Movie Review: Ex Machina

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A very effective minimalist movie with high production value. A character driven look into what it means to be human.  The ending is a bit flawed.

What does it mean to be human?  Where is that line and when does one cross it?  “Ex Machina” provides a compelling narrative that focuses on those questions.  A young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), works at a fictional Google-like company and he wins a lottery which allows him to visit the reclusive brilliant owner of the company, Nathan (Oscar Issac), at his isolated retreat for a week.  It is soon revealed that the real reason Caleb is there is so he can perform a Turing Test on Nathan’s super-secret artificial intelligence, Ava (Alicia Vikander).  A Turing Test is a thought exercise in which a human interacts with an artificial intelligence (AI) to see if the AI exhibits any traits of being non-human.

The movie is broken down into a series of meetings between Caleb and Ava and then a follow-up on the events between Caleb and Nathan.  When you have a movie that consists almost entirely of one-on-one interactions, the dialogue better be good and “Ex Machina” provides a wonderful script.  To back up the wonderful writing, there is a perfectly themed musical score that helps establish the mood and leads to a deeper sense of tension and foreboding.  Movement, language, and music combine into a single on-screen entity.  It is near masterful.

Then comes the ending.  The ending isn’t bad, it’s just kind of unfulfilling.  There are a bunch of loose ends that don’t make much sense.  There is a moment when the end should have occurred, but it kept on going.  I always blame endings like this on test audiences and studio executives.  A good movie got made, but the ending was the price the director paid to get it made in the first place.

Despite the less than fulfilling ending, “Ex Machina” is worth seeing.  You don’t get many compelling, dialogue driven movies these days what with the superheroes and the explosions so it’s good to see the United States is still capable of creating compelling movies that deviate from the norm.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Too many heroes spoils the plot.  Sufficiently comic-y action sequences.  Some good self-effacing humor.

This is the Avengers I was afraid of.  “Age of Ultron” is a “cram everything in so it’s stuffed full of what everyone wants” type of movie that leaves you feeling a bit empty.  It’s not that it wasn’t fun, because it certainly was at times, it’s more that it’s forgettable.  The movie is also not helped by the flimsy narrative which doesn’t give much to build on for the Marvel uninitiated.  I am somewhere in between and I was often left with a questioning look at various parts of the movie.  This often happens with the closing credit easter eggs that foretell the next movies, but to have these moments in the middle of a movie is inexcusable.  For instance, there is a new superhero introduced over half way through the film.  If like me you do not know the mythology, you will be completely lost as to how they fail to give him a name throughout even though he ends up joining the Avengers at the end.

The action in the movie is equal parts fun and sensory overload.  There’s lots of comic-y stuff going on for the overly geeky.  Lots of combo moves that you know damn well have names to them that “in the know” comic book geeks everywhere are cackling gleefully about as they occur on the screen.  The problem is that when you have a group of superpowered superheroes doing battle with a mostly pedestrian villain, the only way to make fights even remotely interesting is to throw the kitchen sink at them.  This leads to a garbled mess of a fight that can only be enjoyed by showing a once in the while slow motion vingette of action.

The one part where “Age of Ultron” shines is in its humor.  This is all Joss Whedon.  He is equal parts superfan and able to recognize the absurdity of the genre and he uses that gift with great results.  There is some great Thor’s hammer humor as well as Hawkeye’s self-effacing recognitions of how underpowered he is.

The biggest problem is Ultron.  His creation is poorly explained, his motivations are childish, the Avengers’ reactions to him make little sense, and he’s just not that interesting of a villain as a result.  I blame this on having too many A-list superheroes in the same movie all of whom need their individual moments of glory.  That’s how you end up with a two and a half hour movie with a shoestring plot.

Yes, the movie was fun.  Yes, you should see it if you’re a fan of superhero movies.  No, you will likely not look back at it with the fondness of the first Avengers movie.  Ultron ain’t no Loki.

We All Deserve Hell And Anything Better Warrants Profuse Gratitude

This is about the recent Baltimore riots and, more specifically, the reactions to it partly by people I know.  If you’re sick of hearing about this topic, be forewarned.  It is also likely to be long and meandering just like the conversation that sparked it.  I stayed out of the conversation because I did not want to interact with the kind of people which it attracted and I could not think of any constructive way to pithily say what needed to be said.  Plus, this is Facebook we’re talking about here.  Nuff said.

It all started with a friend posting a link to the Baltimore riots with the personal comment, “Looks like a great application for rubber bullets. There’s nothing that protects these people, as they are not “peacefully” protesting.”  Normally, I would let a tone-deaf and completely lacking of a shred of empathy comment go because, again, Facebook.  You have to pick your battles and the rest of the conversation got worse very quickly.  But since I’m here writing about it, rubber bullets kill people.  By making that comment, you’re basically condemning a certain amount of the rioters and likely some innocent bystanders to serious injury or death.  Not to mention, “these people”, seriously?  How you use words matter.  Using “these people”, “those people”, “you people” is using language couched in a very long history of racism.  You may not mean it as racist, but it sure makes you sound the part.  That a person would use language like that shows a profound lack of historical context at the very best.  How difficult would it to have come up with “these rioters”?

I continued to read the comments because I’m stupid.  What followed was, again, many comments that can, at the very best interpretation, be considered as showing a profound lack of historical context.  The one comment that really set my teeth on edge was from a person who apparently gets all her history lessons by reading Bill O’Reilly books because she said the following when commenting about how horrible these rioters are: “What did the black community in America do when Dr. King was shot? Murdered, some say, by the whites in power who didn’t want the blacks to be equal. What did they do? Burn down buildings? Throw bricks at cops? Etc? No. They MADE A DIFFERENT CHOICE.”  Holy fuck me with a sharp stick, Batman.  This comment shows just how completely Martin Luther King Jr.’s message has been usurped by the Right to attack any sort of violent actions by Blacks in America.  I felt sure that someone would have corrected that ahistorical drivel so I continued reading.  Not a single word.  For those of you that may be unaware, some of the worse rioting in American history happened after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  Hundreds of people were killed.  Not to mention, marches by the good Doctor also sometimes turned violent after severe provocation by police.  Police often are the instigators of riots either on purpose, Birmingham for example, or accidentally as some evidence out of Baltimore is now showing where it appears they prevented school children from getting home in a timely manner by cancelling bus and train routes that they use, thus forcing large groups to congregate in small spaces and then came at them with full riot gear.

The same woman also had the nerve to suggest that people would just ignore her opinion because she was white: “I’m not wrong. I’m just white, so my opinion doesn’t count, right?”  Um, no.  You are wrong because your opinions are so obviously based on a severe lack of understanding of the issues at hand that you should be embarrassed to even state an opinion.  This is a fundamental problem with humanity that causes many wrongs.  People feel like they need to have an opinion.  You don’t.  It’s ok to say, “Race relations in America have a complex and vast history and my life is too busy for me to even try to get into it so I’m going to just sit back and soak up the conversation about this topic I know nothing about.”  I don’t exclude myself from that criticism as, I’m sure, I am at times guilty of it.  That’s again why I try to pick my battles on Facebook to topics I know a fair amount about.

The conversation then turned Religulous.  The true source of these riots is lack of morals and loss of faith.  That sort of nonsense.  Things are bad now because of lack of faith in God, but things are better than they were then because of God.  My view is that things are as they always have been and very little has changed.  (*sarcasm* But Obama!)  Again, I tend to ignore stuff like this unless I have something useful to say and I would have this time too except that the original poster then said what you see in the subject line.  Here’s the entire context: “Most Americans believe that the world owes them something. Regardless of race, college students indicate that they deserve a job, those without means believe that they’re entitled to welfare, those without health insurance believe they’re entitled to health care, etc. Wealthy people and those in power feel they deserve the lifestyle they want, even at the expense of others. Most young people believe they deserve 15 minutes of fame. The fact is, people aught to care for one another and one another’s needs, but in the grand scheme of things, we all deserve hell and anything better warrants profuse gratitude.”  I am not sure I have ever heard a sentence more filled with poison than that last sentence.  That it is also couched in the context of a religion of supposed peace makes it all the more vile.  Anything better than hell warrants profuse gratitude.  Profusely grateful to whom?  I am poor and have cancer and my governor refused Medicaid expansion which means there’s no money to pay for my treatment and I’m going to die, but thank you government!  Profusely!  I lost my job because of the at best immoral and at worse illegal actions of a few people and the government rewards those people by bailing them out and not prosecuting them, but at least I get food stamps so I don’t die of starvation for a limited time dictated by a group of people who can not even begin to imagine the situation I am in, but thank you government!  Profusely!

There is an idiotic attack against Atheists that asks, If Atheists don’t believe in God how can they believe in right and wrong?  It’s idiotic because there are plenty of examples of Atheists being just as moral and upstanding as any Theists.  Not high praise, I know, but the point is Atheists are subject to the same mutually agreed upon morality as the rest of the world but just disagree with the source of said morality.  If religion in America is going to continue on the “we all deserve hell and anything better warrants profuse gratitude” track that it seems to be on, Atheists are going to win this morality battle just as surely as same-sex marriage proponents will win theirs.

I should also mention that I don’t mean to sound like the entire conversation was horrible.  There are some very intelligent and well thought out responses to a lot of what was talked about.  There are people, both black and white, that seem to get it.  We’re still a long way from the end of this particular conversation, though.

Movie Review: True Story

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: An unusual movie with unusual stars.  Well acted.  Well paced.  Some parts don’t fit well into the narrative.

I knew next to nothing about this movie going in.  Only that it starred Jonah Hill and James Franco.  Despite that starring duo, this is not a comedy.  So not a comedy.  James Franco has long since established himself as a versatile actor so seeing a great dramatic performance by him is not surprising.  Prior to “True Story”, Jonah Hill has been mostly a comedy guy.  Even in “Moneyball”, which is considered more of a serious movie, he was still the comic relief.  With his performance in this movie, Jonah Hill will likely open up many doors to more serious roles.

Shockingly enough, “True Story” is based on a true story.  And it’s one of those truth is stranger than fiction stories.  Reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) accidentally discovers a story about a man named Christian Longo (James Franco) who is accused of killing his family and then assuming Finkel’s identity while on the run.  Finkel and Longo then strike up a parasitic relationship of sorts.  Much of the movie’s time focuses on that relationship.

This is a movie with a lot of subtleness in it so it requires your full attention.  As this is mostly a duel of words between Finkel and Longo, phrases and facial expressions become important.  There are some great moments of creeping realizations and mock emotions showing across the faces of both Finkel and Longo throughout.  Can Finkel trust Longo?  Can Longo trust Finkel?  They both have much to gain and little to lose from their relationship so we look to their faces for subtle clues that may lead to the truth.

My only real problem with the movie is the unusual amount of time spent on Finkel’s girlfriend, Jill Barker (Felicity Jones).  She is used to great effect as a sort of tension builder and she also has a pretty effective confrontation scene near the end of the film even if it doesn’t quite make sense.  She just seems to not belong to the movie, though.  She’s kind of outside of the story looking in.  It works, but even after the film was over I was left wondering why she was there.

The creepiness factor of James Franco alone makes this movie worth seeing.  Add the good performance by Jonah Hill and the strange but true plot line and you have a movie worth seeing.  It’s definitely not a light watching movie, though, so be prepared to pay attention and watch out for some creepy pictures of dead children.

Movie Review: Woman In Gold

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: An interesting true story of one woman’s fight to get back a painting that was taken from her family.  It’s got Helen Mirren, so yea, good acting.  Even Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly good.

The recent 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide is a stark reminder of how difficult it is to get a government to admit past wrongdoings, let alone make amends for the worngdoings that would otherwise be easily fixable.  Nationalism has a lot to do with that.  It allows you to turn a blind eye to both.  Thus was Austria in the 1990’s.  Germany was forced to reconcile its wrongdoings after World War II, but Austria was able to claim it was a conquered nation, which is technically true except for the fact that the Nazis were welcomed with open arms by a good portion of the population.  This allowed Austria to blithely keep tons of treasures stolen from Jewish families that were exiled, escaped, or were murdered and claim ignorance of the fact.  “Woman in Gold” is the true story of one woman’s fight to force Austria to confront its demons and make right what it got so very wrong.

At the center of the story is a Gustav Klimt painting called “Portrait of Adele”, or for a short time because of the subject’s Jewishness “Woman in Gold”.  Yep, that’s right.  The Nazis changed the name of a painting because it portrayed a Jewish woman.  Sick fucks.  Maria Altman (Helen Mirren) is the daughter and rightful heir of both “Portrait of Adele” (who also happened to be Maria’s aunt) and other Klimt paintings and despite the obviousness of this fact, Austria continued to maintain ownership.  The movie is about her fight to get her possessions back.

The movie is very well acted (because Helen Mirren) and strikes a very good balance between uplifting and depressing.  Even Ryan Reynolds turns in a good performance as Maria’s unlikely lawyer, Randol Schoenberg.  It’s not quite the role you’d expect Reynolds to play so kudos to him for successfully branching out.  It was very interesting how they took what is really an incredibly boring and technical real life courtroom drama and just used the necessary bits and pieces of that drama to tell a wide-ranging and emotional true story.

I am a sucker for well told true history movies so obviously I would recommend this movie to just about anyone.  It tell a story that would normally fall through the cracks of history and tells it well.  States need to confront their past and make amends for their future.  If only we were capable of such.

Book Review: Winter Of The World by Ken Follett

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

“Winter of the World” is book two of the “Century Trilogy” by Ken Follett.  Book two follows historical events from the rise of Nazism in 1933, through World War II, and ends in 1949 with the Soviet nuclear test and partitioning of East and West Germany.  Most of the cast of characters in book two will be familiar to readers of book one as they are almost exclusively the offspring of the characters from the first book.

Much of what I said about “Fall of Giants” applies equally to “Winter of the World”.  The historical fiction parts are quite interesting and offer rare glimpses of historical facts that were not covered in your history classes, albeit often with the ahistorical characters in the novel involved.  Follett also still has problems with writing romantic relationships, but they are much more tolerable in this book than they were in the first or I am just so used to his style that I don’t much recognize how bad it is anymore.

What makes this book so readable has much to do with the characters themselves.  Almost all are relatable.  They have recognizable flaws and believable character progressions.  Characters like Eric von Ulrich who falls so completely for Nazism only to be disillusioned by it after experiencing its brutality first hand during the war only to get completely swept up in Soviet Communism which followed much of the Nazi atrocity playbook in East Germany.

There is a disjointedness to this novel that wasn’t apparent in the first.  I think this has much to do with Follett having so much more historical material to work with as we get closer to present day and its better record keeping.  How do you choose what you want to cover and what you want to exclude?  For instance, I assume Follett covered Pearl Harbor for the sole reason that Americans wouldn’t read his book if he didn’t.  It and the cursory glances into the Pacific Theater seem so out of place with the rest of the book.  Other major events are excluded completely or only hinted at.

There is also a bit too much of the East Bad, West Good thing going on.  By no means are the U.S. and U.K. portrayed as angels, but German and Russian atrocities certainly take center stage.  How do you not even mention Japanese internment or the bombing of Dresden?  How do you mention the mass rape of German women by Russian soldiers while actively pointing out that the characters had never heard of American or British troops committing the same heinous acts even though it is fairly well documented that they did?  And how do you not mention the Holocaust even once?

Once again, we have a good book with flaws but is worth reading on balance.  Good characters, decent enough story, vibrant historical background.  The book has much to offer.  At 940 pages, it is a lot of book to get through, though.  If you don’t find that daunting and you’re willing to pick up the trilogy, I still think you will find your time not wasted.

Movie Review: Furious 7

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A silly but fun movie.  A little too long for an action movie.  Yes, you will roll your eyes at times, but that’s to be expected.

Believe it or not, this is the first of the “Fast and Furious” movies that I have seen.  I took the extremely easy gamble that there was very little backstory worth knowing for the cast of returning characters and lo and behold I was right.

The movie opens with Dekard Shaw (Jason Statham) in a hospital room talking to his injured and presumed comatose brother and vowing revenge upon those who put him in the hospital.  Then Dekard Shaw leaves the hospital.  I mention this scene because, as you will see if you watch “Furious 7″, it sets the stage beautifully for the kind of film you are in for.  All flash and style and very little substance.  Knowing this from the beginning can be the key to enjoying this type of movie.

The movie has lots of cars, lots of action, lots of hardbodies (both male and female), and lots of ridiculousness.  The latter is ok because everyone is in on the joke.  And speaking of jokes, there are none in this film.  Check that.  Roman (Tyrese Gibson) is supposed to be the comic relief but everything he does falls flat.  In fact, the only way you will know that Roman is supposed to be the comic relief is everybody’s repeated insistence that Roman is the comic relief.  On some level, the writers must have known this and used the other characters as a sort of “Applause” sign to tell the audience when to laugh.

There is a little bit too much setup and, at 137 minutes, “Furious 7″ tries the patience somewhat for an action movie with little story to tell.  Somewhat disappointingly, most of the cool scenes can be viewed in the trailers for the movie and you are just treated to longer versions of the trailer.  All of this is ok because you know what you’re getting into when you sit down to see a movie like “Furious 7″.  It is light, fluffy, forgettable, and fun to watch once.  Once.

Movie Review: The Chambermaid

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom line: Some interesting glimpses at obsession and compulsion. Otherwise, a story that falls flat and refused to hold my interest.

Lynn is a chambermaid in a hotel.  As the movie begins, she is just getting her job back after a mysterious absence.  It is soon revealed that she was self-institutionalized for some reason and as the movie progresses, that reason becomes clear.  Lynn has compulsions.  Luckily (?) for her, cleaning is one of them.  The other has to do with her hiding under guests beds and getting a voyeuristic look into various guests’ habits.  During one of her under bed adventures, a guest has a dominatrix over and the session so piques Lynn’s interest that she steals the dominatrix’s contact information and starts sessions of her own.  Lynn’s compulsions gradually get worse as the film progresses and then the film kind of just ends on a very strange note.

There is a lot of film student stuff going on in this movie that I can recognize, but just not appreciate without a compelling story to go with it.  A vast majority of Lynn’s time under the various beds are shot solely from Lynn’s under bed perspective.  The use of camera angles and lighting and strategic mirrors is very well done.  The musical score is also noticeably appropriate.

Whenever I don’t get a film as much as I didn’t get “The Chambermaid”, I always attempt to see what actual critics think and the consensus seems to be general praise.  Strangely, many picked up on a blurb from somewhere that called “The Chambermaid” the “Fifty Shades of Grey” of Germany.  They seemed to be saying that as a compliment, but I can only imagine that they know nothing about “Fifty Shades” or were using it as a backhanded compliment while still rightfully praising the cinematographic accomplishments of the film.

I really can’t recommend “The Chambermaid” unless you’re all into that fancy technical directorial stuff.  I’m pretty sure at this point I should just give up on seeing German films.  Of the three German films I saw for the film festival, only one was any good and that one was only nominally German.

Movie Review: Open Up To Me

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A wonderful, positive, realistic look at what it’s like living as a transwoman in Finland.  Starts with an unusual premise and roll with it into a beautiful character study of all the people the main character interacts with.

I am way behind on my EU Film Festival movie reviews.  “Open Up To Me” is the last of the films, but it’s fresh in my memory and was so delightful and such a great way to end the festival that I wanted to get it down first.

Maarit (Leea Klemola) is a transwoman trying to get by in Helsinki.  Despite formerly being a school counselor, she faces discrimination after her transformation and must work as a cleaning lady to make ends meet.  When going to clean the office of a therapist, she discovers that the therapist must go out of town for a couple of weeks to deal with an emergency.  Using this newfound guaranteed privacy, she decides to try on some of the therapists clothes.  (As an aside, this marks the second movie of the festival that features a cleaning lady trying on other people’s clothes.  Strange that.)  While in the therapist’s clothes, a new client, Sami (Peter Franzen) shows up asking for marital advice and Maarit poses as a real therapist and helps him.  They develop a relationship through this and the movie blossoms into a character study of a handful of the individuals in Maarit’s life.

I obviously have no experience being a transwoman, but this movie feels perfectly organic the way it portrays trans issues.  There’s the daunting dating scene.  There’s the discriminating job market. There’s the angry and confused ex-wife.  There’s the teenage daughter who barely understands the new dynamic thrust upon her.  All of it is handled wonderfully and it is the key to what makes this movie work.  There is humor and love and heartache and betrayal and confusion all rolled together to form the life of Maarit.

My one complaint about the movie is a brief fifteen minute or so bit of disjointedness.  The movie kind of loses its way at this point, but it picks it up quickly where it left off and ends on one of the better feel good movie ending lines I’ve witnessed.  If you have a chance to see this foreign film gem, I highly recommend it.

Movie Review: The Gunman

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 1/5 stars

Bottom Line: A convoluted mess of a movie.  Some good action interspersed between confusing plot points.  Sean Penn did this movie to show off his awesomely sculpted 55 year old body and his deep concern for Africa.

See Sean Penn.  See Sean Penn assassinate a Democratic Republic of Congo high-level minister.  See eight years elapse.  See Sean Penn care about Africa.  Care, Sean Penn, care!  See people attempt to kill Sean Penn.  See Sean Penn run.  Run, Sean Penn, run!

Thus sums up “The Gunman”.  Sure, there’s more to it.  There’s a highly accomplished female doctor turned wallowy damsel-in-distress.  There’s a weird sub-plot involving Sean Penn’s character’s brain damage.  There’s a mystery appearance by Idris Elba which I’m still trying to figure out.  There’s also a lot of boring.

The biggest problem is nobody’s motivation is ever quite clear.  People are going through a whole lot of trouble and manpower to kill Sean Penn, but none of it ever seems worth it given the stakes.  As the movie comes to its final confrontation, it’s as if the director recognized this and threw in the most ridiculous final chase scene in movie history.  It involves a crowded bull ring and the main villain being gored by a bull.  I am not really spoiling anything by saying that as they foreshadow it happening for a good ten minutes before it occurs.

Leave this one alone.  It’s not even worth your time to watch in the comfort of your own home. Unless, I suppose, you’re absolutely desperate for some sculpted Sean Penn torso, I guess.  Sure, the action scenes are kind of well done, but the lead up to them is not worth your effort.