Monday, May 18, 2015

Is She Or Isn’t She?

Ex Machina Raises Eyebrows And Questions About The Singularity And The Nature Of Man And Machine


ARTH VADER (AV): A mostly original screenplay from sci-fi director/writer Alex “28 Days Later” Garland, Ex Machina explores a complex world of human/AI relations. While not directly emulating any existing sci-fi story this film feeds Hollywood’s almost morbid fascination with The Singularity, Garland’s sterile, almost asylum-like portrayal of a future AI development program is eerie and compelling. Thoughts, Pontificator. 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Ex Machina is an original take on a very old science fiction theme of man playing God through replicating the creation of life. Although not the first film to touch on this subject, the delivery is unique, entertaining, and downright creepy at times. There is a lesson to be learned here that it seems the hubris of man will never allow to be learned.


AV: With a minimalist cast that works seamlessly, led by frontman Oscar “Inside Llewyn Davis” Isaac (also soon to be fully sci-fi indoctrinated in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII), who portrays the visionary/whack-job mad scientist Nathan who is out to create the next stage in AI evolution… the perfect human-like woman. Let talk direction for a moment, though, Ponty. I was blown away but the subtlety of this film and the minimalist environment of this film. In truth, the sci-fi/fantasy genre could use a whole lot more of this kind f storytelling. P-Man? 

TP: The casting was well done here Vader. I have taken a liking to Domhall Glesson ever since his performance in “About Time” and he doesn’t disappoint here as Caleb, the unsuspecting patsy used to test Ava (played by Alicia Vikander). Vikander also delivers in her role of a machine being tested for true sentience that keeps us guessing if she really does. Oscar Issac is Nathan, a genius billionaire recluse with alcohol issues and a god complex. He sells the roll convincingly and without a doubt, the unique direction of the film was pivotal in the delivery. 


AV: As always my friends, the best visual effects are the ones you can barely identify, if not, that are down-right invisible... as Ex Machina excels at subtlety. The subterfuge of this movie is in concealing whats in plain view, women (“fembots” if one remembers THAT obscure reference) who are manipulative because they are fighting for their place in the world that turn out to be closet (literally closeted) psychopaths. With interchangeable body parts like layered skin and removable appendages, the visual effects are top notch and are subversively threaded throughout the film. 

TP: The special effects were outstanding! Without the need for big explosions or massive amounts of CGI, this film presented Ava as a real machine built on the cutting edge of technology. Although no new ground was broken, the mastery with which all the old tricks were used was absolutely breathtaking.


AV: I was discussing this film recently with a friend of mine and one of his statements properly sums up the overall impact of this film. Hollywood needs more films like this. Not since 2014’s ‘Her’ has a film taken such a personal approach to the relationship between man and technology. Very soon–if not all ready the case–mankind will have a profound, evolutionary convergence with his technology. This film is deeply disturbing and exhilarating all at once. Just like the subject matter. Such a smart, next-level movie has done surprisingly well at the box office which makes me think our intellect is at least partially intact. Maybe we won’t be such easy pickings for the Robo-master race we are creating. If this is the face of sci-fi for the foreseeable future—then bring it on! 

TP: There was quite a bit going on in this film. I don’t know where to start… the question of what life truly is? The folly of man whenever he chooses to play God? The vulnerability of human nature when given cause and reason? The stagnating view of the role of women in society as seen through the insanely rich and eccentric? The power and drive of sexuality? The example humanity sets by the observance of such on the internet? This film has so many points of further discussion I could literally write a complete post about all the various subjects it touched upon. What I can say, with certainty, is that a film such as this that forces you to think and consider so many important aspects of our society is a rare gem worth watching intently. 


AV: If we are at all lucky, this movie will be a stand-alone story. As most should be. This story has been told with no need for follow-up. Its predecessor should be a film of a completely different voice, of the same calibre. 

TP: There could certainly be a sequel to this film if they so desired, but like many classics.…this installment alone can stand on it’s own merit and by leaving us with some questions to Ava’s ultimate fate, we are forced to ponder the film long after the end credits finish.


ARTH VADER rates Ex Machina: For those who like their sci-fi filled with explosions, lame one-liners, over-the-top CGI, laser swords and giant, galaxy-spanning spaceships, would do well to avoid this film. However, if you’re of the ilk that likes intelligent, introspective and engaging films that keep you guessing and offer simple but smart dialogue, then Ex Machina is a must-see. If you’d like a glimpse of what Sci-Fi as genre is capable of and what expert story-telling can do, put on your artificial skin cover a full ten Busted Blocks for this surprisingly intelligent movie. 

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Ex Machina: Although a bit slow and more story–oriented than action focused, this was an excellent film filled with tension and mystery. Most of the fun in watching was spent not only trying to figure out Ava, but also Nathan and the effect their machinations were having on Caleb. In the end, this film escaped to the real world with seven (7) busted blocks.

Ex Machina: 8.5 / 10 Busted Blocks

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Trying To Put The Surge In Insurgent

Another teenage girl threatening to save us all? Say it isn’t so! 


ARTH VADER (AV): Following in the foot-steps of the first in the series installment, Divergent, Insurgent furthers the tale of super-special super kid, Tris who’s out to save the world (wonder if her room is clean). I get the sense these days that having a successful movie means establishing a franchise then hammering the idea of the movie over and over and over until moviegoers cry ‘uncle’ and just go. This is the distribution tactic that drives Insurgent. What did you think, Ponty? 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): When talking about a film adapted from a novel, there will always seem to be continuity issues Vader. This film is no exception as it took several liberties in retelling events in the book, from making major characters minor to leaving characters from the books out of the film altogether. Despite the many changes from that page to the screen, some might even say outright departure from the literary source, this film managed to get where it was going.


AV: The cast from Divergent returns to Insurgent (Duh). Shailene “Tris” Woodly and Theo “Four” James reprise their roles and B-Listers Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Mekhi Phifer and Zoe Kravitz all come back as the story blunders in a society divided by walls, mistrust and deceit based on the division of the five virtues. The idea is ok but the execution is kind of hoo-hum. Neil Burger’s direction is compelling and the film is a joy to watch cinematographically. 

TP: Shailene Woodley and Theo James return to their roles as Tris and Four and deliver what was expected of them as the story progresses along with their relationship. There was no surprise, or disappointment. Kate Winslet continued to be the film’s villain and I thought she was very.…villainous, in the role. The roles of Jai Courtney and Mekhi Phifer were little more than cameo’s this go round and there really isn’t much to say about the few glances the film took in their direction. Overall, the film rolled right along and didn’t get bogged down with a lot of filler.


AV: With no shortage of visual effects to try and amaze the audience, Insurgent is a good looking movie that puts you in the thick of this selectively post-apocalyptic future-gone-wrong city of Chicago. Sure it looks great but nothing we haven’t seen before, Pontificator. Sci-Fi effects, as we have discussed in other reviews, has matured to an impressive standard and these flicks all look good. Really good actually, but that said, these rocking visual effects are so good, we are desensitized to their awesomeness. But what does that say about visual effects–and a movie–that is just this side of forgettable almost as soon as I leave the theater? 

TP: The special effects were very good in this film. As is my custom, I always see a film in IMAX 3D when available and such a decision usually only enhances the special effects and moviegoing experience. This film took advantage of the medium, especially during the simulation sequences where there was a lot more latitude to use them. Overall, the effects enhanced the film and while nothing ground breaking was done, they didn’t drop the ball either.


AV: Hard to know when us movie-goers will get to see a decent original story in our beloved sci-fi and fantasy space but until then, we have these franchise money grabs. I am not qualified to proclaim the legitimacy of this films and their place in the cultural tapestry. I am qualified to let you know if I like them or not. I don’t. While I do hold a special place in my fan boy heart for all things Sci-fi and fantasy, these do not count among them. This is not an example of the hero’s journey that is particularly interesting or inspiring in any way. 

TP: Well.…the plot of this film could have used a little more attention. It didn’t make much sense that nobody else in the Erudite faction thought to even question the motivations and decisions of Jeanine given they didn’t always seem logical or the intellectual thing to do. It also didn’t make sense that the box that was supposed to reveal the true purpose of their society killed the very people it deemed most important if they failed to open it. It would have made more sense for Jeanine to simply kill the failures and anyone else that questioned her (after having someone question her) to both make sense and really drive home how villainous and driven Jeanine really was.


AV:  I am sure the story of how Tris “saves us all” needs to be wrapped up with a pretty little CGI bow and brought to conclusion. We need that, we want it and dozens of vaguely compelled teenage girls are clamoring (somewhat) for it. So by all means Hollywood, give us more. 

TP: Well… if the box office numbers are large enough, we will likely see a film adaption of the third novel in the trilogy, Allegiant. I do, however, like how that this film ended in such a way that if a third film is not coming, the story can stand as is.


ARTH VADER rates Insurgent: In all fairness, I didn’t hate this flick (I know, its not like you’d ever know it by my crit), but the disingenuous story, grossly overacted characterizations and safe and predictable screenplay didn’t suck all the life out of what could have been an incredible story but it didn’t do anything to help it either. This franchise feels like a great CW (tv) series waiting to happen. With that, I grab my Divergent buddies and bust five (5) Busted Blocks for Insurgent in glass-shattering slow-motion. 

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Insurgent: A good film to fill a Saturday morning, I found it entertaining and fun, even if it didn’t blow me away with it’s storytelling or effects. Everything about this film was just “good” and thus busted six (6) blocks on it’s way to remake society.

Divergent – 5.5 / 10 Busted Blocks

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Chappie Is Choppy

Neill Blomkamp’s ambitious efforts to make Chappie an endearing A.I. falls just short of a tall order


ARTH VADER (AV): Sci-fi wunderkind director Neil Blomkamp brings a another A.I./Singularity/Robot Evolution storyline to the big screen in Chappie. One glaring point of continuity is Blomkamp’s love affair with South Africa. Apparently, all science-fiction; A.I. enlightenment, alien invasions, and new technologies gone wrong all occur in South Africa. In keeping with popular Singularity stories, Chappie is the story of A.I. becomes self-aware. 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Science fiction has been inundated with the story of robots becoming self-aware. Artificial intelligence has been a staple of the genre since I have been watching it. The trick these days is to make a film that presents this in a unique and moving way. I think the filmmakers understood that and actively attempted to give a unique look at an old subject.


AV: What would a Blomkamp movie be without a starring role for Sharlto “District 9 & Elysium” Copley? Copley does the V.O. for Chappie and its palatable but no great insight there. Dev “Slumdog” Patel is sub-par in his role as programmer Deon Wilson (so not the name of someone he could portray). Perhaps the weirdest casting from Chappie comes from Hugh “Snikt!” Jackman, who plays the role of mercenary Vincent Moore. I honestly have NO IDEA why he was in this film, P-Man. He was fine but someone of his (Hollywood) status seemed far out-of-place in the role and added close to nothing to the experience. What were your thoughts, old friend?

TP: This film has the same “feel” as “District 9” and “Elysium” and it’s no surprise as all of them were done by Neill Blomkamp. Using big names may have been a tactic to draw moviegoers in as there didn’t seem to be much depth to Sigourney Weaver’s role, but I dare say it might have worked in the case of casting Hugh Jackman as the villain (a role we don’t normally see him in). Big names aside, I enjoyed the performance of Dev Patel, and Sharlto Copley as Chappie absolutely stole the film.


AV: Kind of a shoulder shrug when we discuss the visual effects of Chappie. Nothing I hadn’t seen before of sure and while there was general sense of wonder watching the police bots—and later Chappie–walk around amongst people. It did become seamless but major demerits for showing Moore’s ED-209 knock-off tooling around as a walking tank. Honestly, it seemed like it was planted there just to be the robe-antagonist. That said, while the visual effects were mediocre, the film is good–looking and the end fight scene is particularly well done–visually speaking. 

TP: The effects were absolutely awesome here Vader. What was CGI? What was real? I don’t know. It all meshed together seamlessly and in the final analysis, that is exactly what you want from your effects in a film. You want the effects to advance the story and become a part of the film, which will have the effect of setting the film apart from other films. The effects of this film accomplished that and the fact I saw it in IMAX was just icing on the cake.


AV: As much of a fan as I have been of Neill Blomkamp’s work (District 9, Elysium, and lest we not forget he was Spielberg’s choice for the never-saw-the-light-of-day Halo film), I am getting quite tired of every Blomkamp sci-fi film being set in South Africa. Even though Neill and District 9/Elysium co-writer Terri Tatchell produced Chappie’s original script, his storytelling is growing stale. The bloom is definitely off the rose and we are in a place of stagnancy with his work. Neill needs to break himself out of these familiar places. His ideas are strong but the execution is waning fast. 

As for Chappie, the name is bogus and sinks the film with its potential audiences. American audiences need things dumbed down to the point where the tile is either something familiar or completely descriptive. Chappie is neither of these and that accounts for a tailspin at the box office that jeopardizes future indie sci-fi flicks as well. 

TP: If you don’t like that “South African” feel, then this was a tough film for you to watch. I don’t mind it at all and was able to fully enjoy and appreciate this film. As I said before, artificial intelligence has been done numerous times before, but this film has managed to make an emotional connection through the innocence and victimization of Chappie. I was amazed at this considering that when you really look at Chappie, he does not resemble a human in his features, but exudes humanity in his experiences. Seeking the acceptance of his parents, brutalized by bullies, tricked into nefarious actions, coming to terms with mortality… these are all real-life situations easily identifiable by anyone that has been a child, and I think this was the real appeal and energy of Chappie.


AV: Strictly speaking for myself here, I was tired of this film by the 3rd act and was fast moving toward being impartial to the characters and the plot. Personally I see no need for a follow-up and would be really disenchanted at the prospect of seeing another. P-Man? 

TP: The door has been left wide open for a sequel Vader, however this is one of those films that doesn’t need to continue as it is a masterpiece in itself. Sometimes leaving the audience to imagine their own continuation is what makes the film that much more special.


ARTH VADER rates Chappie: Neill Blomkamp remains a science fiction visionary, merging popular sci-fi story arcs and mythos with engaging, human-driven plots and stories. Chappie comes close but doesn’t quite get us there. With a slew of visual effects and an ambitious  screenplay, Chappie still falls short of impressive and ends up being a forgettable ‘swing-and-a-miss’ film. Chappie is not a bad film but its just not particularly good. A film barely worthy of the movie-going experience, Chappie fails to ignite the imagination we have come to love from Blomkamp and delivers–in my humble opinion-six (6) busted blocks. 

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Chappie: I really enjoyed this film and thought it was truly a masterpiece to be able to tell a story of humanity through the experiences of a robot. It wasn’t just a story of artificial intelligence, but a story of the human experience and easily brought eight (8) busted blocks to life.

Chappie – 7 / 10 Busted Blocks

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This Almanac Is Hard To Read

Time travel—and a boring screenplay–have their consequences in the painfully amateurish Project Almanac. 


ARTH VADER (AV): An original screenplay that–at least on paper—showcases the ‘what if’ prospect of time travel at the hands of some pretty smart teens. The movie did a decent job of considering not just the complications of time travel but the consequences and even implications of temporal displacement. Time travel is a huge favorite topic in sci-fi to be sure but is rarely handled well. Project Almanac has an interesting take on the topic and enters the realm of asking ’what are the consequences?’ Time travel could have massive repercussions in the lives of ourselves and our world. 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Well… time travel is certainly not a new subject for science fiction films, so to do a really good one you have to do something different (hard to do) or have a really great story (also hard to do). Project Almanac attempts to do both, but doesn’t attain the success it was striving for… although it doesn’t completely flop either.


AV: With a cast of relative acting newcomers, Project Almanac is filled with a bunch of beautiful, fresh-faced white kids. The acting was mediocre at best–thats for sure, but the camera work was particularly atrocious as the entire film was shot in that ‘Cloverfield-esque’ handy-cam stye. While it may have helped the film’s authenticity, Ponty, I did not love it. In truth there wasn’t much to love. It did fit (somewhat) with the film’s messaging and storytelling style but those weren’t great, either. Thoughts? 

TP: Well Vader, using a relatively unknown cast (for me anyway) was a good move and probably economically viable. I really got into the characters and applaud the acting of these kids to draw me into the story. Jonny Weston was believable and carried the story well. Sofia Black-D’Elia played her role well enough, but ultimately was  just very pleasing to look at and added the right element to be a catalyst for the poor decision making of Weston’s character.


AV: Any second-semester computer graphics student at Full-Sail University can generate lightening effects and swirling leaves. Nothing knocked my socks off in the effects realm in Project Almanac. The film’s visual effects weren’t terrible, just mundane. P-Man? 

TP: The “camcorder” effect of the film, although not original, was done well and added to the tension of the action. There was not any new ground broken here and the effects were done well enough not to bomb, but at the end of the day, a film like this has to be driven by the story, not the effects. That said, the effects need to compliment the story and I think that was done here.


AV: I think I am getting to the point in my movie-going journey that trailers are becoming an easy way to decipher a film’s quality or experience. I rolled my eyes like pizza dough when I first watched this film’s trailer. The movie’s choppy, particularly uninteresting storytelling style didn’t help. While all the ‘kids’ were portraying their respective roles to their best capacity, I couldn’t help but keep looking at my watch wondering when this all would start wrapping up. As early as 20 minutes in! The film offered an interesting take on Time Travel but not 106 minutes worth of interesting. (sigh). So Pontificator, how’d you really feel about Project Almanac? 

TP: Time travel has been done in almost every way possible Vader, so I wasn’t looking for some new and unheard of take on the subject (although that would have been wonderful!) I was looking for a bit more consistency though. I could write an entirely separate review on all the gaping plot holes this film left open…all due to nobody taking a serious look into the effects and consequences of time travel, specifically the alteration of the timeline. It’s not an exact science (I don’t think it’s science at all really), but at least sell something that makes sense. It would not have hurt to have gone over the script meticulously and closed the holes before filming began…  just saying.


AV: This film had little story to tell and while the ending was compelling, I don’t EVER need to see anymore of this tom-foolery. 

TP: The film left itself wide open to continue the story…but with all the plot holes in this one, it might be a good idea not to add fuel to the fire, and leave any future thoughts of a sequel rest in the imaginations of the audience. 


ARTH VADER rates Project Almanac: Lacking the polish and storytelling finesse of most Hollywood flicks, this movie is significantly under-imagined, especially for an original property. No viable plot, vapid, empty-headed characters and cinematography that is almost painful to watch, Project Almanac gives me very little to talk about positively, so I won’t. Suffice it to say, Project Almanac is a film that offers a great idea, but no points for grit, style or story integrity. It’s best to put away your Dad’s schematics and head back to class with no more than two (2) busted blocks. 

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Project Almanac: Although the subject of time travel has been done... time and time again (I couldn’t resist), this film was still interesting from the point of view of wondering how the characters would untangle themselves from the massive mess time traveling teenagers create. Using the camcorder effect added some punch, but in the end, this film could only travel back far enough to displace five (5) busted blocks.

Project Almanac – 3.5 / 10 Busted Blocks

Monday, March 30, 2015

Say Good Knight!

Parkour, Evil Babes On Blade Stilts, Secret Gadgets and Even Samuel Jackson With A Lisp, The New-Age Comic Spy Flick Kingsman: The Secret Service Has Everything. 


ARTH VADER (AV): Based heavily on the comic book series, Kingsman: The Secret Service is officially listed as a “spy/action/comedy/film”. A film with a sense of humor and sense of itself, the movie ingrains itself to the audience as a smart, almost self-aware film. At more than one point in the film, actors in the film proclaim how “this ain’t that kind of film.” A spawn of the new age of comic-inspired story-telling in cinema, Kingman is fast, fun, and clever, quite like the comics published by Icon. 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): This film is based of the comic series “Secret Service” which I collected and very much enjoyed. There have been some subtle changes made from the series to the film, but I can honestly say that when I watched the trailer for the first time, I recognized it as a screen adaption of the comics immediately, which speaks volumes to how closely the filmmakers tried to stay true to the comic representation.


AV: With a strong, veteran cast, Kingsman is solid entertainment. Colin Firth as Galahad is just stellar and Mark Strong as Merlin was terrific. And mad props to sci-fi super-fan-boy favorite, Mark “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” Hamill as Professor Arnold. These three gentlemen came together to deliver a solid performance and brought the caliber of a well-crafted film and a superb screenplay to a level of awesome few films get to enjoy. Director Matthew “X-Men: First Class” Vaughn’s visual storytelling compliments the film’s try and genre magnificently. Excellent cinematic endeavor wouldn’t you say, Pontificator? 

TP: This film was well cast and well acted for what it was meant to represent Vader…namely a comic adaption of a spoof on the James Bond genre. Colin Firth played an excellent role as the emotionally invested mentor of Lee (Jonno Davies in his first major film role). Mark Strong was great in his supporting role as was the well established Michael Caine and beautiful Sofia Boutella. I think Samuel L. Jackson was just added for star power, but you really can’t go wrong with him…despite the shallowness of his role.


AV: A very smart array of visual effects helps make this movie even cooler than it’s idea. This movie did something I have NEVER seen before, and to me, that is the earmark of greatness—success or failure. The in-church fight scene is so action-packed, so infused with choreographed fighting with mind-bending cinematography, you have to take a deep breath after the scene ends. Really. It is that good. When visual effects make me say “…wow that was cool” to myself, well… thats the definition of good effects. To put the cherry on top, it is possible to watch this whole film and not truly even notice the effects they are so seamlessly integrated into the storytelling. That, my friend, is the right stuff. 

TP: If “over-the-top” was an official classification of effects, this film had that ad nauseam. Although I enjoyed the film and effects, I was literally sitting in the theater saying to myself…”no” as I could not believe how absolutely extreme some of the scenes were (as noted by the Dark One above). There is certainly something to be said for the similarity in the graphic comic presentation, and the duplication of that presentation in film. The 3D was used well, but it is getting to be a habit for me to feel like more could be made of using 3D in films.


AV: Graphic novel adaptations have a checkered past in hollywood. Whether we’re talking the Men in Black franchise, Watchmen, Kick Ass or R.I.P.D., the graphic novel/comic book adaptation is a money making prospect for studios but hit-or-miss for content. Kingsman is a breed apart and can be considered as good as one of the best graphic novel adaptations. It shows how an action/comedy/adventure/spy thriller can entertain, delight and leave us wanting more. Gritty, senses-gripping action makes this film exciting. The characters and screenplay make it a must-watch. My only pause was the mousey or subservient nature of every single female character in the film. This of course, gives us the opportunity to do a more engaging female arc in coming films. Regardless, Kingsman is by far the best film I have seen so far this year. Ponty? 

TP: Heh… the year is still young Vader. This film was an obvious spoof on the James Bond series of films although the comic books never felt like that when reading them. Despite the insanely over-the-top gore in the effects, I found myself having extreme fun while watching it. I imagine many people that saw this film were not accustomed to the thick British accents throughout the film, but being an avid watcher of BBC America…I was right at home. I think if there was a template for a super spy spoof film that didn’t take itself too seriously, but still delivered some serious fun, this film fits that mold perfectly.


AV: If there’s more in the store for Kingsman, I’m buying. This movie was solid entertainment, with a screenplay as smart as it was quirky. I could sit through a new Kingsman film every 20-24 months and enjoy it MUCH more than a Fast & Furious flick. Seriously. Action, adventure, comedy, social commentary and visual effects like a boss? Hell’s yeah, sign this brother up for 10 more just like it. 

TP: Of course they could continue the story beyond the books and make entertaining spy spoof films from now until whenever…but there is something to be said for doing a story just right, and leaving it to stand on it’s own merits.


ARTH VADER rates Kingsman: The Secret Service: Truly a great film for action and spy flick lovers. If you like your films fun, your script witty and your action non-stop then I have no idea why you are still in your seat. Kingsman: The Secret Service is the type of movie Hollywood–and audiences–desperately need more of. It sets the pace for the genre and delivers an experience we have all too little of in films these days… a good one. So Kingsman: The Secret Service suits up with nine (9) very well-groomed and deviously-outfitted busted blocks.

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Kingsman: The Secret Service: Knowing the source material well, I was happy to see how successfully it transitioned to the silver screen. I think the effects being extremely graphic while the acting being a bit campy was the perfect blend of fun and entertainment... killing eight (8) busted blocks for King and country.

Kingsman: The Secret Service – 8.5 / 10 Busted Blocks