Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Intelligent science-fiction with Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a three hander between man-of-the-moment Oscar Isaac (also in A Most Violent Year), woman-of-the-month Alicia Vikander (currently portraying Vera Brittain in Testament of  Youth, before completing her hattrick with next week's Son of a Gun) and ginger-of-the-year Domhnall Gleeson. As you can see in the picture above, at least one member of the trio is not of the human variety. Ava (Vikander) is a cyborg created by the eccentric genius and billionaire Nathan (Isaac) in his isolated mansion. We arrive at the ultra-modern residence in the company of Caleb (Gleeson), a young, wide-eyed computer nerd. He gets to spend a week in the company of his boss after winning a competition, during which he is to fulfill a very important task: perform the Turing-test on Ava in order to determine whether she truly possesses artificial intelligence.

One of Ex Machina's strong points is the air of uncertainty. The relationships between the three central characters keep shifting and there is constant doubt about their motives. Soon, we feel like we can't trust anybody. Nathan is a cross between Frankenstein, Colonel Kurtz and Mark Zuckerberg with lovely beard and a fondness for alcoholic beverages while Ava's mind is not as transparent as her body. Then there is the possibility that she has no control over her actions. Was she simply programmed that way? We never know who is manipulating whom in this unconventional triangle.

The true manipulator is Alex Garland. After making his name as a novelist (The Beach) and a screenwriter (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go), the Brit took place in the director's chair for the first time. His work is, like all good science-fiction, full of fascinating ideas. Ex Machina feels in some ways like a continuation of two 2014 films starring Scarlett Johansson. On the one hand you have the idea of looking at human behaviour from an outside point of view like in Under the Skin. How does a form of artificial intelligence perceive humans? This ties in with the themes of Spike Jonze's Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the voice of an operating system. Garland takes this a step further by giving his machine a visibly mechanical body, combined with a human face and a gender. This is clearly enough for Caleb to feel some sort of attraction towards Ava. Garland plays around with these concepts, defies our expectations and asks intriguing questions.

Ex Machina primarily appeals to the brain. It is a simple affair playing out in a single location without elaborate action sequences. The film nevertheless doesn't become becomes static. The camera keeps moving through the windowless interrogation room on the prowl for new angles and Garland keeps our attention with regular visual treats (exhilarating landscapes, nudity, unique dance moves). Ex Machina delivers for all fans of intelligent sci-fi and the comparison with Moon are justified.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Beyond Clueless goes into the teenage dream

For most people, the main appeal of Beyond Clueless will be nostalgia. The essay-film provides an exhaustive look at over 200 teen-movies made between the early nineties (the oldest title I managed to jot down was 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) and the mid-noughties. Anybody who went through and beyond puberty during this period will experience a trip down memory lane.

Director Charlie Lyne looks back at the films of his youth, but he also treats his subject with respect without losing his audience through unnecessary intellectualisation. His approach remains simple. The clips are only accompanied by a simple, original score and an ominous voice-over provided by cult actress Fairuza Balk (whose voice reminded me of Cate Blanchett’s introductory monologue in The Lord of the Rings). The absence of interviews and talking heads actually works in the film’s favour. Our stay in the crazy, fictional world that is the cinematic American high-school is never interrupted by disruptive bursts of reality. In this universe, people are divided into clear categories. Whether you are a jock, plastic, nerd or skater, it’s all about finding your place within or outside of the system. You try to fit in, make new experiences and let lose before departing onto the daunting, uncertain path of adulthood. The ultimate goal of the teenager (and of the teen movie) is the discovery of their individual identity, which is exactly where Beyond Clueless ends up. On the way there, we get montages of youngsters striding through busy school-hallways, experiencing their awkward and/or passionate first kisses and sexual encounters before finally graduating. We are also given glimpses of some Hollywood A-listers before their rise to fame (i.e. Jake Gyllenhaal in a plastic bubble, Jessica Alba as the girl-next-door and a baby-faced Joseph Gordon Levitt) and a surprisingly deep analysis of the “classic” EuroTrip.

On a personal note, I was surprised that I had not seen more of the featured films. Charlie Lyne is, according to Wikipedia, only one year older than myself, but I only recognized a fraction of the films.  Maybe its because I grew up in a different country or because I was a weird teenager, but I have never seen Final Destination and unfortunately only discovered Mean Girls and Clueless in my early twenties. The touchstones of my teenage years were the John Hughes classics from the 1980s and newer films such as Rocket Science, Juno or the underrated High School Musical-franchise. This lack of knowledge did not take away from my enjoyment of Beyond Clueless since I was able to understand the anxieties of the pubescent characters only too well. I also enjoyed the film on a completely different level and discovered films I had never heard of. If, like me, you are unaware of the 1999 film Idle Hands, you may struggle to believe that it actually exists. In this movie, Devon Sawa discovers that his right hand has a blood-thirsty mind of its own and is hell-bent on wreaking havoc whether he likes it or not. And there is way more where that came from in Beyond Clueless. A very fetch experience (yes I am still making "fetch" happen).

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: Whiplash lives up to the hype

When I first saw Whiplash back in Spetember at the Deauville American Film Festival, more than a thousand people leapt to their feet in rapturous applause as the end credits were rolling. As I was pushing through the rapturous crowd on the way to see writer-director Damien Chazelle and star Miles Teller talk about their work during a press conference, the adrenaline was still pumping through my veins. Whiplash is the kind of film that grabs the audience from the opening scene, builds up to a relentless crescendo and doesn't let go until the very end. I didn't even have the time to remember that I don't even really like jazz that much.

How do you get the best out of a young talent? For Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an experienced instructor at the prestigious music school Shaffer, the answer is clear: you push their musical and mental abilities to the absolute limit. Failure is not an option and mercy a mere sign of weakness. He is constantly playing mind games and launches personal insults with the precision of a sniper at his terrified students. One of these pupils is an ambitious young drummer called Andrew (Teller) who is quickly rising through the ranks. The ascension to the top is anything but smooth though. His wild ambition and considerable ego lead to perpetual clashes between student and mentor. Fletcher and Andrew engage in a psychological battle of epic proportions while essentially pursuing the same goal: turning the latter into one of the best jazz drummers in the business. Andrew literally batters his drum-set until he bleeds; everything else falls by the wayside. Family, friends and girlfriend are mere distractions; speed-bumps on the road to greatness.

We ask ourselves two philosophical questions as we are watching those two strong personalities land one mental blow after another: 1. Are Fletcher's cruel methods the right (and/or the only) way to the top in a creative field like music? 2. Is it worth the sacrifice? - Whiplash doesn't really provide answers, but gives us the chance to make up our own minds. Some people are only able to perform and learn to the best of their abilities in situations of extreme pressure, but others crumble under the weight of emotional bullying. It's a situation that is familiar to most of us, be it from music, the classroom or a football pitch.

Darren Aronofsky's brilliant 2010 film Black Swan would meanwhile make for a fascinating companion piece to Whiplash. Both films are about complete dedication to creativity and art at any price, but there are fundamental differences in their philosophies. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman's ballerina struggles to let go. In order to master the dual role of the black and the white swan, she needs to completely surrender to the music. The art controls the artist. Whiplash inverses this relationship. It's all about being in command of the rhythm and the tempo. Technique is the crucial term: Are you rushing or are you dragging? As a consequence, Whiplash is a more disciplined, rigid piece of cinema. Aronofsky let his imagination run wild in fantastical dream sequences and moments of pure horror. Chazelle on the other hand is at his best when he keeps his feet on the ground. The tension comes out of the simplicity of the situation. Some scenes feel a bit artificial and contrived (particularly those involving Andrew's girlfriend), but the level-headedness of his direction is mostly maintained.

Everyone is rightly talking about the performances (Simmons and Teller are both at their very best), but it is the editing that truly makes Whiplash. At the press conference, Damien Chazelle, only 29 (!), talked in fluent French about his own background as a jazz drummer. He may not have been good enough to become a professional, but the experience clearly gave him a sense for this music and its rhythm, which he cleverly translates to cinema. After trimming the film from nearly three hours to 107 minutes, there is very little superfluous material. It is a bit rough around the edges at times, but Chazelle find his tempo and hits most of the right notes (the others are drowned out by sheer tension and intensity). Whiplash doesn't quite match the artful near-perfection of Black Swan, but it is a gripping cinematic experience. The standing ovation at Deauville wasn't the first or the last this film will deservedly receive and I wouldn't bet against J.K. Simmons winning a small, shiny bald man come March.   

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: American Sniper is more than patriotic flag-waving

It would be easy to dismiss American Sniper as a patriotic, flag-waving celebration of war based on its premise. It tells the story of Chris Kyle who, after four tours and over 160 confirmed kills in Iraq, became the deadliest sniper in US military history. A true American hero. Aside from the misjudged closing credits, this film looks beyond the star-spangled banner at a complex man and his motivations. 

After the frustratingly dull Jersey Boys, American Sniper marks a welcome return to form for director Clint Eastwood. Even at the age of 84, he is able to portray human drama on the screen like few others. After an incredibly tense opening scene (as seen in the trailer), he looks back and chart's Kyle's transformation from a wannabe Texas cowboy into a cold blooded killer. He is driven by an idealistic desire to protect his country to begin with, but this gradually dissolves into a bitter, relentless thirst for revenge and loyalty to his friends. You may not always agree with his ideas (and as a wannabe pacifist, I certainly didn't), but you can always comprehend the decisions he takes. Bradley Cooper (who originated and produced the project) deserves a lot of credit for his understated, complex central performance.

The war itself is incoherent, tense and brutal. There is no place for politics on the battlefields in Iraq. The frequent action scenes are solid, but the film truly shines in the quieter moments. Kyle's relationship with his wife (a terrific, unrecognizable Sienna Miller) is very well played. It doesn't reach the adrenaline rush of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and it could lose a few scenes and clichés, but American Sniper is Clint's best since Gran Torino. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review: Keanu rampages through John Wick

In little Russia, a man walks into a church in broad daylight. As he approaches the altar, he pulls a gun, shoots the priest in the leg and kills everyone in the building with the exception of an elderly lady in the blink of an eye. "Do you even know what you're getting yourself into?" asks the pain-stricken priest. The man replies in fluent Russian: "Of course I do!" He is of course a bruised Keanu Reeves in the middle of his quest for vengeance. His latest film is John Wick, a surprisingly fun revenge thriller with an abundance of style. Who would have thought?

The film abandons a half-hearted attempt to tell a generic story after about ten minutes and turns into ninety minutes pure action with Keanu in rampage mode. The retired (and recently widowed) assassin John Wick is compelled to confront his violent past after some Russian mobsters do the worst thing you can conceivably do to a man: they steal his sports car and kill his puppy. So John returns to a world in which making "a dinner reservation for twelve" means that you have a dozen of corpses in your house. He lives up to his old nickname Baba Yaga (The Bogeyman) by single-handedly taking down the mob headed by Michael Nyqvist. No morals, no second thoughts, no forced romance, just shooting, stabbing and punching.

The film reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's excellent Haywire in its stripped down, unpretentious approach to violence and action. John Wick is a prettier, more polished movie. It was directed by Chad Stahelski, David Leitch - two former stuntmen (Stahelski was Keanu's double on The Matrix) who clearly know how to choreograph a fight sequence. The slick, clear cinematography and the stylish lightning are complemented by a brilliant, pacey soundtrack. Tyler Bates and Joel Richard create the best electronic music for an action film since the Chemical Brothers did Hanna. All these elements come together in the film's best sequence set in a busy nightclub which works like an elaborately choreographed dance number, with blood. The quieter scenes also ooze with style. Wick sets up base in hotel for assassins (and other suspect folk) where you pay with mysterious gold coins and Ian McShane sips a Martini in the secret basement-nightclub.

Keanu's acting meanwhile hasn't improved (he bottles both dramatic moments), but the part doesn't require much of it anyway. One person's wooden is another's ice-cold determination. John Wick isn't much more than an exercise in style, albeit a very successful one. It equalises Denzel's The Equaliser and then some.