Rogue One clearly satisfies (no spoilers)

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The latest in the Star Wars galaxy of offerings launched last night to rousing applause, and I was there, in the audience, wearing my 3D goggles.

What did I think of the movie? I’m not really sure that it matters.

Like so many movie franchises out there, if you have bought into the Star Wars series, you are going to see this movie and there is damned little that any number of reviewers could say to dissuade you from that. Personally, I have been invested in this cultural icon since it first launched almost 40 years ago.

So, what is the point of reviewing the movie? None, other than an effort to satisfy my own self-importance.

This was a good movie that opens slowly, offers little in the way of character development, fulfills all of the expected (demanded?) tropes of battles and mentors and silly robots, and essentially adds nothing to the canon of Hollywood history or the art of filmmaking. I don’t know that the movie ever had the opportunity to be great, but if it did, it certainly walked the other way.

That said, the audience applauded or cheered several times throughout the movie, and I think it is fair to say that pretty much everyone left the theatre satisfied with their experience.

And there is my problem with the series, as much as the movie: satisfied.

[Hereafter, I will talk more about specifics within the movie, so you may wish to stop reading now. I will avoid spoilers, speaking more in generalities out of respect for movie-goers.]

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Ep IV and V changed movies forever. Everything else was merely adequate.

Movies have evolved extensively since the launch of A New Hope in 1977, especially in the area of special effects. With franchises like Alien and Star Trek getting complete reboots, comic book universes unfolding in myriad interwoven ways, and standalones like Interstellar and Inception dazzling the eye, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individual movies to stand out from the crowd, to chart new ground.

If for no other reason, this is why I raved about the recently released Arrival (my review), which stands apart not through its special effects, but rather the execution of its central theme. There is great intelligence behind a beautiful film.

When A New Hope arrived on the scene, it changed the game of movie-making by bringing the scale of a biblical epic to hokey old Westerns and WWI dog fight movies. If Jaws initiated the summer blockbuster craze, A New Hope solidified the idea. And if that’s where it stopped, this crazed then-teenager would have been quite satisfied.

But then came The Empire Strikes Back, which somehow managed to make A New Hope look hokey and dated, although I still contend that the first movie had a better, more complete story. For a young movie goer, The Empire Strikes Back was like riding in a bullet train only to have someone throw on after-burners; it was a whole new level of acceleration that pinned me to my seat.

That feeling has never been duplicated by a Star Wars movie since.

[In fairness, there is one interesting technical achievement in Rogue One, but to describe it would be to spoil a couple of moments in this film.]

Hollywood, instead, has caught up and moved past the franchise. And perhaps even more broadly, entertainment has surpassed even Hollywood in the form of immersive video games, which I do not play.

For its part, the Star Wars universe struggles to achieve the bar, if it really even tries. And each successive movie feels like it was designed with a check list of tropes George Lucas did not invent, but that he executed perfectly in the early films.

Thus, for a Star Wars film, Rogue One is completely adequate.

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Adequate to their task, offering little more

Character development has largely been dispensed with. As the movie opens, we are presented with a seminal moment in the life of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the central character of this movie, and then we catapult ahead 10+ years to find her in imprisoned, where our adventure begins. And with the exception of the odd note dropped into the dialogue, we have no idea what happened in those lost years.

The same is true for almost all of the other characters. Each offers the briefest allusions to why they have arrived in this place at this time, but there is little to hold onto as the story careens forward. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has done some bad things in the name of the Rebellion. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) clings to his belief in the Force like a child clutching a blanket, while his partner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) scoffs good-naturedly, mourning his lost faith.

And I have to say that I have no idea why rebel renegade Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is even in this movie. If his subplot had been written around, the story would not have suffered one iota. Like so many other movie franchises these days, I will put this choice down to something in the cartoon, novel or comic book series.

Perhaps this reveals something about me, but much as I did with Prometheus, I found the robot character to be the most evolved. In Rogue One, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) stole the show, having the best lines of dialogue and routinely offering broader perspective on the chaotic stumblings of the inferior humans around him.

And as with the original movies, the villains proved the most exciting element of the story.

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Mendelson’s Krennic brings life and depth to this movie

Somehow, the writers and director managed to make Darth Vader even more imposing than he was in any of the other movies. This was something between the uncontrolled fury of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith and Lord Vader’s iron control in The Empire Strikes Back. Here, Vader was a cold-hearted menace who toyed with his food as time allowed, but was also happy to get his light saber dirty.

And then we have Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelson), the man charged with the construction of the Death Star and who, but for an inability to tap into the Force, might have made a delicious challenger to Darth Vader. If they do more parallel timeline movies in the future, I would love to see the evolution of this character.

Aside from these few characters, however, the movie was merely passable as a Star Wars film. The plot was straightforward, if a little padded in places, with well-choreographed battles and requisite deaths (no spoilers).

And there must be at least 837 easter eggs in this movie, tiny moments that tie in to the other movies in the series, and as my friend Danny tells me, into the cartoons, as well. While a younger me might have been enthralled by these inserts, the present day me found them distracting, particularly as they almost always served no purpose to the plot and jerked me out of the story as I realized, “Hey, those are the guys from…” (no spoilers).

But as I said at the beginning, none of this likely matters to you if you are a Star Wars fan. You will see this movie, enjoying some parts and complaining about others. It is just what Star Wars has become…and I find that a little sad.

Criminal should be more Self/less

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Ryan Reynolds is a hot commodity in Hollywood, these days. Unlike so many starlets, however, they want him more for his brains than his body…quite literally.

Or at least that’s the only way I can explain why twice within a year they have tried to scramble his brains: first with that of Sir Ben Kingsley, and more recently with Kevin Costner’s.

In Criminal—recently released to Netflix (trailer)—Reynolds is CIA agent Bill Pope trying to protect a hacker called the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has managed to wormhole his way into the American defense system, enabling him to launch missiles at will. But before he can bring his man in, Pope is captured by the evil rich anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) who tortures Pope to find the Dutchman.

When his CIA handlers, led by Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), find Pope dead, they enlist the help of neuroscientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to essentially transfer Pope’s memories into the world’s most cold-blooded killer Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man completely devoid of conscience.

(Did these people not see Young Frankenstein?)

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Give a psychopath super-spy skills and knowledge? What could go wrong?

As expected, shit goes to pieces and the hunt is on—by the CIA, Heimdahl and even the Russians—for both Jerico and the Dutchman.

Despite being an action-thriller with plenty of gore—Jerico kills and maims indiscriminately—Criminal ultimately asks philosophical questions about who we are, how we got that way and can we be redeemed.

As the movie progresses, we witness the influence of Pope’s good-guy neurological engrams on the social and moral chaos of monster Jerico. Something is wrong, Jerico explains as he grasps his head; something is seriously interrupting his thoughts and actions.

In a humorous moment, Jerico learns he is experiencing something the rest of the world calls emotions, possibly for the first time in his life. He is unimpressed.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Given the stellar cast, which also includes Gal Gadot as Pope’s grieving and confused wife, the performances are mostly passable, especially given the woodenness of the dialogue—the screenplay was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who previously penned The Rock and Double Jeopardy. This is an action film, so we shouldn’t really expect much.

To my mind—and friends disagree—the deepest performance is offered by the coldest, most heartless character Jerico, much as the same could be said for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Michael Fassbender’s robot David in Prometheus. In a very dark turn, Costner embues his merciless killer with dark humour and ultimately, as Pope’s neural influences and memories kick in, a confused heart that many of us can understand.

Assuming you can leave your credulity in a drawer, the story is minimal but passable. That an action film makes any attempt to ask lofty questions is laudable.

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Largely wasted stellar cast who spent movie doing exactly this

Unfortunately, as I alluded at the start, Criminal suffers in comparison with another brain transfer film: Self/less, released in 2015 and also starring Ryan Reynolds (trailer).

In that film, Kingsley plays billionaire industrialist Damian Hale at the end of his life but desperate for more time. Meeting with a neuroscientist who essentially offers him immortality, Hale arranges his own “death” and has his neurological patterns transferred to Reynold’s brain, assuming a new identity as Edward Kidner. Reynold’s character volunteered for the experiment to raise money to rescue his daughter from life-threatening disease.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Again, chaos ensues as Reynold’s memories invade Kidner’s consciousness, and the neuroscientist and his mob race to capture their subject, destroying everything in their path to maintain their secret.

Like Criminal, Self/less asks questions about what defines our identity. But it delves even deeper, going into questions about one’s right to an identity and the ultimate costs of consuming another’s. And for all characters, it is a story about sacrifice.

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Dead husband finds grieving widow and daughter

Given this backdrop, Criminal might have been seen as a better movie if only for what it tried to do. But on the heels of Self/less, it simply looks like a pale imitation that made a valiant, if ultimately doomed, attempt at significance.

Ironically, it reflected its own plot.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Criminal (RogerEbert.com)

Criminal: Film Review (The Hollywood Reporter)

Kevin Costner steals the show in far-fetched but entertaining crime thriller (Deadline)

Self/less (RogerEbert.com)

Ex machina – a review

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Ex machina tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer slaving for a large unnamed corporation that we eventually learn is somewhere between Facebook and Google. As the movie starts, Caleb’s computer flashes that he has won a company contest to visit the mountain-retreat home of recluse company founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Upon confused arrival, he is welcomed warmly by Nathan and escorted through a labyrinthine maze of non-descript hallways where Caleb learns he has access to some rooms and not others based on his ID card. As Nathan explains, the austere design reflects the space’s use not as a home but rather as a research facility.

Nathan explains his AI breakthrough to Caleb

Nathan explains his AI breakthrough to Caleb

Nathan eventually divulges that he has been working on building an AI or artificial intelligence, and that Caleb’s role during his week at the retreat is to apply the Turing Test to the AI; that is, through a series of questions to elucidate whether the interviewer is speaking with a human or a computer.

Which brings us to Ava—played by Alicia Vikander—the ingénue AI that Caleb is to test. As she sits before her inquisitor, Ava is mostly metal and wires, but that hasn’t kept Nathan from endowing her with sexuality in her form, a soft approachable voice, and a human-like face.

Caleb becomes Ava's inquisitor through plexiglas

Caleb becomes Ava’s inquisitor through plexiglas

Through a series of conversations—between Nathan and Caleb, and Caleb and Ava—the film explores questions of identity, freedom, inalienable rights and love. But therein lies my primary problem with the movie: It is a stage play performed as a film.

Without giving too much away [doing my best to avoid spoilers], the interactions between the characters are almost as sterile as the environment in which they occur. Simply put, damned little happens aside from a series of conversations.

A labyrinthine maze of halls and locked doors

A labyrinthine maze of halls and locked doors

I am confident that this was done on purpose by writer/director Alex Garland—best known for the films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. I have no doubt that the minimalism of film is in itself a metaphor for the lifeless character of the AI.

But whereas minimalism is expected in a live theatre, it feels off-putting in a cinema. Ex machina engages the conscious mind but not the eye, unless your eye is drawn to beige. In fact, given the lack of action in this film, it would even work–possibly better–as a radio drama.

Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaacs (L to R)

Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaacs (L to R)

The performances were good, but I didn’t feel like the actors were given a lot to work with.

As I found so ironic with the movie Prometheus, the character of the android Ava was the most deeply developed (compare Ava to Michael Fassbender’s David). You could actually see her character evolve as the movie progressed at its leisurely pace. And full marks to Vikander for being able to imbue so much internal communication through subtle verbal intonations.

Subtle intonations and expressions bring Ava to life.

Subtle intonations and expressions bring Ava to life.

The character of Nathan showed the most potential, however, as you could see a brooding darkness within him that vacillated between wilting depression and disturbing malevolence. But as with so many aspects of this film, the potential was never really explored and we were left with a subtextual emptiness.

And Caleb proved to be the type of antagonist that I find least appealing—the victim—mostly bobbing like a cork on the eddies and currents outside of its control. He is neither hero nor anti-hero and so leaves me cold and uncaring, and if I don’t care, I am not engaged.

Ex machina is a very cerebral movie, dealing with deeply philosophical questions about humanity and self-awareness, and to a lesser extent about emotional connection. And in many ways, it is only because of Ava that the film does not devolve into an Open University lecture.

There is little doubt that the robotics and artificial intelligence enthusiasts will get a hard-on from Ex machina, a biological function that forms a humorous sidebar in the story.

But for those who like these subjects and want to be entertained by a gripping story, I suggest you take another look at Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where identical questions are discussed in a backdrop of a film noir story line.

Ex machina is not completely without mystery, and I did find myself asking questions about the characters, including wondering if the audience wasn’t part of some Turing Test. But if I ever opened my mouth in anything approximating a “wow”, it was merely to yawn at the film’s glacial pacing.

There are small moments of tension, but they dissipate quickly and rarely result in any shocking revelations. There are moments that are squirm-inducing to start but do not really linger or pay off.

But for all my complaining, the ending of the story was satisfying. Although, for my money, that’s when the story finally got interesting.

Like Transcendence before it, Ex machina had a lot of potential, but failed to deliver.

Perhaps an AI film director will do better.