know he’s a master storyteller. But I think he has a gift behind the camera as well, and perhaps because of his writer background, he’s more concerned about letting the story flow and immerse people into a certain realms, instead of bludgeoning us with action, action, action. Plus he’s got an International cast formed by three accomplished young actors to tell his story.

Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac has been churning out one fantastic performance after another. He’s truly one of the most fascinating actors working today and it’s such a joy watching him mature even more as a performer. The best scene of the film, and one of my favorite scenes of the year, is the dance scene that’s both unsettling but hilarious. Isaac certainly has screen presence to match his acting chops.

ExMachina_DanceScene Irish Domhnall Gleeson is perfectly captures the naive curiosity of Caleb, as well as the young man’s intelligence and vulnerability. He’s effortlessly likable and you immediately projects yourself into his character as he navigates into this new environment he’s thrown into. Isaac and Gleeson have a good rapport together, and the human relationships are just as intriguing as that between man & machine. In the key role of Eva, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander couldn’t be more perfect in the role. There’s a certain innocence and fragility about her, but yet you know she’s far more sly than you think.

The film is appropriately R-rated for the graphic nudity. Now, I’d be the first to tell you that most of the time, nudity in movies is unnecessary and gratuitous. But I have to say that it’s not the case here, it feels integral to the plot. For the most part, Ex Machina is a quiet, reflective film. It did veers into mystery thriller territory towards the end but it’s a natural progression of the story instead of a forced divergence. It’s definitely a great film to see on the big screen and be fully immersed in the story and the characters’ journey.

Despite the relatively low budget (under $15 mil), the production values are fantastic. From Nathan’s state-of-the-art estate and his lab where he builds these machines, as well as the mountain scenery, it’s a good looking film. I also love how atmospheric the film is, thanks to the cool, ethereal-sounding soundtrack and resplendent cinematography. But the most striking of all is the robotic look of Eva, which is both mechanical as well as organic, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. We’re as drawn to her as Caleb was in the film.

ExMachina_Still2But as evident in films like Elysium, visual flair alone does NOT make a movie. Ultimately what you remember is the story and how it affects you as you watch it, and this film certainly offers plenty for the senses. There are so many scenes that linger long after the end credits role, such as one where one of the characters has a moment of doubts about himself as a human. It’s got such a haunting quality about it that adds another layer of intrigue on the human/machine exploration. It’s further proof that one doesn’t need an astronomical budget or big stars to tell a compelling and memorable story. Dazzling, provocative and haunting… everything you’d expect from a futuristic sci-fi film. An outstanding directorial debut from Alex Garland,I’m curious what he’d tackle next, both as a writer AND as a director.

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Have you seen Ex Machina? Well, what do you think?

Everybody’s Chattin’ + Question of the Week: shameless tv/movie indulgence

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Happy almost-weekend peeps! Is it Friday yet? It’s been quite a hectic week at the office, rushing against deadlines and all that, but let’s not talk about work on the blog shall we? I mean this is supposed to be my escape!

I almost forgot doing the LINKS post but there have been some great posts from my fellow bloggers so I simply have to share ’em. Let’s start with lists, as who doesn’t love those?

Josh listed his top 50 films of 2010s so far, which has some awesome picks as well as recommendations.

LOVE this list idea from Chris on discovering new music by watching trailers

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve watched the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer. Well Keith broke down 5 phenomenal things about it.

Speaking of phenomenal, check out Margaret‘s recap of the latest Game of Thrones‘ episode (5×02)

Oh and have you seen Margaret‘s Black Swan/White Swan blogathon? Well, check out how you can participate and read Andrew‘s pick on the topic.

Speaking of blogathons, Wandering Through The Shelves‘ Weekly Blogathon’s topic is on Superhero Movies. I’m not participating this week, but I did make a list of Top 10 Favorite Scenes from Marvel Superhero Movies back in 2011. If I were to make it now, for sure I’d add a few from the two Captain America movies!

On to reviews…

Steven wrote up about Pink Floyd: The Wall

Stu reviewed Festen (The Celebration), a Danish drama from Thomas Vinterberg

Natalie reviewed Alan Rickman’s directorial debut A Little Chaos, starring his love interest in Sense & Sensibility Kate Winslet!

Last but not least, Michael shone the spotlight on a great opening title sequence: The Wild Bunch


My question of the week is really just an excuse to talk about my new obsession ;) But hey, it’s my blog so why should talk about things I don’t really want to talk about, right? And frankly, right now my mind’s been preoccupied with one person…

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Suffice to say I’ve been bingeing on all things Stanley Weber… but it’s even more agonizing as there are so few of his work out there. Much like most of my crushes in the past, Stanley did a lot of stage work in his hometown Paris. Oh what I would give to see him LIVE in the flesh in Anna Christie with Mélanie Thierry.

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In any case, in between MSPIFF and other screenings, I’ve been sneaking time to watch Not Another Happy Ending and the StudioCanal’s BORGIA: Faith and Fear, both are on Netflix if you’re so inclined to check ’em out. Ladies be warned, you just might soon be obsessing over this c’est magnifique Frenchman ;)


Speaking of BORGIA, I simply have to include this insightful post from a historian comparing the two shows on the infamous Borgia family: StudioCanal’s BORGIA: Faith & Fear & Showtime’s The Borgias. This is the blog author’s conclusion: “Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.”

 


So tell me… what’s been your shameless TV/movie indulgences of late? Come on, fess up!

Weekend Roundup: Ex Machina, more Daredevil, BORGIA (2011) & a new obsession

I thought I’d take a bit of a break from MSPIFF to give you a bit of a rundown of how last week’s been going so far, which is perhaps one of my favorite weeks so far in terms of movie-viewing.

In case you’re wondering what those three movies are… well, I’ve reviewed two of them: Clouds of Sils Maria, Girlhood and the third one is Ex Machina, which turned out to be even better than I expected.

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It’s also cool to have Ex Machina‘s director Alex Garland actually answered my question hours before I saw the screening, thanks to IMDb’s Twitter Q@A using the hashtag #ExMachinaChat.

This is Garland’s directorial debut and it’s certainly one of the best sci-fis dealing with the ‘what does it mean to be human’ theme. Visually it looks cool and the story is genuinely thought-provoking. I’ll review that when MSPIFF is over, but if you haven’t seen it yet, l can’t recommend it enough!


I also saw more episodes of Netflix’s Daredevil, we only have two more episodes to go and the waiting for second season will be agonizing! Man, episode 10 and 11 were especially phenomenal. I love the Nelson vs Murdock one as it showed the back story of how they’ve become friends since becoming room mates in law school. It’s an emotionally-gratifying and revelatory episode whilst the action scene continues to be as phenomenal as ever.

Daredevil_ep10_11The spirituality aspect of Matt Murdock’s story is intriguing as it’s perhaps the first superhero who’s faith is integral in his role and the show doesn’t shy away from it. I find the dialog between Matt and his priest/personal confidant and their discussion about whether the devil truly walks amongst earth fascinating and insightful in terms of the protagonist’s motivations. Nice to see Claire (Rosario Dawson) making an appearance again in episode 11: The Path of the Righteous. I’ve always found Charlie Cox to be a gorgeous Brit but he looks REALLY good on this show, and he’s clearly worked out a lot for this role, ehm. I LOVE Claire’s comment about seeing Matt shirtless again. Amen to that, sista ;)


Speaking of REALLY gorgeous man… I have a new obsession… some of you on Twitter might’ve noticed it ;) It happened almost instantly when I saw Not Another Happy Ending precisely two weeks ago and ever since then I have watched that Scottish rom-com over a dozen times, I think that’s a record!

NotAnotherHappyEnding_CafeNotAnotherHappyEnding_finaleI will have to do a Stanley Weber appreciation post at some point, he’s the first French actor I’ve ever had a massive crush on … as you know I almost always go for the Brits. But the second I beheld his c’est magnifique physique (and THAT irresistible wavy hair!) and heard him speak, I was a goner [le sigh] My penchant for the criminally-underrated AND the unjustifiably-obscure actors continues… why hasn’t Hollywood discover him yet? Come on!!!

Ehm, now that I got that out of the way …. inspired by Margaret’s awesome list post of cinematic/TV gems she saw because of her actor’s crushes, I just might have to do one of my own. One of those gems is definitely this Canal+ production of BORGIA, not to be confused with Showtime’s The Borgias that’s also about the notorious Italian family in the 15th and 16th century. This is the one created by Tom Fontana (Homicide, HBO’s Oz) with John Doman as Rodrigo Borgia.

BORGIA_Canal+BORGIA_JuanBorgiaStanley plays one of Rodrigo’s son, Juan. I’ve only seen four episodes so far and oh boy, Juan Borgia is one naughty, naughty boy. Basically his character is a psychopath and a sexual predator, which is completely different role from what I’ve seen him in Not Another Happy Ending. The entire BORGIA clan is morally bankrupt all around, and the actors portray them VERY well. The most infamous chapter of the history of the Catholic church certainly made for some fascinating historical drama.


What I’m looking forward to this week:

WaterDivinerScreeningBeen waiting to see Russell Crowe’s directorial debut for ages.
I first posted the trailer here over a year ago!


So that’s what I’ve been watching & obsessing about. What about you?

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MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Bogowie (Gods) + To Life! + A Brilliant Young Mind (X Plus Y)

MSPIFF15reviewsGods (Bogowie)

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A thrilling biopic about a 1980s era cardiologist bringing heart transplants to Poland, Gods is often riveting. Start with director Lukasz Palkowski’s opening, when he montages the fallout from the first ever (failed) attempt by a Polish doctor to transplant a heart from one patient to another. Here the director immediately and powerfully sets tone.

After the terrific opening montage, Palkowski settles into a more traditional biopic, focusing on protagonist Zbigniew Religa (Tomas Kotz), first as he operates to save a life, and then as he navigates the political realities of trying to be progressive in a country that doesn’t invite the innovations he embraces. Impressively, even though we immediately know the picture’s resolution, Palkowski and writer Krzystztof Rak, make the story tautly suspenseful, filled with requisite moments of joy and other moments of equal sorrow.

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Partially, Palkowski and Rak are successful because they wisely limit Gods’ purview to a relatively short time span (just several years). Moreover, they do not herofy Religa; they make him a multi-faceted, real human being. Here Religa is brilliant, effective and determined to help, but he is also quick-tempered, emotionally withdrawn, manipulative, sometimes cruel, and a glory-hound. His complexity makes him interesting. It also means we relate to him.

Unfortunately, the writer and director barely develop any of the minor characters. The doctors who join Religa’s clinic are interchangeable ciphers. Ditto that for other medical professionals who oppose the protagonist. Even Religa’s wife, who could have been a marvelous character, is almost personality-less. In other words, we know Religa intimately, but we barely know anyone else here, a fact that limits the movie’s impact, at least to some degree.

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To Life! (Auf Das Lieben)

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Odd couples often form the basis for compelling narrative, and the protagonists of To Life!, a German film, are an example thereof. Ruth (Hannelore Elsner) and Jonas (Max Riemelt) have little in common, except that both are in crisis and both are lonely. When Ruth is evicted from her flat and her possessions are seized, Jonas is one of the men the bank has move her things into a smaller residence. Ruth is immediately interested in Jonas, if only because he closely resembles a man she once knew well, and he, being a good Samaritan, offers to perform a favor for her. When the task proves more complicated than Jonas expects, he returns to Ruth’s residence, only to find she has attempted suicide. So begins a relationship drama that shows us how Ruth copes with depression while Jonas lives through physical illness.

And it is a good drama, indeed. Both Elsner and Riemelt are terrific. Plus, writer Thorston Wettcke and director Uwe Janson craft Ruth and Jonas as deeply complex and equally compelling people. Most of the other characters are minor enough that sparse development doesn’t prove a flaw.

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Moreover, Janson edits his film such that transitions from the modern day to an earlier period in Ruth’s life are always seamless and engrossing. Ditto that for the ways he foreshadows Jonas’ condition, ensuring we know what’s coming long before anyone speaks of it.

To Life’s!, biggest issue is its ending. While Ruth’s story is cleverly completed, Jonas’ feels unfinished and thereby a little emotionally flat. It is not a major issue, however, and so, in the end, To Life! succeeds.

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A Brilliant Young Mind (aka X Plus Y)

XPlusYposterA heartwarming little indie drama about a math genius with Autism, but one doesn’t have to know much about the subject to appreciate it. For those like me who’s not familiar with Autism, it’s a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.

‘I think I see the world differently to others’ Nathan (Asa Butterfield) says early in the film and we follow his journey from his childhood marked by personal tragedy to being chosen to compete on the British team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. The film did a wonderful job in giving us a glimpse into what it’s like growing up with Autism, from the point of view of the person with the disorder as well as those close to him, especially his mother. Nathan’s relationship with his mother is heartbreaking and you truly feel for both sides. The flashbacks of Nathan’s early life with his beloved dad is interspersed throughout that helps us see why Nathan behaves the way he does, but it doesn’t overwhelm or drags the film.

A large part of the film takes place in Taipei, which gives this film a richer International flair as the characters explore a different culture halfway being paired up with a student from that region. The young romance aspect doesn’t work quite as well at times as I feel that the dialog is a bit too corny and over-sentimental for my liking. It could be due to the fact that Jo Yang, the actress playing Nathan’s friend/love interest Zhang Mei, has never acted before this film. Some of the scenes between Nathan and the rest of his Math teams are also uneven, there are parts that work and some that I think miss the mark.

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Thankfully they didn’t derail the film and the mostly British supporting cast are excellent. I really like Rafe Spall as Nathan’s teacher who also deals with a debilitating disease. His scenes with Butterfield are my favorite parts of the film because they feel so natural, as well as genuinely funny and heartfelt. There’s a subplot of a little romance between him and Nathan’s mother played by Sally Hawkins that could’ve been irksome if it’s not handled well, but the actors made me care about their characters. There’s also Eddie Marsan as the lead Math teacher, I seem to always see him playing a henchman or some lowlife bad guy so nice to see him play a ‘normal’ character for once.

The star here is truly Asa Butterfield who at 18 is surely one of the brightest young actors working today. There’s a certain sensitivity and earnest-ness about him that makes you sympathize with him right away, but I think he’s versatile enough where he could also play someone truly dark and conflicted. This is the first film I’ve seen him in since HUGO in 2011 and he’s certainly developed into a compelling lead actor. He’s truly believable in the role due to his ability to express his emotion without any words being spoken. Whilst watching this he reminds me a lot of Cillian Murphy!

This is Morgan Matthew‘s first feature film debut after doing mostly documentaries. All things considered, it’s an impressive debut as he infuses the film with a nice mix of drama and humor. I enjoy the cinematography and music, it’s beautiful without overwhelming the story. The ending is a bit predictable, but there’s one emotionally-engaging scene between Nathan & his mother that really tugs my heartstrings. This is more than just a film about Autism or about Math, as much as The Theory of Everything is more about the relationships in the protagonist’s life that defines that person more than the circumstance one might find him/herself in. I highly recommend this if you’re looking for a delightful family drama that will make you see your own life and life’s priorities in a whole new light.

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Thoughts on any of these films?

MSPIFF 2015 Review: The Connection (La French)

MSPIFF15reviewsTheConnectionBnrIncluding many homages to past crime films, The Connection is an interesting procedural with too few surprises until its final act. At the film’s beginning, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin, excellent) is a hard-working cop investigating youth drug-related crimes. His effectiveness gets him promoted to magistrate, where he is tasked with investigating France’s organized crime network, led by Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche, also excellent). Upon his promotion, Michel proves skilled, not least because he’s willing to bend the rules, sometimes even to break the law, all in the name of justice. That Michel is unreasonably obsessive about catching Zampa is of no concern to him, but is still a source of severe worry for his family.

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Dujardin & Lellouche

Which brings us to The Connection’s greatest merit: its characters. Writer/director Cédric Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan layer both Zampa and Michel, crafting each man as complex human beings with merits and flaws aplenty. Here Zampa being on the “wrong” side of the law does not mean we dislike him. And, though we can certainly root for Michel, we do not necessarily approve of everything he does. By making both men complex, Jimenez and Diwan hold our attention. That they develop several secondary characters well also helps.

The Connection’s second greatest merit: some of it’s filmmaking technique. Its production design mirrors 1970s era crime films. And it’s costuming is genius. As the plot’s era shifts from ‘70s to ‘80s, so too does the style of characters’ outfits.

TheConnectionStill2The film’s biggest weakness? The plot. For much of the picture’s run-time it is borderline boiler plate, including many seemingly obligatory scenes.

Yet, this flaw is of relatively minor consequence, partially because the actors and characters are so good we accept predictable developments. For example, we always know Pierre’s wife Jacqueline (Celine Sallette) will eventually express unhappiness with her husband’s choices, but Dujardin and Sallette sell the conflict so convincingly that we don’t mind the moment’s predictability.

TheConnectionDujardinSalletteThen comes the finale, about which I will say very little, except this: it is at least a little surprising. And also terrific, in all regards. Yes, at times The Connection is too procedural, but it is quite good all the same.

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What are your thoughts on The Connection?

MSPIFF 2015 Review: GIRLHOOD (Bande de Filles)

MSPIFF15reviewsGirlhoodPosterOne of my favorite things about film festivals is that you get to see indie gems like Girlhood that you otherwise wouldn’t even find. It’s especially gratifying to see a female-centric drama that’s written AND directed by a female filmmaker, Céline Sciamma.

Girlhood or Bande de Filles (Gang of Girls) is primarily centered on a 16-year-old girl Marime. Abused by her brutish older brother, with dead-end school prospects and the boys law in the neighborhood, Marieme starts a new life after meeting a group of 3 free-spirited girls. She changes her name, her dress code, and quits school to be accepted in the gang, hoping that this will be a way to freedom.

At a glance, it seems like a gritty drama about a gang of girls set in a low-income suburbs of Paris. We see the girls involve in what you’d expect a street gang would do — mugging, stealing, smoking pot, street fighting, etc. There’s a certain realism to the way these scenes play out and the mostly unknown actresses are believable in their roles. Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré played the roles of Lady, Adiatou and Fily, respectively.

Girlhood_still2Karidja Touré is mesmerizing as Marime. I could feel her pain and somehow identify her pain despite our lives being so completely different. But y’know what, we can all relate as a human being… I was young once and there were points in my life where I wanted to feel like I belong, that I am loved… and more importantly, that I have the freedom to do what I want without fear. Even as an adult we often face a crossroad where the path isn’t immediately clear. And for someone with such limited options like Marime, that conflict is surely amplified. The way the film portrayed Marime made it so easy for me to connect with her journey to find her place in the world.

There are so many memorable scenes in the film, such as when Marime first approached the three girls and later taking the train to Paris with them. There’s also the time ‘Lady’ the gang leader first gave Marime the ‘Vic’ necklace. It’s as if she’s now an *official* member with her new name — Vic for victory. Slowly the girls took her in and the bond between them felt real to me.

Girlhood_still3My all time favorite scene, which I immediately rewound right after it’s over, is the moment when the girls are all dressed up in their rented hotel room. Sciamma filmed the scene like a music video where the girls started dancing and lip-syncing to Rihanna’s Diamond. There’s something so vibrant, effervescent vibe about that whole scene, yet poignantly moving. Marime was watching her friends first, but then joined in. It literally made me smile AND cry at the same time, and instantly I thought of my own *gang* of friends in high school who helped me through my pain of losing my late mother.

As Marime became ‘Vic’, naturally she’s started to give in to the rebellious nature that every teen has within. As she gains more confidence, the more vicious she’s become and does things she probably never thought she’d do. The film isn’t afraid of quiet moments where it’s just Marime alone with her thoughts, yet her expression conveys so much. Another thing I love about the film is how it doesn’t resort to stereotypes or oversimplifications. For one thing, not all the guys in Marime’s lives are evil, in fact, the heart-to-heart talk she has with her boyfriend is genuinely heartfelt.

Girlhood is Céline Sciamma‘s third feature, and she’s no stranger to the world of adolescence as her first two films deal with that world. Naturally stories of ‘growing up’ is an emotional mine and the French director has such a keen eye to explore the intricate aspect of youth in such a fascinating way. I also love the fact that despite the difficult and dark issues of the story, the film isn’t bleak and depressing. I laughed, cried, and cheered from start to finish, all the way to the gratifyingly-emotional finale. It’s not the kind of ending tied neatly in a pretty bow, but that’s exactly how I wanted it to end. There’s such power in that last shot of Marime.

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Visually speaking, I love the stylish cinematography and moody colors. It’s an ear-candy as well with electric pop soundtrack filled with awesome songs! I can’t recommend this film enough, folks. I don’t know if this film is eligible for a Best Foreign Language Oscar but if it did, I’d definitely be rooting for it! It’s amazing that this is Karidja Touré‘s debut role as she has such a screen presence. I can’t wait to see what she’d tackle next. I’ll be on the lookout for Sciamma‘s next project as well.

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Has anyone seen GIRLHOOD? Would love to hear your thoughts!

MSPIFF 2015 Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

MSPIFF15reviewsCloudsOfSilsMariaAt first glance, the film sounds like another commentary on the state of the entertainment industry. But it’s a rarity to see a complex female character at the center of it, and the film benefited from three excellent performances by Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz. An unlikely trio to be sure, yet each brings such authenticity to their character and they keep the film grounded despite the sometimes aimless wandering of Olivier Assayas‘ direction.

Binoche plays an international film star Maria Enders who’s at the peak of her career. She reluctantly accepts a role in a revival play, Maloja Snake, that made her famous twenty years earlier. Back then she played the role of Sigrid, a young girl who has an intense but eventually catastrophic with her much older female boss, Helena. Of course this time Maria’s asked to play Helena, which brings some sort of internal crisis as she grapples with the dark themes of the play, as well as the issue of aging and the shift of entertainment landscape in general. The dialog between Binoche and Stewart who plays her dedicated personal assistant Valentine are revelatory and amusing, I enjoy the honesty and frankness of their relationship. Val seems to understand Maria more than she’s given credit for, and despite their sometimes prickly banters, they obviously have a strong bond together.

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Some have compared the story to Birdman and All About Eve and they do share similar themes, but there’s enough uniqueness in the protagonist’s journey and relationship. Moretz’s character Jo-Ann, a Lindsay-Lohan type starlet who’s talented but self-destructive is fascinating, as you could say that it resembles Stewart who was quite the tabloid fodder during her Twilight years. During a rather hilarious conversation where Val’s trying to convince Maria that there’s more to Jo-Ann and her seemingly shallow sci-fi character, I couldn’t help but think of Stewart herself. This could very well be Stewart’s answer to the naysayers (me included) that she could act, that she’s more than just a ball of nerves who can’t stop fidgeting. I have to say that she succeeded with this role and she earned her groundbreaking César award.

I read on IMDb that the film’s premise was Binoche’s idea, she pitched that to writer/director Olivier Assayas and he wrote a script with the idea. So no wonder Binoche was perfect in the role of Maria and no doubt it’s a character the international film star herself could relate to. Even at 51, she’s still as stunning as her much younger co-stars. There’s a certain self-assuredness as well as raw vulnerability in Maria that Binoche captured perfectly. She’s frustrating at times but never irritating, at least not to me. There are also some humorous moments when she googled Jo-Ann and was shocked/amused by all her shenanigans captured by paparazzi.

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The film is shot 35-mm film and it’s simply stunning. It can practically serves as a travel video to the Swiss Alps, especially the resort town St Moritz. The Maloja Snake refers to the thick white low-lying cloud formation that *slithers* its way along the mountainsides and it’s captured beautifully on screen. The classically-tinged score is lovely too, it’s definitely the kind of music I enjoy and it fits the mood and tone of the film well. I’m really glad I saw this on the big screen and it’s become one of my favorites of the year. There are some slow moments and the ending dragged on a bit, but for the most part I was quite engrossed in the story. It’s rare to see such a well-developed, female-centric dramas these days, so kudos to Assayas for writing/directing one that also feels authentic. But the stars truly belong to both Binoche and Stewart, especially the latter who’s able to convince me that she’s an actress worth writing about.

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Have you seen Clouds of Sils Maria? Well, what did you think?

Weekend Roundup: Netflix’s Daredevil + MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Secrets of War & The Dinkytown Uprising

Happy Monday everyone!

So it’s been a pretty packed weekend for me but thankfully the weather is practically Summer-like, which definitely adds an extra spring in my step. It’s the opening weekend of MSPIFF too, so I’ve watched a couple of films including Clouds of Sils Maria which was nominated for a Cannes’ Palme d’Or and a Best Supporting Actress win for Kristen Stewart. My review of it will be up tomorrow, but today we have two film fest reviews from Josh. But before we get to that, I just want to give my brief thoughts on Netflix Original Series Daredevil that premiered this weekend:
NetflixDaredevilI actually never saw the Ben Affleck version, but even from the trailer/clips I could surmise that it’s awful indeed. I have to admit that initially I was skeptical of Charlie Cox casting, as he’s such a cute face, and that isn’t exactly a glowing recommendation when you want to play a bad-ass vigilante. But y’know what, right from the get go, my doubts were erased. The British actor is quite convincing both as the blind lawyer + the vigilante.

My hubby & I have only seen 4/13 episodes so far but boy, this is definitely NOT a PG-rated Marvel adaptation. The words ‘dark & gritty’ have been used to describe a lot of stuff but it’s definitely no hyperbole when it comes to this show. In fact, it’s hyper-violent and bloody, I had to avert my eyes during the last 5 minutes of episode 4! But I like the meticulous & slo-burn pacing, the benefit of releasing all the episodes at once is that each episode doesn’t have to be ‘all-action-all-the-time’ and we actually get some character development by showing flashbacks of Matt Murdoch’s past, as well as more time with the secondary characters such as Matt’s BFF & partner in law Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson). They also have two strong female characters, Karen & Claire (Deborah Ann Woll & Rosario Dawson, respectively). I like both of them in the role, especially Dawson who’s always effortlessly appealing. But one thing for sure, people who love R-rated action and fantastically-choreographed fight scenes would NOT be disappointed.

So in short, I’ll definitely keep watching! I might do a review once we get through all 13 episodes. How about you? Did you see it?


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Secrets of War (Oorlogsgeheimen)

SecretsofWarFusing two well-known stories and thereby hitting dual-genre notes, Secrets of War is a quality picture. The first, and more successful, of the film’s two stories: the ways a friendship between two newly-adolescent Dutch boys, Tuur (Maas Bronkhuyzen) and Lambert (Joes Brauers), is tested, first by a girl, Maartje (Pippa Allen), they both like, and then by World War Two, something neither child initially understands. The second story, an anti-war treatise, is slightly less successful than the first, but it still relates the ways war tears apart uninvolved lives. 

All three young actors are very good, especially Allen who convincingly shows us her secrets long before the screenplay has her tell them to us. But Secrets of War’s scene stealer is Loek Peters, who plays Tuur’s father. Peters (and the other grown-ups in Tuur’s family) is the vehicle through which director Dennis Bots and writer Karin van Holst Pellekaan show the tragedies of World War Two, but they never let him speak all that much, which means he has to communicate the gravity of the situation non-verbally. Thankfully, he does just that.

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Pellekaan’s screenplay and Bots’ direction is excellent for the first three-fourths of film, but it slips a little in the final act, when events are rushed, perhaps in an effort to speed to conclusion. A slower, more character-driven approach to the finale would have cemented the picture’s emotion and thereby helped deliver its themes.

The missteps near the end of Secrets of War do not ruin the film, however. It is still well worth viewing.

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The Dinkytown Uprising 

A documentary about a lengthy 1970’s neighborhood protest against a Red Barn fast-food restaurant entering a beloved Minneapolis community, The Dinkytown Uprising is interesting and entertaining. Interspersing modern interviews of former protestors with on-the-scene 1970 video showing the actual rallies, the film effectively informs the viewer about the protests, the protestors, and their links to the Vietnam War. It makes us care about each of the protestors, as well, ensuring that we remain interested throughout.

DinkytownUprising2 The Dinkytown Uprising is, in other words, a good film.

But it isn’t perfect, mostly because director Al Milgrom’s secondary goal is to connect the 1970 Dinkytown protests with modern efforts to preserve the historic neighborhood. More than that, it seems Milgrom wants us to agree that the neighborhood should be protected. Here he stumbles, mostly because he never draws a direct link between the picture’s informative intent and its persuasive efforts. The director might have benefited from a closer look at larger corporations’ modern efforts to enter the neighborhood. Given that he doesn’t do so, the few times he intimates concern for the community, it feels out of place with the rest of the film’s content.

DinkytownUprising1Still, while this flaw is significant, it is not debilitating. The skill with which Milgrom combines interviews, narration, and found footage is impressive. And overall, his picture succeeds.

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So what did you watch this weekend? Thoughts on Daredevil or any of these films?

Rental Pick: John Singleton’s SHAFT (2000)

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New York City police detective John Shaft (nephew of the original 1970s detective) goes on a personal mission to make sure the son of a real estate tycoon is brought to justice after a racially-motivated murder.

I’ve been curious about this movie for some time but I forgot that it’s available on Netflix streaming. As my hubby and I were in the mood for an action flick, this was a good a time as any to finally check it out. One thing I noticed right away was how young Samuel L. Jackson looked here, though this was made only a decade and a half ago. He’s basically playing the same tough guy character as Nick Fury and a bunch of other action roles – same snarky attitude and that cocky swagger.

It’s interesting to see him go after some rich SOB Walter Wade Jr. played by Christian Bale, the same year he also plays another rich psychopath in American Psycho and 5 years before he plays an even richer guy Bruce Wayne, but at least he uses his privilege for good in those Batman films. He’s quite convincing as some racist bastard, you really wants to punch his smug face every time he’s on screen. But he’s actually not the most memorable villain in this flick, that’d be Jeffrey Wright who plays a ghetto drug kingpin Peoples Hernandez. It’s amusing to see an African American actor playing a Hispanic man, he’s definitely the movie’s scene stealer here.

The rest of the supporting cast was pretty good. Toni Collette is quite memorable here too as the witness Shaft’s trying to convince to testify and rapper Busta Rhymes provides comic relief as Shaft’s frantic driver. I haven’t seen the original Shaft films, but I’m familiar with Richard Roundtree who had a supporting role as Shaft’s uncle. I also like the fact that they didn’t make the beautiful Vanessa Williams to be just the eye candy factor or damsel in distress, in fact she actually saved Shaft in one key scene.

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The movie itself was pretty entertaining – good pacing, interesting characters and dynamic action scenes. Yet it wasn’t just all about car chases and shootouts, as the story was pretty involving but not overly complicated. John Singleton definitely had style and some of the camera work was pretty cool to watch. It’s also quite violent and there are as many F-bombs flying out as there are bullets, I read on IMDb that there were F-word was used 165 times in this movie, wow! At least the violence wasn’t too gratuitous. The finale also still manages to surprise me, and I remember not having recovered yet from the tense scene between Shaft and Hernandez. Not a bad rental and I’m glad I finally saw this one. I’m actually surprised there isn’t a sequel to this, I’d think that it might’ve been a hit back then.

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Have you seen SHAFT? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Furious 7

Furious7 “I don’t have friends, I got family”

That line by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the patriarch of the ‘Fast & Furious’ family, sums up the familial theme that runs through this franchise. I never would’ve thought that when I was still blissfully ignorant of the series prior to Fast & Furious 6. So far I’ve only seen the 1st, 5th and 6th movie before the latest one, and based on what I heard from those who’ve seen them all, this is one of those rare occasion where the sequels actually improve over the earlier movies. Yes, the franchise pride itself in being a big dumb action flick with preposterous car stunts, but the familial theme separates it from other action movies, and that could very well be the secret of its success.

Furious7_HanFuneralThere’s a direct continuation from this movie to Fast & Furious 6, as the comatose villain’s brother, Deckard Shaw, now seeks revenge against Toretto & his family. The beginning of the film shows them attending a funeral of a former family member that’s hinted at the end of the previous film. Even the villain is avenging a member of the family. I thought that the casting is pretty spot on as not only Jason Statham looks believable as Luke Evans‘ older brother, the fact that he’s famous in another car-centric actioner The Transporter makes his casting even more perfect.

Statham is always effortlessly bad ass and invincible in pretty much everything he’s in, and it’s no different here. He apparently could take out an entire hospital AND all those SWAT team all by himself. So he’s special ops or something, which means in his case he’s got superhuman strength who could withstand blow after blow from someone three times his size! The fight scene between him and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is practically hilarious – as is most of the fight scenes in this franchise – because I just don’t sense any kind of real danger to them.

Furious7_TheRockJasonStathamThe vengeance storyline is mixed with a heist plot to obtain a tracking device named God’s Eye and rescuing a hacker named Ramsey. Just like the Mission Impossible movies, the filmmaker just wants to one-up the previous movie in terms of its preposterous action. The sequence of the cars dropped from a plane down to Caucasus Mountains, followed by an equally ridiculous car/bus chase around the twisty mountain road is what you pay money to see this franchise! Seeing that scene on IMAX is really quite a thrill, it’s as close to being in a real amusement park ride given the immersive experience of seeing the stunts in such a huge screen.

Furious7_CarAirdropStuntman Spiro Razatos is really the unsung hero in this franchise as he’s the man responsible for some of the heart-stopping sequences, such as the bank vault scene in Fast Five. This article offer details as to how he pulls off the airdropD scene, it’s really his magnum opus of stunt work! To contrast the cool mountain scenery, the team then heads to the desert of Abu Dhabi. Of course the *mission* has to be something totally absurd. The owner of the flash drive they’re after placed the thing inside a $3.4 mil supercar that I’ve never even heard of: Lykan Hypersport made in Dubai by the first ever Arab supercar company W Motors.

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Yep, that’s the red car that Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) drove through two skyscrapers you’ve seen in the trailer. Trust me, the scene itself is even crazier than in the trailer! Brian Tyler‘s dynamic score perfectly complements the action scenes.

LykanHypersportNow, I’ve mentioned some of the best action sequences, but there are also some pointless fight scenes that overstay its welcome. One of them that come to mind is the fight between UFC champ Ronda Rousey and Michelle Rodriguez, it’s there simply just to fulfill audience’s expectation of a two bad-ass girls knocking each other out. Some of the fight scenes between Walker and Thai martial artist Tony Jaa also gets boring after a while. Pointless characters also drag the movie down, such as Kurt Russell‘s character and Djimon Hounsou’s who’s been typecast as a useless henchman in practically everything he’s in since his fine turn in Gladiator.

I do have to give props to how the filmmaker handle the tribute to Paul Walker, who’s a key cast member of the franchise. I knew before watching this movie that they weren’t going to kill off his character Brian O’Conner, which I think is a wise move on their part. What they end up doing is genuinely moving and heartfelt that it made me tear up watching it. It’s more of a celebration for the late actor than a somber farewell, incorporating the use of CGI as well as the actor’s own brothers Caleb and Cody as stand-ins.

Furious7_PaulWalkerOverall the movie is entertaining and fun, which is what one would hope for in a movie like this. The emotional scenes help elevate it a bit, but for the most part, you go see this movie for the ridiculous car stunts. But the ethnic diversity has also become part of the ‘brand’ of the franchise. It’s nice to see actors of pretty much every race represented: Black, Asian, Hispanic, White, and there’s even a Bollywood actor making a cameo this time around. Even the director James Wan is of Malaysian Chinese descent. Wan is new to the franchise, after doing mostly horror films like The Conjuring. I think his direction is ok, though I think I prefer Justin Lin‘s direction in the last two movies a bit more. In any case, the diversity pays off for the franchise, as according to THR, 75% of the audience in North America is non-White and it’s earned $384 mil worldwide in its first weekend, wow!

The movie is quite long though, I think cutting some of those unnecessary action scenes out would reduce the overlong 137-min running time. But it’s still mostly enjoyable to me because it’s more of a heist flick than a street-racing movie.

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Have you seen Furious 7? Well, what did YOU think?