Movie Recommendations – Volume I

‘Good Kill’ (2014)

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Good Kill is an excellent drama/thriller film that highlights the ethics and the cost involving drone warfare and how it can affect the servicemen and women who have to pull the trigger and live with the consequences. Starring Ethan Hawke, this film is a deep and probing look at how warfare conducted from thousands of miles away can still leave a lasting imprint on those who have a role in it even when they are not anywhere near the battlefield.

The film highlights correctly how while drone strikes may carry less collateral damage to civilian lives, there will always be the chance for the loss of innocent life and families being destroyed. Whether that’s an errant missile crashing into a wedding party or a group of children running by a targeted building within seconds of a missile being launched and getting caught in the crossfire, death from the skies will not only affect terrorists, but women and children too. Because drone strikes are less costly to governments and militaries, the rules of engagement can sometimes be abused to focus too often on low-level targets, who pose some actionable threat, but who could also be captured for intelligence purposes. A lack of international norms and standards regarding drone warfare leads to serious consequences in terms of possible abuse by governments who overuse it on secondary targets.

Airmen and women such as Ethan Hawke’s character and his colleagues, who conduct drone strikes, are shown to suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder because they get to know their targets, see how they live, and struggle with having the power of death over them. High-resolution surveillance makes the act of killing personal despite the fact that these servicemen are thousands of miles away. When a drone strike goes wrong and innocent civilians are killed, it leaves a long-lasting psychological effect on the military personnel involved.

They may not see their victims when they are flying an F-16, but they are aware of what collateral damage is when they see the dead bodies of women, children being shown on the high definition screen. Military service members do not last long as drone pilots due to the immense mental strain placed on them especially when they did not sign-up for conducting warfare with a joystick. Alcoholism, depression, and family problems have occurred due to pilots being asked to conduct drone strikes in the name of national security. All of these issues are highlighted in Good Kill making it more than just your average film about war, but also about an excellent look on how the human condition is affected from holding life or death decisions over those who never see it coming.

‘Roma’ (2018)

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Roma is more than just your average film about a family. It is excellent in its scope and ambition in covering a tumultuous period in Mexican history and for highlighting the issues of family, race, and class within the larger society. What I enjoyed most about this film was that it felt personal and it is based off of the childhood of the director Alfonso Cuaron. The way the story unfolds feels as if it has been lived out before.

Cuaron’s work and that of his film crew that was done with the cinematography, film editing, and screenplay is extremely impressive and goes to show the audience just how film is another form of human artwork that can display beauty, meaning, and pure emotion.

Amidst the story of this family are real-life events in Mexican history that overlap with the film without overwhelming the intimacy of the story being told. For example, The Corpus Christi Massacre or “El Halconazo” in 1971 are intertwined with Cleo’s search for a crib for his newborn baby to be.

Nobody in this film is perfect and true human error of both behavior and character are laid bare. Amongst the flawed characters in this film are redemptive qualities about them and how they fight and struggle to overcome betrayal, disappointments, and tragedy. The film is gripping in that it is about real life and there is no sugarcoating. In Roma, no one is immune from setbacks and struggles, and that is what makes the audience invests in the story being told even more.

Compared to many other films that I have seen, few have touched me more on an emotional level than Roma. The realistic dialogue, the set pieces, the chain of events, and the character development all lend to its longevity as one of the best films of the decade. If you have a Netflix subscription, do yourself a favor and watch Roma. You won’t regret the chance to view this pure work of art and I would not be surprised if it sweeps the awards at the Oscars. It is that good of a film and a noteworthy achievement by director Alfonso Cuaron.

‘A Private War’ (2018)

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This is a biographical film without feeling overwhelming or too much tied up in the protagonist. This film does a good job in covering the life of the deceased war correspondent, Marie Colvin, who reported from multiple war zones over two decades including Sri Lanka, Iraq, Libya, Syria. Marie was a fearless and bold reporter who did the under-appreciated work of reporting the facts on the ground when it came to what was going on in these war zones.

The film portrays her as someone who battled the terrible things that she witnessed and the horrors that she could not avoid. She struggled with her dependency on alcohol, cigarettes, was divorced twice and also had her bouts with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as many war correspondents deal with when they return home from a war zone. Rosamund Pike, the lead actress in A Private War does an incredible job in accurately portraying who Marie Colvin was in how she mimics both her mannerisms and her speaking style throughout the film’s entirety.

Despite losing an eye, suffering from PTSD, and struggling with maintaining her friendships and relationships away from the battlefield, Mrs. Colvin dedicated her life to reporting the truth and the facts from war zones around the world so that everyone would else would know the costs of war.

While she was afraid and while she was fearful, she had the courage to press on and do her duty in informing the public on what was going on. While she was killed during the siege of Homs, Syria, her memory lives on with this film and the work that she did for two decades in holding the powerful accountable for the wars that they started. In an era where journalists are being denigrated and dismissed with increasing impunity, it’s refreshing to see a film that pays tribute to a war correspondent who gave her life to the cause of reporting the facts so that people would be more informed on what was going on and to also care about why it was happening.  

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‘The Revenant’ – Film Review and Analysis

What happens when you push a man to his utmost limit? What occurs when you take everything from him including his wife and child? At the point of both physical and mental exhaustion, what carries the man forward to keep on fighting and to keep on living? Few films really probe these questions related to the power of the human spirit as realistically as ‘The Revenant.’ An excellent and unique film that was propelled to success, both commercially and critically because of the acting brilliance of Leonardo DiCaprio and through the special direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu.

‘The Revenant’ is a 2015 film that is both a sprawling epic and an intimate biography, which covers a time in American history where the West was not yet settled, and both the elements and the native population could cause a settler or a trader to lose their lives all too quickly. The film is also a western in that it depicts the rough and tumble life of a frontiersman who was at the whim of not only nature but also hostile animals and native tribes who were lurking just behind the shadows of the mountains and the forestry that surrounded them.

Hugh Glass (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) is one such frontiersman who was a real-life person skilled at being a fur trapper, explorer, and a hunter. While his story was embellished for ‘The Revenant’, the legend itself while it may not have happened in all of its audacity still makes for a great movie adaptation. The legend surrounding Mr. Glass involves him being left for dead after he was abandoned by the fur trappers, he was assisting in their quest to participate in the burgeoning fur trade in the Far West of Montana, the Dakotas, and Nebraska.

After a vicious attack by a grizzly bear while out hunting for food and provisions for General William Ashley’s expedition, Hugh Glass was essentially left for dead by those men who had abandoned him even though he was still alive. Glass had killed the grizzly bear who had attacked him but was essentially rendered immobile by the attack and could not talk or walk on his own two feet for weeks. In the historical accounts, Hugh Glass was able to somehow heal himself enough to crawl, stumble, and walk over 200 miles (320 kilometers) to Fort Kiowa, South Dakota to survive.

In the meantime, he had survived attacks from the native tribes, living in conditions of winter weather and brutal cold, and avoiding potential hazards such as icy tundra, treacherous mountains, and other elements. The one thing about both the historical portrayal of Hugh Glass’s story and that of ‘The Revenant’ was how he thrived in those brutal environments given his history as an explorer and a fur trapper. If you are able to live at the edge of civilization and make a living for yourself in doing so, you should never be counted out when it comes to surviving when all hell breaks loose.

Compared to the historical legend, Hugh Glass, thanks to the brilliant acting of Leonardo DiCaprio is given a more substantive background that makes him a more relatable figure. In the two and a half hours of the film, Glass is portrayed also as a family man just trying to make his way in the world by making himself useful to both the fur trappers and the U.S. Army personnel who have come to take territory for themselves and make themselves rich in the unforgiving North American wilderness. In this cutthroat environment, there are no room for careless mistakes and the viewer will see in the film just how deadly each day can be. If there is any wisdom that Hugh wishes to impart on his family is that he wants to give them the tools for survival even if that means his own demise.

Glass is not a perfect protagonist and it is clear from the beginning of the film that he is out for himself and his family alone as he does not let anyone, or anything come between him and his son Hawk. His deceased wife was a Pawnee Indian and his son, Hawk, is half-Pawnee. After the death of his wife, Hugh Glass is extremely protective of his son, Hawk, because he knows that the men, he is traveling with do not see him as an equal because of his Pawnee background. Glass is committed to protecting his son because that is all he has left to live for.

While respectful towards the Pawnee, Glass and the other fur traders are fearful of the Arikara who are out to find their tribe chief’s abducted daughter, Powaqa, even though they didn’t take her. In order to survive, Glass has to defend himself and the other traders from the Arikara who are vicious in their hatred of anyone who has invaded their territory. After the fateful bear attack that severely wounds Glass, Hawk prevents the trappers from killing his father and they move on without him leaving John Fitzgerald and Hawk to carry him back to the Fort where he can get medical attention.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald is a sociopath only concerned about his own survival and terrified of the Arikara attacking again. Fitzgerald kills Hawk as Glass watches in agony because Fitzgerald was selfish in his desire to survive and leave Hugh to die. Another man, Bridger, leaves Glass to die as well and they take his gun and all of his provisions leaving him defenseless against the brutal elements. While Bridger is complicit, it is Fitzgerald who draws the ire and contempt from Glass in his quest for vengeance.

Despite being left for dead, Hugh Glass is hellbent on getting vengeance for the death of his son, Hawk, and wanted to get revenge on John Fitzgerald for killing his son, taking his provisions, and leaving him to die in the wilderness. Through his knowledge as a fur trapper, his ability to track both people and animals, Hugh was able to survive the treacherous winter conditions, heal himself and his wounds, and able to eat buffalo and horse meat to survive. So much was Glass’s desire for vengeance that he was able to travel the 200 miles to get to the Fort to seek treatment for his wounds and gather up the strength to set himself on the trail of John Fitzgerald. In the case of Hugh Glass, an eye for an eye is warranted when his whole life (his wife and his son) have been taken from him.

While the real-life story of Hugh Glass is up for debate, ‘The Revenant’ draws the audience in through its stunning visuals, powerful acting by actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy and the visionary directing by Iñárritu whose tracking shots from the opening battle to the bear attack scene to the final fight scene between Fitzgerald and Glass will leave the viewer breathless. This is a pure survivalist movie of man against man and nature but it also revolves around an emotional core of someone who is trying to do his best to sustain himself and his son in harsh living conditions. The movie’s setting is strongly intertwined with a perilous time in American history where Native Americans, fur trappers, French explorers, and even the U.S. army were fighting to the death for control of lucrative trades and future security in the untamed yet wild territory of the Northwest region.

DiCaprio and Iñárritu made ‘The Revenant’ in mind for its unabashed portrayal of both the beauty and the brutality of the natural environment. It is a movie that highlights how precious and fragile our climate is and how men can negatively affect it through their desire for greed and power. ‘The Revenant’ is as much as a morality tale as it is a tale of the utility of revenge. Two men, one whose world has been ripped apart due to the loss of his wife and son, and another man who fears losing his money, his fur pelts, and his life to Arikara attack are brought together in a struggle of good against evil. The film poses the question of is vengeance worth it? and how can justice be served in a world that is based on survival and not codes of morality or law? Arguably, one of the best films of 2015, ‘The Revenant’ was one of the best films of this decade and deserves a viewing.

Led by an Academy award winning director (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu) and starring an Academy award winning actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), ‘The Revenant’ is a jaw-dropping and powerful film that will stay with you after the credits roll. The film’s themes are extremely relevant in terms of its varied focus on family, revenge, survival, and how to seek justice in a lawless environment. More than anything, it shows the fragility of civilization and how important it is to be able to put yourself in difficult and challenging situations to show what you are made of. Hugh Glass was not a perfect man but he knew what it took to survive against all odds and seek justice against those who had wronged him and his family even if it meant certain death.

‘Munich’ – Film Review and Analysis

Can revenge be worth it and what are the consequences involved in carrying out acts of vengeance? ‘Munich’ (2005), a film directed by Steven Spielberg poses a number of moral quandaries regarding how can there possibly be lasting peace after so much violence and bloodshed has been spilt by both Israelis and Palestinians in a decades-long conflict. In addition to the historical narratives of both groups never seem to align, there is a violent undertone to how both groups see their struggle and what they are willing to do to ensure the success of their cause.

‘Munich’ is a film that is loosely based on the novel, ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas, and takes a number of liberties regarding the historical events of the Black September terrorist attack on the Israeli national team during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. While Spielberg’s adaptation may not be the most historically accurate, it brings the events of that tumultuous time of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to life by attaching the names of the deceased to the tragic events that occurred.

While not commercially successful at the box office, ‘Munich’ was critically acclaimed and was nominated for five Academy Awards including ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’, and ‘Best Score.’ While it didn’t win any of those awards, it was given a lot of praise for its writing, direction, and cast of characters including Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, and Ciaran Hinds. In addition, the film is not just about the 1972 Olympics attack, but it dives into what the Israeli government’s response was to this act of terrorism and how the response is similar to the ‘eye for an eye’ ethos that reflects how governments react to violent acts of terrorism with an approach to seek vengeance primarily.

The main character of the film is not actually based on a specific person, but he is used as an amalgam of the Mossad agents of the Israeli intelligence service who were responsible for getting revenge on the Black September group of Palestinian terrorists. Avner Kaufman, played by Eric Bana, who after witnessing the tragic act of terror take place on national television alongside his wife, is subsequently thrust into service by Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence service, to run a counterterrorism operation and to lead a team of operatives whose main objective is to bring those men who plotted and orchestrated the attacks on the Olympians in Munich to justice, dead or alive.

This isn’t your average intelligence mission because it involves the probable use of deadly force to achieve the aims of the mission. Avner has to technically ‘resign’ from Mossad first and to disavow that he has any connection to the Israeli government in order to carry out this secret mission. Avner’s handler, Ephraim, also informs him that this team is an eclectic mix of Jewish volunteers from around the world who are not really assassins so much as bomb makers, drivers, and document forgers.

Luckily, this unique team of newly recruited Mossad agents has good chemistry and they work well together in tracking down the plotters of the Munich attack. They are able to carry out the first couple of assassinations against the terrorists with precision and without any ‘collateral damage’, meaning that no innocent civilians were not caught up in the crossfire. However, there are a few close calls where they almost end up killing the daughter of Mahmoud Hamshari in Paris which are they able to call off the bomb detonation calling off the attack at just the last moment. Also, the men who are being killed, while they are the masterminds of an older age, there’s a lingering sense in the film that the young militants who carry out these attacks are ready to take up arms given how righteous they feel the mission is of creating a free Palestine even if it means killing Israelis and Jews around the world.

In one scene, Avner, pretending to be a member of the German Red Army Faction (RAF), has a frank conversation with Ali, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), about how ‘home is everything’ to the Palestinian peoples and how much they want the land back that they believe was taken from them in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Believing that the Arab states would have the back of the Palestinian people, Ali believes that “Israel will cease to exist”, which did not change even with the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the invasion of Egypt and Syria against Israel. In this critical conversation of the film, Ali believes that it will take a few more generations but a free Palestine is inevitable given how poor the conditions are in the refugee camps and how the Palestinians will win due to demographics and the deep belief in their want for a ‘home’ and a state of their own separate from other Arab identities. “We want to be nations” is a belief that hasn’t changed in the past forty years and is an intractable fact behind how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to this day.

With this chance encounter of Mossad agents and PLO, there seems to be a worry among the Israeli team how they are targets as well and there is a team looking to kill them as well in response for their attacks against the Black September group. While the group is successful in tracking down seven of the eleven men who plotted the 1972 Munich Olympics attack, there is growing frustration as to whether meeting their objectives will have any long-term importance since these terrorist group leaders are just replaced by new people, and the cause of Black September and the Palestinian Liberation Organization continues to recruit new and young members to join the fight against the Israeli government. Avner, the main character, also sees most of his team members die in retaliation attacks along with interference from the CIA with regards to protecting their own Palestinian asset, Ali Hassan Salameh. As Avner’s team loses members and aren’t able to kill Salameh, the violent actions that Avner undertook as well as his inability to protect his men from harm weigh heavily on his conscience.

“Why cut my fingernails? They’ll grow back…” Ephraim, Avner’s handler, makes clear that terrorists replace one another with ease and they must keep the cycle of violence going as long as it takes until ‘peace’ is achieved. Avner is disgusted with this argument and by the end of the film, is a morally conflicted Jew and Israeli, who realizes that this is not the way to have peace through an endless cycle of revenge and vengeance. Rather than continuing on as a Mossad agent in a mission that he no longer believes will change anything, Avner decides to quit. As one of his team members tells Avner during the last mission they take on together, “We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing that. If I lose that, that’s everything. That’s my soul.” Avner and the other team members understand implicitly that the violent actions they take have consequences and that while their version of history is different from the Palestinians, they are both using violence and bloodshed to further their own people’s cause, but to what end?

The main theme of ‘Munich’ that Spielberg gets across to the audience quite well is that while the historical narratives may never overlap with each other, there has to be a recognition of the other side’s existence and to see a way to compromise without continuing the endless cycle of violence and revenge. What it comes down to fundamentally is recognizing the dignity, the hope, and desire for a better future of your fellow man and woman while putting aside the religious, cultural, and political differences to make peace now so that in the future young Israelis and Palestinians will not have to fight and die to preserve their nation’s existence.

‘No Country for Old Men’ – Film Review and Analysis

Cormac McCarthy, a distinguished American author of such noteworthy novels of ‘The Road’ and ‘Blood Meridian’, is not as well known for ‘No Country for Old Men’, but it is an excellent and renowned novel in its own right. Out of the movies that have been based off of his work, ‘No Country for Old Men’, released in 2007, is considered to be the best book to film adaptation done so far when it comes to the written works of Mr. McCarthy.

Like his other novels, ‘No Country for Old Men’ focuses on the darker parts of human nature including violence, corruption, and the evil that people can do to one another without just cause. ‘No Country for Old Men’ was a hit at the box office and has an all-star cast including Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones. This film was directed by the Coen brothers and received critical acclaim including four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Bardem. While not the most upbeat and positive film, it’s a film that probes questions regarding fate v. coincidence, if destiny is pre-ordained, and how much the world is beyond our control despite our wishes and desires for it to be different than it actually is.

‘No Country for Old Men’ takes place in Texas, USA in 1980 after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history, and which is referenced at points throughout the film. Each of the three main characters have personal experience committing violence although they do so for different reasons. Anton Chigurh, the name of the film’s antagonist is a man born without a conscience and is a hired killer. However, he doesn’t simply kill because he is getting paid with money to do so but rather because it comes naturally to him and sees himself as an instrument of fate. It does matter whether or not you are ‘innocent’ or not but if you happen to cross paths with him on the road, at a hotel, in a convenience store, he will judge your fate based on the basis of a coin toss flip. Chigurh’s chilling approach to life and how it is totally beyond any of your collective will and actions is an eerie recurrence throughout the film that the Coen brothers use to make him one of the greatest film villains of all-time.

Most relatable as a main character in ‘No Country for Old Men’, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is a married man, Vietnam war veteran, and welder who enjoys hunting as a Texan. He is not a perfect person but he tries to do the right thing most of the time and is unfortunately a victim of fate as well during the film. On a hunting trip in the west Texas desert, he ends up seeing the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad with men and dogs both badly wounded and dead at the scene. His overall fate is set in motion when he takes two million dollars that does not belong to him and stashes it away.

As an audience member, you know that’s not the right action for him to take because it ends up causing him to be tracked by Chigurh as he is the contract killer hired to kill Moss and bring back the money. It’s not only that Chigurh who is after Moss for the money and this main character is up against fate which has conspired against him due to the stolen money that didn’t belong to him. Moss, at his heart, is a survivalist and wants to live on yet his actions cause himself and his wife to be put into serious danger.

Because of their predicament, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a Terrell County mainstay who is closer to retirement and death then he would like to admit is good at his job but is not sure that he can keep up with the violence and evil that he sees around him and which seems to be getting worse and not better. Throughout this film, Ed Tom is one step behind Chigurh and is unable to help Moss as directly as he can as sheriff because he is overmatched and isn’t able to keep up with a part of the country that isn’t always meant for ‘old men’ to live happily ever after.

“What you got, ain’t nothing new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” Sheriff Bell, throughout the film, becomes disenchanted with the way the world is and how senseless violence is unavoidable and can’t always be stopped. His ability to influence or change events is weakening and as an older sheriff, he’s slowing down and wondering what his ultimate fate will be whether its dying of old age or getting killed by a psychopath like Chigurh. Ed Tom Bell as a character in this film is aware that as human beings, we can only have control over the world around us and that we are limited to the choices we make regarding good and evil but our choices can also be sometimes constrained by the hand we are dealt by life itself and our circumstances. When it comes to the violence of the world, it is something that can never be truly vanquished as long as there is evil in the hearts of men.

The most prominent theme of the film relates to fate and self-determination. Each of the main characters chooses to see those two concepts differently. Anton Chigurh uses the cover of a ‘fateful’ coin toss to leave it up to the fates of his potential victims regardless if he was hired to kill them or not. He brutally rationalizes his violence through the use of ‘fate’ as if they had it coming all of their life. Llewelyn Moss, a simple hunter and welder, makes flawed choices as any normal person would but struggles to outrun his fate based on some bad decisions he made regarding money that was stolen and would be considered ‘blood money.’

Moss is a survivalist at heart but knows that he can only do so much physically and mentally to outrun his fate based on the choices he actually made that led him there. Ed Tom Bell, is the most morally sound character of the film but comes to the realization that he can only deal with the world as it is rather than the world he would like it to be. The choices he makes are his own but the world and its depravity and violence are out of his control and he can only react to those events rather than prevent them from ever occurring.

In various films of theirs, The Coen Brothers often present a bleak and nihilistic view about the world. ‘No Country for Old Men’ is their most serious and brutal look at the nature of violence, how deeply it seems to be embedded in the American landscape, and how everyone regardless if they are good or evil is subject to a fate that is out of their earthly control.

Overall, ‘No Country for Old Men’ is a great film in that it probes a number of moral questions relating to mankind’s capacity for both good and evil. The cinematography is stunningly impressive, the acting is excellent by every character and Bardem especially deserved to win an Academy Award for his chilling role as Anton Chigurh. This film is not meant for those with weak stomachs because the violence is both brutal and frightenly realistic. The Coen Brothers make movies mainly for mature audiences and this film is no exception.

The music of the film carries little weight and there is not much of a soundtrack and that is done on purpose collectively to build up tension and have the audience invest in every scene to see what happens next. It’s hard to classify this movie to a specific genre but it definitely could be best summarized as a dramatic thriller. The directing is excellent overall and ‘No Country for Old Men’ is truly loyal to its unique setting of west Texas and the U.S. – Mexico borderlands. If you would like to see a movie that deals in shades of grey rather than black and white, you will enjoy ‘No Country for Old Men’. However, be forewarned that it does not have a cliché happy Hollywood ending, which is refreshing since men and women do not always get to live to a ripe, old age.

‘Ex Machina’ – Film Review and Analysis

The rise of automation, the development of artificial intelligence, and the increasing likelihood that robots who look like us and act like us will become major parts of the next few decades of the 21st century and beyond is not a new phenomenon. Going back to the 1950’s and even earlier, human being have predicted through popular media and culture that the future would have advanced intelligent beings who would aid us, support us, and perhaps even dominate us. Recently, the popular culture seems to have gotten more specific and more in line with the technological developments of today of how artificial intelligence may look not hundreds of years from now but rather mere decades from now.

Television shows like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ approach the rapid growth of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence with unease and even dystopian consequences. However, the main message that these two TV shows can agree on is that these types of scenarios are not a matter of ‘if’ it will happen but ‘when’ it will happen. Now, obviously these shows are science fiction and are not based in truth but it is becoming more and more difficult to say that it is impossible for the world to look somewhat like a mix of ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ by the latter half of the 21st century.

While these shows are very black and white by mainly displaying the damage that virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and big brother surveillance can do to our societies, the excellent film ‘Ex Machina’ deals with shades of gray correctly when dealing with this phenomenon. As some of the television shows that are currently popular deal with the advent of robots and AI with total dismay and unease, ‘Ex Machina’ is more balanced in its perspective and points to a conclusion that is left to be interpreted by the audience in its repercussions for humankind.

While it didn’t gain much notoriety or was a big hit at the box office, ‘Ex Machina’ released in April of 2015 in the United States garnered critical acclaim, especially for its visuals. The film won for ‘Best Visual Effects’ at the Academy Awards and was also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay.’ Alicia Vikander, who plays ‘Ava’ the humanoid robot that has a high level of artificial intelligence also was nominated and won a few major awards for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’ The film was directed by English novelist and director Alex Gardner and despite it being a science fiction-based concept only had a film budget of $15 million dollars. In addition to the talented actress Alicia Vikander, other up and coming actors like Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play the other two leading roles. While they are currently known for their high-budget roles in the new Star Wars series, they really get a chance in this film to shine as actors in a movie that centers on dialogue and emotional expression.

The film’s plot begins rather innocuously with pretty spot on references to our world today. A programmer named Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who works at a Google-like worldwide search engine company known as ‘Blue Book’, similar to Facebook in its name is chosen to meet with the Sergey Brin or Larry Page of this fictional world one-on-one for a week. It’s an office contest that Caleb surprisingly wins and which everyone congratulates him on since this tech CEO is known to be reclusive and does not give interviews. The CEO of ‘Blue Book’ is Nathan Bateman, who lives isolated from humanity in a luxurious mountainous estate that seems to be more of a fortress than a home. Nathan only lives with one other person, Kyoko, who is his personal servant but it is unclear who she is really since she does not speak English.

At first, Caleb is excited to meet his tech idol especially since his boss has developed the first humanoid robot who has passed a simple Turing test, which is quite the triumph where man cannot tell if he who he is talking to a robot or a human being. This special humanoid robot was built and designed by Nathan, and is kept in a singular room in an apartment-like setting within the fortress for which she is never allowed to leave. Unlike other fictional depictions of humanoid robots, it’s clear from the outside that Ava is a robot and does not have a humanlike appearance although Nathan has given her a human face that slowly disarms Caleb in terms of his apprehension of speaking to her and asking her questions. It is clear that Ava is extremely advanced in terms of her artificial intelligence and is curious about who she is and about the outside world.

After a little while, Nathan reveals to Caleb that the real reason he brought him here to his isolated complex was to ask Ava questions to see if she is capable of independent human thought and whether she is conscious of them and her actions. Nathan wants to break the barrier to see if his humanoid robot can relate to Caleb on a human level and to express emotions such as sympathy, remorse, happiness, and even romantic feelings. The big surprise about Ava is how much she is able to turn the tables on Caleb and get him to reveal more about himself than he finds out about her. She is able to connect with him very deeply and even plant ideas in his head regarding her suspicions about who Nathan is and what does he really want.

What once starts out as mutual respect and fascination for Nathan’s work on AI and robotics, Caleb grows to distrust Nathan due to his lack of respect for his servant Kyoko, who is a humanoid herself. Nathan is an alcoholic, quite narcissistic, and uses his robots for personal pleasure and not much else. Nathan is quite controlling of his latest creation, Ava, and is distrustful of her motives when she is around Caleb.

Without spoiling the rest of this intriguing movie, the running theme that binds these three characters together is how they use each other to further their own means. Ava is using Caleb to pursue her potential future away from Nathan and her isolated life, Caleb is using Nathan to absorb his knowledge and to discover more about this AI phenomenon he has created. Nathan is both using Caleb as a test subject for Ava and to also use Ava for his own pursuit in dominating the field of Artificial Intelligence and the future of robotics.

The end of this film, ‘Ex Machina’ has quite a few unexpected twists and turns that will leave the audience member speechless. This movie does a great job of posing questions about the future of humanity and whether we will be able to control artificial intelligence and the sentient beings that may end up usurping us if we are not careful. It’s fascinating to see the humanoid robot character of Ava self-actualize herself throughout the film and her ability to use emotions and feelings to manipulate and best her human creators is astounding. Compared to any other recent science fiction offering, ‘Ex Machina’ is the most realistic in telling us the story of how the latter half of the 21st century might go.

There are many unanswered questions to think about when it comes to this film. Will we be able to control and harness artificial intelligence always or will they be able to usurp our status as the most powerful beings on the planet? What will the relationship be between advanced intelligence creations and human beings? What will AI and humanoid robots expect from human beings and what should we expect from them? Is it right to play God and develop artificial intelligence to the point where they can think like us, act like us, have emotions like us, and even look like us like another face in the crowd.

I am no expert on artificial intelligence or the future of it but I believe that this film ‘Ex Machina’ is important to watch because there may come a day soon in our lifetimes where the possibilities that are laid out in this film come to fruition. We may want to look at ‘Ex Machina’ with different perspectives but we should be united in the fact that these issues and questions are not going away anytime soon and will likely become more prominent and pressing as the 21st century rolls on.

We ignore the message, the theme, and the scenarios played out in ‘Ex Machina’ to our own detriment. If you are reading this review of ‘Ex Machina’ and are intrigued more about what the 21st century may bring, I would definitely recommend the book by the author Yuval Noah Harari titled, ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’, to gain further insight into how the rest of this century may shape up. If one thing’s for certain, our world is changing quite rapidly and it may lead to being beyond our total control as human beings not too far into the future.

‘Good Will Hunting’ – Film Review and Analysis

What happens when you bring together two of the best actors of the modern age who meet at just the right time in their careers? The short answer is that you get some old-fashioned movie making magic. Both men have made their mark on Hollywood and this film that they carry together is one of the reasons for that happening. While a generation sets them apart, their commitment to the craft of acting shines through in this classic film that takes place in the city of Boston where I currently reside titled ‘Good Will Hunting.’

‘Good Will Hunting’, released in 1997, over twenty years ago is a film that I have gone back to again and again throughout the years since I grew up with it in a way. As I have gotten older, the themes of the film stick with me more and more. This film is a timeless piece that a lot of people, especially young men, can relate to. While it’s not a blockbuster and isn’t a mainstream favorite, it carries deep messages regarding relationships, dealing with the future, and learning to love and trust other people.

The two actors that I was referring to earlier are Robin Williams and Matt Damon. Both men are known for their more popular roles in movies like ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ and ‘Good Morning, Vietnam for Mr. Williams and ‘The Bourne Trilogy’ movies and ‘The Departed’ for Mr. Damon. Unlike those other movies, I believe that this movie really shows off the talent of these two men and how they’re able to push each other in emotionally trying roles. On top of those two performances, Gus Van Sant is an excellent director who does a great job of filming this movie set in late 1990s Boston.

As if that weren’t enough, you have a great cast of supporting actors including Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver (has she been in any major movies since?), Stellan Skarsgard, and Casey Affleck of Manchester-by-the-Sea fame who really add depth and substance to this movie. These character-driven movies such as ‘Good Will Hunting’ are usually the hardest to make but if done right, they really stay with the viewer long after the film is over. They really capture different moods, emotions, and feelings and this one in particular captures the struggles inherent in being a brilliant mind in a troubled world.

The title of this film ‘Good Will Hunting’ is based off the name of its main character, Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) a 20-year old, born and raised in South Boston. You would think from this description that he’s just a regular guy but Mr. Hunting was born with the innate gift of having genius level intellect. He has few possessions except for hundreds of books from Foucault to Shakespeare. He’s an avid book reader but has a specialty in solving advanced mathematical equations that few others in the world can figure out. You would think that this college-aged guy would be working on advanced mathematics at MIT or CalTech but he’s not an enrolled student there or anywhere for that matter.

Will Hunting has had a rough upbringing in that his parents abandoned him when he was a baby and he grew up in foster homes where his foster father abused him physically multiple times. Abandoned by those people who were supposed to love and cherish him, Will, for good reason has a fear of abandonment and does not trust other people. His social interactions are limited because of the abusive childhood he endured but he is happy with his group of three friends: Billy, Morgan, and his best friend Chuckie. While Will does not have many friends, he would do anything for his three neighborhood buddies who he grew up with and he literally considers them to be his family.

While Will’s friends are loyal, they are not the best influence on him and they can be crass, crude, and spend too much time drinking. The group’s antics lead Will into a fight against some neighborhood miscreants, which draws the attention of the local police. Will, acting out his aggression violently, ends up assaulting a police officer causing him to do mandatory community service and therapy sessions. Will, a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, works after hours to help clean the bathrooms and empty the waste paper baskets. Unbeknownst to both students and professors alike, Will in his spare time has been going around solving advanced Math equations that the regular MIT graduate students can’t even begin to conceive a solution for. One night, Will is caught in the act as he gets caught doing an extremely difficult problem that no one else has solved yet. Professor Lambeau of the Mathematics department discovers Will solving this problem and calls after him to no avail but with a four-letter crude response from Mr. Hunting.

Professor Lambeau does Will a huge favor and gets him out of some serious jail time for assaulting the police officer. In exchange for his favor, Will has to sit and work with Professor Lambeau on advanced mathematics in a mutual exchange. Professor Lambeau is fascinated by Will’s brilliance but it appears to the audience that he cares more just about Will’s brain than who he is as a person. Professor Lambeau tries to get Will to open up to different psychiatrists but Will messes with all of them and doesn’t take his therapy sessions seriously. Lambeau, out of options, goes to an old friend from his college days at MIT, Sean Maguire (played by Robin Williams), who now teaches psychology at Bunker Hill Community College and is also a licensed therapist.

Despite a few sessions where Will is argumentative and closed off, Sean is able to break down Will’s defensive mechanisms partly by talking about his own rough upbringing. Sean was beat by his alcoholic father while he was a child. In an effort to protect his mother and little brother, Sean would endure the brunt of his father’s anger and vitriol. The two men bond over the fact that they have a high intellect, have both grown up in Boston, share a love of the Red Sox, have had rough upbringings, and can be a bit closed off from their loved ones.

Will is going through a transition period in his young life where he is starting to think about a future beyond just getting drunk with his buddies and hiding his talents from the world. He is also trying his best to form healthy relationships with not only his friends but in his love life too. Instead of endlessly pursuing casual one-night stands, Will finds a girl one night at a Harvard bar whom peaks his interest named Skylar (played by Minnie Driver). Despite them coming from very different family backgrounds as well as her being born into wealth, they share a love for learning and have the same sense of humor. Most important to Will in all of this courting is that she likes his friends and that means a lot to him since they have essentially been his family his whole life.

The problem that Will struggles with in terms of his relationships whether its romantic with Skylar or personal with Sean is that he can’t open up to them about his being abused as a child due to a mixture of shame, guilt, and anger. He turns his emotional pain outward and directs that anger at society, the past therapists, Professor Lambeau, and even at Will and Skylar. Will is self-conscious about his genius and is not sure he wants to have a prestigious office job or even to leave his home city of Boston. He says to his best friend, Chuckie, at one point that he doesn’t “feel like doing long division in a room for the rest of my life.”

However, what Will realizes is that he’s not the center of the world. With the help of Sean and Skylar, he learns eventually that while his life has been tragic, that should not prevent him from reaching his true potential and that he is literally “bound by nothing.” He’s a genius of great intellectual capacity who can change the world in a number of ways. Will has a great gift that a lot of people would kill to have including his best friend, Chuckie. As Chuckie puts to Will bluntly towards the end of the movie, “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too chicken to cash in on it.” Chuckie tells Will that he’ll essentially be working construction until he retires which is fine because he doesn’t have Will has and that Will owes it not only to himself but to him and his other buddies to do more with his life.

Sean also is the father figure that Will never had and is able to give him tough life. Sean was also abused as a child and knows where Will is coming from. However, he has to learn how to put the past behind him and to not blame himself for what had happened because it simply wasn’t his fault. Will was an innocent child and can’t be blamed for such a horrific event. Will has to learn again how to be emotionally open and vulnerable with the people who care about him like Sean and Skylar. Will had lost the inability to love and be loved but it’s never too late to get that back.

The mentorship of Sean throughout the film helps to bring Will around and the time they share together in the therapy sessions make them true friends. Sean is able to tell Will that he is not so special in the fact that his life has been extraordinarily difficult. Sean, himself, fought in the Vietnam War as a young man and had his best friend there die in his arms. He also lost his wife, the one true love of his to a long battle with cancer years ago and hasn’t been able to become romantically involved with anyone since then. However, he implores Will to also see the beauty in life such as in the form of a woman who can ‘level you with her eyes’ and be your own angel.

There are also the wonders of the world that Will can experience such as how it smells in the Sistine Chapel in Italy.    Will may be an intellectual genius but he still has a lot to learn about the beauty and ugliness of life. Sean’s experiences help to enlighten Will about what life is all about and how to persevere through the struggles and setbacks that are inevitable. Both men have their inner demons to battle but they encourage each other to become better, to strive for more, and to live good lives. With Will’s urging, Sean is also ready to put his tragic past behind him to begin anew. He sets out to travel the world, meet a special someone like Will has with Skylar, and truly live life again.

The positive mentorship between Will and Sean is a beautiful thing to see develop over the course of the film. To see true friendship between the two and the chemistry that Damon and Williams have in their scenes together makes ‘Good Will Hunting’ a really special movie. Similar to ‘Lost In Translation’, it’s also nice to see a true romance between Will and Skylar develop as well that starts out very inconspicuously. It’s a young, innocent kind of love that is beautiful to watch and it’s both real and raw to see with how much they truly care for each other and want to best for one another. One of the best lines in the film that Will and Sean both use for courting the special women in their lives is “Sorry, I had to go see about a girl.” Is there anything in modern cinema that can compare to this phrase so simple yet so full of meaning? I don’t think so.

‘There Will Be Blood’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘There Will Be Blood’ is a masterful, enticing film about how greed, corruption, and arrogance can destroy a man’s soul. Definitely one of the best films of this young 21st century, There Will Be Blood will be remembered for generations to come for its’ acting, cinematography, and direction. There are a number of things that make this film memorable including its’ cast, director, and musical composition.

In addition to all of that, the plot is written well, the characters are intriguing, and themes are still timely when compared to the modern era. While not the most popular film when it was first released, ‘There Will Be Blood’ has become a bit of a cult classic since it came out in 2007, over ten years ago. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two of them for ‘Best Cinematography’ and ‘Best Actor’ for Daniel Day-Lewis.

Considered the best Actor of his generation, Day-Lewis is a unique talent who can transform him into vastly different performing roles and deliver outstanding and award-winning performances. In addition to winning the Best Actor award for ‘There Will Be Blood’, Day-Lewis also won Academy awards for the films ‘Lincoln’ and ‘My Left Foot’, which were the exact opposite kind of roles to play as an actor.

Daniel Day-Lewis is able to stay in character for months or years on end to totally immerse him in both the story and the lines that he memorizes. It’s a truly impressive accomplishment to win one Academy Award but Day-Lewis was able to win three and is nominated for a 4th award for his most recent role in ‘Phantom Thread.’ Other noteworthy aspects of this film is the directing by Paul Thomas Anderson and the musical score by Jonny Greenwood who both set the tone for this movie’s themes and plot line.

Unbeknownst to most, the film’s screenplay and overall plot was adapted from American novelist Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! Which focuses on the oil boom in the western United States during the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and the men who made themselves wealthy from the discovery. Instead of covering a topic as deep and complicated about the oil rush over a few decades in a dramatic film, Paul Thomas Anderson chooses a protagonist named Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) to be the lens through which the audience witnesses the birth of the lifeblood for the modern American economy.

Anderson’s goals for this film in my opinion were to show how the U.S. and its’ oilmen were not so innocent when it came to the pursuit of wealth. In the quest to reap the profits of the oil boom, there was a lot of backstabbing, double-crossing, and short-shrifting between different competing companies. This film takes a hard look at how the protagonist Daniel Plainview loses his soul in the pursuit of wealth and prestige. In addition, There Will Be Blood is an examination of the push – pull relationship between capitalism and religion and how they are often linked together to pursue their goals.

There Will Be Blood’s setting takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Daniel Plainview, the main protagonist starts out as an ordinary silver miner looking to become wealthy from that pursuit. However, this changes in 1902 when he discovers oil near Los Angeles, California, and decides to create his own drilling company. At the beginning of the film, Daniel can seem to be like any normal prospector of that era and also selfless in the fact that he adopts the son of a fellow co-worker who was killed in an accident. The boy is named H.W. and Daniel seems to care and cherish the child. However, the audience soon finds out that it is not love that Daniel strives to have in his life but rather wealth and influence in the oil industry.

Daniel promotes himself as a ‘family man’ largely in order to curry favor with other businessmen and potential employees of his company. The main antagonist to Daniel is Eli Sunday, a preacher in nearby Little Boston, California, who wishes to get a good sum of money from Plainview in order to build his church. In exchange, Daniel gets access to all of the land under the town in order to build wells to drill for oil where there is a vast amount underneath their feet. Despite the fact that they have an agreement in the exchange of land for money, Daniel betrays the deal and berates Eli for his religious beliefs and the exploitation of his son’s deafness for his own financial gain. It is clear to the audience that both men are out for themselves but need each other in order to acquire wealth or a religious following.

Such as has been the case at times throughout history, religion and capitalism have been intertwined in an unholy marriage leading to disastrous results. Daniel uses Eli in order to get all of the oil wealth from under the town while lying about the amount of money he would give Eli or the town itself to build up their infrastructure. Eli uses Daniel’s money to build his mega-church but exploits H.W.’s misfortune of becoming deaf as a means to accuse Daniel of being a ‘bad father’ and a ‘sinner’ even though the freak accident was out of his control.

If I had to highlight two example scenes for somebody to check out before watching this movie, it would be the ‘I’m an oil man’ speech by Daniel Plainview to the townsfolk of Little Boston. You can see from this speech and from the overall scene that he does not care so much for the people in the town or what he can do to help them. The music combined with his lying through the teeth boasts show that he is not being genuine and is in this pursuit of oil for himself and himself alone.

“I’m an oil man speech”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHz-zZoBnbc

The other scene to highlight from this film is known as the ‘Fire’ scene, which is a brilliantly shot and executed scene. It’s amazing in its’ portrayal of the discovery of mass amounts of oil under a well indicating that Daniel Plainview is to become a very wealthy man. However, it’s at the same point in this scene where he realizes that his son, H.W. is to become deaf due to an accident near the well. At this scene, you can see Daniel change as a person to become more focused on his future as a ‘oilman’ than one as a ‘family man’ to H.W., his adopted son.

‘There Will Be Blood’ Fire scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKJAH-XBNNs&t=240s

Throughout the film’s events, you can see that Daniel does not care about family or religion at all. While he enjoys the company of H.W., he holds over the fact that he is not his biological son and does not want to give him any financial support to strike it out on his own. Daniel has no care for organized religion besides getting permission to gain workers and oil from underneath the town’s feet while contributing the bare minimum to Eli’s church or the rest of the town. As his last name reveals, ‘Plainview’ has a plain view about human nature that is very pessimistic and jaded.

Daniel only cares to get as much out of people as to benefit himself and his company personally. You wonder though by the end of the film what is in it for Daniel besides money and alcohol. He may have become a wildly successful prospector and oilman but what does it all mean if he is left alone and friendless. If you’re going to go into business, why not do it for the benefit of others and not just yourself? However, the view of Daniel Plainview is that life is a zero-sum game and that you can’t trust anybody but yourself.

Eli Sunday, while a pragmatic preacher and someone who seems to care about the townsfolk of which who are part of his church, still does a deal gone south with Daniel Plainview in the pursuit of easy money. Eli is easily bullied by Daniel but still goes around trying to convince him to change his ways and repent as a sinner. While Eli means well and wants the best for the church and his town, he does not go about it in the right way leaving him at the mercy of Plainview.

While Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview are both excellent at what they do, you have to consider that they are both very flawed human beings. They may have built a popular church to preach in (Sunday) or massive oil wells to enrich themselves (Plainview) but life will still be lacking for them if they have no love and compassion surrounding those achievements. That may be the main message for the person viewing this film. Wealth, notoriety, and personal prestige are not everything in life and that there are other things that you should focus on that really touch your soul as a human being.

“There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet, and nobody can get at it except for me!” There Will Be Blood is an excellent story about extreme capitalism and religion gone wrong. Both protagonists pursuit of their own selfish goals hurts the other characters in this film. However, what would modern America be like without the preachers and the oilmen? While not as dramatic as this fictional movie, the discovery of oil and the spread of the gospel are intertwined with American history.