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?

Wordless Wednesday: 7 Favorite Scenes of Man & Machine

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Hello everyone! It’s a bit late and I already skipped a month without Wordless Wednesday, ahah well I guess I’m consistent at being inconsistent in keeping up with my own blog series, ahah. In any case, as I did in my previous Wordless Wednesday on Emma Thompson, I choose a random Wednesday of the month to shine a spotlight on or pay tribute to something/someone with clips and/or gifs I find on Tumblr.

Well, since I was just talking about Man-Machine relationship on my Question of the Week yesterday, I figure why not feature some of my favorite scenes. So here goes:

Tears in Rain – Blade Runner

Are these feelings real? – Her

Superman! – The Iron Giant

Frank & robot doing some light exercise – Robot & Frank

T-800 tries to smile – Terminator 2

 

Helo & Sharon (Boomer) – Battlestar Galactica (2004 series)

I LOVE the tricky yet passionate relationship between human (Helo) and cylon (Boomer), one of my fave couples in the space-opera.

 

Vincent & The Machine – The Machine

[originally posted on my Tumblr] Can’t find the exact scene of this one [hopefully someone will post it now that the Bluray is out!] but I LOVE the dance sequence in The Machine… sleek, eerie, ethereal and sexy all at the same time.

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These are just a sampling of my favorite Man-Machine scenes. Feel free to share yours.

FlixChatter Review: Spike Jonze’s HER

Once in a while, a film you hadn’t heard much about suddenly sneaked in and took your breath away. In 2013, that film for me was HER.

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In its simplistic terms, Spike Jonze‘s sci-fi drama is about a guy who falls in love with an Operating System. Yes, that alone is downright bizarre, which at first glance reminds me of Al Pacino’s S1m0ne from 2002 but it actually couldn’t be more different from each other. No, there’s so much more to HER than meets the eye… and I have to admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I was about to witness.

The story takes place in Los Angeles some time in the future (the year is not specified), but it’s a futuristic time where we can still very much identify with. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a living as a writer who writes love letters for people who can’t quite express their feelings. That alone is an interesting occupation as Theodore is very good at what he does, yet he lives a lonely existence, you could even say he’s crestfallen. Having just separated from his wife, he internalizes everything and barely has any social life. One day, he purchased a talking operating system with artificial intelligence, designed to adapt and evolve like a human being. Little did he know that the OS in question, who names herself Samantha, would change his life in ways he’d never imagine.

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I have to admit that as I was watching the film, I too was quite taken by Samantha, voiced to perfection by Scarlett Johansson. As advertised, the OS’ ability to evolve psychologically and adapting to Theodore’s cerebral as well as emotional needs is astounding. She looks at the world through his eyes and learns at a rapid speed. It’s as if Samantha had known Theodore forever and that she’s the only *person* who could understand him. Samantha soon becomes a dominant part of Theodore’s life, seemingly rescuing him out of his gloom. She even sets him up on a blind date with a long time friend that his neighbor Amy has been trying to set him up with. It’s from a date snafu that Theodore and Samantha starts to talk about relationship and begins to really ask the question we as people take for granted.

This is the kind of thought-provoking science fiction story that I wish Hollywood would make more of. Sci-fi is not always about aliens or cool-looking futuristic equipments or cars or what have you, but a good sci-fi should actually makes us ponder about our own humanity. In this case, it explores how technology affects us humans in terms of our way of connecting with each other. In this day an age, with increasing number of people having far more connection with their digital devices than their living soul counterparts, the idea of dating an OS might not be so implausible after all. Fortunately, Jonze didn’t set up the whole idea as a mere gimmick. As Conor’s mentioned in his thought-provoking post, this is a great example of a true sci-fi , instead of those that are *dressed* as one.

As Theodore becomes more smitten with Samantha and vice versa, the only thing missing was the physical connection… and that is perhaps one of the most bizarre yet essential exploration of the film. I’m not going to spoil the details for you but the keyword here is surrogate. If you think the idea is downright outlandish, well wait until you see it on film. I have to admit I was squirming in my seat watching the scene unfold, but I think the scene is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. Jonze tackled the issue of sexuality in the digital age and its peculiarity in a matter-of-fact way which makes you squirm and laugh at the same time. Yet it’s also one of the most emotionally absorbing film I’ve seen in a long time.

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When I saw the film, the theater was quite empty with barely twenty people in it. So it was almost having the whole place to myself which is a good thing as I was almost sobbing a few times. The heartbreak that Theodore is experiencing isn’t any less miserable because Samantha wasn’t human. In fact, there’s a scene towards the end that was utterly heart-wrenching, I’d just imagine how I would feel when I fear losing the one person I love most as that’s what Theodore must be feeling.

Now, though the film doesn’t explore the spiritual aspect of the premise, it certainly makes me think about it quite a bit as I’m watching it and long afterwards. I remember watching Blade Runner a while back, which was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel more aptly-titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It prompted me to write this post about how droids want to be human but some humans would rather keep their feelings out of the way in their relationships. Samantha could’ve been the best girlfriend Theodore could ever have, he even comes to accepts the lack of a physical form, but how does he reconcile fact that she is without soul? It seems that Samantha experiences pain as much as Theodore does when their relationship flounder. But is it real? How could he ever know? The revelation towards the end that Theodore learns from Samantha throws him off balance… I mean, it was as much a shock to me the viewer, as I’ve come to identify and empathize with him.

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The key strength of the film is the stellar performances. Joaquin Phoenix is nothing short of astounding in his soulful performance as Theodore. As the camera follows his physiognomy in various close-ups, many times he’s not saying anything at all for a long period of time, but his face and eyes convey so much. His character goes through an emotional roller coaster here and Phoenix was more than up for the task. Scarlett Johansson delivers one of the best voice performances I’ve ever listened to. Samantha is described as super intelligent and extremely confident, as an OS wouldn’t have any of the insecurities and fear that a real woman would have. Johansson seems the natural choice for the role which is odd considering she was brought in at the last minute after Samantha Morton did the original voice work. Whatever it was that made Jonze change her mind about Morton, the switch worked amazingly well as I can’t imagine anyone else in the role besides Johansson. She’s playful, charming, sexy, but also emotionally convincing when the role requires. I really think that voice work should be recognized come award season, as I’ve mentioned in this post. In terms of supporting cast, Amy Adams is terrific as Theodore’s neighbor. It proves how versatile she is considering how far apart this role is from the one in American Hustle, definitely a lot more clothes on and a lot less make-up. Remarkably, her small here might even be more profound than her performance as Lois Lane in Man of Steel. Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara both have bit parts as Theodore’s date and ex-wife, respectively. They’re both ok, but there’s nothing to write home about. Oh, I quite like Chris Pratt as Theodore’s colleague as well. At first I thought he was an odd casting choice but it worked somehow.

The look and sound complements the mood of the film perfectly, down to the rather melancholic music. Some of my faves are Arcade Fire’s Supersymmetry and The Moon Song. The latter is co-written by by Jonze and performed by both Johansson and Phoenix. I also love the futuristic setting that Jonze created, it feels familiar yet different. The luminous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema creates a rather sterile-looking L.A. that feels strangely retro even though it’s set in the future. Even the clothes that Theodore wears have a retro look to them with the high-waisted slacks.

Final Thoughts: This has become one of my favorite films of 2013, and perhaps of all time. There are so many rich nuances in this film that I could mull over and contemplate with, it’s definitely one of those films that I’d like to watch more than once just to absorb it all again. Thanks to a meticulously sharp script by Jonze, his intimate directing style and terrific performances, her is a fascinating journey that’s as intriguing as it is heartfelt.

4.5 out of 5 reels


Thoughts on this film? I’d love to hear what you think!

Weekend Viewing Roundup – OBLIVION Review

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Photo courtesy of StarTribune.com

The weekend is coming to a close as I’m writing this, hope y’all had a nice one… especially in the weather department. It’s really the kind of “Spring” that does NOT add an extra spring in your step, unless you want to slip on ice and fall over into a puddle 😦

I mean, just look at this photo from a couple of days ago!! THAT’s the reason I couldn’t see Mud last Thursday! And this is the kind of stuff we could expect for this week, courtesy of our local meteorologist at the Star Tribune:

A rain/snow mix tomorrow evening – but temperatures boomerang to near 70F by Saturday afternoon, maybe even a few severe T-storms late Sunday? Something for the entire family.

[sigh]

Anyway, I did see quite a few new films this past week, five to be exact:

Disconnect, Unfinished Song (both reviews are up), Caesar Must Die, I, Anna and Oblivion. Stay tuned for the reviews of the other two, but now, here’s my thoughts on…

OBLIVION

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Post-apocalyptic science fiction films are a dime a dozen and there seems to be no shortage of it. Even before the start of this film, there are trailers for a couple of them (After Earth, Elysium) and the world we live in is almost always depicted in a state of doom, with humanity facing extinction with the rest of well, what’s left of our universe.

OBLIVION begins with a voice over exposition courtesy of Jack Harper (starring the virtually ageless mega star Tom Cruise) who now lives in a high tower above the earth, Tower 49, which looks like a very expensive high rise penthouse, complete with built-in swimming pool underneath. Not a bad living quarter for a ‘mop-up crew,’ that’s what Jack refers to himself and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They’re only two weeks away on completing their mission of drones repair on earth before they could join the entire remaining human population in their new home in Titan. Now, you’d think he’d be excited for that but Jack still can’t let go of earth & his earthly house by the lake, and he’s also still haunted by his memory of a woman from 60 years ago as they walk up to the Empire State Building [is this like the only romantic rendezvous place for New Yorkers in the movies??].

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Well, what do you know. On a routine mission, Jack ended up meeting that very woman who was in one of the delta-sleep pods that crash landed on earth as Jack was relaxing by the lake. Now, the arrival of ‘Julia’ who claims to be his wife, and then later meeting a group of human survivors hiding underground, led by cigar-smokin’ Morgan Freeman, Jack’s life quickly begins to unravel as he discovers just who his true identity is. He starts to question the things we’ve also been curious about from the start, and the last half of the film follows Jack in that journey of self-discovery… and more.

Now, all of this is intriguing stuff and director Joseph Kosinski builds this film with so many beautiful vistas and cool-looking robots to mesmerize us, but the plot leaves way more questions than the film could even begin to answer. Now, I don’t want to discuss ’em here without revealing a bunch of spoilers, but let’s just say I have similar questions as this guy in Film School Rejects post. Well, I don’t really care about ‘why was Beech [Freeman’s character] is always wearing sunglasses’ but the rest are definitely valid plot holes issues. I feel that my beef with Kosinski’s first film, Tron Legacy, where it’s mostly style over substance, also applies to this one. The one advantage is that this one he has a far more charismatic protagonist than Garrett Hedlund (more on that latter). But similarly, Kosinski seems far more concerned with building cool looking stuff than he is about crafting a real ‘meaty’ story that goes beyond a mere ‘intriguing concept.’

That said, I still find this film entertaining and I’ve got to admit I was wowed by the visuals. Everything from the bluish-hued barren landscape of earth in ruins, to the ultra sleek sky tower and Jack’s collapsible Bubbleship [apparently the design was a hybrid of a jet fighter and a Bell 47 helicopter – per We Are Movie Geeks], there are visual eye candy aplenty for the sci-fi geek in all of us. I saw this in 2D which was perfectly fine, but I bet this film would look pretty stunning on IMAX.

The pace is pretty good and I never find myself bored in the entire two hours. I also think there’s a balance of quiet moments and full-throttle action, which makes it more effective when it does happen. The aircraft chase with the drones in the narrow canyons remind me too much of so many other sci-fis, most notably The Phantom Menace. But then again, this film borrow a lot of sci-fi concepts from other films so I shouldn’t be surprised by that. Despite all the plot holes though, I’ve got to give props to the filmmaker for at least attempting to inject some humanity into the story.

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As I’ve alluded to earlier, Tom Cruise is still more than capable to carry this film. I don’t think Jack Harper would make my top 10 Tom Cruise roles, but still he’s very watchable. Some of the flying sequences made me think of this movie as Top Gun meets Minority Report, it’s amazing Cruise still looks pretty much the same as he was in Top Gun which was released 27 years ago!! One of Cruise strengths is that he is believable in the action as well as the more emotional scenes. Interestingly enough, the part of him reminiscing on earth—recalling his old days of watching baseball, playing sports in his back yard and listening to old records—are more effective than the ‘romantic’ scenes of him and his female co-stars however. I don’t exactly know why that is, though I give Cruise some credit for not looking creepy romancing actresses nearly half his age!

Speaking of the actresses, I was impressed with Andrea Riseborough once again (she was also in Disconnect), she’s truly a star on the rise [pardon the pun] with a chameleon-like ability. I don’t think Olga Kurylenko is as versatile, but she actually impresses me more here than she did in Quantum of Solace. She has an earthy and mysterious quality about her and though she is stunningly beautiful, she doesn’t come across as flighty. Morgan Freeman of course adds gravitas to his role, Beech is the kind of ‘cool but eternally wise’ character he’s played in so many films that it probably doesn’t require much effort on his part. Hunky Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau also has a small part as Freeman’s cohort, but I think he’s more capable than that.

Final Thoughts: I don’t think Oblivion will be a sci-fi classic. I appreciate it for what it is, which is popcorn entertainment, but not profound enough to be memorable. I don’t mind watching it again down the road though, even if it’s just to gawk at the marvelous visuals. It’s the kind of escapist entertainment that’s tailored to maximize Cruise’s massive star power. The film’s box office prowess will prove that Cruise’s certainly still got it.
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Three and a half stars out of Five

3.5 out of 5 reels


Well, what did you think of this film? Did you enjoy this more than I did?

A ‘sequel’ I actually want to see: District 9 follow-up ELYSIUM

One of my favorite films of the last decade was the low-budget sci-fi movie District 9. In my review, I said that it’s such a distinctly moving, poignant and provocative film that makes you ponder long after the end credits roll.

Not long after I saw the film, there’s immediate buzz for an inevitable sequel, which I talked about here, but that was three years ago! It’s certainly taken a while to materialize but Variety reports that SONY has secured a release date of March 1, 2013. Now, with the recent casting news of the South African actor Sharlto Copley as the villain for the American remake of Park Chan-wook’s Korean action thriller Oldboy, it seems like a good time as any to update you on:

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Plot and Production Notes

Like a Christopher Nolan movie, the plot is shrouded in secrecy. Per Deadline, the movie will have the social allegory theme like in District 9, but done in a much bigger scale, set 100 years in the future. However, /Film reported this interview with the film’s producer Simon Kinberg that “… [the sequel is] a very different movie than anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s not necessarily an alien movie … Visually, stylistically it’s actually very different than District 9.”

Hmmm, what does he mean it’s not necessarily an alien movie?? I wonder if he meant that it’s more than just a genre film, much like 28 Days Later is NOT just a zombie movie, or that the film is dealing with something else entirely?

I presume those reading this article knows that at the end of D-9, the protagonist Wikus van der Merwe has transformed into this prawn-like alien being. The ending seems to lend itself to a sequel, but it sounds like the sequel doesn’t pick up the story where it left off.

South African director Neill Blomkamp is back at the helm and has hired famed set designer Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Aliens) to design the set for this film. The budget has jumped from $35 mil for D-9 to roughly $120 mil for Elysium [per THR]. Filming has wrapped last December and is now in post-production work. As Peter Jackson was the executive producer of D-9, his company WETA is now involved in the conceptual design and various special effects for this film.

Casting

One thing for sure, I’m looking forward to seeing Copley teaming up with D-9 director Neill Blomkamp again.

Mr. Copley’s star-power has risen considerably since starring in that film, though he’s only been seen in The A-Team since then. I think he’s perfectly capable in carrying a movie on his own, as he did in D-9, in fact I liked him so much that I wrote this article on how a lot of Hollywood A-listers can learn from him.

Well, two A-listers have in fact joined the cast: Jodie Foster and Matt Damon.

Damon had this to say just before filming started:

I’ve never done anything quite like this and I kind of responded to what’s out there and what’s in and what’s good. The movie is going to be good, he showed me basically the entire world which he’s going to build and it’s really, really exciting. And I can’t wait! – per MovieWeb

Jodie Foster is said to be playing a leader of an alien planet. She revealed to TotalFilm that the main reason she signed on to the film was because it was a chance to work with Blomkamp.

“Yes, definitely. He did District 9, which I think is as close to a perfect movie as you can get … It’s just an extraordinary film. And, this film has a lot of that social commentary in it, but uses sci-fi to get there. It’s great.”

There’s no news yet what role Matt Damon will be playing but judging from this Vancouver set photos of him with a shaved head wearing a prison jumpsuit and has some sort of futuristic weapon thing-y strapped on him, my guess is he’s an ex-con who managed to escape?

Anyway, the rest of the Internationally-diverse cast includes Mexican actor Diego Luna, Brazilians Wagner Moura and Alice Braga, and go-to New Yorker character actor William Fichtner.

Viral Campaign

What’s brilliant about D-9 is the bizarre but brilliant ‘Non-Human’ viral marketing campaign. Now virtually every major movie, for better for worse, have employed similar strategy. /Film posted this poster on the right spotted at Comic-con last year that points to a website with this video clip below. Basically it’s a recruitment video by a fake company called Armadyne seeking “zero g welders, mega-structure engineers, quantum networkers and experts in zero g coupling and multi-generational planning,” in order to accomplish “the most ambitious project ever undertaken by mankind.” Take a look at the video below from the ‘official’ company website:

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I hope the trailer is released soon. I do hope that Copley will have a prominent role here instead of being completely sidelined by Damon. What I like about the first one is how completely believable he was as Wikus and the strong emotional connection I had with the character. Now, both A-listers here are obviously very talented actors, so I’m optimistic in that regard. I’m also hopeful that the 31-year-old Blomkamp is more than a one hit wonder.


Are you a fan of District-9? If so, what do you think of this project so far? 

Weekend Viewing Roundup: Starter for Ten & A Scanner Darkly

There’s nothing interesting at the cinema this weekend, but it’s always nice to catch up on older movies I’ve been meaning to see.

This past Friday was our first Girls Movie Nite since its summer hiatus and my girlfriends and I had initially settled on Water for Elephants. The trailer looks pretty good and the combination of Christoph Waltz and Robert Pattinson in a circus setting seemed intriguing. Unfortunately it’s not available on Netflix yet (another reason I’m canceling my subscription) so we ended up seeing Starter for 10 since one of my friends owns the DVD. The other one I saw was A Scanner Darkly, a sci-fi done in interpolated rotoscoping animation style in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame.

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Set in 1985, working-class student Brian Jackson navigates his first year at Bristol University.

Seems like James McAvoy hasn’t made a bad film. At least out of the eight films where he had a prominent role, none of them has disappointed me. Ok so I didn’t love Becoming Jane (despite my love for period dramas) but it’s more because of Anne Hathaway performance than James’.

McAvoy truly carried this film with his earnest performance as the brainy kid Brian who finds out that life education is definitely as important as being book smart. Despite being in his mid 20s when he did this film, he was quite believable as a college freshman. His transformation from the naive geek with bad hair to a slightly older & wiser university student is fun to watch. Scottish director Tom Vaughan peppered the film with witty dialog and whimsical college scenes without relying on silly or inappropriate gags like college films like say, Old School. Even the more sexually-charged scenes are a hoot, especially the one involving Brian and the parents of the girl of his dreams on a Christmas holiday, are funny but not cringe-worthy.

The romance is sweet and engaging. It’s almost unanimous that everyone in my group sympathize with Rebecca Hall’s character. I feel that it’s not only because her character (also named Rebecca) is written that way but also because Hall seems to always come across very affable on screen. The film truly belongs to the über talented McAvoy but Benedict Cumberbatch managed to steal some scenes with his hilarious performance as the ambitious group ‘leader’ competing for the University Challenge quiz show. His character may be one-dimensional but still he made it entertaining. The ending is quite predictable but I don’t really mind it in a movie like this where a lack of ‘plot twist’ is not a detriment.

Starter For 10 is quite a poignant yet funny coming-of-age comedy drama starring the hottest young British talents working today. Many of the cast have now become quite famous: McAvoy himself, Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, The Town, Everything Must Go), Benedict Cumberbatch (Amazing Grace, BBC’s Sherlock, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Dominic Cooper (The Duchess, An Education, The Devil’s Double). Alice Eve is perhaps the least known but she’s starring in The Raven next year.

The music is quite memorable as well with songs mostly by The Cure and other British bands such as Tears for Fears, The Smiths and Wham!.

4 out of 5 reels

A Scanner Darkly

 

An undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug called Substance-D and begins to lose his own identity as a result.

I’ve been curious about this film for some time, mostly because of the rotoscoping animation style I’ve mentioned about, as well as the fact that it’s a Philip K. Dick adaptation. He’s perhaps one of the greatest sci-fi authors whose work have been a popular subject for films such as Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report and most recently The Adjustment Bureau.

The cast for this film, especially Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr., is also a big selling point. Combine that with an intriguing subject matter and a distinct visual style, this one surely can’t be a misfire, right? Well, I wouldn’t call it a misfire, but I can’t exactly call this one enjoyable. People have said that this movie is not for everyone, but really, one can say that for just about every title, right? Even the most beloved movie would have its detractor. The thing is, I was prepared to really like this one, but I actually found this one to be tedious in parts that I actually dozed off about three-quarters the way through. I did wake up about 10 minutes before the end and found that the story is quite profound, but yet I’m just not interested enough to rewind which parts I had missed.

I think the main strength of the film is the story itself, which made me think that I might appreciate the novel more. The acting is also good overall — both Keanu and Robert are perfectly cast, and Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson are quite memorable in their supporting roles. But the pacing is a bit too slow as the novelty of the animation style wears off. I really think the visual technique is really imaginative and I appreciate that the filmmaker went with this route. Yet I’m not really sure how much that style improve the story-telling. Yes I do believe director Richard Linklater is able to capture the paranoia and perceptual contortion caused by Substance-D, but because of the animation style, I feel that the subtle expressions that we would otherwise be able to perceive from each actor is somewhat lost. I almost feel guilty that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I learn in the Special Features about the dedication of the filmmaker and how personal this project is to him.

Perhaps if I give this film another chance I might enjoy it more, though I highly doubt I’d see this again. The thing about this whole film is how unsettling it is. I hate insects so the opening scene alone of a guy suffering from intense hallucination is disturbing and down right repugnant. But with that said, I’d still recommend this for a rental for people who enjoy sci-fi movies and Philip K. Dick’s stories. Though I didn’t end up loving it, I definitely don’t regret finally seeing this.

3 out of 5 reels

Well, what did you see this weekend? If you’ve seen either one of these films, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Musings on Blade Runner: What does it mean to be human?

As promised in my Friday post, I finally saw the cult-favorite Blade Runner last Friday. I see what all the fuss is about now, and to those who vouched for its important place amongst the best sci-fi movies ever made, glad to say it didn’t disappoint.

It’s impressive given this was made 20 years ago in 1982, the cinematography and art direction of the futuristic world is striking. Instead of opting for a slick, polished look, Ridley Scott’s vision of Los Angeles in 2019 (heck, that’s less than a decade from now!) is dark, gritty and downright bleak. Gone is the warm, glowing sunshine, the city’s now assume the climate of London or Seattle 🙂

To those who aren’t familiar with this movie based (as I was until a few days ago), here’s a brief summary from IMDb:

In a cyberpunk vision of the future, man has developed the technology to create replicants, human clones used to serve in the colonies outside Earth but with fixed lifespans. In Los Angeles, 2019, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner, a cop who specializes in terminating replicants. Originally in retirement, he is forced to re-enter the force when six replicants escape from an off-world colony to Earth.

Deckard with the Voight-Kampff machine, a polygraph-like device to test whether a person is human or replicant

We’ve seen a lot of sophisticated science fiction movies since then that deal with a similar subject of rogue bio-engineered creatures, but this film based on Philip K. Dick’s novel seems to stand the test of times because it’s more than just about gadgets and special effects, so even when the technology feels dated, the theme is a timeless one. There are so many thought-provoking themes open to analysis, but one that filmmakers and audiences alike still grapple with and will perhaps continue to do so is…

What does it mean to be human?

Rutger Hauer in one of his most memorable roles

The common theme that countless sci-fi movies about man-made robots/clones share seems to be that the conflict stems from the inherently-human ability to feel. These bio-engineered robots are created with a purpose to serve their human masters, and as long as they are obedient and just do as they’re told, things are fine and dandy and we can co-exist peacefully. But of course, stories after stories tell us that the robots develop emotions, and that’s when problems arise. For if they have the ability to love, automatically they too, have the ability to hate. In a pivotal ‘tears-in-the-rain’ scene involving Deckard and the ‘villain,’ a replicant named Roy, the very human Deckard looked at his opponent and reflected upon what Roy’s kind is all about: “All they’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us wanted, where have I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?”

Deckard & Rachael… is it love?

Interestingly, whilst all these inhuman androids in sci-fi movies want to feel and see feelings as a privilege they wish they have a right to, a lot of romantic comedies with real people seem to want to do the opposite. Even within the last few weeks alone, there are three upcoming rom-coms dealing with the same theme: can we just have sex without emotion? Because let’s face it, feelings just complicate things, right? As you can see in the Friends with Benefits trailer (you can find it on YouTube), the guy asks the girl ‘why does [sex] have to come with complications?’ to which the girl agrees, ‘… and emotions!’ The guy continues, ‘It’s a physical act… like playing… tennis.’ The other two movies No Strings Attached and Love & Other Drugs are no different, they’re toying with the notion that in this modern, career-oriented, busy world, people just have no time to be emotionally-involved. Come on, feelings are only for the radically conservative and old-fashioned folks who should have better things to do with their life. It’s apparently more hip and in vogue to keep relationships strictly physical.

I’m not singling out these movies as it’s by no means a groundbreaking concept. I just find that this no-strings-attached notion mind-boggling, and to be honest, quite tragic… the fact that people even want to deny what it means to be humans… one that separates us from the rest of God’s creations. To rid ourselves of the gift of emotion, whether it’s joy or sorrow that comes with every relationship, romantic or otherwise… it seems not only pointless but futile.

In any case, for a movie about mechanically-engineered beings, it’s a very ‘human’ story that takes a poignant look at our humanity. No, it’s not warm and fluffy the way most rom-coms are, but this movie is certainly not heartless.


Those who’ve seen and loved Blade Runner, feel free to add your own thoughts about it below.