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Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

An absorbing and incisive tale of timely technophobia, Ex Machina places us in introverted coding prodigy Caleb’s (Domnhall Gleeson) shoes following a recent workplace lottery win. The prize? A week spent at his billionaire employer’s boundless woodlands estate. Upon arriving, one Nathan (Oscar Isaac) informs Caleb of his latest endeavor – a striking female A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Promptly fulfilling the role Nathan intended him to, Caleb’s initial hesitance turns to obsessive enthrallment as burgeoning ulterior motives threaten to upend the experiment.

We’re all familiar with the perils of advanced artificial intelligence. Whether it’s apocalypse or heartache-inducing, we as viable consumers of the medium have been subjected to numerous examples of tech-gone-AWOL – a borderline subgenre that breeds more discomfort within us than we’d care to admit. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, although palpably bill-fitting largely transcends tropes with alternating bouts of genuine intelligence and character-spurred suspense.

For as enigmatic as Isaac’s Nathan is, his surface-level charisma is enough to disarm and lull Caleb into an unassuming role as Ava’s interviewer. As Caleb’s contest “win” is shadily rendered negligible, Nathan’s quirks aren’t offputting, nor are his insights into the steadfast purpose of his experiment and penchant for imbibing. He’s a friendly and relatable recluse for all intents and purposes, and it’s this aspect of the character that discernibly panders to our muddy suspicions as Caleb’s daily sessions with Ava yield increasingly alarming results.

Barring the uniqueness of its three core subjects, Garland’s script also emanates an evocative layer of intelligence that’s effective despite overly-explanatory exposition. Said details are offered as if it’s assumed we’re entirely ignorant of the concepts touched upon, from the Turing Test’s front-and-center employment to the prominence of search engine profiling. It’s a necessary evil that becomes entirely forgivable as tensions mount and motives evolve; aspects that are doubly important in Ex Machina‘s sustained equilibrium.

Even though it backs itself into a somewhat foreseeable corner, Ex Machina effortlessly engages in the moments preceding the looming blowup suggested throughout. With excellent performances to compliment Garland’s intelligently tailored substance, the film breezes past familiar thematic trappings thanks to inherently captivating interplay, voyeuristic uneasiness and adherence to detail. You may find it hard to concretely sympathize with anyone in particular, yet this works in Ex Machina‘s favor as the murky morality card serves to leave a lasting impression.

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The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe, 2015)

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Four years after the Battle of Gallipoli, Australian everyman Connor (Russell Crowe) takes to the ruined Turkish countryside in search of his three missing sons. Presumed dead given the voluminous amount of recorded casualties, Connor’s hope is to merely claim their remains should the task prove surmountable; the locals’ warranted distaste toward the Australian populace proving to be an ample hindrance. Forming a tenuously comforting bond with the comparably lonely Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), will Connor’s woes begin to wane in the face of continuing adversity? Only time will tell.

Throughout its opening moments, The Water Diviner unfailingly drags you through an emotional minefield in an attempt to garner sympathy. If losing all of your children in one fell swoop wasn’t enough, in rushes the crushing blow that serves as Connor’s impetus in traveling to Gallipoli. It’s an adequately cloying setup for what ensues, even if Crowe’s directorial flourishes feel slapdash as an amalgamation of those he’s previously worked with.

Barring technical quirks, the script doesn’t do itself any favors by way of focal idiosyncrasies. It’s one thing to present relevant historical context for viewers’ sake, yet it’s another entirely to not know what you want your film to be. Peppered with tidbits of post-WWI mythos, evocative substance is lost throughout the meandering, multi-threaded narrative that infuses a personal tale of redemption with social commentary and wartime politics. While inherently informative, a corresponding air of detachment hamstrings the film as it remains nothing more than an ant’s-eye view of long-gestating international tensions.

Even as the third act regains its footing in terms of proper closure, The Water Diviner is still a largely banal debut for Crowe as a director. He’s as magnetic as ever in front of the camera if not so much behind, but for all intents and purposes, the film is just fine if innocuously steeped in familiarly-presented postwar strife. Key relationships are established but not easily invested in due to how sporadically they’re employed, and frankly, all attempted commentary and pseudo-lyricism fall flat in light of Crowe’s earnest intentions.

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TSBH: City on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987)

Focusing on undercover cop Ko Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) and his struggle in helping to apprehend a band of violent jewel thieves, the at-first black-and-white City on Fire turns grey as a slow-burning but inevitable bond with ring leader Fu (Danny Lee) is established. Morally conflicted and on the outs with an estranged fiancée, Chow’s predicament begins to harbor unwelcome complexity as an explosive sting operation draws nearer. With already tenuous law enforcement ties thinning further still, what will become of Chow in the face of absolute uncertainty?

Given the pink elephant that is City on Fire‘s influence on Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, the film, needless to say, is a modest triumph given the strength of the latter’s borrowed elements. On its own, City‘s first half is a largely procedural affair meant to set the stage for the more pivotal moments to follow. It systematically brands and maintains key players as Chow’s friends or foes, its only weak link being a questionable emphasis on his duties infringing upon an already tenuous marriage arrangement.

Enter the aforementioned Tarantino parallels. Those familiar with the all-grey conflict dynamic characteristic of undercover cop fare, Fu’s former menace is rendered sterile as his bond with Chow strengthens. A faux-brotherly aura emanates from their later interactions as they confide in one another, affecting Chow’s moral compass in a way that belies his already waning loyalty to a handful of shady law enforcement higher-ups.

Following A Better Tomorrow, City on Fire helped further exemplify heroic bloodshed by way of a revolving door of common characters, thematic tropes and exploitation of a target audience’s excitability. Chow thrives within this niche, hence his uncommonly prolific career as a viable part of several HK auteurs’ bodies of work. Although slow to build, Lam’s ability to switch gears is laudable on account of the film’s wildly entertaining back-end bombast.


To Shed Blood, Heroically is a detailed account of my foray into Hong Kong action cinema with a focus on the rapidly popularized heroic bloodshed subgenre of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Check out my other reviews here.

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To Shed Blood, Heroically: A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)

Derived from a term coined in the late 1980s, “heroic bloodshed” refers to the revisionary period of Hong Kong action cinema that steeped itself fervently in cop and crook subjectivity, themes and rampant gun play instead of more traditional wuxia fare. Perpetuated and improved upon by John Woo and his contemporaries, this agreeably voluminous body of work has finally graduated from my periphery to front-and-center in my film viewing endeavors. From the omnipresent Chow Yun-Fat to expertly choreographed “bullet ballets,” I begin my journey with the film that’s considered a forefather of this particular movement, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow.

As far as narrative convention goes, A Better Tomorrow comfortably fits the bill as it familiarly pits brothers on opposing sides of the law against one another; to varying degrees of intermittent gun play, of course. Honing in on the wake created by a criminal struggling to break the shackles of gangster-dom following a three-year prison stint, the film wears its earnest simplicity on its sleeve as said brothers and down-on-his-luck lackey Mark (Chow Yun-Fat) concisely strut their stuff.

Undying fraternal devotion comes into play regarding the gang as a whole, the ensuing familial dynamics played fast and loose in between Woo-heavy action sequences that flaunt the director’s trademarks in a famously oppressive manor. Gratuitous slow mo lends itself wonderfully to the shootouts throughout – sequences presented in a way that perfectly accentuates the film’s primary attributes. Make no mistake though, A Better Tomorrow‘s emotional underbelly isn’t entirely tacked on for substance’s sake as Ho’s (Lung Ti) desire to go straight proves insurmountable. While not substantially affecting, conflictual engagement remains intact throughout his worsening transition from mere ex-con to a man desperate to reconcile with estranged brother and police inspector, Kit (Leslie Cheung).

Throw in a side impetus in the form of Mark pining for redemption following his own fall from grace and you have yourself a solidly crafted HK actioner. Effectively employing the strengths of both Woo and the subgenre it ascribes to, A Better Tomorrow is an obvious precursor to the auteur’s later and supposedly greater works. Although trite by way of core narrative, things are still kept interesting enough in between the clinking and clanking of bullet casings tumbling almost endlessly into the puddles of blood beneath our protagonists’ feet.

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While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

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In admirably sticking to his guns, Baumbach’s latest slice of incisively observational serio-comedy shines the spotlight on a married couple’s joint midlife crisis. Spurred by their fascination with an archetypal hipster couple nearly half their age, Josh (Ben Stiller) – a documentarian – and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) find themselves envying and subsequently adapting the youngsters’ lifestyle quips and quirks – if only out of an unhealthy longing for what they think they’ve missed out on. What seems at first like a mutual match made in heaven, said hipsters Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) transition from harmless and amiable stereotypes to toxic as the former’s documentary film project remains an indefinite hindrance to Josh’s stagnant latest endeavor. As details surface and the rabbit hole deepens, it’s up to Josh and Cornelia to revert back to aging responsibly or remain steadfast in their newfound pursuit of arrested mid-adulthood.

It goes without saying that admirers of or those familiar with Baumbach’s previous work will find a lot to like here. Although it walks an avenue comparable to 2010’s Greenberg by way of thematic resonance, the timely implementation of ever-expanding hipster culture is quite admirable as a sort of conflictual impetus. While We’re Young infuses Jamie and Darby’s generational allure with well-informed subcultural tropes, i.e. misguided self-employment and making the old new again a la fedoras and vinyl records. Depending on your opinion of these types, the characters in question may or may not prove unbearable despite their purposefully being rendered so. Either way, the palpable devolution of Josh and Cornelia leads them down some very interesting avenues that breed an altogether involving experience.

While We’re Young also sports Baumbach’s penchant for insight and wit over anything particularly dense or melodramatic. The film’s sense of humor is intelligent and entirely effective and the conclusive epiphanies satisfying if familiar, all the while banking solely on the audience’s feelings toward the individuals on display. Josh and Cornelia’s downward spiral into childless abandon does ring authentic however, even if it all amounts to the same amount of intermittent self-loathing and discovery present within nearly all of Baumbach’s struggling central characters.

For those not turned off by the simplicity of While We’re Young‘s cross-generational commentary, the film sports enough intelligence, humor and intrigue by way of its third act narrative shift to keep things entertaining. It’s not so much a step forward for Baumbach as it is spinning his personal brand of character-driven filmmaking in a noticeably nuanced manner. As flaccid and devoid of cautionary commentary its final resolution is, While We’re Young is a solidly crafted portrait of a couple struggling to age gracefully.

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Monsters: Dark Continent (Tom Green, 2015)

Following Earth’s invasion via the voluminous titular menace, a Detroit-bred bro squad with stereotypical mindsets enter the military to protect their own from the otherworldly. Deployed to the Middle East, said soldiers are soon brought up to speed with a concurrent war on native insurgency and what they must do in an attempt to unite both factions against their common enemy. Things inevitably go tits-up at the hands of unpredictable circumstance as disaster strikes, prompting all involved to crank their Survival knob to eleven should they hope to survive the ensuing shit storm.

Indifference pains me as I outline this ineffectual and faux-lyrical dross, the low-budget yet humanely intimate trappings of Gareth Edwards’ Monsters vanquished by way of banal militaristic exposition. Barring the heavy-handed obviousness of the “Which threat is the REALEST?!” angle characteristic of post-apocalyptic avenues these days – i.e. The Walking Dead, etc. – the only justification for Dark Continent‘s existence is to exploit a bigger budget within an affably bleak and unique alternate reality. Unfortunately, intermittently splurging on superior VFX can only net so much interest before said visuals amount to absolutely nothing.

Dark Continent finds strength in its performances, however the efforts of those involved are overshadowed by the sheer familiarity of war-specific trauma. It becomes burdensome to witness how obviously by-the-books the film plays it between the covers of the “Horrors of War” handbook, dead comrades, children and the like serving only to fuel inevitable or persisting PTSD. All potential emotional gravitas considered, the fledgling soldier angle and rote conflictual setting do little to generate a response equal to or greater than that of better, earlier efforts.

All in all, Tom Green’s earnestly executed if largely needless and one-note sequel – by name only, mind you – is a pretty tremendous misfire. Mistaking late-in-the-game visual “lyricism” for affecting substance, some pretty grating expository missteps paint our key players as basally-tiered army bros whose naivety results in predictable tragedy. Bad shit gets done and seen in the presence of the listlessly-traipsing beasts, all of which amounts to little as things go from bad to worse to “How much of this could they have cut?” It’s truly unfortunate given the previously soft-spoken success of Edwards’ original triumph but complaining about it won’t alter the reality of Dark Continent‘s existence.

 

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Lost River (Ryan Gosling, 2015)

Ryan Gosling’s wildly inauspicious debut as a writer/director finds us fixated on Bones (Iain De Caestecker) – a teenager tasked with stripping abandoned houses for copper to help support his destitute family. Further strapped for cash on account of a recent financial blow, Bones’ mother Billie (Christina Hendricks) takes a job at a macabre underground nightclub for folks looking to get their sadist jollies off. Enter sequin coat-clad Bully (Matt Smith) to make matters worse for Bones as he idly searches for a flooded underwater city of questionable importance.

Lost River‘s self-absorption is the type of thing that procures the name “Bully” for the villain. A dimwit stricken with social ineptitude and a cartoonish convertible, but a villain nonetheless. In fact, everything Gosling tries to construe or present in his simultaneously derivative and oppressive way rings just as dimwitted, the film’s initially straightforward exposition segueing into a hodgepodge of meandering cryptic bullshit. Mood is mistaken for atmospheric bombast as abstraction trumps coherence and literally nothing remains salvageable amid very muddled intentions.

Highly emulative of Gosling’s own collaborators – Malick and Refn specifically – Lost River is far-and-away devoid of any meaningful lyricism. He’s made “art” for art’s sake, employing various recognizable techniques simply because they’ve worked for others in the past. It becomes so far removed from convention that you almost wish it’d give up on itself, if only in favor of an attempt at redemption with a grounded, less ludicrous endgame. Things remain steadfastly the opposite as Lost River‘s hopelessly unremarkable characters continue to wallow in ethereal misery.

Lost River epitomizes pretentiousness within the contemporary medium. If this sounds harsh, it’s because I mean for it to be as Gosling’s A-List allure doesn’t translate at all to his aspirations as a filmmaker. This isn’t to say he doesn’t know what he’s doing – technique, although affected by way of the aforementioned inspirations – yet to trail off as abruptly, ceaselessly and questionably as Lost River does throughout it’s latter half is baffling. Playing fast and loose with a simple narrative in favor of style is one thing, but pandering to your own perception of art is another, therefore Lost River is little more than a failed if partially promising exercise in experimental filmmaking.

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Kill Me Three Times (Kriv Stenders, 2015)

Flat on his back and on the brink of death, gun-for-hire Charlie Wolfe (Simon Pegg) weaves us through three vignettes that shed light on what landed him in said predicament. As key players are introduced and evolve by way of unveiled roles and motives, the plot invariably thickens for all involved as tides twist and turn. Soon it all comes down to whose will prevail amid conspiracy, love triangles and a general heap of lackluster exposition.

Exuding a vapidity characteristic of its own foul self, Kill Me Three Times is as innocuous and familiar as they come. Trying but failing to emulate its much slicker action comedy inspirations, the fact that the film’s opening moments fail to grab you should serve as an ample enough indicator of things to come. One-dimensionality plays heavily into this via steadily employed tropes, of which consist of semi-sprawling interconnectivity between events and individuals that play into some very basic, not-at-all-groundbreaking reveals.

If this is all reading a bit vague, it’s because the film’s obvious shortcomings allow for the tiniest of spoilers to spoil entire thirds of it. I guess I can mention the shady drunk husband with cash and jealous rage to burn, or maybe the obvious perils of unpaid gambling debt; in the end it all amounts to who’s left standing, holding the money or both. Even Pegg’s charisma can’t stave away how thankless a character he embodies as Charlie’s sole monetary impetus becomes tiresome.

I’m not going to lie, writing this much about a film so incapable of transcending formula is difficult. It’s a shame too, because the familiar can often shine in accentuating strong suits by way of narrative or presentation. As a recent example, Jaume Collet-Serra’s middling Run All Night, while largely characteristic of the star helming the third of three collaborations, finds jumbled grace in its increasingly batshit conflict and barebones if still palpable emotionality. It didn’t grab me personally, but none of Kill Me Three Times did on account of its flaccid chronology-tweaking foreplay, subsequent resolution and an entirely detestable, idiotic and unsympathetic cast of characters.

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It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

Following a sexual liaison, one Jay (Maika Monroe) is promptly chloroformed and strapped to a wheelchair by a current flame. Dazed, confused and helpless, she’s informed of her predicament, of which involves a murderous shape-shifting entity procured and passed on via intercourse. Given the singularity of the matter, Jay becomes increasingly desperate and paranoid at the insistence of the enigma that finds her next in this supposed line of those who share her affliction.

It Follows is largely a case of concept trumping a finished product. While an undeniably modest triumph given the sad state of a flailing genre, the film stretches its ambiguity shtick thin early on and frequently. An alternately effective and oppressive Carpenter-esque aesthetic drums up dread well enough, yet the slow burns present throughout don’t wholly succeed in building to their respective payoffs.

In calling attention to the expository introduction of the titular “It” by “Hugh,” it’s implied that the forms this monster assumes tend to pander to the life of the individual it’s tormenting. Details like this insist on increased viewer involvement but flounder given how genuinely offbeat It Follows is and remains as Jay struggles to persevere with the help of her sister and friends. Even as the absence of adult presence becomes increasingly noteworthy, it remains not so much a flaw as it is a testament to Mitchell’s commitment to concept and hit-or-miss execution amid a palpably character-driven focus.

Collectively speaking, It Follows is a solid if entirely too self-assured horror film. Opting for basal originality and sustained dread over what we’ve come to expect from contemporary dross, the film’s fortitude in exploring its viscerally-elevated territory does more to intrigue than terrify as Jay’s desperate step-and-repeat routine becomes tiresome. It Follows‘ obvious departure from genre contemporaries’ copycat complacency makes it worthy of your time regardless thanks to its persistent nuance, just be sure to curb your frustration come an agreeably silly conclusion.