Morgan

'Morgan' movie poster

Release: Friday, September 2, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Seth W. Owen

Directed by: Luke Scott

No movie, especially one dabbling in the science fiction genre, has an obligation to make the viewer feel all warm and cuddly inside. You can be both the coldhearted bastard and The Year’s Best Movie, but if you plan on being as brutally dispassionate as this year’s attempt at Ex Machina-ing the AI subgenre back to life, you better have something interesting to say.

Morgan‘s got nothing. What it does have though are 90 of the most unpleasant, uninteresting minutes I’ve spent at the movies this year.

There were only four of us in my 3:45 screening and the film played out as though it were anticipating as much. You might attribute the film’s disinterest in engaging the viewer to Scott W. Owen’s thoroughly unoriginal screenplay, a story about the dark side of cutting-edge science so bland you sit there realizing that you’re thinking about how bland it is. Annoyingly that meta thought begets another. And then another, and soon enough, twenty minutes have gone by and still nothing’s happened. Oh, look. Time to refill the coke and popcorn. (Spoiler alert: do it in the first 45 minutes because you won’t miss a thing.)

Unfortunately though it’s a real team effort, as the son of the great Ridley Scott doesn’t steer the project in any meaningful direction with an uninspired vision that substitutes substantive scientific and/or philosophical questioning for grisly and pretty cruel action sequences. There are so many questions. What makes Morgan special? Why should we believe she’s the AI creation of the cinematic year? What is her true potential, what is her purpose? Can she really be controlled? Should she be? And the million dollar one: why should we care, about her or this world she inhabits?

If foreshadowing doesn’t destroy Morgan‘s shot at profundity, then it’s a lack of depth and substance. There’s no extrapolation as to what this says about where we are in society, only easy answers — solutions tailor-made for this specific narrative. All the bloody hand-to-hand combat reserved for the ending is an overt solution to the problems introduced in this dreary, monochromatic world. What makes Morgan special? This karate chop! That crazy look in her eyes. (It sure isn’t that fucking boring hoodie.) Why should we believe she’s the year’s coolest AI creation? Because she’s a murderer, with a lust for blood not seen since Ted Bundy. What is her true potential? To be more Ted Bundy than Ted Bundy. Why should we care? Um . . .

The story takes a more political/business approach to the world of scientific endeavors, one of its few distinctive features. Morgan focuses on the tension between a corporate entity seeking total control and the idealistic virtues of those working directly on the company-funded Morgan Project. It pits Kate Mara‘s supremely unfriendly risk manager Lee Weathers against the strangely more sociable project overseers, a group that includes doctors Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), husband-and-wife duo Darren and Brenda Finch (Chris Sullivan and Vinette Robinson), Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), and Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh). After an incident in which Morgan attacked another scientist, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the second role this year that has required her to cover her face in physical-abuse make-up, Lee is called in to assess whether the project is one still worth pursuing or if it needs to be terminated.

Mara may not look the part, but she kind of does feel like The Terminator, and Leigh’s bedridden scientist even calls her “a goddamn assassin.” She’s here on business and won’t leave until that’s finished. From the moment she appears Mara delivers each of her lines in the same monotone, several inflections away from sounding like a real person. It’s actually a pretty terrible performance from a reliable thesp. (But not as terrible as the ending.) Corporate red tape wears out its welcome quickly with Ziegler and his colleagues. Perpetually on the defensive, the team continues trying to justify Morgan’s sudden outburst as anomalous. Morgan describes it as “an error.” Nonetheless, a psychiatrist is brought in for an evaluation. It’s Paul Giamatti, so at least you know what you’re going to get out of him. And he surely delivers, pushing Morgan to the limits as he questions why she thinks she is alive. Why she thinks the people around her are her friends.

Judged through a tedious first section and an even slower second act, Morgan isn’t very eventful but it’s well-crafted. A reasonable amount of tension is generated from our ignorance to what Morgan is capable of doing or what she is actually going to do to her captors once she gets loose. (An event we await with bated breaths.) Mara is a constant bummer but the rest of the characters are fairly likable in their restricted capacities. Anya Taylor-Joy (the break-out star from this year’s The Witch) is for some time empathetic and her distinctive features make for a suitable alien-like presence. Boyd Holbrook plays a hunk with serious culinary skills. Because we needed that for levity, I guess, but I’ll take it if everyone else is just going to be a misery to be around.

But when we’re exposed to what the filmmakers have in store for us having waded through a lot of nothingness, the wheels fall right off the wagon, spectacularly. Who had M. Night Shyamalan on speed dial for that big reveal? It has his fingerprints all over it. In fact his sense of atmosphere and ability to maintain tension makes it feel like Morgan doesn’t have any Scott blood running in its veins at all. Slavishly adhering to structure and with no personality of its own, this Ex Machina wannabe has been conditioned to not think for itself.

Recommendation: Slow, unoriginal and featuring an uneasy mix of cerebral meditation and shocking violence, Morgan gives me too many reasons to call this just a total freaking mess. As I personally wasn’t hugely anticipating it, calling it a disappointment might be a stretch but it certainly is disappointING that good actors and a reliable premise, granted a thoroughly worn out one at this point, aren’t enough to bring it around. Film also finishes on one of the lamest notes I have seen since Now You See Me, so unless you’re willing to risk leaving a movie wondering why you even bothered, I’d have to say keep a respectable distance from this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “There was joy in her heart, before we shoved her back into that box.”

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Photo credits: http://www.screenrant.com; http://www.foxmovies.com 

The Martian

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Drew Goddard 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

The Martian is made of the same cosmic stuff that turned Ridley Scott into a household name. His latest is an instant classic sci fi epic about mankind’s place in the bigger galactic picture. If Interstellar was a humbling experience insofar as it confirmed that yes, the universe is . . . big, The Martian makes it far more personal, stressing just how fragile we are in a place we don’t really belong.

While the scale of this journey doesn’t encompass quite as vast a distance — Mars is a mere 34 million miles away as opposed to the untold thousands of light years Matthew McConaughey et al covered in search of another Earth-like planet — The Martian mounts a fascinating and thoroughly convincing case arguing what could happen if we ever choose to visit our nearest planetary neighbor. Credit where credit is due, of course: Scott adapted his film from the 2011 Andy Weir novel of the same name, relying on strong, contemporary source material to tell a profoundly human story rather than resorting to centuries-old documents that threaten plagues and the end of civilization, or stories that are better left on paper.

I don’t know if it’s just the thrill of seeing a once-great director returning to form after a few unsuccessful (to say the least) outings, or whether The Martian is just this good, but October has all of a sudden become exciting. I’d like to think it’s a bit of both, the buzz intensifying in the looming shadow of this season’s scheduled releases. I know it’s fall, but love (for cinema) is in the air.

The Martian tells the inspiring story — one so polished it actually takes more effort to dismiss as entirely fictional — of American astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, third in line behind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Russell Crowe’s Maximus in terms of greatest characters Scott’s had to work with) who becomes marooned on the Red Planet after a severe storm forces the crew of the Ares III to abandon their mission. Not realizing he is still alive after being struck violently with some debris and tossed from the launch site, the remaining crew — comprised of Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and cadets Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) — escape the planet’s wind-swept surface and prepare for the four-year journey back to Earth.

It’s Cast Away in space, only this island is capable of producing greater anxiety than any spit of land on Earth ever could. To make matters worse there’s no Wilson, but Damon’s Watney, despite an affinity for talking to himself via web cam, doesn’t strike you as the sort who always needs someone around to talk to, even in the face of protracted isolation. Instead of striking up a relationship with an inanimate object Watney sets about working his problem logically and with a sense of humor that’s almost unfathomable considering the circumstances. As a result, we get one of the year’s most uplifting movies, with Scott opting to take the detour around dourness by stranding his not-so-helpless protagonist in an endless sea of despair and self-pity, though no one would blame Scott if he had.

I’m sure conspiracy theorists have been having a field day with this film, suggesting the fact that there was some sort of clause in Scott’s contract stipulating the distinct tonal change; a precautionary measure taken to distinguish the plight of Mark Watney from that of Ellen Ripley and to ensure that no wormhole-traveling between films would result. In all likelihood, Scott’s adaptation is nothing more than a faithful adaptation of the source material, and if that’s the case then The Martian has jumped high up on my list of books I must soon read (a list that is embarrassingly short, I have to say). Even if this film will never actually tie into the Alien universe, it suggests that perhaps Scott feels most at home when he leaves ours behind.

The Martian focuses more heavily on the work of our fearless astronaut as he sets about trying to establish his food rations, quickly deducing that it will be impossible to make his supplies last for over 400 days. Putting his botanist background to good use, Watney begins growing a crop of potatoes in the confines of the protective HAB, MacGyvering a water filtration system out of literally thin air. Indeed, he’ll be getting more than his daily fiber intake over the next few years. (Hopefully he’ll have enough ketchup to last.) Periodically we cut back to Houston, where Jeff Daniels’ Teddy Sanders, the head honcho of NASA, Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), a NASA spokesperson, have little else to do besides look on and wonder firstly how the hell Watney has survived and secondly whether retrieving him is a viable option.

Sean Bean is also in as Mitch Henderson, whose supervision of the crew serves as a stark contrast to Sanders’ colder, more stern and conservative methods. And then of course there’s the brainiest of them all in astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), who lends valuable insight into how best to safely retrieve Watney. These earthbound characters don’t fair quite as well in terms of allotted screen time but given what they have to work with, all deliver impressive work and each help lend gravity to the developments, if you’ll pardon the pun. (If you don’t, then . . . well, fine . . . I guess it’s over between us.) Long faces and variations on looking exasperated constitute the bulk of these performances, but that doesn’t mean Scott’s misjudged their talents by saddling them with less showy roles.

Even so, this is the Matt Damon show. He may have been better as something else in the past (what role hasn’t this guy tried on for size?) but right now I’m coming up short. A botanist and self-proclaimed space pirate, Watney is a breath of fresh air, his morale-boosting video diaries marking a totally unexpected departure tonally from what we might have expected out of a story about being the first man stranded on Mars. These entries not only manifest as glimpses into the science behind space exploration, but they help advance the narrative as the weeks and months go by, revealing a timeline marked by their ‘sol’ number.

Of course it’s not a complete review until I mention how exquisite the cinematography is. I feel obligated to talk about it this time because, as overwhelming as it often is — the Martian landscape looks a little like Monument Valley (it was actually filmed in Jordan and Hungary) but there’s enough free play in the digital composition to make it look entirely authentic — the visuals (brought to you by Dariusz Wolski) aren’t at the heart of the film. Bless you, Ridley, for you only recently released a film that epitomized style over substance. On that basis alone (the basis of avoiding repeating history), The Martian deserves praise. Still, given the sleek spacecrafts, high tech gizmos and Martian sunsets that bleed dark purple, this movie is as stylish as anything that’s been released this year. It’s a beautiful, sometimes haunting spectacle that reveres the alien world and offers endlessly entertaining and optimistic commentary on the future of our cosmic endeavors.

Recommendation: This isn’t the only place you’ll read the words ‘a return to form for Ridley Scott.’ Before actually knowing what this movie was like I was kind of iffy about seeing this, and I wouldn’t have expected to declare this a must-see. But that is what this has become, a must-see for fans of the director, a must-see for the ensemble cast, and a must-see for space nerds like myself who enjoy good stories set in the most atmospheric space imaginable — outer space itself. The Martian is a downright fun movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins. 

Quoted: “F**k you, Mars.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Transcendence

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Release: Friday, April 18, 2014

[Theater]

Lol, uh. . .wut?

Well, this WAS supposed to be the ‘don’t-give-up-yet-on-Johnny-Depp’ movie, one that would give the colorful thespian room to breathe without his usual cloak of weirdness. . .no Captain Jack Sparrow accent, no scissor hands and no crazy Tonto face paint this time. In a cruel twist of fate, Depp is rewarded for his refreshingly restrained performance by playing one of the most outlandish characters he’s ever been handed, an ill-fated scientist who ends up having to communicate through an advanced computer system in what can only be described as the best performance ever committed via Skype.

Sound strange? That’s barely the tip of the iceberg.

This, the debut film from acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister — yes, Christopher Nolan’s Wally Pfister since Batman Begins  starts out as a rather unsuspecting sci-fi/mystery but quickly devolves into a thoroughly unbelievable and downright laughable affair that only gets more mysterious by the minute (a compliment, that is not). First-time direction from Pfister, coupled with Jack Paglen’s first major motion picture screenplay, creates an atmosphere that recalls a particularly acid-trippy episode of The X Files. So much for Depp coming across as normal.

Drs. Will (Depp) and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) Caster are brilliant scientists on the cutting edge of technology with their research in the field of artificial intelligence. Together they yearn to create a computer with the collective human consciousness uploaded to it — an advanced machine like the world has never seen before. Such experiments have of course drawn massive publicity of both the positive and negative variety, and after a presentation one afternoon Will is gunned down by some anti-technology extremist. The shot itself isn’t fatal, but unfortunately for Will and Evelyn the bullet was coated in radioactive material which has infected his blood. In his dying days, Will watches as his wife and their long-time friend and fellow researcher Max (Paul Bettany) tempt what they only think is conceivable and not necessarily doable at the moment.

(Please don’t laugh at me in the comments when you read the next part. I am just the messenger here.)

They will try and upload Will’s consciousness into their computer system and keep him alive digitally since his brain/mind is in tact but his physical body clearly has been compromised. Just typing that conjures up images of a less gory Re-Animator. Except wacky, old Herbert West the med student might have had a more logical experiment going on in his lab.

Ethical boundaries begin to be flirted with (and later on prove to be violated) as Evelyn refuses to acknowledge the fact that once he’s dead, her husband will cease to be the man she has loved, and instead will only exist in some weird, nebulous cyberspace as a collection of pixels arranged on a screen his face happens to appear on. Pfister, in one of many ill-advised directorial movies, has Depp’s voice echo in a surround-sound like fashion whenever he’s on-screen following the. . .transformation. . . .to place emphasis on the concept that this man — this lunatic — hasn’t just merely disappeared inside a computer. He’s transcended human existence and can quite literally play God with the wealth of information and knowledge he now has.

The film’s only rational character Max isn’t so sure about the idea of his best friend being resurrected in a digital form. What good is going to come of this, he wonders as he notices Evelyn becoming more obsessed with the idea of keeping her husband alive. Meanwhile, the audience has checked out and is currently noticing that the cupholders in these particular armrests have no bottom to them so that’s why whenever you put your cell phone in there they fall right to the floor. Well, cool. Mystery solved!

In the meantime, Transcendence continues talking to itself in a language only it can understand. The characters are unsympathetic because they are completely kept out of our reach — we can’t really identify with or get behind any of them. Perhaps Max, but even then this connection is rather fleeting. The script is much too interested in stuffing technobabble down our throats than drawing us in with character development. In an area where Hall typically excels, she gives it her all to seem saddened by her loss as Will succumbs to radiation poisoning, and it comes close to making us feel somewhat human in this doggedly mechanical affair.

Boring, confusing and more often downright nonsensical, Transcendence fails to engage on any level and is perhaps the first film of 2014 that should be outright avoided at the theater.

rebecca-hall-in-a-white-hall

The very white Rebecca Hall in a very white hall. She looks even more cheesed off about the irony than I am. I guess that makes sense.

1-5Recommendation: Considering I’ve only just gotten over my sobbing about my disappointment in this final cut, I would have to pretty much recommend getting pneumonia over seeing this one. Well, okay. Maybe not pneumonia; that’s a bit extreme. Maybe a cold, though. It is quite simply ridiculous from the ground floor-up, on every level this movie makes no sense and refuses to try to explain itself.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Where are you going?”

“Everywhere.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com