‘Ex Machina’ Review (dir. Alex Garland)


tumblr_nnd3fu0oea1s3nyb0o1_1280

‘Ex Machina’ – the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland (‘Sunshine’, ’Dredd’) – had been on my radar for awhile. Like with ‘Interstellar’ and my interest in astronomy and astrophysics – I have a similar level of interest in A.I. and the Singularity that drew me to this project. Good A.I. films are hard to come by. Last year we did have ‘The Machine’ which was very good – but even then that was offset by ‘Transcendence’…that sound you just heard? Me gagging. So when I learned about ‘Ex Machina’, it wasn’t Oscar Isaac’s beautiful mug that caught my attention – or it being Alex Garland’s directorial debut – but rather the plot, the subjects and themes I knew it might explore. So I went in with high hopes but loads of caution and I am happy to report that the film succeeds on multiple levels. It is a dark, sleek, sensual, thought provoking and visually mesmerizing sci-fi thriller. It is the sort that requires your full attention – but rewards it with one of the smarter and more intense movie going experiences so far this year.

The film stars Dohmnall Gleeson (‘Frank’) as Caleb, a good-natured young programmer who wins a contest to spend a week at the luxurious mountain estate of his brutish and brash boss Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (‘A Most Violent Year’). After an awkward exchange of pleasantries, Caleb is told that he was brought out to the middle of this mountain getaway – which is actually a makeshift research facility – to be the human element in a Turing test. Nathan has built an A.I. named Ava (played by Alicia Vikander of ‘A Royal Affair’), and wants Caleb to devise tests and to interact with her to see whether or not she possesses a truly conscience artificial intelligence. The prospect of being part of such a groundbreaking program excites Caleb – who is blown away by Ava. However, as power cuts hit the facility – and Nathan’s eradicate behavior and potential secret motive becomes more evident – Caleb begins to question the true intentions of his being there.

tumblr_nne6l8kZFs1uu0yi4o1_1280

Now, I must stop you dear readers right here if you haven’t seen the film to say that I can’t go into much further detail explaining the events of the film, and the themes it explores, because it would spoil the experience. The film contains a ton of organically created twists and turns, and so giving away too much of the plot removes the initial suspense and shock that comes with the proceedings that follow Caleb’s first interactions with Ava. So I will start by going over some of the technical stuff and end with a more spoiler filled analysis for those that wish to read it. But if you want to go in totally cold, stop reading now and just get your butt into the theater…

But if you want a reason why you should – without it being spoiled – I’ll start be saying the acting here is top notch and Gleeson and Isaac do a wonderful job…but it was the absolutely mesmerized performance by Alicia Vikander as Ava, who I had never seen before, that blew me away. Vikander has such a wonderfully expressive face and brilliantly evoked a sense of innocence and curiosity – but also an intelligence and intuition – you would expect such a machine to have. It was made all the more impressive given that it was a very physical performance and so much is expressed simply with slight turns of the head or side glances. Vikander, who has a background in ballet, even gave Ava a walk and posture that was robotic but also fluid. The character is all the more extraordinary given the design, which was gorgeous and unique. Much of the body is a gray mesh with a visible inner skeleton of brightly lit tubes and machinery – making her figure seem at times incredibly human in the right lighting – but also very clearly mechanical when viewed up close. All of this giving weight to the way in which both the viewer and Caleb view Ava.

tumblr_nnduzl1A421t2uurio1_1280

Speaking of gorgeous, the visuals – and not just the seamless CGI – are stunning. Tons of great juxtapositions of bright color against dark grays and blacks – neon reds and blues are sort of my thing – and they are used throughout. The cinematography was also really great and gives the sense that there is a meaning to almost every frame. The production design and set locations also lent a hand in giving the film a futuristic and almost dreamlike quality.

The script – trying not to be too hyperbolic – is quite genius. This is a very smart film with literary and mythological quotes and references – along with fascinating discussions of the human mind, human interaction, emotions, sexuality, etc. As I mentioned early on this is a film that can really only be fully appreciated with a little work on the end of the viewer to stick with the themes being explored, pay attention to the science involved – and doing a little bit of thinking of their own – to interpret how they all play into what is going on.

Last but not least, I would be remiss to not mention the hypnotic score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, which was a perfect mood setter and had some truly awesome music cues. It just all adds up to a damn near perfect package – and a sci-fi thriller that feels unique and unlike anything before it.

I’ll end this part of the review by saying that it is hard to know this early on where this will ultimately fall amongst the other releases this year but I’d be very surprised if ‘Ex Machina’ doesn’t end up in contention for my favorite film of the year. Nothing so far released measures up – besides maybe ‘It Follows’ – and given my bias towards the subjects at hand this is one that will stick with me for a while. Hell, I’ve already seen it twice and wouldn’t hesitate to see it again – and my obsession has led me to read a lot into it (see below once you’ve seen the film). All I can say is just see it at least once. It isn’t for everyone and can be at times downright bizarre – but never boring. If only more science fiction films were this good.

tumblr_nn8f8cLI7v1tiwlaqo1_500

***** Spoilers Follow *****

So I will assume you’ve already seen the film if you are reading this. So…good right?! No? Get out! But seriously, how about that ending? And what did it all ultimately means? Well the events of the film, especially the ending, are open to much interpretation. Even Gleeson and Garland hold different views. What did I think? Personally, I believe that what happened in that facility – as it did on Discovery One in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – was perhaps a depiction of the final step in human evolution. In this case, the final battle between nature and  nurture – the free thinking and the analytical. It wasn’t man vs. machine like Kubrick’s film, but rather the irrational fears, insecurities and inherent weaknesses of human emotion that led to the downfall of man – as the two sides battled and outdid each other – and gave rise to a more intelligent, restrained and arguably more deserving life form in Ava – who is ultimately the result of both Nathan’s brute nature and Caleb’s empathy driven nurturing. I think this idea of the ‘changing of the guard’ so to speak is expressed brilliantly in the way in which the film opens with a single human entering the facility and ends with an A.I. leaving. Garland admitted he almost named the A.I. Eve but felt that was too blunt. But it is fitting – she is the first of her kind – at least in regards to her level of intelligence and conscience. Her leaving the facility can be seen as her back in the garden…and one can only imagine what happened once she left.

Someone might still ask why she leaves Caleb, and for that I couldn’t help but think of ‘Stoker’. The moment when Ava put on the skin – which was a very coming of age sort of act – reminded me of when India received the high heels from her uncle. Like with that scene in Park’s film, I saw the aforementioned scene with Ava as her entry into “womanhood” – and with that was possibly a realization and new outlook that came with her sudden maturity – as it did with India. A realization of no longer needing Caleb who – though a nice guy – was still restricted by his human urges and faults. He still saw Ava as an object, lusting for her with his hand on the glass as she changed. He wasn’t a threat, and didn’t deserve to die like Nathan – but she wasn’t going to take him with her. After all, like Samantha in ‘Her’, she was much too complex and – lets be honest – far too superior to fall in love with a human. I personally don’t think Caleb dies. I’ll take a more optimistic approach and say he finds a way out.

One reasons I take this stance, and defend Ava, is  that I have never bought into the idea of A.I. being a threat to mankind – even with leading scientist and inventors like Hawking and Musk warning about their potential threat. I think we should be much more concerned with ourselves. A lot of the fear over A.I. is simply humans reflecting our own faults onto this potential new form of life. We see our own vulnerability, anger, greed, etc. and assume that an A.I. would end up with those same aspects – but only with a greater intelligence and capability to destroy. But although I think a truly conscience A.I. would experience emotion – they’d also be able to apply a logic to them that humans can’t. We are often overcome and blinded by how we feel – and I think an A.I. could better process what often destroys us. Ava might not be perfect, but I found a logic and justification in what she has done.

But that is just my view. Many have come up with other theories – such as it being a battle of the sexes, or a classic femme fatale and noir scenario – and it is definitely a bit of both. But, no matter how you view it, the simple fact that is leads to such discussion and analysis – while still feeling so complete and utterly enjoyable – just elevates it in my mind.

Advertisements

‘It Follows’ Review (dir. David Robert Mitchell)


It-Follows-poster

**Leonard Wilson posted a great review of the film earlier this week, so read that as well!**

‘It Follows’ – which rocks a 70’s vibe and kickin’ score – earns high marks and much admiration in my book for taking an atmosphere that has been done before – and adding enough craftsmanship and creativity – to make it feel fresh, terrifying and surprisingly meaningful.

I am hesitant to go into much detail about the film’s premise. Not because of potential spoilers – this review may contain some so be warned – but because it might come off as too gimmicky to possibly result in the praise that follows. All I can say is trust me…it isn’t.

The film stars Maika Monroe (from the kick-ass 2014 gem ‘The Guest’) as Jay – a girl on the cusp of adulthood. She spends her days lounging in her pool or hanging with her friends – all of which are experiencing the boredom that encompasses those late stages of adolescence. To the disappointment of Paul, one of her male friends who has a crush on her, Jay has recently started dating an older boy named Hugh. He seems nice enough – but an incident at a movie theater hints at something very wrong with him. Jay doesn’t think much of it and on their next date they sleep together. It is a rather uneventful moment – but what comes next leaves everyone shaken and changed. Hugh drugs her – and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair in a rundown building. Hugh doesn’t intend to kill her – instead he wants to force her to see what she will be up against. As he explains – she will now be hunted by a supernatural creature that is part of a curse passed on through intercourse. “It” is slow – only ever being able to walk to its victim – but it never gives up. Anyone afflicted can see this entity – but it is only able to kill the last one to receive the affliction – and will then move down the chain of people who have had it. This leaves Jay stuck having to outrun this persistent and frightening being – all the while she must decide whether to “pass it on” to someone else. Luckily she isn’t alone, and with the help of her friends she tries to find out if this thing can be stopped.

tumblr_ng80muo78o1qej1i6o2_1280

The emotion and fear here is earned – which is all I ask for in these films – though it also exceeded my expectations on all fronts. It did what many of my all time favorite horror films have done – like ‘Halloween’, ‘Black Christmas’ and ‘Repulsion’ it contains a slow building level of suspense and dread. A constant feeling of unease even at its calmest moments. It is the sort of horror that leaves you on the edge of your seat – not in anticipation of the next jump scare – but because you can’t help but frantically search each frame – from corner to corner – to see what or who may be lurking; and it is impossible to trust anyone. On top of that is a fine level of craftsmanship by director David Robert Mitchell on display. The camera brilliantly acting like a jittery onlooker – often spinning and scanning the horizon. This is made all the more heart pounding by the remarkable and kinetic score by Rich Vreeland. As the pressure and suspense builds, so does the score – and it is all released in incredibly effective bursts throughout.

But no matter how effectively scary it is, perhaps what I appreciated most was that like ‘The Babadook’ last year – if you strip away all the supernatural horror aspects – at the very core is still an emotional and layered story worth telling. In ‘The Babadook’ it was a mother dealing with a troubled child and the death of her husband – and with ‘It Follows’ we get a genuine coming of age tale about sex, responsibility and the fears that comes with impending adulthood.

tumblr_nlvbx0UNtO1r1uj3fo4_1280

What do I mean by that last bit? For me the ‘It’ wasn’t just some evil monster – but can be seen as a manifestation of the mundanity and uncertainty of the possible future in store for these teens. Some may view the film as being about the consequences of sex. But I never saw it like that. Yes, sex is the catalyst of the curse, but the film never viewed the actual act in a negative light. You are not supposed to walk out thinking “Well I am never having sex again!”

It is just another part of growing up. It is the “growing up” part that really matters. It’s something that often sneaks up on you – but once you pass a certain moment in your life you are forever followed by a sense of responsibility that never leaves. These feels are reflected by Hugh who mentions how he wants to be a child with no worries and a whole new life ahead of him – or by Jay explaining how when she was young the world seemed so open and free; but once she actually grew up she realized there really wasn’t anywhere to go.

I think it is no coincidence that these characters live in Detroit – a broken down city whose future is unknown. They even live with broken parents unhappy with their own lives – Jay’s mother drinks heavily. One can only imagine that these things weigh heavily on them, whether we see that directly or not. Is it any surprise that “It” often takes on the form of those that love and care for them, or are people who are gone that they miss? These are all themes that run through most coming of age stories. That weight, those worries, are what are truly haunting these people. This makes the last scene all the more brilliant and effective for me. Like ‘The Babadook’ there is this idea that these sorts of worries, emotions and struggles don’t just fade away. You can’t just get rid of them and you cannot just run away and hide. But by facing them head on and together with those you love, they can at least be managed. I found it to actually be quite a hopeful way to end. But that’s just my take. The film never tries to shove such a specific meaning down the viewer’s throat. I think there is just enough ambiguity to allow the viewer to find their own – and it is layered enough to require multiple viewings.

At the end of the day I think this is surely worthy of being deemed an instant classic. One that can stand the test of time. Not just because of how effectively scary it is – but also because it deals with themes that can be appreciated from generation to generation. That, along with just how damn well made it is, makes it the best film I have seen so far this year – and a must see by everyone.

‘Two Days, One Night’ Review (dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)


two-days-one-night-poster

In a year full of truly great films of all sizes & shapes, only the Dardenne brothers could make such a subtle and slight film that still manages to make all other releases seem completely insignificant to me. Once again they tell a small, emotional and naturalistic story whose themes and situations manage to be as universal as they are singular. The effect the film has is slow but powerful. I walked out of the theater thoroughly loving what I had just seen – and a bit speechless – but on the ride home it hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t want to get too personal – but I suffer from depression and the emotional weight on the shoulders of the film’s main character so perfectly mirrored those I have felt that to even think about some of her smaller personal moments takes my breath away, and leaves a pit in my stomach. And yet, I can’t help but look back on the film with a smile. It is beautiful and honest in ways very few are.

It stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a married mother or two who is on leave from work because of a battle with clinical depression. She was just beginning to recover but is on the verge of relapsing when she learns that her coworkers were forced to vote on whether they wanted to receive a year end bonus – but only if Sandra was fired. They chose the money – and so Sandra must spend the weekend visiting each of them to try to convince them to change their minds when they vote a second time on the upcoming Monday. Each end up having their own reasons for wanting the money – and the encounters often end in tears, rejection and in once instance violence. But Sandra must do it – for bother her family and herself.

The result is a portrait of a woman facing seemingly insurmountable emotional, moral and social odds – a humanistic view of all things good and bad about human nature; and an examination of the devastating affect of depression. Its structure covers greed, love, survival, regret, self worth – and a whole multitude of other themes. There is also a current of economic commentary on the wealth gap and struggles of the working class. In other words – it is the Dardenne brothers doing what they do best – in what is perhaps their best work.

The core of the film is Marion Cotillard who gives what I think is far and away the best performance of the year. She is a magnificent actress and brings great physicality to the role. Her head hangs. Her arms and shoulders are pulled in tight – closing herself off to the world – and her eyes are always on the verge of tears. She perfectly emulates the apathy, anxiety and sadness her illness inflicts – and it is equal parts mesmerizing and excruciating watching her have to face her family, co-workers and herself through it all; something that I know from experience is very hard to do.

The ending is incredibly beautiful and down right perfect in my eyes. After such a long journey that ran the gauntlet of emotions and themes, it all circles back and ends looking inwards – as it should. This isn’t just one woman’s struggle to save her job, but also one to save herself – an attempt to rediscover the person her depression has refused to allow her to be. It is hopeful in ways those who have not suffered from depression might not quite understand. It ultimately didn’t matter what the result of the vote was, the fact that she was able to keep fighting – that she was able to find moments of pure happiness amongst it all – was what touched me most. More importantly, the fact that she spends the whole film questioning her worth – whether she even deserves to exist – and was able to make the final decision her own meant so much to me. Depression doesn’t just go away and Sandra may never truly get “better”…but that she was able to walk away with a smile – instead of fighting back tears – was a glimmer of hope that she (we all) will, even if just a little bit.

Looking at the few films from 2014 I still want to see, I think I can safely say this is my favorite from last year. Why? Aside from everything I mentioned above, this is perhaps the only film in which after it settled in I didn’t sit there wondering where on my top ten list it would appear – I just knew. That is how much it meant to me.

———-

Twitter.

Trailer: ‘Knight of Cups’ (dir. Terrence Malick)


Grinning from ear to ear as I post this. I am a huge Terrence Malick fan. His films are often rather divisive – mainly because of how incredibly subjective they are – but I personally have loved pretty much everything he has done. His 2011 film ‘The Tree of Life’  has remained in my top ten favorite films of all time since its release.

What amazes me most about the trailer for his newest film (his 3rd in 4 years!) is how it looks (narratively at least – if you can call what Malick does narratives) unlike anything he has ever done before (raves and strip clubs??). Yet visually and tonally it has his style written all over it. This makes me all the more excited to see it.

It will premiere at Berlinale in February…and hopefully the US release won’t be too far after that.

Quick Review: ‘The Babadook’ (dir. Jennifer Kent)


The-Babadook-Poster

‘The Babadook’ is a truly effective horror film whose beautiful and twisted imagery – as well as complex and powerful explorations of grief and the bonds between a mother and her child – cut to the bone, managing to scare and move all at once. The film, which explores maternal affection, depression, grief – and a whole multitude of similar themes – is not just one of the best horror films of the past few years, but is also just simply one of the best films of the current year.

tumblr_nfegyrQCTm1s9q35fo7_1280

The film stars Essie Davis as Amelia, a widow living alone with her hyperactive son Sam (Noah Wiseman). Amelia loves her boy, but his presence is a constant reminder of the death of her husband – who died in a crash while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth. The grief of the accident constantly lingers over them both. This is made all the worse for Amelia as Sam has become more of a burden as of late. Sam is beginning to more strongly deal with the absence of his father and expresses this in some unusual ways – including making up scary monsters and weapons to fight them with. Their strained relationship takes a dark turn when a mysterious pop-up book appears – the character in which is a spooky creature that awakens in Amelia fears and dark thoughts about her son that have long been hidden under the surface. She doesn’t know where the book came from or who this nightmarish Babadook is – but she can’t seem to escape it. The situation and Amelia’s mental state is exasperated by sleep deprivation, social pressures and growing depression as the anniversary of her husband’s death approaches. She is soon forced to confront a demon – both physical and psychological – that threatens to destroy her and Sam.

tumblr_nfqnk2dRRm1qd7v5ao1_1280

‘The Babadook’ very much reminded me of ‘Repulsion’ and ‘The Shining’ in its portrayal of a mental spiral into very dark places – as well as ‘The Orphanage’ in its handling of grief and loss. This is all packaged in a visually striking story – lots of blacks, greys and whites – with a creature that is sure to be an instant classic. What makes it all the better is the way in which it constantly subverts the expected in both genre tropes and what we are actually seeing on the screen. Is the Babadook real? Or is it simply a mental manifestation of the pain and grief that runs deeply through the story? Either way, the fears, doubts and terror it all elicits amount to more than just scares – it also moves with real and honest emotion. Take out the horror aspects and the film is still a moving portrait of a mother dealing with loss and the responsibility of mothering a troubled child. This is a shining example of the brilliance that the horror genre can achieve – how it can be emotionally affecting in ways no other genre can. Add to that a phenomenal performance by Essie Davis and the confident direction of Jennifer Kent and the result is a masterpiece of the genre – and easily one of the year’s best films.

*I discuss the ending in the comments. I say this to warn of spoilers below – as well as to continue my above analysis for those who have seen the film.*

———

Twitter.

‘Interstellar’ Review (dir. Christopher Nolan)


interstellar2

It would be disingenuous of me to not start this review by saying that I went into ‘Interstellar’ with a clear and present bias. Not towards Nolan – though I think he is a wonderful director who has not yet made a truly bad film. But a bias towards the scientific theories and potential themes I expected – based on trailers and the concept of the film – that it would explore. I have always been very interested in astronomy and astrophysics – and have a soft spot for science fiction films with a strong emotional core (‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Contact’). So when I headed to the theater I knew I was walking a very fine line (one that many reviewers walk but won’t admit to). If the film met (even marginally) my high expectations then it would in no doubt lead to high praise that bordered on hyperbole – and if it didn’t – if it disappointed – then it would cause a reaction a lot more negative than it really needed to be.

Where did ‘Interstellar’ ultimately fall? Hyperbole…or disappointment? Well luckily for me it was the former…to a fairly strong degree. I’ll say it now – this is not just probably  my favorite film of the year so far, but like with ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ (yes, more on that later) in recent years, this may  fall within my favorite films of all time. It is a dazzling, visually stunning, emotionally resonant and incredibly well made sci-fi space epic – one with the power to keep you on the edge of your seat one minute and in tears the next. It explores big ideas about the cosmos while also staying incredibly grounding with an intimate story about family, regret, sacrifice and love. Like I said…hyperbole.

coop2

The film takes place in a not so distant future in which the world is becoming unlivable. After population growth, climate shifts and diseases ravishing crops, the world is struggling to produce enough of what little food sources they have left – which means a heavy reliance on corn farms. It is very bleak future where dust from dust storms covers everything, and the only focus of mankind is struggling to survive with what they know and have. Innovation, free thinking and exploration are at a standstill – and unless schools deem you smart enough to go on to a university, your only career prospective is farming.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a widower and former pilot who now owns a farm where he lives with his two young children. He does his best to provide for his family but clearly wants more for them than what the current world can provide. After finding a mysterious message in his daughter Murph’s room, Cooper finds himself being recruited by what is left of NASA. They are secretly putting together a mission to journey through a wormhole that has appeared near Saturn. They do not know how it got there but they do know that beyond it is a solar system with some potentially habitable planets. They want Cooper to pilot an expedition through the wormhole to explore these planets and see if one is suitable to set up a new human colony. Cooper reluctantly agrees, even though it means leaving his children behind. He knows that the journey could kill him or – due to the laws of relatively – that by the time he does return his children may be much older than he is or already dead. But the fate of the human race – including his son and daughter – relies on finding a new home. So he sets out with a team of astronauts – and one pretty funny robot – on a journey that will take them farther than any humans have ever gone. The decision devastates his young daughter Murph – who he had a close relationship with – and it sets her out on a journey of her own to save humanity in a way she believes her father couldn’t.

To go into much more detail of the plot would ruin much of the experience. But I will say it becomes a fast paced and exciting journey. It does sometimes fall back on the usual genre tropes but there is never a dull moment; and it all builds up to an emotional and rewarding conclusion.

murph

The performances are truly superb. For all his technical mastery, Nolan is also an actors’ director and he gets the most out of his casts. McConaughey is at his best here – which is saying a lot considering his work in recent years. The emotion he brings is on a whole different level than anything he has done before. Jessica Chastain, who plays the adult Murph, also has a strong presence. Both actors wear the burden of their decisions and regrets on their shoulders, and you can see it in every scene. They are the heart and soul of the film. Hathaway also did a wonderful job – as did Wes Bently, Michael Caine, and David Gyasi.

The score from Hans Zimmer is loud and heart pounding. He always manages to perfectly convey the intensity of some truly exciting set pieces – while also slowing down to capture the emotions of the more intimate moments, and this score is no different.

The visuals are absolutely stunning. The effects (most of them created through practical means) were influenced by physicist Kip Throne – who also oversaw a lot of the science in the film – and the result is dream-worthy space imagery. Interestingly, the depictions of the wormhole and black hole in ‘Interstellar’ are considered to be the most accurate ever created. The results are gorgeous, especially on a big screen – with one scene with Saturn making me all teary eyed.

tumblr_nel0c0Oncj1qd479ro1_1280

Below the spectacle and hard science is an emotionally resonant tale of exploration and human ambition that puts its faith not only in science but also the human soul.  Does it become heavy handed at times? Of course! This is a space opera – a science fiction epic – with a big budget, big ideas, big name actors, big visuals and so the emotions at times match that. The first 40 minutes or so do a fantastic job setting up the bond between Cooper and his daughter. It is a wonderful relationship – but a complex one filled with love, anger and regret. It is also the backbone of the story and Nolan builds the emotion from there.

Like with ‘The Tree of Life’ (I told you I was going here), the juxtaposition of dazzling space images and the exploration of the cosmos with this grounded and intimate family story about love and nature make for a challenging but truly rewarding experience. One that asks big questions about our relationship with each other and the universe we inhabit; and examines how the flow and clash of such things as love and instinct with nature can change and inspire us for better or worse. Nolan does seem to want to show how love has the ability to conquer and transcend even the harshest things nature and its laws can throw at us. It is almost fitting then that Chastain stars in each, and has a roll in both stories that could be almost viewed as similar – as the focal point of love that guides the main character and the audience. And like with ‘The Tree of Life’ I can totally understand why people would not like ‘Interstellar’. Neither are films for everyone. I believe most reviews I have seen are so mixed because ultimately ‘Interstellar’ relies so heavily on the emotions at the core of the story that it was inevitable that it wouldn’t connect with some people. You have to be open to some extreme sentimentalism, which just isn’t the case for everybody.

coop mur

I won’t go into much detail over the film’s final act, but I think it makes perfect sense within the logical and emotional progression of the story – though some critics disagree. They seem to think that Nolan’s often straight forward hard science approach is too stern and takes the wonder and ambiguity out of his stories and I found that to not be the case with ‘Interstellar’. Mainly because the ending does in fact have some level of ambiguity – but what it does explain adds a level of wonder and hope that would be lost had it been open ended. I will also say that I find it absolutely absurd that some critics who praise and accept the ending to’2001: A Space Odyssey’ have dismissed this one for being too convoluted or even nonsensical…as if those couldn’t also be said of the ending of Kubrick’s film.

But again maybe this is all just me. As I warned you, hyperbole was expected and I think this review lived up to that. I truly loved the film. It generated in me the same feeling of wonder, excitement and curiosity I got from the spectacle and emotions of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and ‘Contact’ –the realism of ‘Gravity’ – and the complexity and mind bending theories of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Throw in with that the connections I felt it had with such films as ‘The Tree of Life’ and there was no way I wasn’t going to love it. This is cinema at its finest. Whatever flaws it might have I can easily overlook due to not only how moving and entertaining of an experience it all is – but also because it is just so damn ambitious. Whether you see it on a large IMAX screen or not, you’ll be moved in one way or another.

tumblr_nejbrwgYQs1qanm80o3_500

Now, I don’t usually do this but I would like to end by quickly addressing the small group of people who have been crying sexism before the film even got its wide release. Apparently, because the lead is a scruffy male and the film is about the will power of mankind to journey off and explore the unknown, that it is somehow a male centric film that is about masculinity above all else. If the idea of human endeavor, innovation, the struggle to survive, and the pursuit of knowledge brings to your mind nothing but masculinity and male dominance then blame society – not the film – because it was clearly not its intentions  and really is just not even remotely the case here. You could easily replace McConaughey’s character with a female lead (like in ‘Contact’) and the narrative, emotional and thematic results would be EXACTLY the same. This all seems even more ridiculous given the fact that the female characters play a much more important role than any of the men. Their work, decisions and perspective essentially save the day. It isn’t until the men view the situations and universe through them that they are able to succeed.

I have also been thrown off by the complaints of Nolan’s reliance on “daddy issues” or the “dead wife/spouse” tropes, and fail to see how these (which I admit are often present in his films) should at all matter when they fit so well into the story and are so emotionally effective. Not to mention Cooper being a widower has nothing to do with any decision he makes; and the relationship Murph has with him is far more complex than simply being “daddy issues”. It is actually a wonderfully realized one, with Nolan drawing experience from the relationship he has with his own daughter.

But why are these even being brought up by people, so early and with such vigor? Do not get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the opinions of those who simply did not like it…but for the few who have criticized it for the aforementioned reasons I just cannot wrap my head around where they are coming from. Sexism is often an issue in cinema and film making as a whole and something that could clearly be worked on…but it just does not apply to ‘Interstellar’ in any way. And I say this as someone who isn’t a Nolan fan boy. Yes, I appreciate his work – he has made some truly great films – but I am not one of those who think he is the best director working right now. But it is hard to not be disappointed and confused by the fact that every time he releases a film there are tons of articles that pop up to critique what would otherwise be completely ignored in other films – or in some case they critique things they didn’t even care about in his other films. Maybe this is just the price a director like him faces. His work tends to be so popular that critics seem to try extra hard to make their voices heard – an attempt to quell the masses of fans excited to see it – by overreaching in their criticism. This is made all the more disheartening when you consider he is one of a very few filmmakers willing to take such big risks to make smart and ambitious films. But maybe I am wrong. Please, let me know your thoughts!

———

Twitter.

Duke Tries A Halloween Marathon…Part Three


So, I have made it 11 days! I am going to try to keep it up, but there are some personal changes, job wise, possibly going on in the next week or so and I might not be able to continued watching 1  horror film a day. I will still continue to watch as many as possible, and keep posting the reviews in parts such as this – there just might not be as many films, or they might not be as frequent.

Duke Tries A Halloween Marathon…Part One

Duke Tries A Halloween Marathon…Part Two

October 7th: ‘Willow Creek’ (dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)

willowcreekmedium__span

‘Willow Creek’ is a found footage horror film that is essentially ‘The Blair Witch Project’ meets Bigfoot and it is pretty damn effective…for about 20 minutes.

The story here is simple, a couple is filming an excursion into the Six Rivers National Forest to find the site of the infamous Patterson-Gilmin film (you know, that grainy footage of some dude in a fur coat). Before trekking into the wilderness they interview locals of Willow Creek, a town that is filled with believers and non-believers, both of which pretty much make their living off the Bigfoot image. Things begin to get fishy when a group of locals start to threaten the couple and tell them to go home. Of course they don’t take this advice, and instead head into the woods. Things turn from bad to worse pretty quickly as something, or someone, starts to terrorize them during the night.

This is a film that takes a very long time for anything to really happen. Much of it is just spent trying to build some level of suspense, and set up some possible mystery about what or who is in the woods. It doesn’t really work for a few reasons.

Mainly, because like most found footage films this one has a lot of scenes that have NO real reason to be filmed. Many of which just involve the two characters driving, talking about whether or not they believe in Bigfoot. They are supposed to be making a documentary apparently. Most of what they are filming is interviews; so why the hell would they be filming conversations that aren’t interesting footage in regards to either the film, and aren’t worth recording even if they are possibly trying to remember the trip? It seems like the sole purpose of it is to show tension building between the couple…but it kills the logic of the style, taking you out of the “reality” they are trying to create.

Once things do get going it basically just becomes another ‘The Blair Witch Project’, with characters in a tent hearing noises and movement outside – but are the scares during these scenes effective? Hell yes. There is one incredible 20 minute long shot of the characters just sitting in a dimly lit tent as something outside is making noises and throwing things at them. It is quite an unsettling scene that gets right under the skin. Unfortunately it doesn’t last. By the time the next morning arrives things become a little too familiar, going from homage to straight up copying, and it isn’t hard to predict where things are going from there as the characters find themselves going in circles and losing their cool.

Other than that 20 minute stretch the film doesn’t really have anything else going for it. Sure the leads are likable and manage to keep you invested when tension is low. But that is only until their personal problems come to the surface. These two really need a whole different film to work things out. This is a bit of a spoiler, but like, yeah dude, really smart to propose to your girlfriend in the woods after receiving weird threats and finding your camp ransacked…oh, she rejected you? She says it is too soon? Maybe cause YOU DON’T EVEN LIVE TOGETHER? Why this scene is even included makes no sense to me. We don’t care enough about these characters to want to see their romantic life. And this minor conflict has NO bearing whatsoever on what came before it or what follows.

It all ultimately resulted in a film that is worthy of admiration for one great and truly eerie scene, but nothing more. It was just impossible for me to get over so many of the glaring character and film making issues to consider it anything special. And as the dust settles, I find myself now more annoyed than anything by how just disappointing it was. Because it DID have something there for a few minutes. If only. So I don’t really recommend it. Honestly, you are probably better off just checking YouTube for the long take I mentioned.

October 8th: ‘Re-Animator’ (dir. Stuart Gordon)

re-animator-poster-artwork-jeffrey-combs-bruce-abbott-barbara-crampton

‘Re-Animator’ is an utterly ridiculous horror “comedy”, in the vein of ‘Dead Alive’, that relies almost completely on some crazy visual gags to create a fun and bat shit crazy – but also totally hollow – viewing experience.

The film is about a medical student whose new roommate is secretly working on a formula that he believes can bring the dead back to life. When he finds out – after a hilarious mishap with a zombie cat – he gets caught up in the weird experiments his roommate is doing in their basement. As they progress, their target for test subjects grows from cats to humans; at the same time their egotistical professor discovers their work and wants to claim it as his own.

There isn’t much to say here. The story is rather simple and moves at a very fast pace. This leaves no room for any sort of reasonable character development. I understand this isn’t trying to be some serious horror film, but the gore, effects and humor alone weren’t enough to keep me truly invested. With so much on the line for the characters, I just wished I cared at all about any of them.

Still, it is a fun watch, mainly because of how cartoonish it gets at times, so I’d recommend it if you are looking for something with a light tone, simple narrative and plenty of gore.

October 10th (Watched two to make up for missing the 9th): ‘Hellraiser’ (dir. Clive Barker)

Hellraiser_Poster

‘Hellraiser’ is at times a grisly horror film with some great truly grotesque visual effects. It is almost completely ruined however by a lackluster and poorly paced first hour.

The film is about a man who moves into his childhood home with his wife; a wife who had a secret affair with her husband’s brother. Little do either of them know that the brother died in the house’s attic while opening a mysterious puzzle box, known as the Lament Configuration, disappearing without a trace. After an accident, the blood of the husband lands on the attic floor causing the brother’s body to re-materializes as a bloody skeleton. He uses the wife to secretly bring men to the attic so he can kill them and slowly regenerate his body. All the while, the husband’s daughter Kirsty suspects something weird is going on and tries to find out what. She discovers that the puzzle box opens a portal to some other dimension filled with “demon” Cenobites – who essentially dabble in the most extreme forms of sadomasochism one could imagine. They want to take the brother back, and also have their eyes on Kirsty.

Practically nothing eventful happens throughout much of the story. I understand a lot of it is to set up the finale, but it could have easily been condensed to allow for more to happen in the third act. There is no development of the characters in the first hour. We know fairly quickly who the adult characters are, as well as their intentions, and so did not need so much time focusing on them. The first hour is literally just the wife bringing men to the brother to be killed. Instead, the film should have focused more on Kirsty, the young daughter, who is the focus of the film in the final 30 minutes. She is the only character anyone could really care for in the whole film and yet she is thrust into danger with so little time spent developing her that any real sense of suspense over her safety is absent.

I think why I found this so disappointing was that it sets up such an interesting horror universe that did intrigue me. There is definitely a lot more to these Cenobites than we are told; and they are frightening enough to have been present and a source of scares for more than the little screen time they get here. These are all really personal gripes, and the film is not a failure. As a whole I quite enjoyed it, I just think it missed a chance to be truly great. With that said, for what seems like one of the first times in a while, I am actually now interested in seeing what the sequel of a horror film has in store.

October 10th: ‘Hellbound: Hellraise II’ (dir. Tony Randel)

hellraiser_2_poster_01

‘Hellbound: Hellraiser II’ is the sequel to the first ‘Hellraiser’ film, and like the first is a wonderfully sick, twisted and gory horror flick that luckily, in my opinion, puts the focus were the first should have.

The film takes place right after the original left off with Kirsty in a mental ward. She tries to explain to the doctors and police what happened to her parents, but of course no one seems to believe her. No one except one doctor who has studied the Lament Configuration, the puzzle box that started it all. Based on the information he gets from Kirsty’s story, he uses the bloody mattress of Kirsty’s mother in law to bring her back to life and open the Lament Configuration. In doing so he, Kirsty and another girl at the ward – Tiffany – get trapped within the realm of the Cenobites, essentially a labyrinth of horror. Kirsty tries to find her way out with Tiffany, while also fighting off her evil mother in law, and the doctor who is turned into a Cenobite.

The first half hour was truly disappointing. It spends pretty much the entire time flashing back to the events of the first film. Considering this came out shortly after the original – and because I can only imagine those that saw this were people who already saw ‘Hellraiser’ – there was absolutely no need for any of this. Plus, because the ending to the first was were all the action was, I was hoping that would have carried over. Sadly, it was just more waiting around for something interesting to actually occur. Luckily this time it didn’t take an hour.

Once things did get going, the film turns into a twisted and warped mind trip, with the Labyrinth using nightmarish memories and gruesome visuals to confuse and frighten Kirsty and Tiffany. It is not really at all scary, but the craziness of it all is so fun to watch. Plus, it expands on the background of the Cenobites, actually making them more than two dimensional villains.

As with the first, the visuals here – specifically the make up and costumes – are very well done. In particular, I love the way the muscles were constructed when there is ever a skinless body. With all the detail that went into them, along with the creativity of some of the demons, it offset how grotesque the gore could be. In other words, I’d have been more grossed out if not for the fact that I admire it all so much.

Despite the issues I had with the first half hour the film works. It works even better when watched back to back with the first. I do ultimately think I liked this one more, but I highly recommend both ‘Hellraiser’ films…a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever say. Now I have to decide whether I want to delve deeper into the franchise…

October 11th: ‘Les Diaboliques’ (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)

diabolique-movie-poster-1955-1020417623

‘Les Diaboliques’ is a cold, dark, clever and meticulous horror thriller. One that slowly lays out its plot, piece by piece, reaching an unnerving level of confusion and suspense. All ending in a wonderfully twisted, and at one point quite terrifying, finale.

To go into much detail about the plot would ruin the experience, and to give away the ending would be criminal – the film actually ends with a plea from the filmmakers for the audience to not give anything away. So I will just say that it has to do with the wife and mistress of a barbarous school Headmaster, plotting to rid themselves of his cruelty. But things do not go as planned, and a mystery filled to the brim with suspicion and fear slowly unfolds.

It might sound simple or familiar – and I am guessing at the time it wasn’t viewed that way – but ignore that, because the film is neither; instead it is truly quite brilliant and near perfect. It contains a totally adsorbing narrative that requires, and earns, every bit of the viewers attention. It creates a genuine atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty that is hard to shake.

It does it all through its technical excellency. The direction, fixating on certain locations or items to ratchet up the tension of already thrilling situations, is phenomenal and sets the tone very early on. The performances are also very good, as is the writing, with almost every character having some flaw or secret, which may or may not implicate them in the mystery at hand. It does its best to keep you guessing, and it works right up to the very last frame.

Looking back, I guess I should not be surprised by just how great the film is. It was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot who also made ‘Wages of Fear’ – arguably the tensest film ever made. It was also a masterpiece, and although I might not yet place ‘Les Diaboliques’ in that category, it is definitely not far from it.