Tag Archives: Ex Machina

A review of the “Westworld” pilot (2016)

Blog Correspondent Pete Harrison suggested I give the Westworld” series (2016) a try, and I’m damn glad he did.  The first episode was superb, and it’s safe to say it’s reeled me in.  I’d give the pilot a 9 out of 10; this seems like it could be the best science fiction television show I’ve seen in a long time.

I still think the premise is just slightly cheesy — grown men and women spending a fortune to visit a western-themed amusement park with interactive android cowboys.  (I think maybe westerns were a more mainstream genre in 1973, when Michael Crichton’s original film was in theaters.)  And there are times when the show’s central western-themed motifs are a little annoying to me … even though I know the park is supposed to appear superficial and cliche.

But “Westworld” is a highly intelligent thriller — it looks like a hell of a lot of thought went into the script.  Just about every aspect of the show seems like it was well developed — everything from the actors’ performances to the set design.  And don’t let the gorgeous, idyllic, sunny landscapes fool you — there is no shortage of pathos here.  It’s brutally dark in its storytelling.  (By the way, if you happen to be a fan of this show, I must recommend 2014’s “Ex Machina” film — it is similarly cerebral and dark in its outlook.)

Anthony Hopkins is fantastic, as usual; Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton are all very good.  They’re all overshadowed here, though, by two stellar performances.

The first is Ed Harris as a black-clad psychopathic visitor to the park — I had no idea he could be so frightening.  Dear God.  Has he played bad guys before?  I’ve always associated him with nice-guy roles — even his antagonist in 1996’s “The Rock” was misguided and sympathetic.  I’d love to see him get a role in an upcoming “The Dark Tower” film, maybe as one of the Big Coffin Hunters, if they are ever featured.

The second is Louis Herthum, the ostensible “father” of Wood’s heroine.  (They are both androids within the park — I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, as it’s all over the show’s advertising.)  Herthum may be a lesser known actor, but he stole the show in a tour-de-force performance, in my opinion.  And that’s no small feat in a cast including Hopkins and this surprisingly vicious Harris.  I haven’t seen a performance that good on television since NBC’s “Hannibal” went off the air.

Anyway, I noticed something funny here.  Steven Ogg plays a bandit who invades people’s homes and murders them … this is basically the same role he plays as Negan’s chief henchman on “The Walking Dead.”  It must be weird to be typecast like that.

Hey … it is only just now that I realized the logo below is a riff on Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.”


“The Revenant” (2015) was astonishingly good.

“The Revenant” (2015) changed the way that I see movies.  This utterly immersive, jaw-droppingly gorgeous period thriller is easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I plan to see it again, soon.  I’d rate it a perfect 10.

It’s a visual masterpiece.  Its cinematography renders its mountains, valleys and plains both dreamlike and lucid, and its action is unflinchingly visceral.  Shot mostly in Alberta, Canada (standing in for 1823 Montana and South Dakota), the film’s visuals are more stunning than anything I’ve ever seen.  You truly do feel that “you are there.”  But “there” is an absolutely brutal 19th century middle American winter wilderness.  It’s fatally dangerous, both with its unforgiving elements and with the human violence that seems to erupt casually and constantly over its land and resources — not to mention bloody retribution among groups and individuals.  This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart.  I won’t spoil the subject of its gut-wrenching action sequences for fear of spoilers — most of these sequences arrive as frightening surprises, thanks to Alejandro G. Inarritu’s expert direction.  It is this juxtaposition of beauty and brutality that define the movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an American trapper who begins as one of the seemingly few characters that do not quickly resort to unnecessary violence, prejudice or revenge.  He later does seek vengeance for his son’s death against fellow trapper John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy.  (Glass was a real frontiersman who was the subject of Michael Punke’s 2002 biography, “The Revenant.”  But a cursory Google search suggests to me that this is not actually “a true story;” I think of it as loosely based historical fiction.)  Like DiCaprio and Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also excel in their supporting roles.  (Gleeson seems to specialize in playing reluctant innocents; I remember him from his skilled performance as the gentle young computer genius in last year’s outstanding science fiction thriller, “Ex Machina.”)

But the main star of “The Revenant” is the setting itself, beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lebezki and masterfully employed by Inarritu as a kind of character unto itself in the story.  It’s lovely.  I’ve never seen a movie like this.  And while I’m no film connoisseur, or even a genuine critic, I’ve seen a lot of good ones.

The direction most reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola’s work in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now.”  I was also reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) — that was a film that also depicted threatening snowscapes as dreamlike and eerily beautiful.  There was one shot near the end, following DiCaprio’s vengeful hero on his path through immense firs on either side — it reminded me a lot of Jack Nicholson’s murderous Jack Torrance on his path through the hellish hedge labyrinth.

There is also a central action set piece involving an attack on one group of characters on another — it actually reminded me of Oliver Stone’s work in “Platoon” (1986).  Like Stone’s finale, the battle is staged so that the viewers have no sense of which direction the attack is coming from, paralleling the experience of the confused defenders.  There are countless long tracking shots throughout this film, with fewer cuts — and amazing circular surrounding shots of the action.  I’ve read that Inarritu actually had to transport cranes to his mountaintop shooting locations in order to execute those.

If you had to find a flaw with “The Revenant,” I suppose you could complain that its story and characters are thin.  We know little more about DiCaprio’s Glass beyond that he is competent, patient and slow to fight — then merciless and unrelenting in seeking justice.  Poulter’s Jim Bridger  is loyal, but not as strong as the hero.  Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a greedy, opportunistic bully whose murder of an innocent drives the plot.  That’s … little more than the plot and characters of a lot of throwaway westerns, isn’t it?  (I’ve indeed seen this movie categorized as a western in reviews.  That’s technically correct, I guess, but it feels too unique to pigeonhole that way.)

You could easily read the movie for moral ambiguity.  There are the obvious issues connected with revenge, of course, underscored by a final shot in which one character appears to break the fourth wall.  I found myself wondering about Glass’ compatriots.  Yes, it is Fitzgerald who acts villainously, but all of Glass’ fellow trappers also consign him to death by abandoning him after his injuries.  I do understand that they feel they can’t survive themselves if they try to carry him back to their staging area at Fort Kiowa.  But … is what they do “right?”  What would you or I do?

I think I am coming too close here to revealing too much about the film.  The best way to experience “The Revenant” is to walk into it knowing little about it.  I strongly recommend you do so.










When Stanley Kubrick Meets Alfred Hitchcock (A Short Review of “Ex Machina”)

I was all set to skewer “Ex Machina” (2015).  I thought that the title smacked of cliche and pretense, and it looked so much like a boiler-plate boy-meets-girlbot maudlin melodrama.  How wrong I was — this movie deserves a 9 out of 10 for being the smartest and most surprising film I have seen in recent memory.

I won’t say much, for fear of spoilers.  All three leads handed in perfect performances — Alicia Vikander is simply fantastic as an example of artificial intelligence, and this is coming from a nerdboy who has rewatched everything from “Blade Runner” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactic.”   Man, how amazing would it be to watch a film in which the HAL 9000 is her adversary?  (I want to say more here about that, but won’t spoil why it would be so interesting.)

If you are watching this movie and think it is descending into cliche and predictability, stay with it.  I counted no fewer than four major twists by the story’s conclusion.  One is predictable; the remaining three are not.  And the last one is a real killer.  I was all set to write up an account of the story’s plot holes, but director Alex Garland was 10 steps ahead of me the entire time.

My only two remaining criticisms are pretty mild, and they are echoing other reviewers.  One, this movie is a bit long and slowly paced.  Two, we see extremely little action, which wouldn’t have been gratuitous if the story called for it.  The one “action” sequence we see is also underwhelming and poorly staged.  (Its combatants seem to be on heavy doses of lithium.)  Please, people, do not pay for a ticket thinking you are about to see an action-thriller … Or … even a quickly paced thriller.

Don’t let those quibbles bother you, though.  This is a great cerebral science fiction movie.

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