Ex Machina Review

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With technological possibilities widening by the day, it seems as though society is more fearful of being possessed by artificial intelligence than ever before. After all, if we can barely go a day without our I-Phone on hand where could we go if they all could decide to rebel, and turn off. Along with that, what choices will we make if there comes a time where we could fall in love with something that could never grow old or die, something with intellect spanning eons beyond our own. The Spike Jonze film Her explored this a couple year ago, and now, in Ex Machina, that question is not only deepened, but darkened.

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We begin in the near future with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programer at the mass-used search engine Bluebook, winning a contest to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire creator of the company, and stay with him for a week. Flying for hundreds of miles through Nathan’s massive estate, Caleb finds an affable and friendly man in Nathan, even if he does succumb to alcohol a bit more than he should. Nathan gives Caleb a proposal, he claims that he has invented the most advanced artificial intelligence ever built, and if he signs an NDA, he can meet, and interact with her for the whole week. Yes, her, a seemingly fully grown human woman built entirely of metal and synthetic skin, Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a curious and sociable being, who takes an interest in Caleb almost immediately. The question is, is it genuine interest, or just crafty programming?

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Ex Machina is the kind of Sci-Fi that comes rarely in this day in age. Deliberately paced, and contemplative, first time director and long time Danny Boyle screenwriter Alex Garland paces his film out more like a novella than anything. The story is fairly condensed and confined, but full of rich themes dealing with sexual imprisonment, the nature of attraction, and the parallels between man and machine. All of this is wonderfully crafted and un-pretentious due to Garland’s crackling dialogue, particularly what is given to Nathan, who brings everything back down to earth with his devil may care attitude whenever things are getting a touch too cerebral.

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The performances are uniformly stellar. Gleeson makes for a compelling lead, reserved and pensive while still utterly empathetic. Even if his is not the most flashy turn in the film, he anchors the others nicely. Isaac is electric as always, bringing eccentricity, arrogance, and humanity to Nathan, who’s obsession with creating life is paired with his own inadequacies and insecurities. He provides all the film’s funniest moments as he toys with Caleb. However, the real stand-out here is the previously unknown Vikander. Initially seeming like an intelligent but fairly blank slate, she slowly curves our perception of her into a wickedly crafty, sexual being with an assertive taste for what she wants. Both sweet and scary, she absorbs attention whenever she’s on screen, with masterful visual effects (a great deal of which seem practical) aiding her robotic movements and mannerisms.

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As strong as most of this movie is, there are some narrative hiccups here and there. For one, since the story is laboriously structured around Caleb’s daily sessions with Ava, and as such, the movie falls into a fairly repetitive grove after a while that feels redundant when pieces of the eventually mystery aren’t being revealed. Also, as thematically rich as certain parts of the film are, the ending feels like a major stretch to try and mold to those themes. Parts of it simply don’t seem to make sense with the characterization that has been established before, ultimately coming across as needlessly maudlin. By that same token, the ending drags out a great deal, finding several perfect points to stop, and then continuing to a decent, but not quite as impactful, final frame.

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Ex Machina is a rich Sci Fi guided by ideas and intellect that uses visual effects as a seasoning instead of a spice, and that is instantly and deeply commendable. Beyond that, it’s a well acted, and impressively realized vision, especially for a first time director. However, it never quite gets into great territory, as the emotional impact of it’s biggest moments is slightly dulled by some nonsensical choices that could have tied in better with that film’s theme. It may be a little artificially intelligent, but it’s good enough to be intelligent at all.

Grade: B+

Unfriended Review

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Every generation has a horror movie or two that completely encapsulates the fears brought about by their primary method of expression. In the 80s, Friday The 13th turned the campsites of free drinks, drugs, and love into blood soaked grave-sites, In the 90s, The Blair Witch Project created an entirely new genre using our obsession with portable and accessible video as it’s weapon, and now in 2015, Unfriended takes on the horrors of the internet. We live in an age where anybody’s life and attention is up for grabs at any time, certainly a monster of sorts that may not take a concrete form, but looms over us all waiting for us to make a mistake. Those mistakes, are the catalyst of Unfriended.

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The movie takes place entirely on the laptop screen of Blaire (Shelley Hennig), a high school senior who thinks that this night will end like any other, on Skype with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) and their three friends. However, things take a turn when a mysterious caller joins in, sending threatening messages to the group along with personal attacks to Blaire, claiming to be Laura (Heather Sossaman) a girl who committed suicide a year earlier due to cyber-bulling committed at least in part by each member of this call. As her attacks go on, it becomes clear that her threats are very real, as she confines our band of jackasses to the call, picking them off one by one.

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Unfriended is instantly commendable for it’s commitment to it’s unique format. Seeing as we never leave Blaire’s computer, it in turn leads to several tension building techniques that are not only effective, but realistic. Blaire will multitask, opening up other windows and sending messages as she tries to piece together what is going on. This makes each tone or page of Skype or Facebook extremely ominous, as the film plays on our familiarity with them to punctuate important points. Each message could be something critical. Beyond that, the film avoids the pitfall of crystal clear video chat reception that plagues so many movies that portray it. The reception is often spotty, and those lapses of video and audio make for wonderful tension, leaving what could be happening to the imagination. While certainly gory in small doses, the film admirably leaves a great deal of it’s shock value within this tension, and as such comes across as restrained and effective.

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It helps that the characters, while certainly reprehensible in their own ways, are given just enough depth and personality to make them engaging. As we find out just how far their depravity has gone, they either have fairly clear motivations, or freely admit that they didn’t have a motive, simply getting caught up in the temptations of a digital age. Beyond that, the chemistry between them is constantly engaging and often quite funny, with pettiness galore, which comes out most prevalently in the most high stakes game of Never Have I Ever on film to date. However, it does hurt a bit that there is nobody to really and truly like. There was not a moment where I wasn’t sympathetic to Laura, which makes the emotional elements of the story a bit lopsided.

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The film also majorly and disappointingly cops out at it’s conclusion. What is so tragic here, is that just seconds before the ending does hit, something truly profound and heartbreaking happens. Something so poetically perfect, that it would have given me chills for hours afterwards if it was not ruined. Sure, it’s subtle, but it’s the conclusion this film deserves, and the tacked on final jump scare screams of studio interference.

Is Unfriended the next horror masterpiece? No. However, it not only manages to balance originality with solid storytelling, but it’s a short, tightly paced little creep-fest that remains engaging from moment one, even if it majorly undercuts itself on the home stretch. Who knows, it just might find itself in the annals of horror history for format alone, and if anything, it makes for a damn good screensaver on a lonely, dark friday night.

Rating: B

Furious 7 Review

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The Fast and the Furious franchise has always been a fascinating mesh of the most machismo of blockbuster tropes, with the genuine emotion and chemistry that comes from having a cast that has spent years together, and as such loves each other as much as the characters they’re playing do. This dynamic has been what separates it from other blockbusters that some would claim are just as superficial, and it plays into what will always be so tragic about this particular installment. The loss of Paul Walker in November 2013 not only affected the production of this film, but also deeply scarred the cast, who promised to give us the absolute best film, and send off for their fallen brother that they could. In some ways, this film acts as a climax of about fourteen years of history. No pressure.

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We pick up almost immediately after the events of the previous film, with defeated criminal Owen Shaw’s (Luke Evans) bother Deckard (Jason Statham) vowing revenge against Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Bryan O’Conner (Paul Walker) and their crew after murdering one of their own. Being that Deckard is special forces, he could be anywhere at any time, as the crew quickly finds out through the hospitalization of Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), and the destruction of their home. Luckily, it seems like they may have a way to find him, as a mysterious government agent (Kurt Russell) offers them a way to track shaw down, offering them use of a tracking device that hacks into any security camera it can find, if they can recover it from a group of terrorists.

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At this point, if you’re going into one of these movies, you should know exactly what you’re getting, high intensity action sequences with absolutely no realism or limits, along with the group dynamic we’ve come to love. This film delivers exactly that, in perhaps the most over the top, fun fashion in the series to date, while still adding enough of an emotional element to give everything stakes, something that the previous film lacked.

The cast perhaps won’t be up for any oscars next year, but they are reliable as ever. Diesel in particular shows a great deal more humanity here than normal, really selling us on his utter heartbreak at the loss of his friend, and his drive (see what I did there?) to get the job done no matter what. He also has affable chemistry with Walker, who has always acted as a great straight man to all the madness. Bryan O’ Conner is so much a part of who he is, that it’s especially clear here that the character needed to be retired here, and not replaced. The rest of our players do what they’ve been doing before to equally solid effect, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris acting as wry comic relief, Michelle Rodriguez giving us a nice emotional arc with Dom as she tries to remember the years of love with Dom that she lost to amnesia, and Dwayne Johnson giving the most cheesy action hero lines the spice that only The Rock could cook up. It also helps that Statham is by far the best villain of the series so far, icy and intimidating, he’s more a force of nature than anything else, and he makes it seem as though our characters are genuinely in danger.

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Director James Wan, who comes from making some of the absolute best horror films of the past decade (The Conjuring, Saw) faces not only the challenge of moving to something of a much larger scale with massive expectations behind it, but the logistical nightmare of covering up the material that Walker was unable to finish. Fortunately, he ascends to both challenges with grace and style, giving us by far some of the craziest stunt sequences we’ve seen in these films to date, done practically whenever possible, and it looks great. There’s a fluid mix of car chases, stunts that seem pulled out of a comic book, hand to hand combat (with some particularly fascinating camera-work), and shootouts, with enough variety where it does not start to feel repetitive until deep into the last act of the film. As for his treatment of Walker, it’s immaculate. The replacement of his body with that of either of his two brothers, Caleb and Cody, along with some CGI touch ups here and there is hardly even noticeable unless it’s really looked for, and is not distracting in the least. Along with that, the movie ends with a send-off of Bryan O’Conner that is so touching, that it’ll be hard to hold back tears, particularly in a final frame that is simply beautiful filmmaking.

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The film does run into problems with it’s length though. At a hefty two hours and twenty minutes, it becomes easy (especially towards the end of the film) to feel the bulk of sheer stimulation overload. With a bit of trimming, perhaps to an even two hours, the already tight pacing would have felt just right.  Also, there ends up being so many sub-villains, that some of them just feel like excuses to throw fight scenes in, particularly characters played by Rhonda Rousey and Tony Jaa. It’s just a bit too much of a good thing. Also, I wish that Wan had been allowed to put a bit more of his own stamp on this, incorporating less of his affinity for long takes and old school sensibilities than I would have liked, there are moments that just feel like Justin Lin is at the helm again.

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Furious 7 not only acts as yet another blazing installment of pure mayhem, but also as a resonant goodbye to one of the franchise’s key players. Perhaps it would be best to end the franchise on that final, beautiful frame, but seeing how much people love this gear-head version of Mission Impossible, I doubt that’ll be the case. As it is though, this is one of the best rides this series has ever given us, and I suggest you take it.

Rating: B+

Get Hard Review

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It seems as though there isn’t a buddy movie without Kevin Hart in it these days. Teaming up with the likes of Ice Cube, Josh Gad, and in the near future, Dwayne Johnson, the wildly charismatic funny-man seems to be able to pair with just about anyone he wants. However, what he somehow has never had until now, is an elite comedian to play off of. Yes, Hart and Will Ferrell seem to be a match made in heaven, as Farrell certainly knows a thing or two about having a period of being in seemingly every movie under the sun. Let’s see how they did, shall we?

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James King (Will Ferrell), a man who has collected a great deal of wealth through cooperate investments is living the prime rich white man life. Servants answer his every beck and call, there’s a promotion in his future, and he’s even got a hot trophy fiancee (Allison Bree) to bang when he has a minute. Hell, I don’t even think there’s a color that isn’t white in his entire house. However, he finds all of that is about to come crashing down when he gets incarcerated into maximum security prison for embezzlement that he believes he didn’t commit. Terrified, he enlists the help of car washer Darnell (Kevin Hart) whom he assumes has been to jail (although Darnell is a perfectly average family man), to help him prepare. Needing the money, Darnell bucks up, and goofiness ensues.

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Get Hard has been taking a lot of heat for it’s apparent racism and homophobia, and while some of those complaints may be valid, they are also slightly wasted on what is at the end of the day just a silly comedy. Yes, stereotypes run rampant here, and some of them even seem rather dated and out of touch, but to the film’s credit, nobody is left out of the loop on that tomato throwing. Everyone’s an idiot here, and as such, I felt fairly ok enjoying this goofy little movie for what it was, even if it certainly isn’t anything special.

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While this may not be the most fiery of comedic duos ever put on screen, these guys do what they can to help the silly set ups that they have. Ferrell plays up the silly, out of touch one percenter to the highest degree he can, ringing the biggest laughs out of the moments where that exterior starts to break (particularly when he starts inventing his own style of trash talking). Meanwhile, Hart is funny doing just about anything, and his reactions to Ferrell’s ignorance can sometimes save a badly written scene. I wish the two had some better back and forth, as they mainly shine when they’re given something more individual to do (Hart launches into a solo conversation between three different characters at one point that is actually really impressive), but they certainly carry what is ultimately pretty trite material.

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I can’t help but think that perhaps first time director Etan Cohen (who strangely enough helped write Tropic Thunder) was just not the right guy to take this on. He seems lost, not only in crafting solid set ups for these guys, but also in general filmmaking technique. This premise really could have made room for some genuine social commentary, especially if it took more time to either validate or invalidate Ferrell’s fears. However, since so much of it is training, it’s all hypothetical and as such, there’s never any real stakes to really make the laughs feel earned. Beyond that, there’s some really awkward editing here, particularly in the beginning, where between flashing back from an odd opening of Ferrell sobbing, to establishing the characters, does not begin the opening credits sequence until almost ten minutes into the film.

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If Get Hard had opened in 2006, it just might have been one of the most popular comedies of that year. The stereotypes it employs and cliched buddy troupes certainly would have felt more at home there. However, there is a fair amount of enjoyably and laughter to be had, particularly because Ferrell and Hart are just so talented and likable that if one can put the stupidity aside, they might have some fun. I won’t deny I enjoyed watching it, but if it were to ever come across my TV guide, I’d probably keep it behind bars.

Rating: C+

It Follows Review

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Horror films have always seemed to want to do nasty things to those folks who like to do the nasty. The teen couple who have sex in the woods are the first to get butchered, and if you do get yourself far enough to find a baby in your belly, it’s likely to be the antichrist. Since this trope is so ubiquitous, it’s shocking that it’s taken until It Follows for a horror film to truly delve into it. Sure, it dosen’t have a ghost in it, so it can’t be released wide in this climate, but quite honestly this film dosen’t seem to really care, yearning to bring back the style and tone of a vintage John Carpenter , or Tobe Hooper classic with a modern twist.

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We kick things off with Jay (Maika Monroe) about to go on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a fairly mysterious man who she’s just met. All seems fine and dandy between them, but Jay notices some strange behavior when Hugh seems to see people that she dosen’t. Unsure what to make of it, she goes ahead and has sex with him anyway, sealing her doom. You see, Hugh is infected with something of an STD (Sexually Transmitted Demon, if you will) that can take the form of any person, and will follow him and now Jay wherever they go. The only solution is to pass it along to somebody else, and even that will prove ineffective if the monster ends up catching and killing them.

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It Follows seeps into its audience’s sense of paranoia, and slowly spreads until it consumes the mind completely. From the moment Jay is infected, there is always someone lurking towards her, slowly but surely, ready to destroy her. It’s not a matter of these creatures making scary faces, or jumping out at random points, but the fact that they’re simply always there. Director David Robert Mitchell clearly has a great liking for a more classical, slow burn horror, and every single one of his scare set ups are all the more effective because of it. He unsettles by making no location safe, giving even the calmer scenes an added element of creepiness. I found myself searching for danger in each and every corner of the frame, knowing full well that the threat just might be lurking in the distance with the surreal, occasionally dizzying camerawork and blasting electronic score aiding the proceedings every step of the way.

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The performances are a solid cut above what you’d expect in a movie like this, subdued and authentic while still portraying the raw terror this situation would entail. Monroe in particular is not only stunning to look at, but has a deeply relatable presence that makes us intuitively care about her. It helps that she has a very solid group of young actors to play off of, and the film wisely avoids the trite family/friend tension that plagues so many cheep slasher films. Sure, these guys will bicker from time to time, but it occurs naturally in the scene, and not because of some forced reason in the script to add false drama. The only weak link is Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a longtime friend of Jay and her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) who’s constant yearning for Jay’s attention even at the most inopportune times grows tiresome.

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The only major issue comes in the film’s setting, which is some oddly ambiguous rung between yesteryear and today. Vintage TVs, movies, and cars run amuck, but so do cell phones and strange make-up mirrors that serve as mini Kindles for some reason. The older ascetics certainly aren’t a problem, but it would have been nice if the film had just committed to one time period, preferably around the 80s, as the heavily synth based score meshes beautifully there.

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Coming out of It Follows, I had it’s creepy imagery and deeply unsettling music running though my mind for hours on end. I was disturbed, but I also knew that I had just had a great time. It’s a film that is constantly keeping it’s audience guessing, disturbing them one minute, and then making them laugh the next, leading to a wonderfully entertaining experience at the movies. It’s one of the best, most original horror films that has come out of this decade, and whether you check it out now or use it for some added creeps around Halloween time, you owe it to yourself to see just how much a filmmaker who truly embraces his genre can bring to his material.

Rating: A-

Run All Night Review

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Judging from recent comments from elite level actor turned actor star Liam Neeson, his run as an ass kicker is nearing its end. After all, the man has to watch out for his health and certainly couldn’t be believable pummeling thug’s heads in ten years on. However, I’m starting to believe that he’s also thinking about giving up the way of the gun because quite simply, people are starting to tire of it, as there are only so many Taken 3s we can withstand. So considering that from this moment forward, any Neeson action outing could be his last, it’s about time that he start making them count!

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Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson), a former mob enforcer who has descended into alcoholism in light of his estrangement from his son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), is trying to lay low and live out the rest of his days without any more bloodshed. It seems to be working, even if he has to take the odd job as a Santa Claus for a mob christmas party now and again, until Michael happens upon a drug deal gone horribly wrong at the hand of Jimmy’s boss and best friend Shawn’s (Ed Harris) son Danny (Boyd Holbrook). When Jimmy finds himself having to kill Danny to protect Michael, the two men find themselves having to go on the run from Shawn’s murderous wrath, as well as the ensuing sea of police that start to follow the trail of blood.

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From the moment that Ed Harris barks at a group of drug dealers to leave his quarters because he is a “legitimate businessman” it becomes pretty clear that we’re getting nothing particularly new in Run All Night. It’s not a terrible surprise, since Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra have collaborated twice before on Unknown, and Non-Stop, which were both fairly standard as far as plot is concerned. However, as in those two films, this duo understands that if you’re going to do something generic, the least you can do is infuse it with a little energy of some kind. In Unknown and Non-Stop, they weaved winding mysteries for Neeson’s characters to solve, and here, it’s a palpable attention that is paid to character.

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Even when the basic premise here is at it’s most trite, what tends to save this film are the rather interesting dynamics that run though it. Sure, the estranged father and son trope isn’t anything particularly new, the movie isn’t satisfied to leave the conflict at the tired and true “you were never here daddy” cliche. Neeson and Kinnaman portray the rift with a solid amount of grit, and as we find out just how far into depravity Neeson slipped, the tension between the two becomes all the more understandable. It dosen’t just slip into the two of them being best friends when the plot suddenly needs it to, but allows mere begrudging respect guide Michael to see things his father’s way for one night. This is wonderfully paralleled with Harris, who gives a wonderful performance here as he experiences the hurt involved in trying to kill somebody he holds dear, because of what that person happened to do to his own flesh and blood. This constant ray of doubt runs through him more and more as the film goes on, and ensures that he never becomes just another cardboard villain.

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If anything, things just become boring once they do have to go into action. Neeson just seems tired with these types of sequences at this point, infusing almost none of the emotion that he brought to these scenes in earlier films, instead just going through the motions of what he has to do to move things forward. The set-ups aren’t anything to get excited about here either, with the standard close quarters fights, car chases, and shoot outs that we’ve even seen in other Neeson/Serra films. This story really could have benefitted from that extra jump start of style and emotion, and because it’s deprived of that, it little by little falls into the category of generic action film #50067. There’s also some pretty damn lousy editing, to the point where shots will repeat two or three times without any attempt to cover it up, and some choppy cutting in the tighter fights to cover up lousy choreography.

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There is certainly an attempt to bring something to Run All Night that stems beyond the blood and the bullets, and that is very appreciated. However, it all ultimately falls a bit flat due to phoned in execution, that really dosen’t seem to want to elevate the material above what is simply a passible TNT action movie. Neeson certainly is watchable, but I look forward to a long break from seeing him in these types of roles, as they just don’t seem to give him the cathartic rush that they used to, and hopefully, taking something a bit more intimate and character focussed will bring the master in him out once again.

Rating: B-

Chappie Review

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In 2009, at the tail end of a particularly mediocre summer, the world was treated to one of the most innovative films of the decade. This little 30 million dollar sci-fi flick, by the name of District 9, combined some of the richest alien mythology ever put on screen with thoughtful social commentary on the horrors of Apartheid, and it’s director Neill Blomkamp, was lauded as the next Ridley Scott. Six years, and one somewhat disappointing (but still enjoyable) follow up by the name of Elysium later, and we find ourselves at Chappie, Blomkamp’s final training run before he takes 0n something bigger with the iconic Alien franchise.

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Chappie takes place in around 2020 or so in a South Africa (what a surprise…) where some of the police force has been replaced with droids created by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), with a fair amount of success. However, Deon has bigger plans in mind, as he’s created the first fully functioning program for artificial intelligence, but unfortunately, his fickle boss (Sigourney Weaver) won’t give him anything to test it on. Taking matters into his own hands, he steals a partially destroyed droid, but as he’s on his way to test it, he’s kidnapped by three gangsters. These guys (two of which are played by and share the same names as Ninja and Yolandi from the rap duo Die Antwoord) need ten million dollars before an evil mob boss kills them, and they think that the childlike Chappie (Sharlto Copley), the being that Deon ultimately creates, just might be the thing to help them pull of the perfect heist.

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Chappie certainly isn’t breaking any new ground conceptually, as the whole childlike robot growing into itself trope has been mauled over time and time again. However, Blomkamp seems very aware of this, and is determined to take Chappie in thoughtful and original directions throughout. This is his somber, darkly humorous, hard-R version of a fairy tale, and as such it really does work.

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It certainly helps that Chappie is such a fascinating character, a childlike mind constantly being ripped between different ideologies. Deon wants him to engage his creativity, Yolandi wants him to learn slowly, and Ninja wants him to become tough and ruthless. As an impressionable baby he is constantly trying to adapt to each person, regardless of how smart he ends up becoming. Watching this transformation and conflict is all the more interesting due to Copley’s absolutely wonderful performance, where he not only does brilliant work establishing Chappie’s movement, but by melding innocence with intelligence.

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To my utter surprise, the supporting cast is also very strong. I normally find Dev Patel as bland as a bunch of rocks, but here he gives a rich and soulful turn as a man who just wants his creation to be a good man/robot/whatever, and will stop at nothing to engage Chappie’s morality. Also, while there was a great deal of well founded skepticism in casting Die Antwoord, these two actually ended up being up to the challenge. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not Shakespearian level or anything, but they fit the roles they’re given, making the best of it. Ninja provides some of the film’s biggest laughs with his utter hotheadedness, while Yolandi makes for a very atypical mother figure indeed. They actually seem like real south African gangsters, and not hired actors, which aids authenticity. Hugh Jackman also shows up as the film’s villain, who wants to get his own police robot off the ground by any means necessary, and while it’s a bit of a thin character, he infuses it with the same passion one would expect from him. The only one who is wasted is Weaver, who has such a small and ultimately insignificant role it’s a wonder they even cast her in the first place. Whatever gets her back into space i suppose…

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Where Chappie starts to falter a bit is in it’s acton sequences. Typical of Blomkamp, they’re brutal and well staged, but equally typical, they’re also a bit over stylized for the tone this film is going for. This comes out most in his overuse of slow motion shots, which I suppose is there to highlight the brutality of the violence, but because it’s used so often in other places that are just silly. It comes off as though he’s fettishising the violence a little bit, taking us out of the immediacy of everything and reminding us that we are in a movie. It ultimately undercuts the action sequences that do feel quick and powerful, and makes the whole affair feel a bit overcooked in this respect.

Chappie has been met with a brutally negative reception, with people comparing Blomkamp to the likes M. Night Shyamalan and quite frankly that is simply too harsh for what is such a shot of originality, humor, and pathos in the sci fi genre. Sure, he does ape a couple of the aesthetic choices he has made before, but he’s told an entirely different story. Any movie that has the balls to deal with the corruption of innocence in such a visceral and emotional way is pretty damn good in my book, and as far as I’m concerned, Blomkamp and Copley could make fifty more movies together and I would see each and every one of them.

Rating: B+

Focus Review

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A couple years ago, mega-star Will Smith’s clout almost entirely collapsed when his abysmal father-son day turned flop After Earth made next to nothing at the box office. His ego, which had been built entirely on his ability to always be able to open a movie was crushed, and for a while, he all but completely disappeared. However, he seems to have learned something from his time off, opting to take the Matthew Mcconaughey route and only take roles that really interest him and not worry about the box office so much. With that, we have Focus, the first film of Big Willie 2.0.

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Nicky (Will Smith) has been at the center of a successful group of con artists and thieves for quite some time, mostly running small time heists so they don’t leave too much of a trail. He finds himself intrigued when he comes across Jess (Margot Robbie), a feisty and bubbly crook who has major potential, but is a little rough around the edges. After some convincing, he decides to take her under his wing and train her in the art of the con. The film takes place around two major focal cons in their relationship, one that occurs when they’re hot and heavy, and another a few years after they find themselves having drifted apart.

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From the moment this movie starts, it exudes cool, and that is in large part thanks to Smith, who has not been this much fun to watch in almost a decade. Finally not taking himself so damn seriously, he gets back to the wise cracks and charm that made us love him in the first place, while still brining the pathos to Nicky when it’s needed. It’s more below the surface than some of his other more dramatic roles, but there is a clear and deep sadness in this man that lies below his very together exterior, and that often comes out in very destructive ways. It helps that he’s complimented by Margot Robbie, coming off of her white hot breakout role in The Wolf Of Wall Street, who is also wonderful here. Jess may be innocent at first, but she’s far from stupid, and watching her learn by playing with her fantastic chemistry with Smith is a joy to watch.

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This isn’t a film that just coasts off of the chemistry of it’s leads though, as writer/director duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa craft a deliciously twisty story for our characters to navigate. This isn’t their first rodeo with con men (they also made the wonderful I Love You Phillip Morris), and it shows, as the proceedings manage to be both complex and easy to follow, because these characters are so well crafted that we hang on their every punchy and vulgar word. Fittingly enough, the movie is perfectly focussed, keeping the proceedings on Smith and Robbie while not veering off into too many other subliminal characters and their schemes, as many other con movies have done before.

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Ficarra and Requa also have a lot of fun with the ascetics here, shooting everything with a distinct look that makes the film look like it was pulled out of the 70s or 80s. It’s a slightly muggier, darker looking film than we’re used to seeing these days, and that reflects our characters wonderfully. Beyond that, they craft some wonderfully imaginative sequences here, some involving cons, and one in particular involving a car crash that would not feel out of place in a Scorsese movie.

 

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Focus is exactly the film Will Smith needed to make his way back into the limelight, providing him with his best role and film in years. It’s a stylish, arousing, and above all, fun time at the movies bolstered by a sharp script by two filmmakers who just seem to be getting better and better, and an electric dynamic between Smith and Robbie. After this, I’m even more excited about the prospect of these two playing Deadshot and Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, and I get the impression many others will be too.

Rating: A-

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water Review

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If there is one cartoon that next to everyone in my generation feels attached to in some way, it’s Spongebob. The perfect alchemy of absurdity and cleverness, this hyperactive sea sponge and his group of friends kept us laughing all through our formative years, to the point where most of us never really outgrow it so much as don’t obsessively watch the episodes anymore because society told us to grow up. Thankfully, we have a chance to harken back to those days with the long overdue sequel to the original 2004 film. Going in, I was expecting a breezy return to a simpler time, but that’s not exactly what I got. In fact, if there was a more accurate title for this movie, it would be The Spongebob Movie: Decent Into Madness, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

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The most accurate plot summary of this film would simply be me running around a room while breaking things, but since this is the written word, I’ll try my best. We reunite with the people of Bikini Bottom in what seems like a fairly average day, with Spongebob (Tom Kenny) and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) whipping out the old WW2 artillery to protect the Krusty Krab’s Krabby Patty formula from Plankton (Mr. Lawrence). However, this attempt proves unsuccessful, and Plankton manages to get his hands on it, and in a tussle with Spongebob, somehow manages to phase it out of existence entirely. Now that Krabby Patties can’t be made, society is thrown into anarchy, and Spongebob with Plankton’s help must find a way to track down the formula and restore order.

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Basically, this movie is Spongebob on steroids. Unlike the first movie, which really tried to string things together with something of a story, this is just an hour and a half of utter insanity that just gets crazier, and crazier as it goes on. In the span of about an hour, we cover Time Travel, Interstellar Guardians (yes, space is in the ocean), and because of the leather filled apocalypse, far more BDSM than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey. This overwhelming stimulation drew me in like a lightning rod, I couldn’t take my eyes off this thing. Not just because of the crazy visual places it goes, but because of the gorgeous 2D animation used throughout most of the film, such a rarity these days.

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It also helps that most of the jokes really land. Whether it’s because of sheer randomness, a fun meta jab lampooning that this is in fact a movie, or just a well written pun, it’s clear that as scatterbrained as it was, some genuine thought went into this. Sure, it does stoop to some typical bathroom humor every so often, which is purely for the young ones, but it’s not pervasive enough to really be an issue. This movie takes your brain, puts it in a blender, and then turns it upside down, so it could also be that the humor comes from a bit of minor Stockholm syndrome.

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The only time the movie really slows down is the much advertised live action segment. This portion does not take up as much of the film as the trailers would suggest, in fact, it’s only about a third but it just dosen’t work. The lightning fast pace of the jokes really dosen’t translate between mediums, and since the whole thing is basically an extended battle with a pirate named Burgerbeard (played by a beautifully hammy Antonio Banderas), it ultimately ends up being a little boring. It dosen’t help that the CGI renderings of the characters just look ugly, and never feel like they’re really meshing with the world. It looks and feels like a bad TV special.  However by that point, any brain function you have will be melted anyway, so you’ll probably just enjoy it also.

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Sponge Out of Water is essentially a feature length version of a short film made for a motion simulator ride at Universal Studios. It’s relentlessly hyperactive, gloriously trippy, and above all, just plain funny. It may not be quite as clever as the glory days of the show, or the first movie for that matter, but while watching it, none of that will be coming to mind anyway. As far as off switches for the brain go, this is just about the best thing out there right now.

Rating: B+

What We Do In The Shadows Review

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When a genre becomes played out, the only real thing left to do is bust it wide open with an all parody. What We Do In The Shadows finds itself fortunate in this regard, as the vampire movie craze is gasping for air as shows such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries start fade into their Twilight years, while the found footage genre feels more and more trite with each passing go at it. With all of that, along with cult comedy icon Jermaine Clement and frequent collaborator Taika Waititi behind the camera, all the ingredients for a wonderful comedy are certainly locked and loaded. Does it deliver?

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Vampires Viago (Taika Waititi), Vladislav (Jermaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) live together in a small flat in Wellington. Presumably having spent enough time anguishing over the horrors of living forever, they’ve decided to just have a good time together instead (presuming Deacon has finally gotten around to washing the blood stained dishes) , and have hired a documentary crew to film them as they go about their nights. Their lives do become a touch more complicated when they accidentally turn Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a bro-y dolt they try to kill one evening into a vampire, and have to teach him the responsibilities that come with his affliction.

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What We Do In The Shadows does get some major points for originality. While Vampires have certainly been lampooned before, never has there been such a naturalistic approach to it. If these guys weren’t mutilating unsuspecting victims, or making servants mow their lawn with the promise of eternal life, one might even forget they are creatures of the night at all. This stems a great deal from the warm chemistry of the three leads, who all dive deeply into their roles and clearly have a whole ton of fun (Clement in particular). We get the sense that these guys love each other in their own morbid way, and we get to know quite a bit about how their past tragedy has shaped them, even if they’ve had plenty of time to get over it.

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Unfortunately, as this is a comedy, I have to judge it on how funny I found it, and most of the jokes in this simply didn’t hit for me. It’s certainly not completely unfunny, with some of the character dynamics working, and a particularly unique take on werwolves nearly always scoring, but for the most part, this thing is swinging and missing. A lot of it just feels like extended sketch comedy, with these guys throwing every idea for a joke they have at the screen without much holding it together. It comes off as mugging a lot of the time, and that kind of thing just rarely appeals to me.

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Ultimately this fairly weak structure comes from the need to make this a found footage film, and if Clement and Waititi had dropped that idea, they really could have something here. This needed a real story driving this world forward, to really highlight these character interactions and flesh out the universe. That way, even in the scenes where the jokes aren’t quite hitting, the film could ride higher off of it’s originality. As it is, it just feels like a bunch of friends got together and made a really expensive home movie.

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This certainly isn’t a film that made me mad. The company is clearly trying here, and I can say that for the majority of the people I saw this film with, it was firing on all cylinders. It just didn’t quite gel for me, which is a shame, because I certainly wanted to have fun with this. With that said, I would certainly recommend checking it out and making a decision for yourself, while I go and find a different comedy that will hopefully work for me more.

Right now the only option seems to be Hot Tub Time Machine 2…this is looking grim.

Rating: C+