Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a lot to offer fans of the Star Wars series including new characters like BB-8 and Rey (played by Daisy Ridley).

It never fails with me. I have the habit of ‘waiting until the crowds die down’ to see a blockbuster movie. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do when it involves a Star Wars movie, especially not Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I saw it three weeks after its release. I’m glad I finally saw it.

I won’t explain the story line like I do in most reviews, especially since most of you have already seen it by now, unless of course you’ve been under a rock. One thing about this movie is that it wasn’t just simply bringing another volume of the Star Wars series to the screen. The film’s job was also to bring back the magic of Star Wars people have come to know and love. No kidding the first three Star Wars movies from 1977 to 1983, those that are now referred to as episodes 4 to 6, captivated the world. Watch any one of them nowadays and you’ll see why.

However when George Lucas did the three prequels from 1999 to 2005, many fans felt something was missing. No doubt The Phantom Menace had huge expectations but they missed them and disappointed a lot of fans. Attack Of The Clones tried to be better but still something was noticeably missing. The scene of the fighting Yoda added excitement but it was one small added element. Revenge Of The Sith was the best of the prequels but the feel of Star Wars was still not there. I think it was best summed up by my sister who’s a huge Star Wars fan: “George Lucas knows how to direct sci-fi but he doesn’t know how to direct actors.” Good point because it’s been proven in other action movies or sci-fi movies in the past that special effects no matter how dazzling cannot overtake a lousy story or lousy acting.

Now we should remember that The Force Awakens or Episode Seven was actually thought up by George Lucas way back in the 1970’s as he was dreaming out and writing out the whole Star Wars series. Lucas made it clear after Revenge Of The Sith he will no longer direct Star Wars movies. In fact he sold LucasFilm to the Walt Disney Company in 2012. The first thing Disney did was bring The Force Awakens on screen. The director they hired was J.J. Abrams who has an extensive resume in writing and directing thrillers and sci-fi like Armageddon, Mission Impossible III (his directorial debut), Super 8 and the last two Star Trek movies. Hired to adapt the story to screenplay was Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote the scripts for Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi but didn’t help co-write any of the prequels, and rising writer Michael Arndt.

The mix turned out to be the right chemistry as it was able to bring the magic of the story back to life. The recreation of the two worlds also worked excellently. There was however one challenge I feel it didn’t overcome. That was when they brought back Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. There were a few times that I felt that instead of adding to the latest Star Wars story, it almost made it seem like a ‘Star Wars reunion.’ Even adding C3P0, Chew and R2D2 in there also added to that feeling this was like a ‘reunion” I don’t know if the huge following of Star Wars had a lot to do with why I felt that it seemed like a ‘Star Wars reunion’ but that’s how I felt.

One thing I have to say is the best thing about this Star Wars story are the new elements and the new characters of the story. One thing you hope to get with each Star Wars film are new characters that are able to charm us whether it be the philosopher Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back or even villains like Jabba The Hutt in Return Of The Jedi. Here was get appealing characters like Rey and Poe Dameron and even villains like Kylo Ren. I don’t know if they will deliver the same craze Luke, Leia and Han first did but moviegoers have welcomed them to the Star Wars saga. In addition we have a plot twist in this film as Storm Trooper Finn deserts his duty to fight against the Dark Side. That’s a key element leading into Episode Eight in anticipation in what will happen next.

In addition, adding BB-8 to the Star Wars saga was a plus. Usually adding in something cutesy to the Star Wars Saga is a risk. C3P0 and R2D2 had a big part in making the first Star Wars‘ greatness. The Ewoks of Return Of The Jedi helped make the story. However Jar Jar Binks of The Phantom Menace was too irritating and had a lot to do with that episode’s constant panning. BB-8 was cute but he was more the cute one would welcome and be entertained by rather than easily get irritated with. BB-8 actually added to the quality of The Force Awakens. Even the scenes where R2D2 meets BB-8 for the first time come across as funny instead of ridiculous.

It’s not to say the older elements weren’t good. They may not have stood out like the newer elements but they still fit the movie excellently. I know I talked about bringing Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill back made it feel like a ‘Star wars reunion’ but they were intended to be in the story from the start and intended to age 30 years. I can’t think of anyone else who could play their characters. The Dark Side and its darkness still maintained its mystery and villainous feel. The battles were also excellent to watch. Oh yes, the light saber battles. You can’t have a Star Wars episode without light saber battles. There weren’t as many this time around but they still dazzled.

I will have to say J.J. Abrams succeeds with flying colors in directing and co-writing the latest in the Star Wars saga. He’s proven in the past he can direct sci-fi and direct actors and he was the right man to take over the Star Wars series right after George Lucas let it go. The acting was not stellar but it was very good. The best acting came from those performing the ‘new roles’ like Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs. Driver especially delivered an unpredictable villain. The set designs fit the movie perfectly and were able to replicate the ships, planets and lands of the story perfectly. The visual effects were top notch again and worked the movie excellently. And of course they had to bring back John Williams as the score’s composer. Even at 83, Williams is still at it. It seems as though there’s no other composer who can do it for Star Wars and he delivers again.

Without a doubt the biggest news about Star Wars 7 is all the box-office records it’s breaking. It already broke the opening weekend record with $247.9 million: almost breaking the quarter-billion barrier. It would go on to break the North American total box office record held by Avatar on January 5th: the very day I saw it! It now stands at $879.3 million and currently sits at #2 at the box office. Worldwide it sits at $1.94 billion currently and appears poised to break Avatar’s record of $2.788 billion. Only time will decide that.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a very good addition to the Star Wars series. Not only that but it brings back a lot of the Star Wars magic that appeared missing from the prequels. What can I say? Star Wars mania is back and rightly so.

Movie Review: Ex Machina

Meet Ava: a female A.I. robot who is the subject of Ex Machina.
Meet Ava: a female A.I. robot who captures the intrigue of a young computer tech in Ex Machina.

Ex Machina didn’t seem like a movie that would win a lot of people over. However it did capture a lot of people’s intrigue both with the story and its subject.

The movie begins at the office of Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine. A worker named Caleb has won a prize. He’s excited and everyone’s excited. Later on we learn what his prize was. A trip to his boss Nathan’s laboratory in a remote location up north with no cellphone use available. His boss Nathan is there with Kyoko his maid the only other person. Nathan mentions that he is working on artificial intelligence persona and wants Caleb to assist in the studies. Specifically to focus on if robots can be human and have feelings and a conscious. In a sense, pass the Turing Test where the barrier between humans and computers are broken.  Nathan wants this thing to be a friend-friend atmosphere instead of boss-worker. Caleb nervously agrees.

He is told he would meet with the subject named Ava. Ava is a robot with a female face and voice and Caleb is to first sense if Ava has a conscious. Caleb is introduced to Ava who has muscle-like arms and legs but very human-like skin and a very human-like voice. Caleb and Ava have a conversation. Nathan admits he constructed Ava’s images, behavior and motions from information and photos he hacked from people’ data searches through Bluebook.

Caleb’s study of Ava is not confined to one-on-one meetings in a special room. He can view Ava in her small ‘apartment’ where he notices her sitting and moving around. Caleb also notes of power outages that happen at the place and happen for only a few minutes at most. It’s claimed to be because of Ava charging herself and that Nathan has bad wiring due to the system. The next day Caleb and Ava develop a conversation that’s more personal. Then another blackout occurs where Ava tells Caleb that Nathan is a liar and not to be trusted.

Over time, Ava becomes more like a human and Caleb noticeable develops a bond with her. However he sees Ava’s confinement by Nathan as a form of abuse, especially since Ava talks of how she wants to go out in the work. Nathan adds to the drama by saying Ava will be reprogrammed in the future which will effectively kill her.

Thins become more frustrating for Caleb. He notices how Kyoko goes from being Nathan’s maid to being his party person. It becomes frustrating to the point when Nathan passes out drunk, Caleb steals his card to look up information of any other robots. He learns of other robots Nathan created and eventually did away with. They’re all there in a storage section. All were very human in behavior in their use. During an outage while in conversation with Ava, Caleb mentions his escape plan to her and tells her to be ready by a certain time. Caleb also learns the truth about Kyoko: she’s a robot too. It frustrates Caleb to the point he cuts himself to see if he’s still human.

The plan to escape is foiled. Nathan knew the information of the escape because of videotaping during the blackout. Nathan even tells Caleb that Ava is the user as she wants to use Caleb to escape. Right at the moment of the planned escape, Nathan knocks Caleb out and goes to destroy Ava only to have Kyoko kill him. On the day Caleb is scheduled to leave, another backfiring happens. This time with Ava in an ending nobody expected.

This is another film dealing with A.I. and people interacting with computerized machines. Seeing the movie made me think of the movies this century of people interacting with A.I. personas. There was 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Inteliligence where a woman assumed the role of a mother with a child-like robot programmed with human emotions. There’s 2013’s Her of a man interacting with a ‘virtual girlfriend.’ And now we have Ex Machina. At first, movies of humans interacting with computers or robots didn’t appear to be the material for smart movie making. However it has gotten way better over time. Ex Machina is an example of a thriller that succeeds in getting the audience intrigued over Caleb’s involvement with Ava while leaving us nervous what will happen next at the same time.

SPOILER WARNING IN PARAGRAPH: Human interaction with robots isn’t the only reason why people would be so fascinated by this film. Other elements include how Nathan is like this svengali-like master of the show who eventually becomes a victim to his own game. There’s even the question of who is being the true user to Caleb? Nathan or Ava? Even all the talk between Caleb, Nathan and Ava of various philosophers, scientists and artists would have us interested as it deals with the human mind and how Nathan creates these types. Also as fascinating is how Caleb tells his story to Ava about the girl who wants to escape and does. In the end, it becomes what happens to Ava as she does just that leaving Caleb behind with a dead Nathan and a dead Kyoko.

Alex Garland did an excellent movie that has us both thrilled and nervous, and possibly even thinking about ourselves. Would we be fooled by robot types or feel a human connection to those types in the future? Alex has done an excellent job in his directorial debut. He already has a reputation as a scriptwriter for British movies like 28 Days Later. This film which he directs and writes is an excellent accomplishment as it succeeds in making a smartly-done movie about human-like robots and delivers with unexpected twists and turns. It’s also good to see how other countries are also getting into the sci-fi genre. It’s not just Hollywood anymore. And to think Hollywood could never do human/robot movies this well.

Domhnall Gleeson was very good as Caleb however his performance was overshadowed by the roles of Ava and Nathan. Alicia Vikander did an excellent performance as Ava. She had the challenge to come across appearing as a believable robot at first that becomes more human over time. That was no easy task and she accomplished it. Oscar Isaac was also excellent as Nathan. He does an excellent job of portraying the eccentric genius with a svengali-like persona quite well. His character could remind you of some other eccentric geniuses of the past. Isaac even gets you wondering whether Nathan created all those robots for the sake of a technological breakthrough for the public or simply for sex toys for himself. He adds that intrigue. The visual effects were excellent and fit flawlessly with the film and the music from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow fit with the intensity of the film.

The summer movie season is still young but Ex Machina is already a surprise winner for this year. This is one movie of 2015 that goes beyond what one will first expect.

VIFF 2014 Review: The Incident (El Incidente)

The Incident (El Incidente) is a Mexican film about the mysterious and the supernatural.
The Incident (El Incidente) is a Mexican film about the mysterious and the supernatural.

The Incident was actually the very last movie shown during the VIFF. I actually saw four more in the VIFF repeats: some I will post my review in later days. The Incident turned out to be a good choice because I felt I was missing a film that was either envelope-pushing or edgy. This Mexican film turned out to be just that.

The film begins with two seemingly unrelated scenes. One is of a couple in a hotel just married and another is of an elderly woman lying on an escalator. Then cut to the first scene. Two brothers living in an apartment ion the ninth floor are confronted by a detective who thinks they’ve done them wrong. He has a gun and he’s after them down a staircase. Then a mysterious explosion happens. One of the brothers is shot in the leg. They go for help but once they hit the main floor, they find themselves back on the ninth floor. They’re both confused as is the hitman. They try and find a door to get out but they’re stuck. Adding to the bizarreness, whatever food or drinks that were taken from the vending machine in the stairwell comes back instantly. Then the brother dies. That leaves the other brother and the hitman stuck in the stairwell with no way out.

Second scene is a seemingly unrelated incident. A family head out on a road trip. It’s the mother, stepfather, teenage son and the six year-old asthmatic daughter. They pass a convenience store on the way to the camping ground. Then an explosion like the one involving the three men happened. The daughter has an asthma attack. They look for an inhaler but Daniel the son admits he forgot it at home. The stepfather accidentally broke the other one on the road. They go back to the convenience store only to find it empty. They try to head back home but the pass the campground sign they saw just miles ago. Meanwhile the daughter’s attack is worsening. Nevertheless the family keep coming across the same empty convenience store and pass the same campground sign. They too are stuck in the infinite standstill with no way out. The daughter does die.

The film returns to the stairwell. This time it’s filled with litter and is full of writing on the walls about various things including how long it’s been since the incident. It’s 35 years past. We see one elderly man and one middle aged man. This has been their ‘house’ during that time with nothing but food from the machines to eat and using water bottles for showering and using empties for sewage. Thirty-five years have passed for the family as well. Daniel is now a middle-aged man while his parents are elderly and unkept. The desert has been their home since and the ground is where the little girl was buried.

It’s all a mystery to get it solved even though they both know the cause of the problem. It’s because they won’t let go of the bad memories. The brother because of the shooting and Daniel for believing he caused his sister’s death. However it’s when one of the men in the apartment talks of a memory he had a long time ago of what happened when he was with his father when he accidentally died. After finally making sense, they’re able to get it solved and a door can finally be opened. After that, the people in both scenes can now live their lives in a forward motion. The daughter is still alive and Daniel can live his life even though it’s imperfect and full of problems. The two brothers and the detective also live their lives even though one will get a life sentence for a murder they commit later. However it’s at the very end when we see a newlywed couple in an elevator controlled by an elevator man named Karl that we learn it’s not all completely over.

This is one of those paranormal things I’ve never seen before. It consists of an everyday scenario then a sudden explosion happens. Then a near-fatal incident happens. After that, it’s nothing but a repetitive infinite that eventually leads to the vulnerable person’s death and everyone within that circle stuck in the same time and place forever. Four different scenarios of the infinite. All but one unrelated to the other and exactly thirty-five years apart. This may have been done before or it may be something original from director Isaac Ezban but it will haunt you. Especially seeing time elapse 35 years and how those involved in the two main situations all age staying stuck in the same place. It’s the creepiness of the bizarre that keeps you in suspense.

You hope those involved with the two scenarios will find a way out and they do. They’re also able to live their lives out, even though they’d live out a life that would have both Daniel and the detective lose in the end. But at least they lived lives where they moved forward. However even though we see the two live out their lives, we’re reminded from a moment seen during the opening scene that there was one thing unanswered: how it all started or who is behind it. We learn it right there at the end when the married couple get their own nightmare of the infinite. The ending can even leave one wondering if the couple will be able to work their own way out of the tragedy and the infinite that came with it.

As for whether it would be a crowd-grabber, that’s a question. I know crowds are willing to go to something as gruesome as Saw but you wonder if they’d go to something like this. It is something the thriller crowd would get their attention stolen with. It’s also a very smart and creative thriller that gives nothing away. I can see this being made into an American version in the future and can attract crowds of sci-fi. However seeing a six-year old girl die from asthma may be too much for them to handle. Seeing the long-haired old people might also freak them out.  Also this story may be a bit too bizarre for them to understand.

Kudos to Isaac Ezban for creating a creative story that’s both mysterious and smart, even if there were scenes that might creep many out. It’s hard to pick out the one single performance that was the best because there were so many good performances. Humberto Busto, Erick Camacho, Gabriel Santoyo, Hernan Mendoza, it’s hard to pick out the one who’s the best. It’s the ensemble of actors that delivered here. No one stand-out. All very good and all very believable.

The Incident (El Incidente) is an original thriller that may not be something that most moviegoers would want to see, including young fans of thrillers, but it’s very smart, very mysterious and worth watching.