Morgan

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Though it mostly skirts around more interesting core themes to build its narrative with constituent parts closer in relation to generic thrillers, there are still striking elements in Luke Scott’s Morgan (2016). This is a film that concerns itself with that obsessive contemplated theme of Philip K. Dick’s about what it really means to be human. It begins on a remote compound where a group of scientists have been conducting an elaborate, highly evolved experiment with a new life form. But now an ‘incident’ has occurred in which their biologically engineered star pupil Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lashed out at the woman seen as her ‘mother’ figure, Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

In the wake of this anomalous event, ‘Corporate’ has dispatched a handpicked representative, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to review the group’s processes and make a determination about the future of Morgan. Seemingly chosen for her cool composure and hard-nosed objectivity, Weathers immediately rubs the site’s leaders, including Dr. Simon Zeigler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), the wrong way, with suspicions arising that the project that they’ve devoted so much time and dedication to, may now be in jeopardy.

This is an excellent debut for Scott, son of Ridley, though it seems strange considering his lineage that it’s taken until the age of 48 for him to get his first feature into production. Written by Seth Owen, Morgan develops intrigue before gaining decent momentum, if somewhat artificially generated. The twists that follow evolve from what is perhaps the film’s standout scene in which Morgan is interviewed for pysch-evaluation purposes by a late-arriving analyst, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti.

As it develops, Morgan becomes another cautionary tale about how humanity’s obsession with scientific progress, though it can initiate stunning, rapid change and advances for the species, may also bring about its ultimate downfall. Messing with the gene pool is fraught with danger, as is a desire to explore far scientific horizons whilst simultaneously exposing the depths of man’s monumental hubris. Screenwriters have become adept at showing us how horribly pear-shaped these scenarios eventually turn out with Alex Garland’s superb recent effort Ex-Machina (2015) perhaps the finest example to date.

The two female leads are the standouts, with Mara playing the steely Weathers with great conviction and a strong sense of the ambiguity attached to her motivations and ultimate agenda. Taylor-Joy is even more impressive; this fine young actress, who was easily the best thing about Robert Eggers’s otherwise messy, mediocre and overrated The Witch (2015), brings a mesmerising stillness to her performance; it’s a convincing reflection of Morgan’s superabundant, radically advancing intelligence. Yet her reactions are also suffused by a streak of emotional abstraction. She may be engineered out of a test-tube but she possesses a well-honed conception of what constitutes a human’s emotional range. But can she rationalise and express these emotions with authenticity or only imitate them for the purpose of pulling the wool over her creators’ eyes?

Morgan ultimately feels a need to bring tropes – like a car chase and hand-to-hand combat – into play instead of conjecturing, theorising and seeking a generally deeper probing of the central themes though this, of course, may have denied the narrative its pace, energy, visceral gut-punching and commercial prospects. Despite this conscious dumbing down to accommodate broader appeal, Morgan is nevertheless a very solid piece of speculative fiction and a strong debut from a director with a rich cinematic heritage attached to his name.

Arrival

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An atypical sci-fi drama, eschewing awe and wonder for a far more cerebral angle, Arrival is the latest impressive film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. When a dozen identical alien spacecraft appear in scattered locations around the globe, an accomplished linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by military head Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to a lead a team entering the craft in Montana in an attempt, against seemingly impossible odds, to unravel the aliens’ means of communication by breaking down the strange alien text into constituent, translatable parts. Banks is paired with somebody seen as having complementary skills in physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang and adapted by Eric Heisserer, Arrival (2016) is unique amongst alien-upon-Earth films in that the expected ‘invasion’ never actually eventuates. In fact, combat between interplanetary forces never comes enters the equation other than in military positing. Instead this is an intelligent, empathetic, deliberately paced but never less than riveting science puzzle of the film. Though the dogmatic approach and methodology used by the participants is beyond simple comprehension, there’s still an inclusive feel to how the drama plays out and draws us into its web of intrigue. We’re effectively enabled to feel the frustration and then the tantalising glimpses of elation as they boffins strike closer to some kind of breakthrough and remarkable clarity.

At the heart of this immersive is the cleverly manipulation Villeneuve uses to take advantage of its central mystery. The motivations of the aliens remain unclear until the final act when the pieces of the puzzle are finally laid out. Make no mistake, there’ll be plenty of talking points as the credits roll too with a couple of clever twists providing a surprising reinterpretation of events. Within the sci-fi context there are even powerful allusions to highly relevant themes like the misdirection of authority in the way ambiguities in language and translation are misappropriated to foster fear and distrust of people unlike us.

Arrival proves to be a far better showcase for Adams, one of American cinema’s finest current crop of actresses, than her concurrent appearance in Tom Ford’s limp Nocturnal Animals (2016). Here, she carries the burden of being both the film’s emotional and cerebral epicentre whilst bringing an impressive complexity to the role. Glimpses of an alternate existence in the very first scenes offer an intriguing introduction to Banks before being dispensed into the slipstream of the narrative in which no strand can be assumed to have taken on a linear form.

Renner’s Donnelly is a good match for Adams in what might be his most decent role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). It’s certainly the best film he’s been a part of since then. Even if the internal lives of Banks and Donnelly, beyond the struggle to decipher the language of the aliens, are referenced only in passing, there’s reason enough for the omission. All becomes clearer in the final moments. Johann Johannsson’s wonderfully probing dark score has eerie, atonal, almost alien qualities itself, whilst Villeneuve otherwise employs a couple of effective, tender Max Richter pieces to bookend the film.

Following his remarkable trio of English language films, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013) and last year’s superb Sicario (2015), Villeneuve continues to affirm his status as one of the most promising directors around. His last French-Canadian film, Incendies (2010), may still be his masterpiece but he is an impressive talent who is yet to make a false step. His sense of pacing is spot on, whilst his liquid visual skills reflect a cinematic instinctiveness that’s pretty damn rare. As a lifelong disciple of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I’ve long cringed at the thought of a sequel being entrusted to anyone. However, Villenueve, recently given the nod to helm Blade Runner 2049, is one of the few directors around who actually fills me with something other than dread at the prospect.

Ghostbusters

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Nostalgia can only carry a reinvented concept so far without genuine substance to support it. A third Ghostbusters film was rumoured for years before the advancing age of the original cast members seemingly put a final nail in the coffin of a much anticipated regeneration. But Hollywood, now approaching critical mass in its search for a new creative nadir, has too often shown disdain for even the most beloved touchstone films of generations past.

With nothing off limits, the re-tooled inversion of Ivan Reitman’s original Ghostbusters (1984) has arrived. Comedy central’s flavours of the months, Melissa McCarthy as paranormal investigator Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig as disgraced academic Erin Gilbert, take the lead roles. They’re joined by Leslie Jones’s ballsy transit worker Patty Tolan and Kate McKinnon’s slightly kooky science boffin Jillian Holtzmann in director Paul Feig’s reconfiguration of the original quartet, unwittingly called into action to solve New York’s outbreak of ghostly pranksters.

The cameos from original cast members are mercifully brief. A bust of the late Harold Ramis means that without dialogue he fares best. Dan Ackroyd’s few rushed lines as a harried cab driver apathetically negotiating his way through the finale’s ghoulish hell storm are passable, whilst Ernie Hudson as Patty’s uncle and Sigourney Weaver as Holtzman’s mentor are inoffensively ticked off. However Bill Murray’s couple of scenes as a psychic debunker are awful and borderline embarrassing, his last fleeting moment – ejected through a window by the crew’s first captured ghost – provides a fitting final indignity of sorts.

The blatant padding in Feig and Katie Dippold’s overstretched screenplay becomes more obviously damaging as the film progresses. For a while the sheer novelty of this new incarnation and the solid chemistry created between Bridesmaids alumni McCarthy and Wiig and, especially, the quirky McKinnon carries it along without too many dead spots. But as the plot gets lazy and loses all focus and, naturally, the CGI quotient expands, the pitfalls that taint every single over-blown, over-budgeted Hollywood event film become issues.

Nonsensical battles, possessions and a slimed-up flood of extraneous scenes are soon the order of the day. There’s virtually zero wit on display, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker – Hollywood has provided a multitude of offerings with concepts of ‘witlessness’ and ‘entertaining’ crowding the same space – but a slew of rank, cringeworthy scenes are definitely an issue. Case-in-point, the gang’s meeting with NYC’s mayor (Andy Garcia) to discuss their unofficial status which is riddled with one clunky line after another. Chris Hensworth as a moronic beefcake hired to be the women’s secretary is simply too stupid to be funny for anyone with even fifty percept cerebral capacity, whilst bug-eyed Neil Casey is appropriately cast if utterly unmemorable in the Rick Moranis mould as a beaten-down loser vengefully unleashing an apocalyptic battery of ghosts in an effort to achieve immortality.

Very few iconic moments from the original are recreated, which wouldn’t be a problem if Feig and Dippold were able to conceive equally memorable scenarios. At the end of the day, this updated Ghostbusters (2016), whilst conceptually fresh and imbued with, initially, with a genuine liveliness and sense of fun, simply runs out of legs. It’s entertaining enough, certainly, but you simply reach a point where you just want it to end. The final half hour is tediously anti-climactic, a wearying feeling only enhanced by subsequent news of the certain sequels to come.

 

 

Midnight Special

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The increasingly impressive Jeff Nichols continues to diversify as a filmmaker, his follow-up to brilliant Southern drama Mud (2012), an evocative indie sci-fi film in which a young boy with a special gift is hunted down by government agencies and a cult looking to exploit him for the purpose of fulfilling a religious prophecy. As Midnight Special (2016) opens, the boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), has been abducted from the cult by his natural father Roy (regular Nichols muse Michael Shannon) and an old friend, renegade state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Roy’s face is pasted all over the news and around every corner lurks the threat of capture.

Taking to the road, we learn incrementally of important finer details, including a time and place that has special significance. Roy’s sole purpose becomes the necessity to transport Alton to that location, whilst along the way they pick up the boy’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). In alternating scenes we see government science boffin Sevier (Adam Driver) attempting to work the pieces of the puzzle from the ‘official’ perspective, predicting where the boy will be and how his employers can acquire him for their own purposes.

The mystery generated in the early scenes and maintained throughout is a large part of Midnight Special. Nichols poses tantalising questions – the most central of which is what exactly will happen will they reach the appointed place at the appointed time? We get glimpses of Alton’s startling, otherworldly gifts but how he acquired them remains unanswered. Nichols doesn’t over-cram his screenplay with fleshed-out details which may be a major flaw for many looking to plough through the inscrutability but he creates a uneasy tone that intrigues with a hint of danger and supernatural possibility.

Shannon has an intense, glowering presence like few other actors and here he mostly keeps Roy’s emotional extremes to a minimum, internalizing his frustration and pain to the point that he feels like he must inevitably combust. What is conveyed is Roy’s love for his son and his desire to play an important role in transporting his most precious cargo. This in turn will lead to vindication of the boy’s prognostications as he sets about taking any means necessary – including highly unlawful ones – to get Alton to that appointed location.

The mood of the film is distinctly nostalgic. This ponderous but never predictable indie sci-fi road trip comes with a heavy Starman (1984) vibe attached to it. The throwback feel is only enhanced by David Wingo’s mostly synthesised score which features a brilliant, haunting main theme. The awe and wonder evoked by the film’s major set-piece near the end may be just enough of a payoff to justify the director’s generally oblique approach to the material. Midnight Special is flawed, undoubtedly, but for me there’s enough distinctiveness attributable to Nichols’ approach on display to believe that he’s further cemented his growing reputation as one of American independent cinema’s most promising talents.

Terminator Genisys

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Alan Taylor’s reboot of the Terminator franchise at least proves entertaining on a base level, even if its reverential humour – with inevitable shots at the effects of aging – is as endearingly clunky as some of the overheated action scenes. These regular bursts are spread over various time zones as the characters race to find a solution to Skynet’s hunger for world domination. The film begins in the distant future with John Connor (Jason Clarke), the war hero leading his men, including right hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), to victory over the machines and seemingly Skynet. However, just as Reese is being blasted back to 1984 to oversee the protection of Connor’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke), a residual, more organic incarnation of Skynet claims Connor, leaving his fate up in the air.

Circumstances have changed back in 1984 too, with Sarah no longer blissfully going about her life as a waitress in her days before a Terminator arrives to execute her. Instead Reese finds himself becoming the rescued. Sarah, it seems, has been raised by the cyborg she’s named Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger) since the age of 9 and in the interim has been waiting for Reese’s arrival. This sleek deviation from the scene of James Cameron’s original classic in 1984 kick-starts the plot as the trio fends off the inevitable shape-shifting, liquefying Terminator (Byung-hun Lee) and head to 2017 to prevent the original start date of Skynet’s global infection via a new computer operating system that links all humanity to its technological doom.

Naturally, Terminator: Genisys (2015), plays heavily on the franchise’s earlier instalments, with Schwarzenegger’s participation a large part of the deal. He turns back the clock in a sense, though the nostalgic glow he casts over the production via his wry one-liners and indestructible presence is certainly tainted by a certain predictability, and a screenplay – by Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis – that struggles to keep up, logically, with its own obtuse back and forwards jack-knifing through time. Taylor’s direction is rudimentary in every way whilst the clucky special effects, especially in some of the earlier set-pieces, seem ‘off’. There often feels like a less than smooth transition between the CGI and the actors’ reactions to them.

Courtney and Emilia Clarke – making an inexorable transition from epic-scaled small screen drama – are solid contributors in a film that only meekly pays lip service to creating fresher angles on these long-established characterisations. And neither comes close to capturing the raw intensity of the originals, Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn. The most impressive cast member is easily Courtney’s fellow Australian Jason Clarke who builds upon the momentum from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) which a performance that shows off his genuine presence. Special mention as well must go to the brilliant J.K. Simmons for his tragically minor role as a beleaguered but clued-in cop who can’t get anyone to take him seriously.

This fifth chapter outweighs the Arnie-less fourth, which wouldn’t have been much of a stretch. There’s a not invaluable lesson about the harmful long-term effects of humanity’s ultimate reliance upon and meek subservience to the rapidly expanding technologies at our disposal, and in providing heightened, increasingly ludicrous action sequences it at least fits the bill for lightweight entertainment. The Hans Zimmer influence, as ever, is obvious in composer Lorne Balfe’s writing, though it does pound along with a suitably syncopated relentlessness and offers plenty of nods to original composer Brad Fiedel’s throbbing electronic motif. The work provided by the previous two musical contributors to the franchise, Marco Beltrami and, more recently, Danny Elfman, were far more varied and substantial. Overall, a pleasingly over-the-top return to comfortingly familiar waters that’s as disposable as it is enjoyable.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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George Miller’s long awaited regeneration of his first, most memorable creation, Mad Max, exceeds all expectations. This blissfully deranged, post-apocalyptic fever dream, fuelled by its grotesque, outlandish imagery, uncompromising weirdness and the sledgehammer-effective accompaniment of Tom Holkenborg’s score, almost allows you to imagine the birth of a new form of action film. The kinetic, adrenaline-pumping set-pieces – which make up most of the film – are shot with a freshness of perspective that seems almost impossible to achieve in today’s made-by-committee, for-the-masses, movie-as-fast-food-consumption climate.

When the pestilent, warlord ruler of the Citadel, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), sends his Imperator, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) on a mission to obtain gas, she decides to rebel, settling on an alternate plan that sees her fleeing with Joe’s beautiful array of ‘breeders’ in the hopes of transporting them across the desert to her original home, the Green Place. With the adoption of a fleeing Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), earlier snared by Joe’s minions and used as a human bloodbank for Lux (Nicolas Hoult) – who also becomes an ally – she sets out against formidable odds and wave after wave of relentless pursuers.

The combat in Fury Road is brutal, exhilarating and gut-wrenching. Once the screws are turned – and Miller wastes very little time in setting his charges in motion – there’s barely a moment to breathe. The scope of the chases and the ensuing battles, across endless sandblasted terrain, is awe-inspiring and though the actors necessarily play second fiddle to the stuntwork, there are no weak links. The hard-nosed, taciturn stoicism of Hardy works a treat for Max, even if, peculiarly, he ends up closer to a sidekick of sorts in his own film. Theron’s imposing physicality and equally believable masculine qualities are channelled to great effect, meaning there are no credibility issues in her sharing the action duties with Max and the others. Keays-Byrne and Hoult are given great small moments in which to shine, whilst John Howard, Angus Sampson and numerous others all make tiny but telling contributions to Miller’s carnivalesque gathering of freakshow attractions.

Miller, now 70, has been inspired by the scale of his imagination and like too few he’s simply had the audacity to run with it – to utterly trust his vision and insist it hold true to the end. The result is something remarkable, and bearing not a whiff of studio interference that might have seen the director coerced into reining in the excesses of his demented fictional world. The story may not be the film’s strongest suit, and indeed, chunks of dialogue become incomprehensibly camouflaged beneath the relentless sonic assault of music and rampaging engine sound effects. But the basic narrative arc is clear enough and for once these matters fade into insignificance against the backdrop of a spectacle so remarkably assured, transportive and mind-blowingly entertaining. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), with all its swooping John Seale aerial perspectives, militant nihilism, cavalcade of diseased, warped mutations and ecological sub-themes earns the right to be labelled something close to an instant action classic; at the very least it’s a new watermark against which future genre directors can grade themselves.

Ex Machina

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Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s much anticipated debut behind the camera is an inventive sci-fi tale of the multifaceted dangers of technology’s rampant progress and the potential for our own annihilation at its expense. Ex Machina (2015) is a cerebral chamber piece, and conclusive proof that the genre requires little in the way of big budget effects if the central narrative is strong enough. And in this case, Garland’s screenplay provides more than ample food for thought.

The film opens with the briefest of set-ups: a medium-rung programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is shown winning a coveted prize to spend a week with his mysterious employer, a genius in the field of artificial intelligence. Flown by helicopter to a remote location, he learns from Nathan (Oscar Isaac) that he will participate in a Turing test on his latest creation, the alluring Ava (Alicia Vikander). Each day Caleb interacts with her in a new session designed to explore her consciousness through the degree to which she can process ideas and initiate independent thought. Caleb is naturally in awe of Nathan’s creation and of Ava as a wilful individual to whom he’s unable to remain neutral. But is there another, more decisive factor motivating Nathan and his decision to allow Caleb into his inner sanctum?

Gleeson, who was excellent in the recent Frank (2014), does a wonderful job of expressing Caleb’s awe and wonder combined with an instinct for the darker potentialities lurking in the margins. The fact that he pulls it off with a convincing American accent adds further merit to his performance. Isaac continues his impressive recent run, and though he’s never been the type of magnetic, commanding actor you might have picked for this role, his ease in adopting Nathan’s strangely laid-back demeanour is convincing enough. Vikander too shines in a role that requires subtlety to reflect the human spark of inspiration behind the robotic heart of her true identity.

In his skilful manipulation of this three-hander, Garland leaves the motivations of each open to speculation. As the week inside the sterile facility progresses, the layers of division are stripped away and re-built, leaving us blissfully unsure of who, ultimately, is holding the upper hand. The drama and intrigue build wonderfully to a gloriously ironic crescendo, in which Garland is able to fuse his narrative skills with a genuine cinematic flair, not so surprising from a writer who has collaborated so often with a director as boldly visual as Danny Boyle. The denouement is magnificent, coming after a memorable final set-piece in which the rug is very effectively pulled out from under us.