Movie Review – Ex Machina (2015)

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Director: Alex Garland

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno

After winning a company lottery,  Caleb (Gleeson) wins the chance to spend a week with genius programmer Nathan (Isaac). Responsible for building the world’s leading search engine, Nathan is a recluse but welcomes Caleb into his home and gets his opinion on his latest project. He’s attempting to create an artificial intelligence in the form of Ava (Vikander), and wants Caleb to test her to see if she can pass the Turing test. Yet as Caleb questions Ava he begins to realize Nathan’s eccentric behaviour and starts to suspect that there’s something darker happening.

Being a Trekkie and a general sci-fi geek I’ve seen a lot of things that have explored the nature of humanity and what it means to be alive. I even did a module in my Philosophy degree titled The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence. So you’d assume that Ex Machina is right up my street, and you’d be right.

The film wastes no time in sending Caleb out to Nathan’s place to set up the films central premise. It’s split into different sessions with Ava over a week, and it shows her bonding with Caleb as he tries to test her. This leads to a number of humours exchanges, lightening the mood of the film somewhat. The other main relationship is between Caleb and Nathan, which is far more unpredictable than the relationship with Caleb and Ava. Nathan is eccentric in every sense of the word and one can never guess what he is going to next. he and Caleb share a number of awkward conversation that feel more like a predator trying to trap his prey.

Parts of the film were incredibly tense, and this tension was released at just the right moment. Coupled with bizarre sequences, like the dance sequence (you’ll understand when you see the film), it gives the feeling that you’re in a trance. I was absolutely immersed in the film. Garland intersperses shots of nature throughout the film, and there are a few things Ava does that harken back to Christian mythology where humans discover the feeling of shame at their naked bodies, and seek to cover themselves up.

Using artificial intelligence to highlight our own humanity has been prevalent in Star Trek but Ex Machina explores it in a way that feels plausible. It’s set at an unspecified time, but it’s not in a far-flung future where we’re whizzing about in starships. It’s a relatable world and given the ever-progressive nature of technology it only feels like a question that’s going to become more relevant. That being said, I’m not sure the film does make an explicit conclusion about the issue. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s left to the viewer to decide, and to examine what their definition, and indeed meaning, of life, intelligence, consciousness, is.

Having been exposed to this concept I was aware of some of the twists that could have taken place and I was satisfied when the script addressed concerns I had. I do think that for people who are versed in the subject matter this may not take them by surprise, whereas for others who are coming into this having only a passing curiosity may find it incredibly original. But whatever the case, it’s still a gripping film with superb performances from the three leads. I recommend it highly. It feels like a Star Trek mixed with the grim tone of Blade Runner and it provides a lot for discussion.

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Movie Review – American Sniper (2015)

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Director: Clint Eastwood

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kier O’Donnell, Jake McDorman, Sammy Sheik, Mido Hamada

Chris Kyle (Cooper) was a Texan man who wanted to be a cowboy, but recognising that it is a forlorn dream he signs up to serve his country.  When the Twin Towers get attacked he vows to do his duty for the virtue of protecting one’s own was instilled from him from an early age so he immediately enlisted and did four tours of Iraq, cultivating a reputation as a deadly sniper. Yet for all the insurgents he kills American soldiers keep falling. A rivalry forms between him and an enemy sniper known as Mustafa, who can shoot from seemingly impossible ranges. Finding it harder to deal with family life than the warzone, Kyle repeatedly puts himself in danger to protect his country, and his brothers.

American Sniper begins with Kyle having to make the decision whether to shoot a child who is holding a large grenade. Quickly, the camera cuts back to his childhood where his father instils in him the attitude that will serve him later in life. After a detour through a bad relationship and an attempt to become a cowboy, he meets Taya (Miller), who is initially reluctant to being anything with a Navy Seal. Despite her misgivings they fall for one another, and she becomes pregnant just before he goes to Iraq.

The film jumps between the warzone and life back in America as Kyle went through four tours, and it shows how uncomfortable he was with being at home. At first it seems to be because he’s suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress, but later on he admits that it’s because he feels guilty for all the people he couldn’t save. Cooper showed some subtle differences as Kyle drifted between the two environments, although I felt the tension between he and Taya became repetitive until later on in the film when there was some resolution.

The warzone scenes were effective and brutal, but because the film packed in four tours only a few soldiers were given names. A lot of them melted together into one camouflaged mass. As a comic geek I appreciated the squad adorning themselves with The Punisher’s trademark skull. A lot of the scenes were hard to watch, and Eastwood eked out every drop of tension. A blistering soundtrack complemented these moments perfectly and completely drew me in to the action and emotion of the scene. That is with one exception, there’s a scene where Kyle is tending to his baby and it’s clearly a doll. I don’t know why it jumped out at me, but it just struck me as incongruous.

I appreciated the struggles that Kyle and other veterans suffered when coming back from war, and I’m sure this film will strike a chord with anyone who has served in the military. I can’t speak for the accuracy of the squad’s maneuvers but it seemed realistic to me. As well as being one of my favourite actors, Clint Eastwood is one of my favourite directors too. The stand out scene for me was the sandstorm at the end. Disorienting, confusing, tense, it was something amazing to watch.

Reading on IMDB, it seems that the rivalry with Mustafa was included in the film to give it a clearer narrative, which may irk some people because this is based on a true story, but there’s true and then there’s Hollywood’s version of truth. It did help centre the overall conflict, and the final shot taken was incredible.

I have to mention the ending though. I think it will divide audiences for a number of reasons. I didn’t know how to feel at first. Part of it may depend on your view of the war itself, which I’m not going to get into here because I’m reviewing movies not political policies. From the standpoint of the movie itself it seems that certain events had to be included whilst filming, and I guess given how recent it occurred some sensitivity had to be given, but and honestly I’m okay with it. Having had time to reflect I think it fits the film well and I’m not sure anything would have been gained by a strict depiction of those events (I’m trying hard not to give any spoilers away!).

I highly recommend American Sniper. I think it does lend itself to discussions about attitudes towards the war in Iraq and the military presence over there, but really it’s about one man’s attempts to do his duty to the best of his ability. I found myself engrossed and, having not been aware of this story before, I’m glad that the film was made to bring it to my attention.

Movie Review – Labor Day (2013)

Director: Jason Reitman

Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Clark Gregg, Maika Monroe

Adele (Winslet) and Henry (Griffith) are out shopping when they encounter a wounded man, Frank (Brolin). He has a threatening air about him and forces them to take them back to his house. Eventually they realize that he’s an escaped convict, in prison for murder no less, yet they find themselves bonding with him. Adele is reminded of family life and they soon start planning to leave, but Henry is worried about being left behind.

Winslet is a great actress and she portrays Adele with nuance. Here is a woman who has all but given up on life. The fire has gone, and left an empty shell. Henry too knows this, and he tries his best to be enough family for Adele but he can only fill the role of the son. When Frank enters the picture there’s almost an instant change in Adele, but it plays over the rest of the weekend as they grow closer. She rediscovers the joy of living and the three of them start to remember what being a family is like. Things are different for Henry though. He still has his biological father so he’s not as wrapped up in isolation as Adele, and as such he has more doubts about their plan.

Brolin and Winslet have okay chemistry but honestly I found the whole film to be a little bland. I didn’t think Frank was as menacing as the premise promised so the film lacked some tension. It all seemed much ado about nothing really. The romance isn’t one that’s going to be spoken about through the ages, and aside from that there’s not much else to the story. The idea of Adele finding joy in life again is nice but it’s not something that took hold of my emotions. The film felt relaxed for the most part with a languid pace that fit the hazy summer setting but it didn’t fit with the intense, rousing emotions I think the film wanted to stir within.

Labor Day isn’t something I’m going to recommend. I like films with a good romance but I like them to be enthralling. This one just petered out and didn’t do anything for me.

Movie Review – John Wick (2014)

Director: Chad Stahelski

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Adrianne Palicki, Alfie Allen, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo

John Wick (Reeves) is a hitman who managed to escape the deadly lifestyle. However, a group of Russian gangsters kill his dog so Wick returns to the fold to take vengeance on them.

I’d heard a lot of good things about John Wick and it is a movie that I thought I would enjoy. In fact, the whole thing had a graphic novel feel to it. The way the plot progressed and many stagings of the scene felt like they could have been torn from the pages of a comic book and put up on the screen. The action is the highlight here, and it’s choreographed superbly. The fight scenes are dramatic, impactful, and tense. My friend described the main character as ‘an artist with a gun,’ which is an apt description. One thing I particularly loved is that Wick made sure each kill was definite by performing a headshot even when the enemy was down on the floor. It gave the film an added sense of realism.

And really, aside from the action the world that John Wick presents is intriguing. Since it’s only around an hour and a half long there’s not much time to fully develop the underground society of hitmen, but there are nice touches that provide a fleshed out world the characters inhabit. Things like a hotel where hitmen can stay and don’t have to worry about being taken out just add depth to what was essentially a thin plot.

There were some stylistic flourishes as well, mainly in the subtitles. It wasn’t really necessary but it did help to liven up the subtitles and make them feel a part of the scene rather than have them hanging limply at the bottom, which is what happens in most films. I felt the director was good at creating atmospheric scenes, the fight in the club being a notable example.

But I can’t say I think  of this film as highly as some other people. I did like it and it’s extremely cool and stylish, but the plot is one note and it doesn’t feel like there’s an escalating progression to it. Wick moves through, kills some guys, moves, kills guys, and while a lot of the deaths are entertaining and cool it still gets repetitive in parts. There’s also a point where the bad guy manages to capture Wick and yet inexplicably decides not to kill him, which really made no sense.

So I think it’s worth watching if you like action films. It’s really stylish and even though the plot isn’t anything new it feels fresh. I like the little touches of a deeper world and it’s nice to see a few recognisable actors in small parts. There are a couple of points where the film feels anticlimactic though, so watch out for that.

Twitter!

I used Twitter a while ago but didn’t really get the hang of it. With the purchase of my new smartphone I’ve decided to try again! I’d love to find more interesting people to follow, so if you leave your username in the comments I’ll give you a follow. My own Twitter name is @manofyesterday1  I’m also on tumblr under the same username.

Movie Review – Emperor (2012)

Director: Peter Webber

Stars: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune, Colin Moy, Masayoshi Haneda

In the aftermath of the atomic bombs and the end of World War II, the American government are unsure whether to try Emperor Hirohito for war crimes. General Bonner Fellers (Fox) is given the investigation with a strict deadline, meaning that this historically important decision rests on his shoulders. As he tries to uncover the inner workings of the Japanese hierarchy he reflects on a previous relationship with a Japanese woman and a love that was lost.

There have been a lot of films about WWII but I can’t recall any about this particular moment, so upon reading the premise I was initially intrigued. I felt that the investigation gave the film some tension as the Japanese officials were obviously reluctant to give any assistance to Feller. The deadline he had provided a sense of drama and it was interesting to see how he managed to actually get some information. There was some political commentary about the devastation caused by the atomic bombs, but I found it to be handled well and not heavy-handed. It was just a case of looking past yourself and seeing things from a different point of view, which in my opinion should always be encouraged.

Where the film fails is the romantic subplot. It takes up the majority of the film so where Emperor purports to be about this historically significant moment, that’s more of a backdrop as whenever the film gets interesting it takes a detour into Feller’s past and we have to witness clichéd, dull scenes. Too much of the film’s running time is spent on this romance and I find it difficult to believe that there wasn’t enough material to make a complete story out of the trial of the emperor. Instead, the film is padded and whenever the story switched I kept feeling frustrated.

If you’re going to watch this you need to be aware that this romantic plot takes up most of the film, so if you’re watching it for the plot about the trial of Hirohito then you’ll probably be as disappointed and frustrating while watching it as I was. I also feel that there could have been more done with the scenery and cinematography to show how alien Japan felt for the Americans, and what a contrast there was between the two countries. As it is, I can’t really recommend it. It was okay I suppose, but only because it covers an aspect of the war that hasn’t been explored before.

D&D5e Campaign Update – The Way of the Four Elements

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Say hello to Corrin Lyvan! Finally picked up my model from my friend’s, and I love the paint job that my DM did. You can’t see it in that picture but I have blue arrow tattoos like in Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I asked to have the wave coloured differently to represent the four elements.

I was excited to start level 3 as it’s the point where you get to choose a path that opens up different abilities for the rest of the game. I chose the way of the four elements for my monk as it offers the most variety and gives me a chance to play like Avatar. We had a full complement of players this session, and after a late start we managed to get straight into it as we’d all prepared our level 3 stuff beforehand. I had a few new abilities, one of which is Deflect Missiles. This allows me to reduce the damage of ranged attacks and gives me a chance of catching the missile and hurling it back for an attack. I also gained Elemental Attunement, which allows me to affect the elements in small ways, and I’m looking forward to finding imaginative ways to implement that. I also have Fangs of the Fire Snake, which is such a cool name. Tendrils of flame emerge from my hands and feet, increasing my range on my unarmed strikes and also dealing fire damage.

Most of us started off as spectators as one of the characters had to meet his patron and get a pact weapon from him, which had a strong Highlander vibe. Soon enough we were on our way and back on the main quest, which I’m glad to see we completed without much fuss, and I was actually able to contribute in combat this time! I was also able to use my new abilities. When searching for secret doors, I placed my hand against stone to see if I could sense anything. The player’s handbook is a little vague about the limitations on my elemental powers so I’m not doing anything too drastic, and I’ll see what the DM lets me get away with.

I also lit torches to try and surprise a guard so that he would fall into a pit. It didn’t quite work, but it was still fun, and something a bit different. I wasn’t able to pull off Fangs of the Fire Snake, unfortunately, which was disappointing. As for Deflect Missiles, well, I only used it when someone threw a rotten tomato at us as they thought we were bad guys, which isn’t how I thought I’d use it but I was happy enough.

Overall the session was fun but I’ll need a bit more time to fully utilize my new abilities. As I suspected I blew through my Ki rather quickly, so I still might see if my DM will tweak that slightly, but I guess it’s good to encourage thinking strategically. In fact, that’s something we tried to do much more this time around. We realized that there’s a lot more we can do in combat other than just attack, so we tried to use the other actions available to us. It wasn’t wholly successful, and Attack still seems to be the best option, but I’m sure we’ll get better at that as we go through more combats. We only had a couple yesterday and they were both in close quarters so we were quite limited with regards to movement.

As for the storyline, we’re starting to get a bit of a reputation for torturing to get information. It fits our group though, as the highest morality anyone has is Neutral. I’m Chaotic Neutral myself, and the way I play my character is that I don’t have any sympathy for bullies. So at some point if I think my colleagues are torturing someone who I think doesn’t deserve it I will speak up, but otherwise I’m not going to step in. I’m a Half-Elf as well, and it’s part of their nature to be unpredictable so I’m trying to weave that into my character as well.

I found the most boring part of the session was dividing and selling the loot. As my character was a Hermit and seeking an enlightenment that is higher than mere material gain I’m not actually looking to acquire much wealth, so all I need is enough to live on.

I’m still having fun as a Monk and I’m looking forward to using my elemental abilities more. I think the next quest we’re going to is going to be combat-heavy so it should give me a lot of opportunities to test them. It’ll also give me a chance to see how well my Ki holds up, and how often we’re going to be resting. I’m just worried that once I use my Ki all I’ll be doing is my attack and then a bonus unarmed strike, which is fun but it’ll just get repetitive after a while.

That Awkward Moment when a TV Show Loses You in the First Episode – Ascension

I was excited for this show when I first heard about it a few weeks ago, and in fact I almost missed its airing on Sky 1 because I figured it would be on Syfy. Anyway, I managed to catch up with the first episode, all wide-eyed with anticipation. Ascension is a miniseries set on a space station launched 51 years ago, the idea being that the US government covered up the launch. Its voyage is 100 years so they’re a little over halfway through, while back on Earth a grad student is convinced that the project happened and is trying to uncover the truth.

The episode beings with a murder, instantly sucking me in. The aesthetic is vibrant, colorful and distinctive. Tv sets are used as monitors, so although it’s futuristic its still rooted in our past, and it gave me a bit of a Star Trek vibe, as in the original pilot The Cage there was a television in the Captain’s Quarters!

At a little over an hour the first episode has a lot to cover, introducing a great many characters. As such I found it difficult to keep track of their names, but their positions on the ship were pretty clear and so too were the nature of their relationships. There’s a lot of betrayal and deceit going on. Throughout the episode hints are peppered as to the structure of the society, like that fact that marriages are made based on genetic compatibility rather than love, leading to some marriages being more like business deals.

There’s a clear divide between the two classes as well, and a marked hostility between the people who work in the manual labour section and the rest of the station. There were a few hints at a deeper mystery as well that were intriguing, and the scenery of space was eye-catching. At one point they pass through an ion storm. It’s a pretty tense and exciting sequence.

Back on Earth, a grad student approaches the son of one of the leaders of Project Ascension, and tries to convince him that his father’s legacy does actually exist and was the victim of a cover-up. This adds another layer of mystery to the story and although I was looking forward to a series wholly set on a space station I thought it was an interesting twist that nobody actually knows of this great achievement.

Up until the last few minutes it was ticking all my boxes and I was looking forward to seeing how the mysteries and relationship would unfold and develop over the course of the series. Then, however, there was a revelation in the final few minutes that completely killed any enjoyment I had for the series, ripping apart the initial premise that caught my attention. So I will not be watching anymore of it.

I’d love to know if anyone else felt the same way, or have their been any other shows that you were excited for, only to watch the first episode and realise that actually it’s not what you thought it would be?

Movie Review – Foxcatcher (2015)

Director: Bennett Miller

Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

Based on a true story, Foxcatcher follows the events around the build up to the 1988 Olympics. Mark Schultz (Tatum) is drifting and jumps at the opportunity to live at the Du Pont residence with John (Carell), who offers to coach him and pay him $25,000 a year. After setting up a team of wrestlers, Mark and John’s relationship takes a dangerous turn. In order to steady the ship John brings in Mark’s brother, Dave (Ruffalo), but is threatened by Dave’s authority.

I had been looking forward to Foxcatcher. I generally enjoy sports films (more than I enjoy sports) and the three leads, and it generally looked like a tense affair. It centers around the mid-80s as the wrestling team prepare for the 88 Olympics, and it’s an era I knew nothing about (in fact I hadn’t heard anything about this saga until the film came out). I liked how the sport of wrestling seemed to parallel the general theme of the movie, that of controlling other people and exerting your will upon theirs. Carell has been rightly lauded for his performance as Du Pont, and on occasion he is unrecognizable, although there are points where familiar mannerisms creep through. Tatum was the standout though, bringing a quiet, brooding intensity to the role. Ruffalo was good as well, but he didn’t have to stretch himself as much as the other two did.

Despite that, the film fell flat to me. I found that it dragged, and by the end I didn’t quite understand why people were doing what they did. It also failed in making wrestling interesting to watch, so even the interludes of sporting action were lifeless affairs. The whole film felt tired and weary, and I wouldn’t have minded had that glacial pace been building to something, but even when the climax occurred it was without much suspense.

The turning point for me was the drug use. Up until then I knew where everyone stood and the dynamics of the characters. Mark and Du Pont were growing closer and there were some inappropriate overtones to their relationship, then Mark gets introduced to cocaine, there’s a blurry hint that a homosexual encounter took place (and really, it is only just a hint) then suddenly Mark doesn’t want anything to do with it anymore, and it’s never explained why. Du Pont also seems to get more controlling at this point but its like their characters just shifted, and suddenly there was a rift present but it gave me the feeling that I was missing something. To me, the film felt distant, like it was never allowing me to immerse myself into it.

I was sorely disappointed in it, and I’m surprised it’s been getting as much buzz and praise as it has. There must be something I’m missing, because it didn’t gel with me at all. I don’t know what the filmmakers set out to accomplish but whatever it was it didn’t achieve it, for me at least. I can’t recommend this one at all. I know there have been Oscar nominations but I honestly can’t see why people are praising it so highly. It feels far too long for what it is and I didn’t enjoy it at all.

Movie Review – Taken 3 (2015)

Director: Oliver Megaton

Stars: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott, Famke Janssen, Forest Whitaker, Sam Spruell

Life is pretty normal for Bryan Mills (Neeson) nowadays. He keeps in touch with Kim (Grace) and has an amicable relationship with Lenore (Janssen). However, Lenore and her husband Stuart (Scott) are having relationship problems, and when she comes to Bryan with her problems she admits that she still has feelings for him. The next time she comes to his apartment, however, he finds her murdered, and the cops quickly come in after an anonymous tip. Hunted by the police, Bryan has to try and find his wife’s killer before anyone else can get hurt.

At the beginning there is a piece of dialogue where Bryan talks to Kim about his efforts to not be as predictable. I’m presuming that this is a meta-reference to the film itself and to its credit there are a few twists that might take some people by surprise. The plot is independent from the first two films, and I found it to be quite strong. The mystery surrounding Lenore’s death is interesting…if you lose yourself in the film and don’t spend time thinking through the suspects and the motives, because then the solution would be obvious. But the film does a decent enough job of distracting from this with fast, intense action scenes.

The highlights are when Mills is on the run, to see him try and outwit the cops. He has help from his friends, the ones who appeared in the previous films, and I liked how they had a bigger role this time around. Whitaker plays the guy in charge of the hunt, but his role is pretty empty and I think it’s only the fact that Whitaker is a great actor that he manages to keep his parts of the film interesting. In lieu of any actual character development for him he has a couple of quirks, one being that he holds a chess piece (how original) and the other is that he snaps an elastic band around his hand. But the police are basically there to add tension to the story.

So the action is distracting but it’s also at points indecipherable. The camera is close and shaking, and I can’t remember if it was the same style with the other two films but with this one I had a really hard time keeping track of what was going on. At one point there is a car chase and I honestly gave up trying to keep track of everything. When a crate barreled across the screen I threw up my hands because I had no idea where it came from. The climax is suitably cathartic though, and overall the film had a feeling of a classic action film. I could easily imagine this being made in the 80s with Schwarzenegger or Stallone in the lead role, I just wish the action had been clearer.

As for the other aspects, well, the family storyline is dreadful and clichéd. For the short time she appears Janssen and Neeson share no chemistry, and their scene together feels awkward, forced, and contains stilted dialogue. There were a couple of good moments with Kim throughout the film but the last scene in particular just felt odd. It’s hard to explain but there was something off about them, and it didn’t feel like their relationship had changed much throughout the film.

All in all Taken 3 is a middling film. I think if you enjoyed the other films in the series you’ll like this one, especially because it doesn’t seem like a rehash of the other too. If the action hadn’t been so incomprehensible at times I would be giving this a higher recommendation as it does harken back to the 80s films I love so much. As it is, it’s enjoyable in parts but it’s not something I would be rushing out to see.