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Review – The Gift (15) [2015]

The Gift - title banner2

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Joel Edgerton

Cast:

Music Composers:

  • Danny Bensi – Martha Marcy May Marlene, Enemy, Last Days In The Desert, Christine
  • Saunder Jurriaans – Martha Marcy May Marlene, Enemy, Last Days In The Desert, Christine

In the last dozen years, there have been a string of actors who have turned themselves into creditable directors. Sofia Coppola directed Lost in Translation in 2003 (and was nominated for two Oscars for it). While George Clooney directed and starred in The Ides of March in 2011 and Ben Affleck did the same in Argo in 2013 (and won an Oscar for it). Joel Edgerton seems to be the latest actor to try his luck behind the camera, and his directorial debut is a gem.

The happy couple. Simon (Jason Bateman) showing affection to his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) whilst convincing her that this is the right house for them to make a home.

The happy couple. Simon (Jason Bateman) showing affection to his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) whilst convincing her that this is the right house for them to make a home.

Edgerton’s film, The Gift, centres round an ostensibly happy couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall). They have just moved from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles because Simon got a new job. One evening, when they are at a shop buying supplies for their new home, they bump into Gordon ‘Gordo’ Moseley (Joel Edgerton). Gordo remembers Simon from their high school days and is keen to become friends with Robyn and Simon. Simon, though, is not so keen since he remembers how much of a weirdo Gordo was back then. (Simon even boasts that he and his peers called Gordo ‘the Weirdo’ back in school because he was so weird.)

Nevertheless, Gordo goes to their new house when Simon is not around and starts giving them gifts, despite neither Robyn nor Simon asking for any. Soon, Gordo’s behaviour begins to trouble Simon and Robyn. It puts a strain on their marriage, especially as Robyn suspects that Simon is not telling her something…

The Gift is a slow-burning psychological thriller. Not a lot happens for much of the film. Yet, it is a tense watch. This is primarily because Director Joel Edgerton (thankfully) does not use loud, sudden noises to artificially inject jump-scares into his viewers. Rather, he uses the natural spookiness of the suburban area to good effect and creates a scenario that nobody would want to experience. The combination induces an organic and ethereal tautness into the audience, thereby making The Gift an uncomfortable watch.

Gordo (Joel Edgerton) staring with unsettling intent at Simon and Robyn at the store.

Gordo (Joel Edgerton) staring with unsettling intent at Simon and Robyn at the local supply store.

Central to The Gift being an uncomfortable watch is Edgerton as an actor. Edgerton is really good as the unsettlingly weird Gordo. With just a look (or a gift), he can make viewers feel like ants are crawling under their skin. Edgerton’s/Gordo’s weird behaviour is one of the reasons for this; the other is due to the phenomenal (and subtle) job that the cosmeticians have done to his face. They have transformed Edgerton from a pleasant, amiable-looking guy into someone that no-one would ever want to come across, whether in a supermarket, a social gathering, on the train, or in a dark alley at night. (Especially not in a dark alley at night!)

Edgerton/Gordo is undoubtedly the star of the film. He activates the tension and his behaviour gets unnervingly weirder and weirder the more The Gift goes on. Yet, one cannot ignore the roles played by Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman either to making the movie tense. Hall plays plausibly well as a woman who seems fine on the surface, but has psychological issues brooding under the surface; while Bateman plays decently as his seemingly usual, (semi-)comic, supercilious self. Nevertheless, neither Hall nor Bateman have the same weight on screen as Edgerton. One spends much of the time when Edgerton is not on screen waiting for him to reappear as one knows that something strange and unsettling is likely to occur.

Edgerton gets a lot right as an actor in The Gift. He also gets a lot right as the director and writer of the film too. He captures the cinematography of a suburban town well (with all its beauty and mundane scariness), and uses relatively long shoots to enable viewers to feel the normality (and tension) of the situation unfolding for Hall’s and Bateman’s characters with impressive skill.

Simon and Rebecca find a gift awaiting them at the house upon returning from some friends. Guess who its from...?

Simon and Rebecca find a gift awaiting them at the house upon returning from some friends. Guess who its from…?

Additionally, Edgerton has written a very good script that has believable dialogue and a solid storyline. It is only in the climactic scene at the very end of the film that one or two elements of the dialogue and script don’t work. Indeed, they seem entirely at odds with the realism of the rest of the movie. But to put too much stress on the (eye-raising nature of the) end would be to do The Gift and Joel Edgerton a disservice. As an actor and as a director, Edgerton emphasises that he has talent akin to Sofia Coppola, George Clooney and Ben Affleck.

Over-all, The Gift is a well-executed psychological thriller. The final scenes may be questionable. But the film is tense and suspenseful in an entirely naturalistic and refreshing way. Undeniably, Edgerton is the shining light of this film as an actor, the writer and the director. He is creepy as the main supporting actor; intelligent in his script-writing; and neat in his directing. Edgerton is highly unlikely to be nominated, let alone win, an Oscar for his directing The Gift. But this is a great directorial debut from him, and one looks forward to watching what he writes and directs next.

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Review – Transcendence (12a) [2014]

Transcendence - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Wally Pfister

Executive Producer:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Mychael Danna – Girl,Interrupted, Fracture, Capote, Moneyball, The Captive

In 1948, George Orwell wrote the classic 1984 in which he (implicitly) warned of the dangers of a country using technology to the full to create a totalitarian state. Many of Orwell’s ideas are now part of everyday life. States can monitor an individual’s movements by CCTV surveillance, by their mobile phone activities, by their credit card history, etc… and with a computer database at the tip of the state’s fingers to bring such information when required.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) with the swagger of a scientist on the verge of something special, and after his shooting before his consciousness is wired up into the computer.

Left, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), with the swagger of a scientist on the verge of something special; and, right, sickly after being shot, just prior to his consciousness being wired up to the computer.

The above may be very worrying. But the saving grace is that a person is still needed to activate such technology; for technology cannot operate on its own. However, what if technology could operate on its own? Or, rather, what if a human being’s self-awareness were put into a computer? This is the territory that Wally Pfister’s directorial debut film, Transcendence, deals with.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a scientist intent on creating a conscious computer. His research is at an advanced stage, when he is shot by anti-tech terrorists. With his mind fully functional but his body dying, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), desperate to save her husband and against the advice of Will’s friend Max (Paul Bettany), uploads Will’s consciousness to a computer to keep him alive.

But as soon as Will’s conscience has been uploaded, the question arises as to whether it really is Will in the computer, or if it is something else, especially as transcendent-Will becomes hungry for power. And with all surveillance systems, the internet, and data-records within his control, as well as the ability to advance at a logarithmic rate, what can stop transcendent-Will bending the world to his will?

Transcendence has a complex yet stimulating plot, almost entirely devoid of (headache inducing) action scenes. The film’s language might be tough to follow (although not a prerequisite, it certainly helps to have some knowledge of computer- and nano-science to understand the dialogue). But the idea of whether a soul, in general, can be uploaded into a computer, and the moral risks of technology (possibly) going too far ensure that viewers can appreciate the movie all the same.

Bree (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara), one of the anti-tech terrorists behind the shooting of Dr. Will Caster.

Bree (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara), one of the anti-tech terrorists behind the shooting of Dr. Will Caster.

The idea of technology going too far is not a new one, per se. After-all, Orwell spoke of the matter in 1948, and countless science fiction films, like The Terminator franchise, The Matrix Trilogy, i,Robot, and Prometheus have dealt with the subject since (mostly dragging it through the sewers in the process). Yet, Transcendence handles the subject with maturity, and delivers it in quite an original way. The movie may seem far-fetched at first. But the documentary series Through The Wormhole, narrated by (Transcendence’s and Hollywood’s moral compass) Morgan Freeman, shows us the (disconcerting) capabilities of present-day technology. This, in turn, suggests that what happens in Transcendence is not as implausible as it may ostensibly appear.

But to focus solely on the technological angle of Transcendence would be to miss the point of the film. In a twopart interview, Wally Pfister spoke of how Transcendence is a human story at its core. Due to the film’s mature handling of the subject of artificial intelligence, and due to Paul Bettany’s passionate performance, viewers can understand what the director wanted to convey.

However, Pfister’s casting of Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in the lead roles almost loses him the human element of the tale. Depp and Hall have little chemistry between them and neither look like they understand the scientific language they engage with throughout the film. At least, Hall believes in her character and puts effort into her role. Depp, on the other hand, (in a non-Captain Jack Sparrow-like role for a change) looks disinterested and half-asleep throughout the movie.

Depp and Hall might be Transcendence’s most noteworthy problems. But the dialogue is not great either (irrespective of the difficult language used). In addition, parts of the plot are given away daftly, and are contrived, and are unexplained; then again, it should be noted that Inception suffered from similar unexplained-plot problems, so maybe such issues are to be expected when a film deals with inexplicable elements.

FBI agents, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanen (Cillian Murphy) giving Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) sage advice on her husband's transcendence plans.

FBI agents, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanen (Cillian Murphy) giving Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) sage advice on her husband’s transcendence plans.

Nevertheless, like Inception, the cinematography in Transcendence is first-rate. From Transcendence, one can see why Christopher Nolan employed Pfister as his cinematographer for many of his movies, including The Prestige, The Dark Knight I-III, and Inception (in which Pfister won his Oscar). Indeed, if Transcendence’s script and acting would have been as good as its cinematography, Pfister would be in line for a directorial Oscar-nomination in 2015.

Over-all, Transcendence is a brave film for a director to make his debut. It is an interesting and thought-provoking movie, with phenomenal visuals and cinematography. Transcendence has its flaws, not least with its plot, its dialogue and its two lead actors. But to some extent, one should overlook these problems and concentrate on the film’s treatment of the possible dangers of modern day/near-future technology. For, like Orwell in 1948, these matters are handled in an ambitious, innovative and refreshingly adult way.

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Review – Iron Man III (12a) [2013]

Iron Man 3 - title banner

Star Rating 2.5/5

Director:

  • Shane Black – Lethal Weapon I-IV, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Doc Savage

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Brian Tyler – Battle: Los Angeles, The Expendables I & II, Now You See Me

In The Avengers Assemble, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) showed his true colours by stating that he is a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” Indeed, one who has read the Marvel comic-books, or seen Iron Man I & II and The Avengers Assemble, or all of them, knows that Stark thinks highly of himself. But from the trailer of Iron Man III, it appeared that one would see the vulnerable side of Tony Stark for a change. Is this the case?

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) up at night, working on his numerous projects which he occupies himself with, since he cannot sleep.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) up at night, working on his numerous projects which he occupies himself with, since he cannot sleep.

Iron Man III begins with a flashback to New Year’s Eve 1999/2000 when Tony Stark, with scientists Maya (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), rejects an offer to invest in Extremis, an organisation that deals with experimental treatment to regenerate human limbs that have been severed.

Thirteen/fourteen years later, Stark is having nightmares about the alien invasion that occurred the previous year in The Avengers Assemble. He is suffering from insomnia and anxiety, whilst trying to love Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Yet, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is wreaking havoc upon America with a string of terrorist attacks, using advanced weapons. Soon, he destroys Stark’s house, many of his Iron Man suits, and effectively sends Stark into the wilderness. Stark must find a way back and stop the Mandarin from unleashing more chaos, or else America will fall.

Iron Man III revolves round Tony Stark, and his quick, funny/brash responses. On the periphery, there is a plot (of some sort), some Transformers-style action scenes, plenty of explosions and fire-power, as well as sophisticated special effects in abundance. The problem is that audiences have seen all of these already, and it is starting to get very tedious.

At 133-minutes, Iron Man III is a long film that disappointingly doesn’t add anything new to the series. Worse, after 30 minutes the plausibility of the storyline ceases to exist, and it lazily goes from one plot contrivance to the next. If that doesn’t illustrate Shane Black’s contempt for the audience, the last scene renders all but the first 30 minutes of the movie as a waste of time. Couldn’t Black have just cut out all of the excess baggage and got straight to the chase? (Or, alternatively, forged a plot that actually works?)

The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), looking and preaching much like Osama Bin Laden, in a broadcast threatening to destory America if the country does not change its ways.

The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), looking and preaching much like Osama Bin Laden, in a broadcast threatening to destory America if the country does not change its ways.

Iron Man III also suggests that the franchise is starting to suffer from the issues that are synonymous with other series, like Pirates of the Caribbean, Die Hard, and Fast and the Furious: notably, going on too long, laziness, repetitiveness, and going back in time to make (semi-)viable storylines. The very fact that Iron Man III starts by going back in time should set alarm bells ringing in one’s mind. If the franchise has not bothered until now to mention important things that the key character has done, why should viewers believe that they are significant?

With the exceptions of young Ty Simpkins, who is cute and amusing, and Ben Kingsley, who is brilliant as the terrifying (Osama Bin Laden-like) Mandarin, the rest of the cast could not be more two-dimensional if they tried. Robert Downey Jr. plays the same energetic, narcissistic character (himself) as he did in Iron Man I & II (not to mention in The Avengers Assemble, Sherlock Holmes I & II, and Due Date). Yes, Stark is smart, sharp and impertinent, and Downey Jr. does this well (as we know he can). But, in Iron Man III, Downey Jr. was meant to display his character suffering from insomnia and panic attacks. One is hard-pressed to find an instance of Stark genuinely looking like he was suffering from such problems, which is poor on Downey Jr.’s behalf. It is a shame, too, because one might have seen Downey Jr. actually challenging himself for a change.

Gwyneth Paltrow, playing as Stark’s secretary, is little more than a one-dimensional, pointless blonde doll. Despite loving a man who loves himself more than he loves her (or anyone else for that matter), it is difficult to empathise with Pepper as she is so bland.

Stark in a broken Iron Man suit and in the winter wilderness of Tennessee. How will he ever get back if he is to save the country he has sworn to protect?

Stark in a broken Iron Man suit and in the winter wilderness of Tennessee. How will he ever get back if he is to save the country he has sworn to protect?

Rebecca Hall’s performance suffers from similar problems as Maya’s character is not especially interesting, nor well defined, and her importance to the plot is dubious at best. Don Cheadle plays decently enough in his simple role as Stark’s (patient) understudy. Guy Pearce once again plays another egotistical, two-dimensional individual (he’s making a habit of this following his roles in The Count of Monte Cristo, The King’s Speech and Justice). At least, though, the cosmetic department did a fantastic job on him. In the first scene, Pearce is unrecognisable, which is a great contrast to Stark failing to even have bags under his eyes when (supposedly) suffering from major sleep deprivation. Would it have been so hard to have put eye shadow under Downey Jr.’s eyes?

Over-all, Iron Man III is much the same as the previous two Iron Man films. It follows Tony Stark being Tony Stark; Stark flies and fights in his Iron Man costume; and there are special effects galore that one’s seen before. The movie tries to show us some of Stark’s weaknesses, but fails miserably at this and the attempts at doing so are feeble. Moreover, the laziness of the entire production suggests that the franchise is drained of ideas and lost for care.

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