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X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men Apocalypse

“From the ashes of their world, we’ll build a better one.”

It’s been sixteen years since Bryan Singer brought the world the X-Men. It was a silly bit of fun that was pretty enjoyable. It gave us a perfect personification of fan favourite Wolverine and introduced a generation to the awesome abilities of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (if you were two years old when it came out, you’re old enough now to go watch Green Room – get to it).

Somehow, miraculously, even after a bloody awful second sequel, this franchise is the only one left from the super-cheesy noughties comic book films that plagued filmgoers for years. Now we find ourselves, if you count the Wolverine solo outings, with the ninth film in the series and some of us wondering what they can possibly do next.

Buried underneath the ruins of a destroyed pyramid, En Sabar Nuh – the world’s first mutant – has been imprisoned under the ancient rubble for thousands of years. Resurrected by a cult believing him to be an all-powerful God, the man we will come to know as Apocalypse (played by the suddenly everywhere Oscar Isaac) sets about recruiting his own personal Four Horsemen and putting plans in place to kick-start the end of the world.

Sinking his teeth into the strongest, most disillusioned mutants he can find, Apocalypse soon has an entourage that includes a young, impressionable Storm (Straight Outta Compton‘s Alexandra Shipp) ; the beaten down Angel (former Eastenders regular Ben Hardy); the power hungry, vicious Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and the world-weary, disenchanted Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Tapping into the anger and negativity in their lives, convincing these powerful mutants to work for him makes the wannabe-god a force to be reckoned with and together they waste no time in bringing about, well, the apocalypse.

Meanwhile, James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier is dealing with his own band of misfits in his now world famous school. But, when Apocalypse kidnaps the X-Men’s leader for his own ends, it’s down to Mystique (the returning Jennifer Lawrence) to rally the troops and fight the impending doom. Returning good guys Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Holt), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Alex “Havok” Summers are joined by a cavalcade of newcomers. Fresh to the First Class arc, if not necessary the franchise, the younger incarnations of Scott Summers, Nightcrawler and Jean Grey all join the fray and team up to take on the biggest, most powerful mutant that the world has ever seen.

Director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg have returned to the X-Men franchise to round off this particular story arc and, believe it or not, they’ve done an okay job of it. Now, I know this is going against the grain a little for this film, so maybe I should clarify that a little.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of First Class or Days of Future Past. I don’t think they’re bad films, not at all, but I honestly believe that X-Men, as a franchise, has been treading water since the year 2000. Singer and 20th Century Fox found a winning formula when the first film was a hit all those years ago and as Fox have tried and failed over and over again to bring a decent comic book film to profit, they have refused to take any risks and change up the recipe with these films.

The biggest issue there is that when you’re averaging a film every two years and you’re not changing things up, the audience, no matter how die hard they are, will eventually stop going to see your films as a way to tell you that they’ve had enough of your shit. What made this trilogy – yes, I’m calling it a trilogy – worth a second look was the genius casting of Michael Fassbender in the recently vacated Ian McKellan role of Magneto. I’m still convinced that First Class is actually the quietly disappeared Origins: Magneto movie we were supposed to get; and as such, the story of Erik Lehnsherr and his change to the maniacal Magneto across the first two films is nothing short of riveting.

But after the reboot/timeline shift/whatever you want to call it, I was ready to write this film off as the worn out end of another trilogy, soon for the glue factory. But once again, while Apocalypse may not be the best film you watch this year, and it’s got some pretty glaring problems, but it’s a film I wouldn’t tell you to avoid. It’s almost worth the *phew* two and a half hours you’ll spend watching it.

As far as flaws, I’ve got to start with the most obvious one. Apocalypse himself. For what is supposed to be a terrifying, world ending bad guy, I genuinely couldn’t care less about him or his motives. The problem with these super-strong bad guys, the ones that are supposed to be unbeatable, is that by the time you get to the end of the movie you know full well that he’s gonna get his arse handed to him. Usually through the power of teamwork, or love, or a mutual fondness for hardcore pornography, or something. Either way, and this is another problem with this refusal to change the formula, you know you’re in for a happy ending when the forces of good triumph! And to be honest, Apocalypse is just a bit crap.

And man, this film is so very long. I mean it’s nearly two and a half hours. It’s an X-Men movie for shit’s sake, there’s just no need for it. So much is put on that screen with so little actually happening that I really, truly wondered on more than one occasion if I’d missed something, a plot point or bit of story somewhere. I wondered if maybe I’d slipped into a mini coma at one point and missed a chunk of exposition at around the half way mark. And if someone could explain Olivia Munn’s terrible, terrible costume, I’d really appreciate it. She looks awesome and bad ass when you first meet her, and she transforms into some weird vinyl clad monstrosity that isn’t half as titillating as the 12 year old boys in the costume department thinks it is.

But things aren’t all bad. In fact, the film has a few positives that elevate its standings quite a bit for me. Newcomer to the series and Game of Thrones alum Sophie Turner has a decent turn as the young Jean Grey. Much like Jennifer Lawrence before her, I was a fan of the actress originally in the role and Turner has managed to convince me that, yet again, I was wrong to doubt the younger replacement. Although, she has taken on the annoying trait McAvoy had in previous films of touching her face to indicate she’s doing a psychic thing; but it doesn’t detract from her performance and she’s rather good. It’s always good to see homegrown talent on the big screen, especially when she’s from your surrogate home of Northampton.  Quicksilver’s return isn’t half bad either; he’s not overplayed and his super-speed shtick isn’t overused, but when it is used, it’s a wonderful, fun little bit of film.

As with the previous films though, the big hitter here is Michael Fassbender. I’ve really enjoyed watching Eric’s gradual change to Magneto over the years. Fassbender has always been convincing as the guy who’s trying, sincerely, to do good and is screwed with at every turn. Back at the turn of the century, McKellan’s role as the already jaded and evil Magneto was stupendous, but Fassbender makes you genuinely feel some sympathy for the mutant who is proven to over and over again that he won’t be accepted, even when he’s being the good guy. Long after these films are gone, the German-Irish actor’s role in them will be remembered as the defining part of this trilogy.

I went in to X-Men: Apocalypse with pretty low – okay, very low – expectations; but overall, I have to admit that it wasn’t as rubbish as I anticipated it to be. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it doesn’t quite hit the awful levels of X-Men: The Last Stand where it throws all the shit at the wall hoping something will stick. A rubbish bad guy and a severely bloated run time hinder a film that was actually pretty enjoyable. If I had to score it, I’d give it a solid 6/10.

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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved..

My love affair with Star Wars began in 1997 when they were re-released in to cinemas for the 20th anniversary of A New Hope hitting the silver screen. I was 10 or 11 and had not seen them on television before – or at least not to my recollection.

Sure, I’d seen other big action films before. I had certainly seen Jaws and Jurassic Park – and I am sure that I had seen Apollo 13 too. All great, but nothing blew me away quite like Star Wars.

When ‘A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away’ hit the screen, followed by the fanfare, opening crawl and shots of spaceships in battle, I was overawed and in love straight away.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no geek or nerd, and you won’t find me at Comic-Con or bidding on eBay for the mint condition collectable of ‘second alien from the right in the Mos Eisley Cantina’. But if there are two things I’m obsessed with, then it’s football and Star Wars. That’s in spite of the prequels trying to dampen my love for them.

So, when Disney bought the rights from George Lucas and announced a new trilogy plus spinoffs, bidding to build a Star Wars version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, my excitement was tempered by trepidation. Would this be another Gungan filled Phantom Menace, or a return to form?

I’m happy to say it was the latter; a fun film that just felt like Star Wars. There were no trade disputes or convoluted issues in the senate hall. It was fun, it was exciting, it was intriguing, it was emotional, it was laugh out loud funny and it was dark.

Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2D2, C3PO and The Millennium Falcon all return to the franchise along with a number of background and secondary characters, giving call backs to the original trilogy (not much, if anything, from the prequels found its way to this to this corner of the galaxy) making certain that you are in Star Wars territory.

In fact, Han and Chewie are their usual, roguish, all-action selves. You can’t help but love the pair and feel a twinge of joy and nostalgia most of the time that they are on the screen.

However, it’s the new cast members that steal the show. This was John Boyega and Daisy Ridley’s big screen debut – arguably Adam Driver’s as well – and they perform admirably. Certainly adapting to and growing into their roles, as the reluctant heroes Finn and Rey, and the villainous Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is dark. Really dark. Darker than the darkside dark; conflicted and irrational. You get this real sense of menace from him. Although Snokes (his ‘boss’) lacked that and one of the downsides was his CGI appearance – not to give too much away, as I’m sure there’s more to come.

The Tarkin, to Ren’s Vader, was played by Domhall Gleeson. A small role performed well – again, hopefully there’s more to come in subsequent films.

It was as though Ridley and Boyega had to come out of this on top. One minor gripe from me: Their thick British and American accents respectively did grate a little bit.

Other than that though, they were both excellent. Especially when you consider it was two relative unknowns taking over the reins in cinema’s biggest franchise. I’ve no doubt big things await the pair.

Finally, Oscar Isaac was great in the limited role he was given as an X-Wing pilot and modern-day Han Solo, Poe Dameron. Charming, funny and adventurous; it will be good to see an expanded role for the Resistance’s best pilot in future films.

The action was as you would expect: Fast paced and fun, with jokes aplenty (more than any of the originals). Whereas the comedy in the prequels fell flat, this hit all of the right notes. And, of course, John Williams scores the film perfectly.

JJ Abrams has proven that he was the right choice for director. He rebooted Star Trek well enough for the big screen – although Into Darkness had its problems – and was trusted with this. He put the right team around him and successfully pulled it off.

I’m sure the film has its faults. Maybe once I calm down I’ll notice them? Still, it was a joy to watch and left me with a smile on my face, but still wanting more.

It’s not the best Star Wars film, but it is better than any of the prequels by some way and I think it is as good as Return of the Jedi, if not better.

Ex Machina

Never mind what I think of this well plotted, intelligent and entertaining sci-fi drama; how does Ex Machina make you feel?

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

ex machinaDeus ex machina, literally “God from the machine”, is presumably a phrase you’ve come across at some point in your life. I was first made aware of its proper meaning by a friend of mine a long time ago when talking about some comic book or other. He explained it as like when a God steps in at the last minute at the end of a Greek tragedy to save the hero (such as Athena stepping in at the end of the Odyssey). It’s probably why the phrase is sometimes also referred to as “the hand of God”. Traditionally introducing a device – divine or otherwise – when the characters are backed into a corner to produce a happy ending.

Think of those bloody eagles in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. All seems lost, the characters have no tricks left up their sleeve, doom is imminent. Suddenly, *poof*, just like that they’re rescued by some massive birds out of nowhere and all is well again… save for the fact they’re now stranded on the top of a rather tall mountain, but that’s besides the point.

Quite how the film’s title Ex Machina relates to the plot of Alex Garland’s directorial debut is fairly self explanatory. Suffice to say, ‘God from the machine’ is more appropriate than (the erroneous) ‘hand of God’. Garland is already familiar to most cinephiles as a novelist and the screenwriter behind some of Danny Boyle’s best work; including 28 Days Later, Sunshine and the original novel for The Beach. Not only that, he’s recently found more cult success by being the mighty pen behind Judge Dredd and his deadly lawgiver in 2012’s action thriller Dredd. Given that his name is also attached to an upcoming Halo film, you would be forgiven for perhaps expecting this sci-fi about potentially the most advanced form of Artificial Intelligence to also be rather loud, colourful and explosive.

Forgiven, because you would be wrong. Just like the script for the similarly ominously low-key and unsettling sci-fi that Garland also adapted, Never Let Me Go, the role of Ex Machina appears to be less about dazzling you with special effects (as amazingly well realised as they are with the mechanical Ava gliding across the screen, full internal cogs whirring inside of her transparent abdomen) and more about making you think. Or, I suppose, as fitting as it is, making you feel. Putting logic to one-side and using your imagination and full range of emotions to be affected rather than to analyse. To really be a human and not a machine.

Which leads me on nicely to the plot! It revolves around the talented Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson’s character ‘Caleb’, an American programmer working for a company that owns and develops the world’s leading internet search engine. We are first introduced to Caleb as he’s sat at his desk, white headphones protruding from his ears with stilted sound emanating as he checks his email inbox to find he has won a competition. His prize is to spend a week with the company’s CEO, Nathan, at his wilderness retreat. What transpires is that Nathan (played by the often underrated yet exceptionally talented Oscar Isaac), despite being a heavy drinker, believes he has created a genuine Artificial Intelligence called Ava; and Caleb is to be the lucky recipient who gets to perform the Turing test on it to determine if it (or ‘she’) is sentient or not.

Throughout the course of the film, Garland attempts to navigate a few of the more theoretical issues and complexities of AI by having Nathan drag Caleb away from his very analytical approach to the Turing test. He’d rather Caleb simply express how he feels when communicating with Ava, which is a perfectly acceptable way to prevent the film being bogged down in philosophies and jargon. It can be a little grating when films make characters speak out loud their emotions; if an actor and a script is good enough, you shouldn’t have to have someone explicitly state that they feel anything, you should just be able to see it and know. However, such is the type of film Ex Machina is that it really does work to quickly and succinctly help you understand the nature of the relationship developing between its three primary characters.

Speaking of whom, Ava’s plight is wholly sympathetic whilst being shrouded in a menacing aura. Trapped for her entire existence in a small glass room by Nathan, never experiencing the outside world or anything beyond the confines of her cage, she seemingly begins to form a bond with Caleb. Quite possibly due to the way she looks (rather like the stunning actress Alicia Vikander that’s playing her, funnily enough) you immediately empathise with her; you want her to be free. It’s a natural gut instinct to feel that putting someone behind bars who hasn’t done anything wrong is unjustified. In a way, it makes her the good guy. But being behind a window, separated from human contact like that, it does also add an element of danger to Ava. Before Caleb first meets her to commence the experiment, he notices a slight crack in the partition, which suggests either someone was trying to get in, or that something was trying to get out. As Ava declares that Caleb is the first human she has met other than Nathan, it sets the tone for what’s to come very fittingly. Some of the conversations that Ava and Caleb have during their sessions are both fascinating and, like other parts of the film, genuinely amusing. The film is not completely bone dry; as much as every scene gives the impression that it means something, how funny it can be takes you by surprise on occasion.

There’s also quite a few themes that Garland brings up along the relatively tight 108 minute run time. An impending robocalypse being one of them, as you might expect! The thought of the human race being wiped out by a race of super computers is not an entirely new theory, but is always terrifying to think about. Garland also brings the role of sexuality into his film, and how it’s required in a species. That it’s a need to be a sexual entity, rather than completely sexless, in order to force an organism (for want of a better word) to grow and to evolve. If you’re not already wondering why Ava is designed to look female at the point in the movie when Nathan explains his decision, then it’s a good point for the audience to re-evaluate what has been seen so far. Why would Nathan, a man, attempt to create self-aware intelligence and choose to make it look, act and behave like a female? What is his purpose? There’s a lot of questions raised if you look for them beyond basically “why is character [a] doing [this]”.

Another topic that is called into question is that of information gathering. Putting your life into a search engine term that creates something as a whole to define who you really are is quite a scary concept. The idea that Nathan’s company would scan everybody’s phones, their cameras, their profiles and search history (illegally, mind you) in order to make his robot learn to look and act more human is deeply disturbing. You also don’t have to be a genius to work out that it is in no small part a social commentary on what we are already doing in the real world. Or even what certain companies who own internet search engines could well be doing with that information right now. You have no idea – and more worryingly, no control.

It’s also a bizarre coincidence that Domhnall Gleeson was in the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’ where he played a lifelike synthetic representation of his character after an artificial personality profile was compiled using data from his online presence. Both this episode and Ex Machina attempt to make you aware of the digital footprint you are leaving every single day and how costly that may be.

There’s a quote from Ex Machina which has appeared in the theatrical trailer, where you hear Ava say to Nathan:

Is it strange to have made something that hates you?

There are many ways to interpret this line. At first, you could easily interpret this as Ava, a machine with a true consciousness, simply detesting her manufacturer for locking her away, depriving her of both the world outside and the man she has apparently grown to act like she loves. Of course whether this love is something programmed into her, something she has developed naturally, something unquantifiable, or whether it’s not really love at all, is not really the point being made in this particular line of dialogue.

Another way to look at it is as a genuine question about whether it is normal for a creation to hate its creator? Again, drawing on themes not explicitly discussed such as religion perhaps and even looking at the role of father/daughter relationships. A rebellious teenage girl doing whatever the opposite of her dad wants, or man’s spurning of a God who supposedly loves them, or rather more sinister is the idea that a machine is looking down on an inferior species with a cold and calculating disdain. There are many ways to look at it and the beauty of the film is that it never closes off these avenues for you. It’s open, it’s out there, and it’s for you to decide what you think.

As the plot goes on, things get a bit weirder without ever straying too far from its slightly predictable basis. The manner in which the final act will occur is not completely hidden from the viewer early on – and it does feel slightly rushed to get to the main point. But it is yet another clever example of the difference between man and machine. It’s why success in a species cannot be defined by who will live the longest, or whose population will be densest, or even who is the most intelligent. The smartest man in the room is not always right. However, as a proposal of some interesting ideas, acted out well by its cast with a completely engrossing plot and some sharp writing, it’s an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half watching the birth of an artificial intelligence that does not require your clothes, your boots or your motorcycle.

Ex Machina is in UK cinemas right now and will be the main review on this week’s special ‘Artificial Intelligence’ themed Failed Critics Podcast.