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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ex Machina



Metropolis, Austin Powers, Fry from Futurama, and now Alex Garland's sleek, dazzling Ex Machina is the latest to warn the human race of the dangers of the beautiful fembot. Will we ever listen? Hopefully never. In Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson, a bright, talented programmer at Google-like search engine Bluebook, is selected to win a fabulous week with Bluebook's hermit-like founder played by Oscar Isaac. Gleeson is whisked by helicopter to Isaac's isolated underground laboratory in the middle of nowhere. He finds that the mysterious Isaac is an unexpected piece of work, equal parts sinister genius, swaggering alpha male jock, and alcoholic bully. Also, he cuts a mean rug on the dance floor when he wants to. Isaac has been laboring in secret on the most astounding technological breakthrough in the history of man (or "the history of gods," Gleeson offers to Isaac's delight): true artificial intelligence. And of course (boys will be boys), he encased his miraculous A.I. in the (half-built) form of a beautiful woman: Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Gleeson's job is to have a series of sessions with Ava and apply the Turing Test, as created by Alan Turing (see Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game), to gauge how self-aware Ava is. (Sort of like the Voight-Kamf test assigned to Replicants in Blade Runner.) Gleeson's job is not to fall in love (or lust) with Ava, but can one really expect otherwise from a clever but sullen computer nerd with no family or relationships whom, he mused to Isaac, was likely "selected because of his porn profile"? Isaac is considerably less encouraging company for Gleeson than Ava is; Isaac alternates from palling around with him like two bros would to intimidating threats and quizzical mind fucks. But the real mystery is Ava herself and what's behind her repeatedly shutting down Issac's security systems so she can speak to Gleeson privately, and her sweet pleas to go on dates with Gleeson. There's also the sultry presence of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the mute knockout who tends to Isaac hand and foot and placidly accepts his foul-tempered bullying. What's her story? It's not hard to guess the answers, which arrive slam-bang, as the situation in the underground lab goes awry in bloody, tragic fashion.

Ex Machina deliberately, confidently unfurls as a gripping contest of wills between Gleeson and Isaac, as each becomes increasingly suspicious of the other's actions and motives. The conversations between man and man, and man and machine, are laced with depth and dripping with big ideas pondering the ramifications of what Isaac has potentially wrought upon the world. Meanwhile, is Ava playing both men against each other? What is Ava really up to? As Ava, Vikander is a stunning revelation and instantly becomes one of the most unforgettable robots in cinema. Also, as seen with Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, the hot new trend in movies nowadays seems to be gorgeous aliens/robots checking themselves out nude in the mirror. Will the world be better off with Ava unleashed in it? We'll have to ask the next (un)lucky guys who try to see what's under her skin. It's safe to say, Man will simply never learn:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Age of Adaline



An elegant tome about immortality, The Age of Adaline gets just right the terrible heartbreak of a person outliving their dog. This happens to almost everyone who owns a pet, regardless of whether or not they happen to be immortal, but The Age of Adaline really brings the feels when Adaline has to put her sweet little dog down. Blake Lively is Adaline Bowman, born New Year's Eve 1908 in San Francisco. And she cannot age. The Age of Adaline, through flashback and voice over, offers what seems to be, for the movie's purposes, a plausible scientific explanation for Adaline's "condition" (think similar to the origin of The Flash, but instead of super speed, Adaline's altered DNA prevents her from aging). Adaline is physically frozen in her late 20s, which would seem like an incredible gift, but immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. In the present day, Adaline's daughter (Ellen Burstyn) is in her 80's and passes herself off as Adaline's grandmother in public. Adaline herself has spent most of her extra long life on the run in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, assuming a new identity every decade, ever since some men in black tried to abduct her for "study" in the 1950s. Adaline didn't misspend her many years; she is world-traveled, speaks numerous languages, and naturally, has broken a few hearts along the way.

Immortality is a lonely burden for Adaline until a man named Ellis Jones (Michael Huisman, who plays Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones), utterly insists on dating her. He is a charming, affluent philanthropist; more importantly, he is relentless, will not take Adaline's cold refusals and measures of evasion seriously, and finally, out of weariness of her solitude, she acquiesces. When Ellis takes her home to meet the Joneses, Adaline and we are stunned to learn his father is Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). He's even more stunned that his son's new girlfriend looks exactly like... Adaline Bowman, whom he met in England 45 years ago, romanced, and was about to propose to when she completely disappeared. (The young Harrison Ford is played rather convincingly in the 1960s flashbacks by Anthony Ingruber -- Disney, at least audition this kid for the inevitable Indiana Jones reboot.) Adaline takes a lot of lonely walks in Age of Adaline; accepting the conceit of her immortality is one thing but on these constitutionals, Adaline must be musing, as the audience does, about the wild contrivances of the plot where she finds herself dating the son of one of her ex-lovers. When father and son Jones learn the truth about Adaline, they both fail to react. (The screenplay does have Ellis flat out tell Adaline on their first date that he would believe anything he told her.) 

As Adaline and her many aliases, Lively is radiant and convinces as a wise old soul of 108 years hidden beneath her youthful, stunning looks. Of Adaline's romances, her briefly glimpsed time with the young Indiana Jones in the 60s seemed more interesting and offered more heat than her present day relationship with the younger Jones. Adaline seems more like she's simply willing to settle for Ellis, who is good enough and certainly devoted enough to be someone she can finally settle down with, rather than the ultimate love of her long, long life. Ford, meanwhile, delivers more emotion and conviction upon meeting Adaline again and seeking the truth about her than he has in years. Though utterly lacking in sword fights, decapitations, and songs by Queen (there is plenty of Quickening-like lightning, however), The Age of Adaline is the best Highlander movie since the original Highlander. Adaline's prize at the end is also, all things considered, a greater prize than Connor MacLeod's. Who lives forever, anyway?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Arrow: Roy is a Fool, or The People of Starling City vs. Roy Harper

On last week's episode of Arrow (season 3, episode 18), titled "Public Enemies," the walls closed in on Oliver Queen after League of Assassins cosplayers dressed as the Arrow framed him for the murder of Starling City's latest Mayor, among other victims. Ra's al-Ghul himself revealed the Arrow's secret identity to Captain Lance, prompting him to publicly declare that Oliver Queen is the Arrow and issue an arrest warrant. Oliver turned himself into police custody, but Roy Harper, the Arrow's sidekick Arsenal, decided to cosplay as the Arrow himself, attacked the police caravan, and de-hooded, announcing that he was the Arrow.

I tend to agree with Mr. Shatner. That was also my reaction when I saw Roy's gambit. But is Roy really a fool to confess to being the Arrow? If Roy remains in custody and this goes to trial, how could Roy possibly convince a grand jury that he is the Arrow and was all along? True, Roy Harper possesses intimate knowledge of Oliver Queen's activities as the Arrow, but could he ever sustain his story under serious questioning? What about Team Arrow, Oliver's accomplices? And how does what Captain Lance know about Team Arrow, including his daughter Laurel being one of them as the Black Canary, affect the case? So many questions.

Like last year, when Moira Queen was on trial for her role in the Undertaking, I turned to my lawyer friend for his legal perspective on what could be the People of Starling City vs. Roy Harper and this is his take:

With no new Arrow on this week, I figured I’d take the opportunity to wade back into those murky waters that are the Starling City legal system and analyze the ramifications of Roy Harper’s “I’m the Arrow” gambit.  

First, since Roy’s motivation is to save Oliver, the important question is not whether or not Roy can prove he is the Arrow and was the Arrow all along. The question is, can the Starling City District Attorney (let’s just assume Laurel is not handling the case for simplicity’s sake) prove that Oliver is the Arrow in light of Roy’s public unmasking?  Or, more accurately, can the DA prove that Oliver Queen actually committed one of the crimes being attributed to the Arrow.  Presumably, he is not being charged with “being the Arrow” but rather with the murders that the League of Assassins Arrow cosplayers committed, in particular the killing of the mayor. 

Even before Roy claimed to be the Arrow, what was the evidence that Oliver was the Arrow in general and that he killed the mayor in particular? Captain Lance got the arrest warrant for Oliver because Ra’s Al Ghul told Lance that Oliver is the Arrow. Since Ra’s isn’t going to offer that testimony under oath in a court of law, that’s inadmissible. What else is there? Oliver didn’t actually confess. He voluntarily turned himself in after Lance got an arrest warrant with his name on it for killing the mayor. That’s not a confession; that’s a smart move for an innocent person to make (as opposed to running and making yourself look guilty).  Even in the police wagon with Lance, Oliver never came right out and admitted to being the Arrow.  There was talk of the island and why he came back to Starling, but not an outright confession to being the Arrow, let alone to killing the mayor. 

So when Roy shows up in full Arrow gear and admits to being the Arrow, there is no way to prove Oliver is the Arrow – let alone that he killed anyone as the Arrow – beyond a reasonable doubt.  But Roy’s stunt really wasn’t necessary.  Oliver should have just walked into police headquarters, denied being the Arrow, and dared them to try and prove otherwise (after destroying all evidence in the Arrow Cave).  But, now that we are left with Roy in cuffs as the Arrow, what happens to foolish Mr. Harper?  

Roy doesn’t have to prove he is now, and always was, the Arrow.  It is still the job of the DA to prove him guilty of a specific crime; again, presumably, killing the mayor.  I assume the evidence against Roy would be (1) the mayor was killed with an arrow, (2) Lance saw someone dressed as the Arrow fleeing the rooftop from which the kill shot was fired, (3) Roy confessed to being the Arrow and (4) Roy was arrested in full Arrow gear.  That’s certainly sufficient probable cause to bring criminal charges.  Sure, a good defense attorney (say Jean Loring) would be able to punch holes in that evidence, but if Roy was insistent in not putting on a defense, or even just pleading guilty, he could easily wind up taking the fall for Oliver.  Way to go Roy, you’ve succeeding in sacrificing yourself to save Oliver Queen when no sacrifice was necessary.  That should be called “Pulling a Harper.”  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Furious 7



For Paul

How many movie franchises can boast that the fifth, sixth and seventh films are the best in the series? Star Wars... maybe, if The Force Awakens meets the standard of the Original Trilogy. And even then you can argue the prequels are actually the fourth, fifth and sixth films made in real time. The Batman series arguably... if Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy counts as Batman 5, 6, and 7, but they share no continuity with the previous Batman movies. No, the Fast and the Furious franchise speeds off with this unusual crown and leaves everyone else in the dust. Furious 7 unleashes another high-octane, balls-to-the-wall thrill ride of jaw-dropping, forehead-slapping giddiness. Once more, for one final ride, Vin Diesel, the late Paul Walker, and their ragtag family of speedsters gun it through a globe-hopping series of death races. Furious 7 picks up where Furious 6 left off, delivers breakneck, sensational escalation, and ties together the entire saga while sending their fleet of hopped-up super cars where no cars have gone before.

At the conclusion of Furious 6, Jason Statham emerged as the series' new Big Bad. Statham plays the rogue British assassin older brother of Luke Evans, whom Diesel and his crew defeated in 6, and he takes the first step of his vengeance by murdering one of Diesel's crew, Sung Kang. (Kang and Gal Gadot, who heroically perished in the airplane car chase in Furious 6, are credited but appear only in photographs and flashbacks.) Statham is basically Furious 7's version of a Terminator; has the simplest motivation possible: kill Vin Diesel. He blows up Diesel's beloved LA home and then he never stops coming and keeps trying to kill Diesel with cars, guns, rocket launchers, grenades, etc. Statham runs afoul of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the jacked-up government agent who was once Diesel's enemy but now positively loves the guy. Their fight scene is the best in the film, with The Rock unleashing his patented WWE finishing move the Rock Bottom, to no avail. Statham hospitalizes The Rock, who sadly sits out most of the movie, but Johnson hilariously flexes his arm out of his cast to join the ultraviolent third act and do his part to lay the smack down on the bad guys with a helicopter gun, exactly the same way his character Roadblock would in the other franchise he helped revitalize, G.I. Joe.

With The Rock on the DL, a perpetually amused Kurt Russell steps in as a new mysterious government agent with worldwide jurisdictional omnipotence. Russell enlists Diesel and his team on a globetrotting quest to find a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) who kidnapped a mysterious hacker (the fetching Nathalie Emmanuel from Game of Thrones) and the program she created, the God's Eye, which can turn every device in the world with a camera into a weapon. Diesel needs the God's Eye to locate Statham -- but why? Everywhere Diesel goes, Statham is there like a Wile E. Coyote brandishing weapons. There is no time to ask such questions however, as there are cars to drive and exotic locales to visit and demolish. Once Diesel and his team (his family, Diesel always corrects) are reassembled, including Walker, Diesel's amnesiac lady love Michelle Rodriguez, cool techno-wizard Ludacris, and the irrepressible perpetual joke machine Tyrese -- always the comedic MVP of this whole shebang -- they waste no time blazing off on another increasingly insane series of shoot-em-up, crash-em-up, run-em-off-a-cliff car chases.

In Furious 7, you will believe cars can fly. If not fly, then spend ridiculous amounts of time defying gravity. The giddily-ridiculous sequence of Diesel and his team being airdropped in their cars over Uzbekistan is topped only by Diesel and Walker stealing an 8 million dollar super car and driving it through the three tallest buildings in Abu Dhabi. Sky's the limit, literally, for the cars in Furious 7. While in Abu Dhabi, Rodriguez battles Ronda Rousey in a main event super brawl echoing when Diesel battled The Rock in Fast Five (the winner of which is in dispute, depending on whom you ask.) While Diesel and The Rock always come off as equals, it's a little less believable Rodriguez would last even 14 seconds in a fight against Rousey. Ah well, who really asks for believability from Furious 7? The third act is a demolition derby all across the streets of Los Angeles ("The streets we know best," Diesel proudly growls), causing billions of property damage as Walker and friends race their cars against Hounsou's attack helicopter and missile launching drone while Diesel and Statham battle it out car-to-car and fist-to-fist. The news reports declaring Los Angeles to be in the grip of "what can only be described as 'vehicular warfare'" more or less covers it.

For all its crazy, slam bang, super fun action, helmed this outing by James Wan, his spinning slow motion camera moves stepping in for franchise maestro Justin Lin, Furious 7 never forgets its beating heart. The themes of family and loyalty, usually bluntly stated by Diesel, are what drive this franchise. ("I see no fear in you, only loyalty," are how Emmanuel deftly sums up Diesel and his crew whens she joins up.) Furious 7 is also perpetually aware, as the audience is, of the elephant in the car -- that Paul Walker passed away during filming last year. Walker's character is unique in the Fast and the Furious franchise as he's the only one with a family; he's happily married to Diesel's sister Jordana Brewster and a father with a young son and a daughter on the way. Rather than conjure up a violent demise for Walker, which they did tease when Walker is trapped in a literal cliffhanger and escapes thanks to a bravura save by Rodriquez, the character who was previously dead but is now alive and vital, Furious 7 concludes in a meta way with a touching, uplifting tribute to Paul Walker. Through flashbacks to the past 14 years and 5 previous Fast and the Furious movies starring Walker (God, everyone looked so young in 2001) and by narrowing the focus down to just the bond of brotherhood between Diesel and Walker, they and we are able to say a heartfelt goodbye to the handsome, heroic leading man we lost much too soon. Not a dry eye in the house when Walker's car drives off into the sunset. "Everything's gonna be different now," muses Tyrese and it's sadly true. They and we lost a big part of our Fast family. Unlike the endless array of cars in this franchise, our brother Paul Walker can never be replaced. But the Furious franchise is gonna keep driving, as it absolutely must. See you all at the next family reunion, Furious 8.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Batman vs. Robin



The toughest challenge for a costumed billionaire crimefighter isn't so much protecting Gotham City from an endless parade of murderous psychopaths, it's trying to keep his own baby boy from becoming one of those very murderous psychopaths. Batman vs. Robin, a dynamic, triumphant sequel to last year's Son of Batman, continues the coming of age story of the ferocious Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan), 10 year old heir to both the Wayne family fortune and the legacy of Ra's al-Ghul, and the new Robin the Boy Wonder. Since accepting the mantle of Robin, Damian, an arrogant, dangerous, conflicted soul, hasn't had an easy time adapting to his father's brand of justice. "Justice, not vengeance," is the Batman's meme-ready mantra, which he finds drilled in his head and ringing in his ears when he single-handedly uncovers a child kidnapping and mutilation ring and captures a ghastly rouge called the Dollmaker (voiced by Weird Al Yankovic!) Robin stays his hand and his razor sharp batarang from the killing stroke, only to find the Dollmaker sanctioned by a new bird-themed costumed killer in town - the Talon (Jeremy Sisto).

Batman vs. Robin loosely adapts the blockbuster "Court of Owls" storyline from the best selling The New 52 Batman comic series by the dynamic duo of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. The most intriguing and successful new addition to the Batman mythos, the Court of Owls are a centuries old secret society nested firmly in Gotham comprised of its wealthiest and most prominent citizens, all of whom, men, women and children, wear pallid owl masks, even when dining or conducting cryogenic experiments in their underground labs. The Court are a legend; thought to merely be a nursery rhyme used to scare young children, but they are in fact very real -- and have been secretly controlling Gotham's fate since the city was raised. It seems Bruce Wayne (Jason O'Mara) is the only wealthy son of Gotham who'd been unaware the Court actually existed before now, when the Court kidnaps him and finally offers him a mask of his own, not suspecting Wayne prefers bat masks to bird masks. Wayne plants a tracking device in the mask to later locate the Court's nest, but it really doesn't seem necessary -- if you want to find the Court of Owls, you can start by scoping out the sinister mansion on the outskirts of Gotham with the owl statues all over it. 

Little does Wayne suspect the Talon, one of the Court's private army of assassins, has plans to steal his son Damian away and recruit him as his own sidekick, since, you know, the kid's both an amazing warrior and already dressed like a bird. The Talon sees a lot of himself in Damian; all the best assassins have daddy issues, and the Talon explains he himself was once apprentice to a master thief, his father, whom he didn't see eye to eye with. The Talon also balks at the Court's plan to kill and then cryogenically freeze him, ready to be resurrected at their whim to do their killing. Can't blame Talon there. After Batman is overwhelmed and nearly killed by the Court of Owls and Robin ultimately rejects his offer to become the less catchy team of Talon and Robin, the Talon decides to go on a rampage and massacres the mighty Court himself. This would seem to solve Batman's Owl problems, but Talon unleashes an even bigger one when he releases the dozens of other Talon assassins on an assault on Wayne Manor and the Batcave. This rousing sequence is straight out of the comics (though smaller in scope than the all-out attack on Gotham that utilized the entire Bat family of characters). Batman, Alfred, and Nightwing (Sean Maher) engage in a brutal battle against the Talons where Batman dons a giant suit of Bat armor that would make Tony Stark call his lawyers.

Despite all the owl madness, the focus of Batman vs. Robin is strongly on Damian Wayne and the external and internal battle for his betterment. Damian does fight his father mano e boy wonder-o as the movie's title implies and it's fascinating to see both Damian overcome the Batman and Batman's strategies on how to physically handle someone of Damian's size and capabilities without harming his son. Damian threatens to strike out on his own more than once, but always by keeping the suit and weapons his father gave him. Batman vs. Robin continues the DC Animation push for more adult fare in these animated movies. The violence is ultra - we see Batman and Nightwing repeatedly stabbed bloody, the Court of Owls hacked to bits (even the little children in the Court), and even the Talon's demise is a sai to the throat that would make Elektra from Marvel Comics nod with satisfaction. There's even a little sprinkling of sexual innuendo when Dick Grayson practically pops a boner on the phone with "Kory" (Starfire from the Titans) over which thong she's wearing. The animation is stunning, especially every time the Batmobile is in play, whether roaring through Gotham's streets or being used as a battering ram against the armored Batman. Bruce doesn't really overcome his deficiencies as a father to Damian, who ultimately chooses a path that echoes the one Bruce ventured on to become Batman. Though the boy could save the future of Gotham or be its demise, Batman vs. Robin finds rays of hope for Damian Wayne. He's the Robin we deserve, but maybe not the one we need right now...

I, too, am a member of the Court of Owls.
Seen here with their creator Scott Snyder at San Diego Comic Con 2013