I Am Mother

Release: Friday, June 7, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Lloyd Green

Directed by: Grant Sputore

I Am Mother is another movie ideally suited for those of us already harboring a healthy distrust of robots. An often disconcerting experience, this post-apocalyptic thriller from Australian and first-time director Grant Sputore uses the relationship between a matronly AI and her flesh-and-blood daughter to create a fascinating allegory for parenthood.

The DNA of some undisputed sci fi classics is infused into the core of this dystopian family drama. While I Am Mother nods toward The Matrix in the climactic moments and a pretty cool rug-pulling moment wherein our perception of the truth gets inverted, and on more than one occasion evokes Skynet’s ubiquitous presence and ruthless determination, the newbie director blends the familiarly awesome and uniquely eerie in a satisfying way, threading plot twists through a claustrophobic, stainless steel environment where not everything is as it seems.

Stripping the world down to a fail-safe bunker and a single automaton (voiced by Rose Byrne, ambulated by Luke Hawker), the story begins in the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic event that has wiped out all of mankind. Mother awakens and promptly sets about her duties, making breakfast, reading the morning news and, oh yeah, seeing to the pretty important task of repopulating Earth. She’s in charge of some 60,000 human embryos, all waiting to be “born” into a decidedly more austere life where Mother’s many rules are a sophisticated calculus to keep everyone safe. From what, exactly, we’re not sure. A relatively fresh face in acting, Danish singer Clara Rugaard plays the first human occupant of the bunker, and to keep things simple awkwardly formal (and no doubt symbolic) she’s only ever referred to as “Daughter.”

Her formative years — halcyon days captured beautifully in a brilliant usage of Bette Midler’s “Baby Of Mine” — appear lonely but the structure is not unlike that afforded a child raised in a loving, well-to-do, albeit more traditionally fleshy family. Limited though they may be she develops passions outside of her schooling, overseen by, who else, Mother. A cute little montage has a young Daughter covering her robo-mommy with stickers. Birthdays are celebrated. For a time, the world is perfect. As she grows she develops a curiosity about the world around her: “Why are there no other children?”

I Am Mother‘s man-machine conflict revolves around trust, something to which I’m sure those who are more qualified to speak on such matters might attest (i.e. actual parents), is a real mother of a challenge. Life’s a harrowing, endlessly twisting tunnel full of unexpected right and left turns. Raising a child is more complicated than the inner gizmos driving a machine. Often it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Unlike for AI making mistakes is part-and-parcel of the human experience. You can be great at nurturing but you won’t ever be perfect.

Which is why it’s so difficult for Mother when an uninvited human guest (an intense Hilary Swank) shows up, seeking shelter from the wasteland and bringing some alarming news with her. Daughter lets her in under certain conditions and in brazen defiance of house rules. “We’ve talked about this. No potentially hostile, gun-wielding guests after 9, got it?”

It’s a point of no return in which I Am Mother‘s fascinating moral conundrum goes from simmering to full blaze. It’s also where Swank essentially wrestles the film away from the erstwhile stars of the show, her wounded-outside-and-in Woman jolting the film with an urgent energy — an adrenaline rush we kind of needed right as the prolonged first act begins to drag a little. All the while the soothing in Byrne’s voice takes on more menace, the native Aussie never inflecting so much as a blip of emotion. It’s brilliant work from a performer you never see. Rugaard remains a sympathetic presence, selling her character’s ingenuity and intelligence, her compassion and her confusion. It’s a complex performance that she handles well, even if her rapport with Woman develops a little too quickly. (I’ll lay more of the blame there on the direction.)

Minor flaws aside, I Am Mother is a meticulous work of art. There are a lot of details that need to come together in just the right way to create that gutsy cliff-hanger-like ending — one that’s sure to keep viewers talking for awhile after. And let’s not overlook the production design, for it’s a character unto itself. The clinical setting of the domicile never makes one feel like they’re at home, while Peter Jackson’s own visual effects company Weta Workshop render the homemaker as a cross between Alicia Vikander’s Ava (from Ex Machina, a movie you could consider the more polished British cousin to I Am Mother), the T-800 (especially when she’s in full-on crisis control mode) and that single, unblinking eye just screams Hal-9000, arguably the mother of all cinematic AI.

Yes, my child, the future is indeed female.

Recommendation: I Am Mother is catnip for fans of intelligent sci fi, with a trio of strong female performances leading the charge and the dystopian aesthetic pulling from a number of big-time (and male-dominated) sci fi of years past. There’s also touches of more contemporary pieces like Ex Machina and 10 Cloverfield Lane as well. And it’s a movie whose ambiguous ending has and will continue to divide opinion. After nearly a month of sitting on this movie I am still unsure what to think of it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “Mothers need time to learn, too. Raising a good child is no small task.”

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

November Blindspot: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Release: Friday, September 15, 1995

→YouTube

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Before the X-Men made Bryan Singer a household name in the early 2000s, he had already achieved what the vast majority do not by directing an Oscar winner on his second try, the 1995 neo-noir mystery The Usual Suspects. He had help of course, with his regularly contributing screenwriter taking home one of the two statues for his talky and twisty original screenplay while Kevin Spacey snagged the other for his star-making role as a small-time con man suffering cerebral palsy. The director’s ambition has certainly grown over the years, as have his budgets, but the irony remains that some of his most inspired work resulted before he ever earned his seat at the big kids’ table.

Even if Singer failed to earn plaudits for himself that February night, his craftsmanship here is undeniable. The Usual Suspects is not only stylish without being affectatious, it offers its cast of brand-name actors plenty of room to stretch their legs and play off of one another’s unique energy. The film is not just a master class in obscuring the edges of morality but the cinematic sleight of hand is also really impressive. So often the frame is filled with smoke and mirrors figuring out what is actually going on can be a tall task. Patience (and a willingness to forego immediate comprehension of events) pays dividends. Singer makes you feel as if you’ve accomplished something by the end, something that cannot be said about his more blockbuster-friendly fare, fun as those adventures may have been.

Despite the peripheral blur, the premise remains simple. A major dope deal turns ugly aboard a boat moored in the San Pedro Bay, and a lone survivor, claiming immunity, recounts the details of his involvement and the events leading up to it through extended and potentially unreliable flashbacks. In the present tense, U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) must decide on what level to trust his source. He knows as well as any thug he’s put behind bars that no one wants to be a rat.

The story begins with an explanation of an event that took place six weeks prior, an amusingly farcical police investigation into the disappearance of a truck carrying guns through New York. Although a group of five mangy suspects are brought in for questioning, no culprit is identified. While sequestered in a holding cell, one among them, Stephen Baldwin’s bad-boy hipster Michael McManus, hatches a scheme to screw with the boys in blue as a token of their gratitude for being pointlessly incarcerated. Everyone is on board except Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a former dirty cop trying to turn over a new leaf by going into the restaurant biz.

The others — Benecio Del Toro‘s too-cool-for-proper-enunciation Fred Fenster; Kevin Pollak as angry guy Todd Hockney and the recently disgraced Spacey as the aforementioned Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint — have no compunction to leave this cell changed men. A series of profitable but small-time jobs eventually leads the gang to a big payday, when an opportunity arises to clear their names with an arch-criminal by the name of Keyser Söze, an almost mythological figure whom no one ever sees or hears from directly. Because their affinity for theft has struck a little too close to home, one of Söze’s representatives, a mysterious man played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite informs them they can avoid certain death if they disrupt a major coke deal about to go down in the Bay, one that stands to net a competing drug lord $91 million.

Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay, which has curried so much favor with the Writer’s Guild of America over the years it’s now considered among the top 40 greatest screenplays of all time, creates a confluence of themes that include but are certainly not confined to: persuasion versus manipulation; virtue versus vice. Does crime really pay off all your debts? A scale of relativism emerges from the morass: the only thing worse than a career criminal is a career criminal who rats on his colleagues. And in The Usual Suspects, there’s sort of this poetic justice with the way snitches get their stitches.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: This is a movie you’ll have to put some effort into but it’s so worth it you’ll very likely end up like me, embarrassed you decided to give up on the first 20 minutes in the first place. After those 20 very confusing and frustrating minutes, the nut eventually cracks. It’s milk comes spilling forth. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Something better than another damn quote: The line-up scene was scripted as a serious scene, but after a full day of filming takes where the actors couldn’t keep a straight face, Singer decided to use the funniest takes. Behind the scenes footage reveals the director becoming furious at his actors for not being able to keep their shit together. In an interview, Kevin Pollak states that the hilarity came about when Benicio Del Toro “farted, like 12 takes in a row.” Del Toro himself said “somebody” farted, but no one knew who. 

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 

Split

split-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

THIS REVIEW INCLUDES A MAJOR SPOILER

You just have to admire the child inside that M. Night Shyamalan has refused to abandon. His passion hasn’t always translated into quality entertainment but “going through the motions” isn’t a complaint you can lodge against the director. The fire keeps burning, even though the winds of critical and commercial failure keep trying to blow it out.

Amidst a climate of sudden optimism, it would seem Shyamalan has rediscovered his mojo, having delivered two consecutive products that have not become both the joke and the punchline (with last year’s The Visit garnering more positive reviews than his previous three efforts combined). Split, his most recent provocation which concerns three young women abducted by a man with multiple personalities, has people talking excitedly again.

The writer-director wastes precious little time in getting to work, introducing us to the three targets, led by Anya Taylor-Joy‘s moody Casey, before promptly throwing them down the rabbit hole. Her acquaintances, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) — and they are verifiably more acquaintances than friends, based on a few buzzwords we hear in the opening scene, like “mercy invitation,” “obligation” and “weirdo” — are here to offer contrast, particularly in the way the girls respond to threat. Casey stands out as both outcast and survivor, the prototypical Shyamalan protagonist.

Their abductor is played by James McAvoy, whose dramatic chops are put to the test in a performance that requires him to evoke the quirks and mannerisms of at least eight distinct personalities. He plays a mentally ill loner named Kevin Wendell Crumb who suffers from a real disorder called Dissociative Identity Disorder, which has actually rendered 23 different identities in total. They range from obsessive-compulsive disciplinarians to matronly caretakers to naive pre-teens. Given the complexities of such a role, this could be the Scot’s finest hour.

Because it would be unreasonable to expect the actor to portray all of the personalities living inside his character — not to mention confusing for the audience — only a handful of them are paraded in front of the terrified girls who all the while can’t agree on an escape plan. The well-adjusted reason that physical confrontation is inevitable while Casey thinks it’s better to be patient and use Kevin’s condition to their advantage, believing their best chance for survival lies in their ability to manipulate Hedwig, the nine-year-old boy.

Shyamalan ranks among the best in the biz when it comes to generating suspense and making audiences dread what lies around the next corner. Split is more of the same in that regard, but it also has the added bonus of McAvoy’s stunning performance and Taylor-Joy’s nearly-as-impressive portrayal of a troubled teen with a dark secret, one that slowly gets teased out throughout the course of the film. But the thing about Shyamalan is that his childlike enthusiasm for sharing his gift for storytelling often undermines his seriousness of purpose. He is often too clumsy, too ambitious, too obsessed with artifice. Some of his decisions have proven disastrous. Split is not a disaster. In fact, 90% of it manifests as a really interesting psychological thriller that stays well below the usual threshold of silliness.

But that 10% is what is always going to keep Shyamalan a few steps short of greatness. And it is frustrating, because he is quite literally less than a few steps short of delivering his most satisfying psycho-thriller since Unbreakable, now 17 years old. It’s what he does to wrap things up that proves his undoing. Again. The ending is a complete betrayal of the reality in which his new film is based. I’m not concerned about the science that Split manipulates for its own agenda. A) It’s par for the course for fictional works to take dramatic liberties. That’s why it’s called fiction. And B) Kevin’s psychologist (played by Betty Buckley) isn’t the key to unlocking the film’s secrets.

No, that’s why we get Bruce Willis. You have got to be kidding me. I’m now waiting the ultimate plot twist wherein I wake up from all of this madness.

aw-hedwig

2-5Recommendation: When compared to his most recent output, Split feels like a much more accomplished film. And for the most part it does impress, locking the audience inside a pressure cooker from which escape seems highly unlikely. Wonderfully atmospheric and well-performed, the guillotine that Shyamalan runs into at the end is just so regrettable. Two-thirds a return-to-form, in my book. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “The broken are the more evolved.”

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 

Now You See Me 2

'Now You See Me 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ed Solomon; Pete Chiarelli

Directed by: Jon M. Chu

The implausible Now You See Me sequel — yes, this is a thing — is a magic trick you can see right through from the very beginning. For all the entertainment it seeks to provide, the film delivers an equal dose of numbing visual effects that do nothing but obscure any theoretical cinematic magic wand-shaking under the blinding lights of confused, contrived, utterly lazy storytelling.

Three of the Four Horsemen are back. And no, not from vacation. Well, it was kind of like a vacation. Since the events of the first, the pompous pranksters — J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) — have gone into hiding after exposing the unethical business practices of one Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and fleecing him out of millions of his own easy-earned cash. (Much like director Jon M. Chu has done to us, minus the whole money coming easy part). Isla Fisher’s Henley Reeves, seemingly jaded by the realities of becoming part of the global underground society of illusionists called The Eye, is nowhere to be found. She’s better off.

Uninspired tale finds the group once more answering the call of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who, now firmly in control of his puppets (remember that twist?), has this big spectacle planned out during which they’ll expose a tech wizard’s . . . unethical tech-ing practices, some bloke named Owen Case (Ben Lamb), who in no short order becomes nothing more than target practice when it’s learned that the film’s actual villain is Daniel Radcliffe’s even bigger tech geek Walter Mabry.

What does Mabry have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked, because it gives me the opportunity to rave over the next rabbit Now You See Me 2 tries to pull out of its hat. Turns out, Merritt has an evil twin named Chase who works for Mabry, and in one of many underwhelming action sequences he manages to capture the Horsemen and take them to Mabry’s lair (muahaha!), where they’re informed of a high-risk but high-reward job, likely the trickiest task they will have ever pulled off. Do they have a choice? In an exchange that confesses the depths of this film’s Oscar-baiting screenplay, the Horsemen are told they either “do this or die.” Well, I don’t know about you but I’m inspired.

In the meantime, Mabry’s been busy trying to bring about the downfall of the Horsemen from afar, hijacking the aforementioned show by letting the public know that, hey, yeah, remember how Jack Wilder died? Well, he didn’t really. Also, Rhodes is a two-faced cop and is working with the Horsemen. Be outraged, people. Be very outraged. As a result, Agent Rhodes suddenly becomes Agent Rogues when he and the rest of the magicians find themselves scrapping to clear their name all while trying to eliminate the threat of Mabry.

It’s not exactly the most original conceit, but this new globetrotting adventure could have spawned a genuinely exciting mystery thriller if put in the right hands. Co-writers Ed Solomon and Pete Chiarelli were not those hands. Their story, one that at least adheres to the spirit of reckless abandon established in the original, leans entirely on the magic of post-production tinkering, and with Chu’s terribly flat direction further promoting contrivance and convenience, Now You See Me 2 quickly wears out its welcome.

Not helping matters is a runtime that eclipses two hours and a couple of surprisingly annoying performances from Lizzy Caplan, who plays Fisher’s “replacement” Lulu May — because there has to be a Horsewoman, obviously — and one half of Harrelson’s performance as the evil twin Chase. ‘Harrelson’ and ‘annoying’ don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence but then again the guy is a consummate actor. He really can do and be anything. As to Caplan, someone should have taken away the fourteenth Red Bull she was guzzling before stepping on set. This is way too much team spirit for a movie not named Bring It On.

More irksome than Harrelson’s sinister side and Caplan’s insufferably peppy presence is the film’s knack for reducing living legends like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to cardboard cutouts. Neither Caine convinces he’s this bad of a dude nor Freeman of his ever-complicated backstory. You could defend this as an exercise in allowing actors to have some genuine fun while collecting another paycheck. There’s no shame in putting together a supergroup of talent like this for a bit of escapist entertainment but Caine and Freeman couldn’t look more bored.

Now You See Me 2 pulls gimmicks and cheap tricks left and right in its quest to prove editing can on its own sustain a story. The approach suggests the filmmakers think audiences won’t know the difference between ‘real’ magic and clever camerawork. It’s actually pretty insulting.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.48.20 PM

Recommendation: Eyeballs, get ready to roll. Now You See Me 2 takes the worst tendencies of its predecessor and magnifies them. I can handle cheesy films, and NYSM2 is certainly cheesy but it’s more problematic in terms of convincing us that what’s happening in front of us is real. The irony of that is pretty hard to reconcile. This is the epitome of surface gloss hiding no real depth. With that in mind I can’t recommend watching this one to anyone who felt the first one was kind of silly. What follows is much sillier. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “Hell will look like a day at the spa once I’m through with the Four Horseman.” / “You had me at ‘Hell.'”

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