Quick Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

ex machina

There are genius scripts, and then there are scripts that are obviously written by genius. Ex Machina is an example of the latter.

In this film, we get one of the most pensive takes on consciousness and science. Written and directed by Alex Garland, it takes a lot out of you, but it’s worth it in the end.

Looking deeply into the reality of artificial intelligence, Ex Machina follows Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), a computer coder who wins a contest to live at his billionaire boss’ estate for a week. When he gets there, his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), informs him that he will be part of a project to test if an artificial intelligent being can form relationships with actual humans.

One thing that Isaac excels exceptionally well at is being mysterious. Right away, we’re scared of him, but not sure why, or if we’re even supposed to be. He balances this eeriness while having a charisma about him. Not like Gordon Gekko, but in a way that shows the vulnerability behind his eyes. As though Isaac, too, knows of his character’s vices.

The artificial human we’re given is Ava (Alicia Vikander), who, other than her looks, is a real human to us. Vikander’s every move and vocal inflection convinces us that she is real. And if you haven’t already seen The Man from U.N.C.L.E., you may actually think she is.

While many moments in this film will leave you thinking that it would be well suited as a ’90s Sci-Fi Channel film, others will let you know that this film belongs in mainstream popular culture in every way.

The only downfall of this movie is that it’s so dark it isolates itself from its audience. It hits home, but makes us want no part of it. It tells of too many potential truths. Too many horrors. It’s one thing watching I, Robot, but it’s another to make us believe that somewhere out there, someone is making an artificially intelligent being who may soon walk this earth. It’s a fantastic watch, and a phenomenal movie, but not one I would soon repeat.

Twizard Rating: 100

Advertisements

Quick Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)

revenant

The Revenant is truly something to behold. It’s beautifully shot and maybe even more impressively directed. This could have easily gone awry in the wrong director’s hands, but Alejandro Iñárritu makes it look too easy.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a fur trapper in the American Northwest in 1823. He and his crew are on the run after escaping a Native American ambush. One day, after going off on his own, he is attacked and savagely injured by a grizzly bear in a scene that will stay with you for a very long time. It might be one of the most intense sequences in film history. Nearly dying, he is deemed, by Tom Hardy’s character, as too risky to be carried along with them, so Hardy leaves DiCaprio to die.

The film is really long, but riveting. Not once does your mind wander to something else. Scene after scene is like nothing you’ve seen before.

This film is about revenge, but it’s also about moral decisions. It’s never preachy, but those who wish to get something out of it will. It’s hard to watch, but completely rewarding in the end. And there may have never been such a dark film that is also this beautiful to look at.

Tom Hardy, while audibly incomprehensible at times, plays grimly sadistic to perfection. From the beginning, he walks around like nothing ever bad is going to happen to him. He’s cocky, but there’s something subtle in his tone that makes you believe that he’s unsure of himself subconsciously–even though he thinks no one notices. Perhaps they don’t.

It’s a no brainer that DiCaprio has given the best performance of the year, even if just for his commitment to making his character real. The film is shot in actual freezing temperatures and throughout the entire thing you really do feel his pain–just from the piercing cold itself. He’s in a league of his own with this one.

But if we’re going to talk about commitment, we must also discuss Iñárritu’s insistence that there will be no green screen used and everything that happens will be happening for real. Last year, Iñárritu’s film Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture. This is a step even above that. Birdman was filmed in a controlled setting. Watching The Revenant, you feel like everyone on set is playing with fire. The fact that they get a breathtaking film out of it is superbly impressive.

Twizard Rating: 100

Quick Movie Review: Brooklyn (2015)

brooklyn

This is an odd case, in my opinion. It’s a simple story–a romantic drama to be exact–and it’s nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s not the type of film you’d think would be nominated in this category. It’s great, sure, but the Academy usually recognizes either groundbreaking films or controversial films–nowadays at least. This one is neither. But that should just show you how strong of a film it is.

Much like 2009’s An Education, Brooklyn is very low concept. It’s not controversial, it’s not political, it’s not even all that original. But it hits its audience in a sensitive place with its charm about a topic that we can all relate to–love.

Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, follows an Irish immigrant, Eilis (Ronan), as she comes to the United States seeking new opportunity. We see pretty early on that she is a selfless person–always doing community service and being involved in her church. Although she comes from a privileged background, Eilis doesn’t look down on anyone. But she’s very shy and doesn’t know how to talk to new people. Men flirt with her, but she just turns the other way. That is, until, she meets Tony (Cohen), an uneducated Italian-American plumber, who develops an immediate attraction to her.

This is where the film really gets going, though it comes in a little later than we’d like. However, we don’t terribly mind since we love getting the “immigrant trying to make it in America” portion of the story as well. It helps to round out the film. The filmmakers know that they can’t just make a 2 hour love story without bordering on vanity, so they don’t try to fool us and do it anyway.

Tony has a simple outlook on life. He’s a dreamer, but lacks confidence. Even before he really knows why, he loves Eilis whole-heartedly. They bring the best out of each other. But what makes their relationship so real is how they better one another when they’re apart. Although arguably less shy than Tony, Eilis now handles herself with more confidence and starts getting along with others even better.

I’m not sure I’ve seen on-screen chemistry like I have in this film. Ronan and Cohen are immaculate together. And that’s a true attribution to their performances. The two of them have so much depth both together and apart. Cohen is convincing in showing us the non-stereotypical vulnerability of Tony. And with the help of Ronan’s outstanding performance, you can see what’s going on in Eilis’ mind without her saying too much. It’s her decisions that give her the most depth.

Brooklyn is relatable on so many levels. It’s also about leaving home and that transition to recognizing home as somewhere new.

The city of Brooklyn is nice to look at in its own right in the early 1950s, but Ireland is even prettier. Luckily, the filmmakers recognize this and take us back there one last time.

You don’t often see people fawning over a film that simply romanticize love, but it’s the earnestness and simplicity of Brooklyn that tugs at our strings the most. Without ever feeling contrived, it restores confidence in something that we may often take for granted in this day and age.

Twizard Rating: 99

Quick Movie Review: Room (2015)

room

If you’re itching to see a masterpiece in film, then go out and watch Room. It’s the perfect example of filmmaking that doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience. And at the same time, it isn’t highbrow or overly complicated.

Room starts out in a padded room with a young boy, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), and his mother, Joy (Brie Larson), lying in a bed together. We’re not sure why they’re there at first. But eventually we figure things out. Joy was abducted 7 years prior and Jack is her son by her captor.

Joy is a normal mother. She loves her son. She get’s annoyed by him from time to time, just as a normal mother would. Everything is not hunky-dory, but the two of them are content there with each other. Or at least Jack is. You can sense, in Joy’s eyes, that she is hiding pain. Jack doesn’t know of anything that’s happened. He knows of no world beyond those walls.

It’s not until about 25 minutes in where we realize what’s going on. But we don’t mind because the journey there is just as riveting. The plot is revealed very slowly, as the filmmakers let us figure things out on our own, and do well not to spell things out for us. They don’t assume the audience is stupid–at least those who are willing to commit to the storytelling. Nothing is ever stated, but we have a grasp on background and character dynamics due to brilliant exposition.

Room is slow, I admit, but consistent. Director, Lenny Abrahamson knows what he’s doing at all times. Besides getting fantastic performances from his leads, I’m thrilled with every choice he makes. From what he includes to what he omits, he understands what’s necessary for us to get as organic of an experience possible. This movie could very well be depressing, but it intentionally never stays in one place long enough to do so.

Larson is something to behold in this film. She’s pretty much gives as flawless of a performance that anyone possibly can. It’s perhaps the best female performance I’ve ever seen. And Tremblay, for a child, is extremely believable the whole way through.

The film is ultimately about moving on. And that process can be long and drawn out and never-ending. There are times while watching this film when we ask ourselves how it will end. Not because we want it to, but because we’re not even sure how any ending would be enough. But then we find out we’re not looking for an ending at all, but a beginning.

Twizard Rating: 100

Quick Movie Review: The Big Short (2015)

the big short

If ever there was a film that typifies the last 10 years, it’s The Big Short. It’s filmmaking in its quickest form. And much credit goes to director Adam McKay, who has made a film so rapid fire that it even makes Vince Vaughn stop to catch his breath. It mirrors what goes on in today’s multi-tasking society. But also what Wall Street has been doing for decades.

Connecting three stories without much crossover, The Big Short deals with what led to the financial crash of 2008 and the radical few who had the wisdom and the gall to see it coming and act upon it.

It starts with Christian Bales’ character, Dr. Michael Burry, a Silicon Valley hedge fund manager who spots an instability in the United States housing market, predicting that the market will collapse in a few years. Much to his investors’ dismay, he goes out and bets against the housing market–something that apparently you just don’t do–by purchasing $500 million in credit default swaps. Many others catch wind of this, but only several are keen enough to spot the method to Burry’s madness.

The film tries and succeeds at making a dry topic appeal to the audience it wants. There’s a lot of technical jargon, but McKay makes it easy for us to stay in the loop by doing unusual things like have “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explain it to you”. These celebrities explaining things happens a few times throughout the film for our enjoyment. McKay has such an unorthodox way of filmmaking, but it works here. Characters break the fourth wall about a dozen times, and he enjoys flooding the screen with intercut stills. It’s actually very highbrow, but never makes us realize it.

It has a mockumentary feel to it at times, which explains why Steve Carell makes sense here. He plays Mark Baum, a Wall Street hedge fund manager who gets approached by Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) to invest in this whole credit default swap thing.

A third story revolves around these two young investors who happen to get wind of Gosling’s plan. They contact Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), their financial advisor, who helps back the idea.

Each sub story is just as entertaining as the others, so you’re never sitting there waiting for so-and-so to come back on screen. You never think about the fact that they’re gone, but realize you missed them when they come back.

It’s a powerful film, even though it might not seem like it is. It never strays from its point just to get a laugh. Each laugh feels deserved and the humor organic. And with a killer soundtrack (especially if you were a teenager during those years), it’s definitely one of the best films of the year.

Twizard Rating: 98

Quick Movie Review: Sisters (2015)

sisters

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have always had great chemistry. We know this. Put them in anything to make it work? They try this. It’s usually hit or miss. I’ve always been on the fence about the two. And I was hesitant to see Sisters this soon out the gate, but I wanted to go to the movies tonight and it was the only thing playing.

The film follows two 40-something-year-old sisters (Fey and Poehler) on the brink of their parents selling their childhood home. With the sadness of losing all the memories they’ve compiled during their youth, the sisters plan to throw one last party at the house in spite of their parents. They invite all of their old high school classmates and the party turns into a wild rager as the two plan to get crazy.

I admit, however, it gets pretty funny. It’s my type of humor. And after watching Daddy’s Home, I needed a solid comedy. It doesn’t pull any punches and takes plenty of risks. But it also feels like they display every single idea that was on the drawing board. Literally, this movie is jam packed with so many concepts. It has a very “trying stuff out” feel to it, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just, at times it gets odd and tends to shift the tone around–another side effect from the full-drawing-board strategy. But in a nearly 2-hour comedy with a not-so-hefty premise, they have tons of room to trim the fat.

But perhaps the film’s biggest pitfall is that Fey and Poehler always seem to keep almost laughing at themselves. Like they know the cameras are on. They’re having too much fun just being together and joking around. Sure, comedy can be obviously unrealistic, but you still want the characters in the movie to believe what they’re saying and doing. You want them to commit to their jokes as though THEY’RE being serious.

The premise is a little weak and the characters’ motives are tenuous, but there’s a certain ’80s nostalgia that’s underlying the whole deal. Not a whole lot happens, but it never loses momentum while keeping your attention throughout.

Twizard Rating: 73

Quick Movie Review: Joy (2015)

joy

Regardless of what you feel about Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, or The Fighter, you have to applaud David O. Russell’s auteurism. He really knows how to put his stamp on a film. Much like Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino, there’s something to be said of a filmmaker who does it his own way no matter what.

Joy is an uplifting tale of the lady who invented the Miracle Mop. It’s about the true struggle of the American dream. Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy, a single mother from a dysfunctional family. But that family of hers all lives under her roof. This includes her ex-husband, her divorced parents, her two children, and her grandmother. Joy has a lot of ideas, but doesn’t live in a world where doing anything about them makes any sense. Nobody around her is successful. Even though setting is never really established (we never get the year or location), we can tell that it’s a town where everyone just lives to survive. Until one day, when Joy’s father starts dating a rich widow, who’s acquiescently convinced to fund one of Joy’s inventions.

The first act of this film is spent establishing the craziness of Joy’s life. She doesn’t truly present her product until about 45 minutes in. Before that, we spend time trying to get accustomed to the oddness of this movie, with Russell perhaps borrowing, in a way, from Wes Anderson, taking pages right out of his book.

Then the film really starts getting good when Joy makes a deal to sell her product on QVC. This is also when Bradley Cooper enters the film as Neil Walker, an executive at QVC. We get a behind the scenes look at something we never thought we’d get–a home shopping television channel. It’s probably something we never even realized we wanted to get. But when it’s there, we love it. It’s, by far, one of the best things about this movie.

It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when QVC was revolutionary. “People can actually shop from the comfort of their own home?!” And Joy sprinkles this detail in there as well.

If Russell can keep one thing constant throughout his films, it’s the chaos he creates. This chaos comes from overlapping dialogue, intrusive camera angles, and a lot of yelling. Whether you see it as a good thing (Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter) or unnecessary (American Hustle), his style is established.

In Joy, it works as both good and bad. The good is used when Russell juxtaposes Joy’s chaotic home life with the magic of television. The bad is during the beginning when it’s all we see and we need desperately to escape from it.

The whole film is very surrealistic. Joy’s mother is seen watching soap operas intermittently throughout. But we are let in on the story. Russell hires actual soap opera stars, including Susan Lucci, to play the fictional soap opera characters. We are also inside Joy’s heads a few times as she dreams of different things, including starring in the soap opera herself.

As a character, it’s hard for us to put Joy’s personality in a box. She doesn’t smile much. Her demeanor is sometimes reserved, but explosive at other times. She is both strong and vulnerable, depending on the circumstance. You might say that this is attributed to the complexity of us as humans. Or you can just say that it has to do with the director’s uncertainty of his character. Nonetheless, it’s fun watching Lawrence perform a vast array of moods.

But I really like this film. A lot, actually. Joy’s hunger to make it in this capitalist society is inspiring. Her story isn’t necessarily a unique one, but her situation is. So many of us have ideas, but the fear of failing hinders us. This film shows all of that. It also shows how one might overcome it.

Twizard Rating: 91

Quick Movie Review: Daddy’s Home (2015)

daddys home

We all know Will Ferrell’s comedy. It’s irreverent, self-deprecating, and raunchy. But none of these belong in a film that wants to be sentimental. And it doesn’t even reach the point of cloying until about 10 minutes left.

This is nothing against Ferrell or Mark Wahlberg’s comedic skills or their chemistry with one another. I just think the filmmakers got excited about all the talent on board that they forgot that they had to make an actual movie.

In Daddy’s Home, Ferrell plays Brad, the nebbish new husband of Sarah (Linda Cardellini), who tries to vie for the affection of his new stepchildren. Then, all of a sudden, Sarah’s deadbeat ex-husband, Dusty (Wahlberg), comes to town to see his children. Dusty has no knowledge of Brad–an issue that never gets resolved–and does everything in his power to bully him and make him feel inferior while trying to win Sarah and his kids back.

The film has very few laughs, despite its talent, and feels obviously reliant on its credentialed leads. There is no real meat to the plot and never builds momentum. It just muddles along until about the last 15 minutes, when it actually attempts to go somewhere with its empty premise. It’s literally an hour and a half of Dusty bullying Brad and everyone in the film laughing about it. It’s relentless. And there’s no back and forth either. All of the humility is on Ferrell’s character.

Brad can’t have children because of radiation exposure to his genitals, so Dusty belittles him by convincing him that Sarah wants more children and that he won’t be able to provide for her. But it turns out that Sarah is the one with no scrotum, as she does nothing to stop Dusty’s harassment, and even sides with him a few times. What an appealing movie.

We feel bad for Ferrell’s character the whole time (or at least we should) that it makes none of this funny. But with Ferrell comes insensitivity. He almost begs us to be okay with him being put down. And although he provides almost all of the laughs in this film, it would have almost been better if he wasn’t in it. Maybe then the writers would have been okay with giving the movie some real meaning.

The biggest problem is that Ferrell doesn’t fit in this type of role. He’s at his true best when he’s the one playing the douchey guy (Anchorman, Talladega Nights). Then his foibles are exposed and it’s pure ironic genius. Personally, I don’t like seeing him in these types of roles.

I just couldn’t help feeling the entire time that this was just a lazily put together product. In fact, at one point in the movie I believe the camera actually shakes as if it was bumped slightly.

The only saving grace is Thomas Hayden Church’s character. He plays Brad’s coworker at the smooth jazz radio station. He provides us with a few off-kilter quips of insight which are better bottled up and served separately from the rest of the film.

Unless you enjoy an entire movie where everyone worships the antagonist to the delight of the audience, you won’t be pandered by this. The epicaricacy borders on sadistic. And when the redemption finally comes in the end, it doesn’t make up for anything. The people who like this film must get their psyche fully evaluated.

Twizard Rating: 42

Quick Movie Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)

hateful8

Don’t go into this Quentin Tarantino film and expect it not to be over-the-top bloody. In fact, after the first hour and a half, you think maybe it’s not going to be. Guess again. Perhaps Tarantino does this to create suspense during a time in the movie where tension comes merely from his captivating dialogue.

Like a Steinbeck novel, taking several pages to paint the scene and get to know the situation in order to make it live in our heads, The Hateful Eight doesn’t rush anything. Some may not like this approach, but it’s done in order for us to live in the world that has been created.

The pacing starts off slower than usual, but builds at a consistent pace. Every word that is spoken is positioned very carefully. This is what Tarantino shines at. He doesn’t make boring dialogue and he doesn’t waste pages. If he makes a three hour movie, it’s going to be for a reason.

The Hateful Eight is a western mystery in the style of Reservoir Dogs. Kurt Russell plays a bounty hunter who is bringing his prisoner, Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the town of Red Rock for her to be hanged. Along the way, he picks up Marquis (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter who soon becomes the main protagonist of the film.

Jackson is always at his very best when teamed up with Tarantino–a fact that has been proven time and time again. His tumult matches up perfectly with the director’s exploitation style of filmmaking.

Leigh’s performance might be this year’s best. She does an incredible job, and without saying much, controls the tone of the entire film with her insanely believable machination. You stop and ask yourself if they picked up the actress from the loony bin before filming.

Everything is perfect, from the camerawork to the set pieces to the enthralling musical score. I attended the 70mm Roadshow screening, which is a unique experience in itself, fully equipped with a large program and a 10-minute intermission.

If you like Tarantino, you will surely like this movie, but if you’re not a fan of his gruesome flair, then be warned that this one is probably his most violent.

It doesn’t have quite the same impact as, say, Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained, but it’s refreshing to see a neo-Western done so simply, yet not by-the-numbers. It might not be the story you were hoping for following his previous two, but as far as filmmaking goes, The Hateful Eight may be the year’s most solid selection.

Twizard Rating: 100

Quick Movie Review: Concussion (2015)

concussion

Will Smith can carry a movie as well as anyone in Hollywood, and he’s been doing it for about the last 20 years. In Concussion he plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian pathologist working in Pittsburgh, who notices something he’s never seen before when conducting an autopsy on former NFL player Mike Webster. It turns out that it’s a new brain condition that causes its victim to enter a deep depression. He names it chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Smith does an amazing job as Omalu. He doesn’t use his lilt robotically, but commits to every inflection along the way, providing a very natural delivery that makes us believe he is Nigerian.

The filmmakers may not take a lot of risks with Smith’s character, pinning him as the interminable hero–which he undeniably is. But I think many people would have wanted to visit his weaknesses a little bit more, other than the first 15 minutes when it is merely stated that he has no human relationships. This gets taken care of fairly quickly with the introduction of Prema, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a Kenyan nurse who needs a place to live and develops a relationship with Omalu.

Even though Smith’s character doesn’t face a whole lot of moral dilemma, he is so earnest that he becomes honorable–a personage to cherish in cinema. Smith brings his own personality to the film, and although he’s fully committed, you are comforted knowing that it’s him donning those grey sideburns.

There are a plethora of self-aware dialogue that may rub people the wrong way, but it’s paced very very well so as to not discount the script. With all the science that the story surrounds, it never makes itself confusing or convoluted by over-explaining the details.

Not that I was already fond of the NFL organization, but watching this movie makes me dislike them even more. I know the film tries to be unbiased at times, but the facts are all there pointing the other way.

But Concussion is about more than just football. It’s about the misconception of the American dream. The realization that that dream is rooted in monetary gain by any means necessary. And as Omalu discovers it, we do too. An organization that our society is loyally infatuated with isn’t all that we romanticize it to be.

Driven by Peter Landesman’s honest direction and a score composed by James Newton Howard, which helps drive the intensity of the film, Concussion is one of my favorite films of the year. It isn’t perfect, but it’s very good. And more than anything, it’s powerful–which, in this case, may be the most important factor of all.

Twizard Rating: 94