“The Promise”

The thirty-eight year old Guatemalan-American actor, Oscar Isaac, can not do much wrong in this reviewer’s eyes. The camera loves him, too. But the one scene in “The Promise” that will stay with every viewer is the tear rolling down the cheek of that dark-eyed and heavily browed face of his. His face can master any emotion, and staring in the first American film to be  made about the 1915 Armenian genocide gives that face full play.

Filmed like the 1960’s epic ” Dr. Zivago”, he is our Omar Sharif, but with more conscience and a sweeter, cerebral passion. As Mikael Boghosian, a Turkish-Armenian apothecary, Isaac ‘s emotive eyes glint with medical ambition. He promises to marry a sweet village girl for a dowery of 400 gold coins. He will then have the funds to travel to Constantinople and study at The Imperical. His fiancée, Maral ( Angela Sarafyan ) and he will come to love each other.

Once we find Mikael in Constantinople at his uncle’s villa and see his visceral response to the worldly Algerian, Ana ( Charlotte Le Bon ), who teaches his young cousins dance and Parisian songs, we are ready for another love triangle, commensurate with the one in ” The Ottoman’s Lieutenant” ( reviewed here March 14, 2017 ). This Turkish funded film does not address the genocide of the Armenians, while ” The Promise” angerly asserts the inhumanity of Talaat Pasha, the Turkish minister. The grand visier of the Ottoman Empire is a war criminal in this film.

The cinematography of Javier Aquirresrobe with its unique manipulation of light from the close-ups of an emerald green money pouch to the reeds near a stream will enthrall. Narrow paths, donkey rides, and beautiful vistas are a respite from the scenes of carnage. His balanced eye and romantic flare serve ” The Promise” well. His overhead shots are amazingly beautiful.

One of the most harrowing scenes is Mikael’s escape on the roof of train cars carrying Armenian villagers to be exterminated. The Holocaust analogy is clearly made.

Director Terry George does equally well with a rather poor script. The dialogue oft seems out of era, for example, Ana’s ” I need to sort things out with Chris. ” Or Maral ‘s father’s ” After the wedding, you will head for the hills…” Likewise, Christian Bales seems a tad out of place as the American journalist. He does well with adventuresome and abrasive, but not so well with wooden dialogue like, ” I wish to go with the orphans to record this for prosperity.”

Secondary actors make a strong presence in ” The Promise”. Aaron Neil is a villainous Pasha; Marwan Kenzari, a friend for all ages. Shohreh Aghdashloo is moving and almost biblical as Mikael’s mother, Marta. Firelight confessions, vengeful thoughts, true friendship and shared loves all converge.

The beautiful score by Gabriel Yared merges with actual 1915 photos to pummel the viewers with epic emphasis. “There are no words”, only echoes.

Viewers will not forget Oscar Isaac’s horrendous grief scenes. Nor will they forget the lies. ” There is no war here. Merely, a reassignment to a safer region.” Even, the vizier’s blatant grab at his victim’s insurance money ring of modern evils. “The Promise” is a belated toast to Armenian survival at a little over two hours.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

It is still 2015, and George Lucas’ characters are a bit worn. Instead of Luke,Han and Leia, we now have a new trio: Poe,Rey and Finn. It was fun to see Carrie Fisher in a new hair style and Harrison Ford re-cracking some familiar jokes,but the whole shebang was a tad retro for me. The new characters introduced are richer if one purchases and reads the  available prequel to  better understand their individual histories. I like deep characterization within a film, action or not. Buying a book to better understand the fledglings seems too commercial here. Franchised comics and toys tool this movie as much as nostalgia does. However, little girls are now slinging their own light sabers.  Yet, “May the force be with you” seems utterly hijacked.

Rey is a savvy pilot whose breathtaking zooms and swivels delight the game playing set the same way the light sabers and blasters do. I was more into gliding through the stars when the  action  cooled. Working as a scavenger for food portions, Rey played by Daisy Ridley is a fresher -faced Jennifer Lawrence in that she portrays a girl willing to fight for what is right in the world order. She is independent and is often annoyed by the cavalier  Finn (  John Boyega  ) wishing to take her hand. His “stay calm” is given Rey’s disclaimer, “I am calm”,only to have Finn retort with. “I’m talking to myself !”  This  rather rye tone of asides continues throughout the action giving everyone a little breather from all the zooming.  Harrison Ford’s Han Solo’s  “This is not how I thought this day was going to go” continues in the same vein.  Solo’s  “The girl knows her stuff”  makes certain that no one misses “the girl power”.

Oscar Isaac as Poe,the resistance fighter pilot, looks lovely even when he is presumedly sand -swallowed with the freighter wreckage. He is best being surprised by Rey’s prowess,and his absence leaves her with time to shine like Katniss “Ever after” of “Hunger Game” fame. Not much is newly creative in Episode VI of “Star Wars”. Getting the piece of  the map which may help locate the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, is the quest.

Hidden in the droid by Poe, the map hints at the first Jedi Temple rumor. Could this be where Luke resides? Enjoy the bar-like shenanigans, the tender meeting of Leia and Hans,Nazi-like power symbols and a grizzled Harrison Ford. All the flying parts-and there are lots of them- are balanced by mind- reading magnetic forces. “Get out of my  head” takes on literal meaning. Dialogue like  “The galaxy is counting on us” , “It would take a miracle to save us now” and , “Escape now,hug later” is best written for the pre-teens who will rush to see this.  A juvenile throw back with oscillators and storm troopers, J.J. Abrams’ movie is raking it in.

On the dark side, the patricide bothered me . General Leia’s comment to Han that there is still light in their fallen son did not ring true ,at least in this episode. My favorite line was another of Leia’s ( Carrie Fisher). To her former husband she says, “No matter how hard we fought. I always hated to see you leave”. Has the collapse of the planet really begun ?!

 

 

“Ex Machina” & “Transcendence”

I keep waiting for Mary Doria Russell’s novel “The Sparrow”,my favorite sci-if book, to be filmed. A Jesuit in another dimension is a convention of the genre,as are meditations of what it means to be human. I adored Spike Jonze’s “Her” ( reviewed February 10th),so I had to see Johnny Depp in “Transcendence”,another foray into hybrids. “Transcendence” held my interest,though a few slow scenes could have been deleted.

Rebecca Hall was grand as the possible new Eve,Evelyn. Paul Bethany and Depp were convincing and evolving.Depp is Dr. Will Castor whose wife Evelyn and best friend Max support his Artificial Intelligence research. Dr. Will Castor is killed by an anti-tech terrorist and Evelyn uploads Will’s consciousness. Here his consciousness madly develops and tries to be the All-powerful. The World Wide Web was to make the world smaller,but paradoxically without it the world becomes smaller and still, the product of one man’s ego.Power and control themes end in a ridiculous fake sunflower cameoing. Still among the blinding white images there are topics to discuss. This is Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. “Transcendence” was written by Jack Paglen.

Much more artistic is the new film “Ex Machina”. Here Alex Garland, talented British author of “The Beach”, makes his film directing debut. “The Beach” dealt with an utopian society in Southeast Asia. Here, he mines the creating of synthetic beings with gel-like fluid brains and crystal,fiber optic, spider-like ganglion so that these wire and mesh forms create their own synaptic consciousness.

Named after Wittgenstein’s “Blue Book”,our genius’s company has provided him with the means to purchase the most beautiful and isolated setting known to cinema. Filmed in  Valldalen, Norway, the interspersing of nature’s forests,waterfalls, graphite-like mountains and the modern glass bunker-like lodge and research center (Juvet Landscape Hotel,actually) is one of the keys to this film’s success. The fog over mountain symbolism mirrors the trust issues in the storyline. The birdsong and babbling brook ground us. Technology’s power is somehow balanced in this natural setting which few have seen in this primordial form. What sentient being would wish to leave? Two hours of helicopter flying does not cover our scientist’s estate. Without any story at all, this scenery is worth your movie ticket! But there is a story and big questions about Artificial Intelligence and the furthering of evolution.

And there is the amazing Oscar Isaac! He commands the screen. Here, as bearded and head-shaven Nathan Bateman,he explains how he gave sexuality to his synthetic women. ” She can have sex and she will enjoy it.” He later admits to the “prize winning” 26 year old programmer,Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) that he fashioned his AI’s features from an amalgam of porn star sites Caleb visited. Controlling,intense,art-and-music-loving,Nathan can drink,dance and use “fuck” like most millennials as a groovy adjective ad infinidum. “I want to share it with you. I want to share it so much it is eating me up inside.” This sounds honest in Isaac’s mouth. The potential for danger is set.

The film is also divided into numbered sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander),who is both vulnerable and wire-shiningly sophisticated and evolving. As AI,she has us asking “Who is the smartest?””Who is the most moral?” ,while Nathan asks Caleb if he can tell he is interacting with a machine. After session # 7 “fucking unreal” becomes an ironic understatement.

The score composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is atmospheric, and the the violence heart-stopping in its slow motion. Ava triggers power outages, and Nathan detoxes on brown rice and mineral water. Caleb steals Nathan’s key card as he is passed out on the couch, and Caleb thinks he has taken charge. Directives like “Please approach”,”Face the screen” , and “You may now enter” no longer apply. Caleb,the human component, is now trapped and his facile words are useless. The AI is head-turningly free to “break the ice” on any city intersection in the world. Ava has used empathy and emotional intelligence to con the good kid. Has the analytical won out? Is what makes us human to be our downfall? This film is unnerving and destined to become a classic,both in content and design.