Westworld: season one review

Now I’ve called this post a season one review because, as we all know, Westworld has been renewed for a second go round. Hardly a surprise, given it’s a flagship show on Sky Atlantic, it’s got a sickeningly talented cast (Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood etc), clever, tricksy writers (Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy), strong concept (sci-fi meets Western) and has been a storming hit with audiences (89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).

It’s also fresh because it bucks the modern trend of drowning us in nudity and violence (Game of Thrones we’re looking at you) and doesn’t serve up that much story in one go. That’s not to say it’s light on story and character. In fact it’s quite the opposite. This is a slow burn, but one that’s worth your time. And it’s also somewhat rare for a show to start with the number of characters that it does. In that at least four or five of them have key storylines. (So maybe it’s a little like Game of Thrones.)

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For the uninitiated though, at its basic level, Westworld is a theme park, albeit a giant one, where the population are made up of ‘hosts’ (synthetic robots) that are so lifelike that you cannot tell them apart from humans. The park’s purpose is for humans to visit to get away from the world, to fight and have sex and enjoy the wild west. And the series starts with The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who’s been coming to the park for years. He’s no longer interested in the park’s base attractions, but is searching for its centre, the centre of the maze, as he calls it. To give his life meaning and purpose.

We also have various hosts who evolve throughout the story, becoming more human as they go. In particular both Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood’s characters are searching for who they really are. Their purpose.

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In fact, most characters are searching for meaning, trying to discover who they really are and why they’re here. Why are they a part of this world? What makes them who they truly are? What makes humans real and hosts not? Tugging the strings and playing God with barely concealed glee is Dr Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who’s treading a fine line between villian and a mysteriously benevolent creator. It would be easy to play him as a straight up bad guy, but Hopkins gives us more, adding layers and nuance to Ford. And by the end of the season you’re still not sure of his motives and whether he’s playing a trick on everyone, as all the best magicians do.

So this show has laid down a big and bold marker; in that it’s fairly different from a lot out there. A bit more thinky thinky and less smashy smashy. But it gets the balance right and answers enough questions to keep season one satisfying, but holds enough back so that season two promises to be worth waiting for.

Chappie: Short Circuit gets a reboot?

Johnny Five is very much alive. Apologies to kids of the ’90s, this reference to the 1986 film Short Circuit will be lost on you.

What I’m trying to say is that Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie doesn’t feel like it’s hugely treading new ground when it comes to exploring artificial intelligence, but it’s quite a fun experience nonetheless.

We start with genius programmer Dion (Dev Patel) working for a South African company called Tetravaal who produce robotic police officers known as scouts. They’ve been instrumental in helping keep the crime rate down in Johannesburg, a city on the edge of slipping into chaos.

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Through a series of events Dion acquires a robot due for scrap and manages to install his newly developed artificial intelligence system into him. Around the same time he’s thrown together with some local gangsters who want to use the robot for their own ends.

Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

Put forward by Descartes in the Principles of Philosophy in 1644 and, in recent years, has been tackled and toyed with by filmmakers, particularly in terms of humanity’s uneasy relationship with artificial intelligence. As we develop things designed to make our lives easier we’re becoming increasingly attached to the very things that are meant to help set us free. Who’s to say we won’t become even more dependent on technology like advanced AI, when it develops?

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And specifically with the case of Chappie, learn to love robots like they’re children and part of our family. A large part of the film’s first half deals with this notion and it’s probably where it comes across strongest, as there’s a lot of warmth and humour there.

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) as a character seems somewhere between a pet and a child, constantly learning and enthusiastic. His performance (and dialogue) largely set to ‘dog mode’. Chappie do this, Chappie go there, Chappie has been a good boy, yes! It’s fairly charming and endearing, but we’re still firmly in Johnny Five territory.

Sticking the moral (but childlike) Chappie in with a bunch of gangsters is a nice idea, and the comedic situations work well. The problems occur when the film moves into more traditional action territory. And this is where you feel that so much time has been spent on Chappie and the characters immediately around him, that supporting characters get rather short shrift.

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Particularly Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman’s characters. They do their best but they’re lumbered with thinly drawn parts, clunky dialogue and – at times – rather ludicrous scenarios where their decisions are as baffling as the situation (particularly Jackman, who seems to be kitted out to look like Aussie crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, complete with bush outfit and a fearsome mullet).

As films go Neil Blomkamp set his own bar almost unsettlingly high with his debut District 9. Each of his films that followed this primarily explored similar themes, but with diminishing returns.

However, that said, there’s really nothing wrong with Chappie. It’s fun and entertaining, but given the subject matter it could have been so much more. You get the sense Blomkamp was more interested in exploring a situation where a childlike robot with a moral compass gets raised by gangsters (like some sort of ghetto Mowgli), than really mining the depths of consciousness, artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.

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This is evident in the film’s final third, which rushes through key sections almost like an afterthought. The same sort of thing happened in Luc Besson’s Lucy with Scarlet Johansson. Although, if we’re talking a more sophisticated handling of AI, you’re probably better off watching the film she did with Joaquin Phoenix, Her. Or more recently Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Hell, even I, Robot.

But before this descends into a Chappie bashing (which he gets enough of in the film), this movie is warm, its heart is in the right place and it’s engaging for the most part. And despite other characters not getting the love they deserve in the script, Copley keeps us hooked in, making us care about Chappie’s fate.

All in all, though, this isn’t a classic take on the genre, or even classic Blomkamp, but it’s entertaining enough and worth your time… for Copley’s plucky performance if nothing else.

Labor Day: Reitman’s most heartfelt film?

20131103-LYALL-slide-7RAH-articleLarge As a director, Jason Reitman appears to be growing up fast. Labor Day is the fifth feature length film he’s given us and his progression as a storyteller is clear to see.

This film, set in a sleepy suburban American town in 1987, tells the story of Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) whose life is gatecrashed by escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) in a supermarket at the start of Labor Day weekend. He effectively holds them hostage, at least initially, until the coast is clear. Yet what then develops is a complex relationship between the three of them that is both tender, affecting and very human.

With Reitman pulling the strings – the man behind Juno and Up In The Air – you’d expect snappy dialogue and snazzy, snarky characters.labor-day-review-9 Here he strips the story right back and the majority of the film is told in looks and glances, eyes darting back and forth as characters try to figure each other out.

As Reitman is a wonderful observer of human interaction, this perfectly plays to his strengths and no doubt tested both himself and his cast. The two leads, Brolin and Winslet, rose to the challenge like masters at work. The film is warm in tone too. Set in the late ’80s the whole thing appears bathed in the golden glow of late summer. Like one happy memory. It’s not all sweetness and light though. The whole film is tinged with sadness, loneliness and loss.

If you take Reitman’s last two films (Young Adult and Up In The Air) there’s a strong sense of loneliness in both the main characters: Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary and George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham – they’re both searching for a genuine human connection. labor-day-movie-picture-2Here Winslet’s character continues that theme with possibly the most convincing performance of one of Reitman’s leads.

Apparently he wrote the script specifically with her in mind and kept the film on hold until the actress was available. You can see why too, it’s a compelling performance from Winslet, one of her best since 2008 when she won awards for The Reader and Revolutionary Road. Ultimately this film represents a shift of gears for Reitman, and indeed perhaps a more mature direction. He’s drawn brilliant performances out the cast – Winslet in particular – and created a piece of work that is both moving, well observed, nostalgic and highly engaging.

Can’t wait to see what he does next.