Sunday, 30 April 2017

Movie Review: The Man With One Red Shoe (1985)

A bland comedy set in the domestic spy world, The Man With One Red Shoe is about nothing in particular and struggles to define a purpose.

In Morocco, CIA Deputy Director Cooper (Dabney Coleman), who covets the top job, sabotages an undercover drug operation and embarrasses CIA Director Ross (Charles Durning). Back in Washington DC, Ross is forced to testify before a Senate subcommittee, but plots his revenge against Cooper. Knowing that Cooper is tracking his every move, Ross dispatches loyal ally Brown (Edward Herrman) to the airport to liaise with a complete stranger.

Brown picks violinist Richard Drew (Tom Hanks) at random, and their brief interaction sets Cooper and his crew on a wild goose chase to find out why Drew is important. Drew is actually the victim of frequent pranks by orchestra percussionist Morris (Jim Belushi), and in return Drew is having an affair with Morris' wife Paula (Carrie Fisher). Otherwise Drew is a normal everyday guy, but Cooper's surveillance kicks into overdrive, including mobilizing the luscious agent Maddy (Lori Singer) to seduce Drew and learn his secrets.

Directed by Stan Dragoti, The Man With One Red Shoe is a remake of the 1972 French film Le Grand Blond Avec Une Chaussure Noire starring Pierre Richard. The Hollywood version enjoys slick production value and a strong cast including a young Tom Hanks, but the jokes (if they exist at all) are lame, the story is unengaging, and a void exists where meaningful plot elements and substantive characters are supposed to reside.

Drew is an innocent bystander and remains a most uninteresting central character, and Hanks can do nothing with role. Jim Belushi tries too hard as the immature friend still pulling high school level pranks, while Carrie Fisher gets one long scene in fetching leopard lingerie in a nod to her Return Of The Jedi slave outfit, but otherwise drifts aimlessly in and mostly out of the film.

Cooper and Ross contribute most of the narrative drivers in an astonishingly dreadful spy versus spy battle. Neither man is remotely likable, and who wins or who loses their petty careerist battle generates the flimsiest foundation for comedy. While Dabney Coleman and Charles Durning are fine supporting actors, they cannot carry the weight of the plot or the laughs. Lori Singer nails the role of the seductress and gets to wear a contender for the most stunning backless dress paraded on screen. She also owns the best laugh with a caught-in-the-zipper moment.

The Man With One Red Shoe doesn't so much run out of original ideas; it never had any in the first place.

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Movie Review: The Promise (2016)

An epic love triangle set during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire and amidst the horror of the Armenian genocide, The Promise is an old fashioned but still effective grand drama.

At the dawn of the Great War, Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is a young Armenian man passionate about medicine and living in a small village in the Ottoman Empire. He promises to marry fellow villager Maral (Angela Sarafyan) for convenience, and uses the dowery to finance his education at the prestigious Imperial Medical Academy in Istanbul. In the big city, Mikael meets and falls in love with fellow Armenian Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), who is already in a relationship with Associated Press journalist Chris Meyers (Christian Bale). Mikael also becomes friends with fellow medical student Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzari), the son of an influential Ottoman army man.

The war breaks out, and the Armenian community is immediately subjected to a rising tide of violence and intimidation. Initially Mikael is saved from conscription by Emre, but eventually he is seized and sent to a prisoner labour camp. The campaign against the Armenians grows into large scale massacres as entire villages are emptied out and their residents indiscriminately slaughtered. Chris risks his life to cover the atrocities, while Mikael tries to survive and save his family, including his now-wife Maral. Ana is torn between the two men, as she helps with the growing crisis of refugees and orphans.

Directed by Terry George, The Promise aims for a lofty love story set against turbulent wartime history in the vein of Doctor Zhivago and The English Patient, and with laudable artistry shines a light on the second worst genocide of the 20th century. And through the character of Emre, George and co-writer Robin Swicord ensure that some balance is introduced to the story -- some Turks stood against the tide of ethnic hate. But despite the earnest tone and lavish production values, The Promise falls short of its ambitions due to limited original content and a muddled second half.

The front end of the film is by far the better experience. Mikael's story in the prelude to war is filled with personal and national intrigue. The Istanbul setting is deliciously conspiratorial, with Turks, Arabs and Armenians co-existing but somewhat uneasily. Businessmen, academics, journalists and army men circle each other as German military types start to make their presence felt and the winds of a global conflict blow into the city.

Meanwhile Mikael promises to wed village girl Maral, takes her father's money and promptly falls in love with the irresistibly cosmopolitan Ana, herself in an uneasy relationship with Chris. The overlapping love triangles create a tense personal dynamic, with both Mikael and Ana carrying guilt into their relationship.

Once the fighting erupts and the Armenian population is targeted, the film loses its footing. Frequent and dizzying perspective changes are introduced, with Mikael, Ana and Chris taking turns at the centre of the story. Instead of gelling the film fragments into vaguely unsatisfying episodes. The emphasis shifts from romance and politics to the Armenian genocide unfolding in the countryside, and a patched-on drama about undefined orphans and missionaries having to flee for their lives never gains emotional traction.

Despite the lack of genuine resonance, The Promise is never less than interesting to watch, a valuable spotlight on an under-reported and abominable episode in history.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Movie Review: Cinderella (2015)

A fairy tale fantasy romance, Cinderella hits perfectly pure notes in retelling the story of one woman overcoming hate with kindness.

Ella (Lily James) is simple rural girl brought up by kindly parents. Her mother dies when Ella is still a child, and on her death bed she pleads with Ella to always have courage and be kind. Her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries, but Ella's new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is an evil and selfish woman, while her two step sisters Drisella and Anastasia are conceited and rude. When Ella's father dies, her Stepmother reduces her to the status of a maid and the stepsisters nickname her Cinderella. Her only friends are a group of house mice, but still Ella does not lose her commitment to kindness.

On a ride through the forest Ella has a brief encounter with the charming Prince (Richard Madden), and the two are immediately enchanted with each other. The Prince is about to succeed his ailing father the King (Derek Jacobi), and a grand ball is arranged for the Prince to choose a wife, with all the maidens in the land invited. Stepmother and the two stepsisters get themselves ready, but cruelly prevent Ella from attending the ball -- until Cinderella's Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) intervenes.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Disney's live action non-musical remake of the 1950 animated classic creates magic of its own. Targeting a family audience with a laser focus on story rather than sarcasm, irony, or gimmicks, Cinderella is a throwback to simpler times, and yet effortlessly succeeds in updating the message of tolerance and hope in the face of animosity and antagonism.

Recognizing the inherent magic of the story, the film steers well clear of silly cutesiness. There are no talking animals and the few friendly mice and one mean cat are deployed in just the right amount. Otherwise Branagh allows the film to breathe deeply from the magical fantasy elements. A particular highlight is the centerpiece palace ball scene, starting with the Fairy Godmother's arrival all the way through to the carriage turning back into a pumpkin. The CGI is seamlessly woven into the action, with editing smooth enough for eyes young and old to appreciate the wizardry.

It's not easy updating the character of a genuine Ella for a more modern audience, but the Chris Weitz screenplay focuses on virtues of tolerance and kindness reinforced with steely determination, and Lily James pulls off the role with glowing restraint. The Stepmother tests the limits of Cinderella's compassion, Cate Blanchett amplifying the character's hateful attributes while just hinting at a woman gone stone cold due to a stream of broken expectations.

The film looks rich and magnificent, with colours often subdued around Ella to allow her to literally shine. The sets are grand and imposing, Branagh finding impressive perspectives to fill the screen with activity and detail. The story may be familiar, but with charm and ambition, this Cinderella earns her own place as an inspiration for young hearts and minds.

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Movie Review: 5 to 7 (2014)

A romantic drama, 5 to 7 explores a perfect love that just happens to thrive in the most imperfect of circumstances.

In New York City, Brian (Anton Yelchin) is a fledgling writer in his early twenties still waiting for his first publishing break. In front of the St. Regis Hotel he spots Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe), and it's love at first sight for both of them. Arielle is French and nine years older than Brian, which he does not mind. But with the relationship quickly turning serious, he is shocked when she reveals that she is contentedly married to diplomat Valéry (Lambert Wilson) and the mother of two young children.

Arielle educates Brian about the French custom of accepting affairs within marriage, as long as all parties are discreet and respectful, with the extramarital couple traditionally only meeting from 5 to 7 in the afternoon. Brian adapts to the concept, proceeds with the affair within the rules, and even gets to meet Valéry, his lover Jane (Olivia Thirlby), and Arielle's two children. The unusual arrangement completely rattles Brian's father Sam (Frank Langella), but his mother Arlene (Glenn Close) is more understanding. Brian's career catches a break, but as he falls ever so deeply in love with Arielle his delicate romantic arrangement starts to teeter.

Written and directed by Victor Levin, 5 to 7 benefits from exploring a romance with a few relatively original twists. While the New York City setting is familiar, Brian and Arielle navigate around differences in age and culture, her marital status and quite progressive views about the role of love and lovers in life. For long stretches Levin sustains interest not so much because of the love story, but because of where the romance fits into Arielle's life.

Despite the affair unfolding through Brian's eyes, Arielle emerges as a much more compelling character, and Bérénice Marlohe makes the film her own. Seemingly effortlessly, Arielle juggles the role of lover, mentor in affairs of the heart, wife and mother, and Levin succeeds in creating a captivating and stylish woman who can make a young man believe in alternative passion arrangements.

Less convincing is the concept of Arielle falling in love with Brian. Whatever charms the struggling writer possesses to turn the eye of a sophisticated woman are left off the screen, and Brian remains a rather whiny if infatuated young man. Anton Yelchin is dewy eyed but also miscast, unable to elevate the role beyond the star-struck American.

Brian's parents provide the comic relief and a contrast in bridges across the cultural divide. His mother Arlene is more than willing to give the liaison with a married woman every opportunity to thrive. His father Sam remains skeptical, barely tolerating Arielle's Frenchness, let alone the age difference and her marriage. Glenn Close and Frank Langella make for a fine married couple thriving in their eccentricities.

5 to 7 unravels in its final third, and the last 15 minutes are dominated by narration, Levin defaulting to describing rather than showing emotions. A great love can survive a lot, but it finally trips on a writer with too many words at his disposal.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Monday, 24 April 2017

Movie Review: Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

An off-beat comedy about the unlikeliest of nerds in the unlikeliest of settings, Napoleon Dynamite marches to its beat of brilliant weirdness.

In the tiny rural community of Preston, Idaho, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a gangly and socially clueless 16 year old high school kid. His only skill is sketching imaginative animals. He lives at home with his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who at 32 years old is addicted to online chatting. When their grandmother is hospitalized after a sand dune buggy accident, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) arrives to ostensibly look after Napoleon and Kip.

But the egotistical Rico, who lives in a camper van, is still dreaming of making it as a pro football player and lamenting a lost game during his college years. He sets off with Kip to make money as door-to-door salesmen. Meanwhile, Napoleon meets equally awkward classmates Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino). Pedro tries to woo Summer (Haylie Duff), the most popular girl in school, while Napoleon invites Summer's best friend Trisha (Emily Kennard) to a party. These attempts at relationships predictably don't end well, but nothing deters Napoleon.

Directed by Jared Hess, who also co-wrote the film with his wife Jerusha, Napoleon Dynamite is a study in the unexpected. Following exactly no rules, the film goes off to explore and amplify the awkwardness of growing up in nowheresville USA, and succeeds in delivering a stunningly original understated comedy. Among other outliers, the film features a stubborn llama, adventures on an egg farm, a dubious time travel machine, and the unlikeliest transformation for Kip.

Napoleon's obliviousness provides him with unshakable strength. Every potentially significant emotional setback washes off his back and on he marches into the next surreal situation armed with his unique brand of uncoordinated ineptitude. In their own way, Kip, Uncle Rico, Deb and Pedro are cut from the same cloth. Napoleon Dynamite places the marginalized left-behinds of society's cliques at the centre of attention, and finds the resiliency that allows them to dust themselves off and go on.

Hess directs with a quiet observational tone, the camera settling down to record with long takes and wide perspectives to capture the expanse of rural America. Everyone has a plan and an angle, maybe even a dream, but Preston, Idaho is a place where not much will change over time, no matter what. The film's time setting is appropriately vague and confused. Much of the surroundings, including the music and fashions, evoke the 1980s, but Kip lives his life online, including establishing a relationship with vivacious chat room girlfriend LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery).

In his feature film debut Jon Heder get the role of a lifetime and delivers a mythical performance. Napoleon awkwardly and hilariously over-emotes, learned mannerisms that scream of a desire to fit in. Never smiling, Heder's eyes are often closed, his lanky body contorted into every posture except comfortable. Efren Ramirez and Tina Majorino complete the triangle of inelegance, but in their case less is more; both drown their misfit status with quiet sedateness, with Ramirez's Pedro bordering on catatonic.

An off-beat celebration of being different, Napoleon Dynamite commands the stage and dances in its own groove, achieving legendary status.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Movie Review: 5 Flights Up (2014)

A drama about dealing with change late in life, 5 Flights Up (also known as Ruth and Alex) is an amiable story about what matters and why.

Alex and Ruth Carver (Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton) are an elderly biracial couple who have lived in the same 5 story walk up Brooklyn apartment for more than 30 years. The lack of an elevator is catching up with them, and Ruth's niece Lilly (Cynthia Nixon), a real estate agent, has convinced them it's time to sell. Alex, a struggling artist all his life, is not quite sure that selling is the right thing to do, but grumpily goes along.

As prospective buyers troop through their apartment during an open house, he recalls their early days as a ground breaking newly-married couple (Korey Jackson and Claire van der Boom) moving into the neighbourhood. A bidding war heats up for the Carver's unit and the selling price approaches $1 million. As Ruth and Alex start their own frantic search for another place to live, two other stories unfold simultaneously: the media breathlessly covers a police chase for a possible terrorist on the loose in New York City; and the Carver's aging dog Dorothy undergoes expensive surgery for a back ailment.

Directed by Richard Loncraine and written by Charlie Peters, 5 Flights Up focuses on the deeply personal crossroads of one couple, but captures some universally applicable truths. The film's strength is that there is absolutely nothing unique about the decision point facing Alex and Ruth. Indeed, even the expanded narrative about the media's frenzy over a terrorist manhunt and the pet in distress stays in the realm of the routine. Loncraine uses the familiar to focus on a couple still very much comfortably in love grappling with uncomfortable changes at an advanced stage in their relationship, and the human dynamics and emotions ring true.

The film enjoys a calm, modest pace, the economical 92 minutes suitable for the small story about big transformations. Brooklyn has gentrified, real estate prices are unimaginable, the world of violence and 24 hour inaccurate coverage is at the literal doorstep, and everything demands accelerated attention. Alex views the world around with soulful eyes, accepting the need for time to move on but not quite sure that it's for the better.

The only solid rock foundation is the love between Alex and Ruth. They accommodate and tolerate each other with a natural commitment built on years of trust. Both contribute pebbles in the shoes of the marriage, but as with all couples who have made it through decades of marriage, Alex and Ruth are not so much two distinct people as they are one entity driven by two complementary psyches. Loncraine captures their union with a serene beauty: no matter what craziness is going on, this is an unshakable marriage.

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman instantaneously click as a couple, and the veterans navigate the film with a natural smoothness. Cynthia Nixon nails the manic intensity of a real estate agent operating on hyperdrive and surviving on the oxygen emanating from a restless cell phone.

5 Flights Up may be about nothing that matters in the grand scheme of things, and it ambles towards the contentment of a predictable outcome. But it achieves its modest goals with the warmth of seasoned affection.

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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Movie Review: Mirror Mirror (2012)

A fantasy drama comedy aimed at a family audience, Mirror Mirror enjoys a unique, over-the-top fairy tale aesthetic and an enchanting Julia Roberts performance.

Snow White (Lily Collins) is the beautiful daughter of the kindly King (Sean Bean), a popular and benevolent leader. Unfortunately he disappears while riding through the forest, and his devious wife Queen Clementianna (Julia Roberts), who is also the narrator, takes over as ruler of the land. A vain woman obsessed with her beauty, Clementianna confines Snow White to one room and a darkness descends onto the land.

Prince Andrew Alcott (Armie Hammer) of Valencia tangles with the seven dwarves while riding through the forest and is rescued by Snow White, who is on an unsanctioned trip outside the palace. Clementianna sets her eyes on the handsome prince as marriage material, and arranges for her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to kill Snow White. But Brighton does not have the heart to do so, Snow White takes refuge with the dwarves, and starts to plot her return to power.

Directed by Tarsem Singh, Mirror Mirror is an irreverent take on the Brothers Grimm Snow White story. Tangentially side-swiping the legend from the perspective of the evil Queen, here the dwarves are dirtier and edgier, they fight on stilts and teach Snow White battle tactics, and a power-hungry and lustful love triangle features mother-in-law and daughter.

While the plot does tilt more towards adult themes than children's fare, Singh entertains younger eyes with outlandish sets and ridiculous costumes. Despite a limited number of locations and what appears to be a confined and theatrical milieu, Mirror Mirror pops with colour, oversized hats, and inventive set design. The basics of the story may be well known, but the presentation is highly imaginative.

As the eyes absorbs all the fantastical aesthetics, Roberts entertains the ear with snarky narration. Her take on the Queen is unapologetically manipulative, a satirical extrapolation of a culture obsessed with looks, fame, power and little else. By design, this is mostly the Queen's story, but Snow White is provided with some feminist steel in the second half of the film, choosing a warrior's costume, standing up to her rights, and going toe to toe in forest fights as she fights to win back her land and claim her man. Lily Collins does well in the role, infusing it with quiet confidence.

Mirror Mirror is a reimagining of a popular fairy tale; all the elements are familiar, but the warped reflection is reasonably enjoyable in its weirdness.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Movie Review: Life (2017)

A horror-in-space thriller, Life borrows heavily from Alien, but still achieves the requisite mix of excitement, tension and some human drama.

On board the International Space Station, a six member crew is on a mission to receive and research a soil sample from Mars that may contain evidence of extraterrestrial life. The team is led by Russian Commander Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), and includes Japanese pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada) and medical officers David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson). Once the capsule containing the sample is retrieved, astrobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) isolates and revives a single cell organism, the first proof of life beyond Earth.

Dubbed Calvin, the single cell soon multiplies and grows into a tiny creature exhibiting enormous sensory, cognitive and survival abilities. An atmospheric accident causes Calvin to go dormant; Derry awakens it with a mild electric shock, but Calvin is immediately hostile, and attacks Derry's hand, growing bigger. Calvin escapes from its isolation box, consumes a research mouse, and grows bigger again. System Engineer Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) fails to incinerate it, and Calvin escapes into the ISS ducts, damaging the communications system. Kat has to conduct a dangerous space walk to attempt repairs, as it becomes clear that Calvin represents a significant threat to the survival of the crew.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa, Life is full of the mounting sense of dread that something awful is going to happen at any minute. The film quickly gets into a groove, and Calvin is established as a powerful foe, stopping at nothing and growing with every gory attack. The film is almost entirely set on the claustrophobic ISS, with communications back to Earth severed early, leaving the crew on their own, tantalizingly close to home but in grave danger of never making it back.

Unlike Alien, Life is almost entirely set in a zero gravity environment, adding to the sense of realism and making movements and reactions more difficult. The crew is also more internationally diverse, although apart from a few jokes not enough is made of the United Nations in space. Within the limits of a relatively short 103 minutes, Espinosa does try and provide some backstories. Jake Gyllenhaal's Dr. Jordan receives the most attention as a long-term ISS tenant and a man who is now more comfortable in orbit rather than on Earth. The pilot Sho gets a more routine new-father-in-space treatment.

Some of the sense of realism is however compromised by the dubious decisions made by the crew. The film's constant search for the next thrill means many actions by the supposedly highly trained scientists and pilots appear rushed and ill-considered, with arguments, shouting and impetuous behaviour often trumping more careful thought.

The horror elements are otherwise well-handled, and feature the usual mix of jump-out-of-your-seat scares and carefully constructed turn-the-screws tension. Calvin emerges as a supremely intelligent and capable creature, perhaps on the edge of credibility even for a science fiction invention, but nevertheless ugly and scary enough to represent an existential threat.

The Life of one newly discovered species could mean the death of many others, and in this space no thing can be more mean.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Movie Review: Rudderless (2014)

A drama set in the world of grief and music, Rudderless tackles the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of carrying on with life after a crushing family tragedy.

College student Josh (Miles Heizer) is killed in an on-campus school shooting, sending his father Sam (Billy Crudup), a marketing executive, into a depression. Two years later, Sam has quit his job, moved two hours out of town, is living on a boat and working as a lowly painter. His ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) drops off some of Josh's old items, and Sam stumbles onto song recordings and lyrics that Josh was working on.

He performs one of Josh's songs during open mic night at The Trill tavern, attracting the attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a young man who insists that they team up and perform together. Sam is reluctant but eventually yields, and gradually the band Rudderless is formed, gaining local prominence with the help of music shop owner Del (Laurence Fishburne). Sam helps Quentin mature as a man, but with the reappearance of Josh's old girlfriend Kate Ann (Selena Gomez), the events of the past are about to again rock Sam's life.

The directorial debut of William H. Macy (who also has a small role as the tavern's owner), Rudderless combines music and mourning as it ventures into rarely explored territory. The world of hurt in the shadow of a mass shooting makes for difficult story telling material, but Macy along with screenwriters Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter construct a highly watchable and heartfelt drama.

The songs are of the soulful soft rock white-man-with-a-guitar variety, not nearly as unique as the film makes them out, and the musical performance segments are more numerous and longer than they need to be. Macy finds better traction when the focus is on Sam, and then in the dynamic between Sam and Quentin. Josh's ghost is never far away from Sam's new stripped-down life, much as he wants to avoid it, and his interactions with Quentin and the other young men of the band are built on a rickety foundation of deep hurt.

Without ever showing what happened at the school shooting, the film drops steady hints that no matter how many houses he paints, beers he drinks or songs he sings, Sam will not be able to avoid confronting the past. His own actions inadvertently but finally open the door for recent history to storm in, and it is as painful as Sam knew it would be. The final act hits some, but not all, the high notes it aims at, as this chapter of the grief journey maybe ends too tidily.

Rudderless rides on a majestic Billy Crudup performance as he revisits the musical world that made him Almost Famous. Here his performance is built on active emotional hide and seek, and Crudup perfectly captures a grieving father bottling up a yearning to scream at himself and the world. Anton Yelchin is all about the intensity of youth making something happen out of the haziest opportunity. One of the film's strengths is in only hinting at Quentin's troubled past and present, Sam's help remaining at the superficial level, the damaged ex-father not equipped to re-assume fatherly duties.

Rudderless is about new beginnings setting sail, but only after catching the winds of the past.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2014)

A near-future psychological science thriller, Ex Machina peeks into the potential ramifications of evolving artificial intelligence and offers a stark vision.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer working for Blue Book, the world's dominant on-line search engine. Caleb wins an employee contest to spend a week at the home of Blue Book's reclusive founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). After a helicopter trip Caleb arrives at the luxurious but secluded house, where Nathan gives him his assignment for the week: Caleb is to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan's latest artificially intelligent robot, to determine her level of self-consciousness through a version of the Turing test

Caleb starts spending time with Ava in sessions recorded and monitored by Nathan, and Ava quickly demonstrates that she is indeed supremely capable of displaying human cognition and emotions. Between the sessions Caleb gets to know Nathan, who emerges as a hard drinking, lonely but manipulative genius. When mysterious power outages start to repeatedly disrupt the interactions with Ava, Caleb suspects there is more going on than he initially believed.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina is sparse, sometimes slow moving but always thought provoking. With the sleek look of detached modernity, Garland extends the Frankenstein narrative into the age of advanced robotics, and proposes a viable scenario where unintended consequences, both human and artificial, are the norm. When artificial intelligence includes heightened self awareness and inherent sexuality, the line between intelligent human and intelligent machine begins to blur, loyalties merge, and outcomes are predictably unpredictable.

The film is a three-person (or two-person, one robot) character study set almost entirely at Nathan's house, and the locations are limited to a handful of rooms. Garland effectively designs a theatrical dynamic where the three characters are forced to interact together by choice or design, and the implications of Ava's near-human levels of intellect and emotion are revealed through Caleb's eyes. Ava wastes no time in gaining the emotional upper hand and starts to dominate her visitor's psyche, maybe to get back at her creator or maybe just because she is bored and looking for an escape. Whether Nathan is implicated in her behaviour or simply her inventor is the puzzle that Caleb has to grapple with as the dark side of artificial intelligence evolution starts to emerge.

The film encounters a few substantive weaknesses. In stretching to 108 minutes of running time Garland notably runs out of original ideas about halfway through, and some of the scenes between Caleb and Nathan descend into tiresome drunken stupors. The ending picks up energy but in the wrong direction: Ex Machina abandons its more cerebral pursuits to chase more familiar but less satisfying conclusions. The robots are getting more clever, but the humans sometimes still get stuck in stock territory.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Movie Review: For Greater Glory (2012)

A well-produced historical war epic, For Greater Glory (also known as Cristiada) shines a welcome light on a little-known but ugly conflict. The film is old-fashioned in scale and scope, but leans too far towards sanctifying pro-Catholic sentiment to be taken seriously.

It's 1926 in Mexico, and secular President Calles (Rubén Blades) insists that anti-Catholic provisions in the 1917 Constitution be enforced. Protestors demanding religious freedoms take to the streets, and the subsequent government crackdown includes the deportation of priests and the killing of others, including Father Christopher (Peter O'Toole). The violence triggers a rebellion, with ragtag militias known as the Cristeros squaring off against federal soldiers. The rebel leaders include the militant Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera), ostensibly responsible for a civilian massacre, and legendary peasant commander Victoriano "El Catorce" Ramírez (Oscar Isaac), known for single-handedly killing fourteen federalist soldiers.

Needing better organization, the Cristeros approach retired General Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) and offer him the opportunity to forge the disparate anti-government troops into a cohesive fighting force. Over the protests of his wife Tulita (Eva Longoria), he agrees to leave his comfortable life as a soap magnate and heads to the hills to lead the rebellion. A young boy José (Mauricio Kuri) joins the rebels and becomes Gorostieta's surrogate son. The war drags on for years, until the American government through Ambassador Morrow (Bruce Greenwood) decides to intervene while keeping an eye on American interests in the Mexican oil fields.

A lavish Mexican production directed by Dean Wright, For Greater Glory recalls Hollywood's epics of the 1950s and 1960s, with a grand scope, multiple storylines, serious characterizations, armies of extras and grand battles. For Greater Glory is also unfortunately encumbered by a lack of subtlety that may have been acceptable in a different era, but now borders on propaganda. The film treats the conflict as an almost straightforward battle between good (the Catholic church) and evil (President Calles), and there is no attempt to introduce shades of grey or nuanced context.

The obtuse tone is unfortunate, because there is a lot to enjoy in the movie. Wright, the visual effects producer for Titanic, two Lord of the Rings movies and two Narnia movies, knows how to make a scene look good, and despite the long 145 minutes of running time the film never lacks for visual splendor or energy. The action scenes are particularly well handled, Wright navigating the chaos of battle with fluid expertise.

Less impressive is an overemphasis on the story of young José, a fable that creeps into consecration territory, impressive for the devout but otherwise overcooked into a chewy mess of miraculous manipulation.

Andy Garcia leads a large cast and delivers a distinguished performance as General Enrique Gorostieta, a man who believes in freedom, family and finances, and therefore triangulates his way into leading the Cristeros despite being a confirmed atheist. Peter O'Toole, at 80 years old, is much more theatrically divine as Father Christopher.

Unabashedly one-sided, For Greater Glory preaches to the converted and allows its tone-deaf stance to compromise an otherwise worthwhile retelling of a largely forgotten civil war.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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