Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Movie Review: "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) by David Pretty


AUGUST 18'TH, 1973

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) heads out on a road trip to find her abandoned childhood home in what I can only describe as Defilement County, Texas. Along for the ride is her wheel-chair bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) as well as her friends Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn) and Jerry (Allen Danziger).


After a harrowing encounter with a crazed Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), their van runs out of gas, prompting Kirk to investigate a nearby farmhouse for help. This inadvertently stirs up the Sawyer clan, a crazed group of homicidal rednecks who's chief guard dog / pet ogre, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), decides to pick off the interlopers one at a time.

What follows is a spooky little cinematic romp that pairs nicely with such family-friendly fare as Hocus Pocus, The Addams Family or Caspar for a pleasant Halloween movie night. 

WHY THE LAST STATEMENT IS A DIRTY, DIRTY LIE

This movie wastes no time establishing a mood of total, abject horror. After John Larroquette's oddly incongruous voice over narration, director Tobe Hooper segues into a pitch dark screen where the only sounds we hear is a shovel moving earth and heavy breathing. Periodically the scene is illuminated by the flashbulbs of a still camera, giving us macabre half-glimpses of a recently unearthed corpses. This suggests that the sick bastard exhuming these bodies is also taking pictures of them, which, in my book, rates about a "12" on the ol' Creep-O-Meter.

Stifling darkness gives way to daylight but Hooper grants no reprieve. Instead he gives us a flinch-inducing close up of the grave-digger grim handiwork: two skeletal cadavers artfully poised atop a grave marker. The orange color filter and drippy condition of the bodies gives the viewer the impression that the bodies are melting away in the punishing heat of the mid-day Texas sun. Ewww...


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a perfect example of a movie that actually triumphs thanks to its low-rent feel. Witness the scene where Sally and company find and explore their old homestead. Kirk notices a huge pile of cellar spiders getting phreaky in the corner of an abandoned room, so Tobe Hooper and his cinematographer Daniel Pearl zoom in on the vile image with child-like glee. You can almost hear them giggling "Hey, get a load of this! Gross, huh? Here...lemme get closer!"

Moments later, Franklin discovers this weird bone fetish altar thingie in the house and sees a matching totem hanging overhead. This serves as an ominous visual precursor for what's to come. After Pam and Kirk's plans to go swimming fall through, they notice a windmill and the top of a roof in the distance. The unmistakable sound of a gas generator gives them hope that they may not be stranded for much longer.

But as they get closer to the property, that feeling of foreboding continues to grow. You start to wonder what sort of person would tie a bunch of rusty old junk onto the tree limbs, and, better yet, why? The inordinate number of abandoned cars lying around seems rather odd. What's even stranger is they're all covered up with camo netting.

When they reach the house, we get another omen when Kirk finds a molar and uses it scare the shit  out of Pam. Oblivious to the horrors that lie within, Kirk ventures into the house to ask for help. As he inches he way down the hallway toward the crimson-hued back room, we notice that the walls are covered in animal skulls and taxidermy projects. By the time Leatherface makes his iconic first appearance and "greets" the interloper, a part of us isn't completely surprised.

The triumphantly-ghastly production design by Robert A. Burns really gets showcased when Pam goes into the house to look for Kirk. She stumbles into the ironically-named "living" room and the camera takes a bone-chilling inventory of the human detritus scattered around. We see piles of feathers, scattered bones, a live chicken crammed into a tiny cage, chairs re-enforced with tibias, hanging skulls with a horns driven through the mouth and similarly-charming bric-à-brac.

 
On more than one occasion, the production's gritty, bargain-basement-style sensibilities makes you feel as if you're a witness to something you shouldn't be seeing. A snuff movie, of sorts. Just check out the scene where Jerry manages to delve deeper into the house than any of his predecessors. He makes his way into the revealed back room, hears thumping noises coming from the deep freezer and then opens it up to find Pam lying there like a frozen fish fillet. What happens next will challenge the integrity of even the most hardened horror hound's bladder control.

The film's mercilessly creepy mise en scène results in one of the most shocking scenes in the film. With everyone else missing, Sally pushes her wheelchair bound brother Franklin through the pitch-dark woods to try and get to the mansion. All of a sudden, Leatherface and his roaring chainsaw pop up from out of nowhere and instantly Franklin is put on frappe. This is just another example of how the film's "faults", in this case sub-par lighting, actually contributes to the shock factor. 

THE SOUND OF HORROR

Also piling onto our wits is the movie's dissonant, schizophrenic score, which is rife with cymbal crashes and echoey drums. This sets the tone right from the opening credits. It's the perfect soundtrack to such gruesome visuals and running news reports about chronic grave desecration.

More memorable musical stings can be heard as the characters explore the abandoned house, when Pam stumbles into the living room and during Jerry's approach to the Sawyer homestead. The dinner scene at the end of the film is made even more bone-rattling due to the industrial-style soundtrack. Hell, even the "music" that plays over the end credits sounds like rusty farm equipment being thrown down a bloody metal sluice.

A METHOD (ACTING) TO THEIR MADNESS

Sure, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is totally on-point with its visual and auditory horrors, but the film's population of Grade-A weirdos is what really makes the movie pure nightmare fuel. Not the least of which is Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker. With his prominent birthmark, antiquated camera, sassy varmint purse and a head of hair that looks like it was combed with a greasy pork chop, its no wonder Franklin takes one look at him and remarks "I think we just picked up Dracula."


I think Edwin Neal is the number one reason why no-one ever picks up hitchhikers anymore. Prior to this, most horror movies used monsters, werewolves, ghosts and zombies to try and frighten people, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a completely different animal. It's easy to discount supernatural threats as pure fantasy, but viewers can't help but ponder the cold, hard fact that there are people in the world that make the Hitchhiker look like Ryan Reynolds.

Indeed, Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker is particularly effective because you get the impression that the character's weird and abhorrent behavior makes perfect sense in his own fevered brain. Never before had  movie-goers seen such a harrowing, convincing and sustained depiction of good, old-fashion human mental illness on screen.

In any other movie, the Hitchhiker would be more than enough to terrify the average popcorn-muncher, but he's quickly overshadowed by one of the most genuinely-scary movie villains in film history. His introduction to the screen is burned into my brain for all eternity. As Kirk is creeping through the Sawyer mansion, we actually hear him before we see him "thanks" to a series of muted pig squeals and grunting noises.

Kirk trips and stumbles headlong into a room at the far end of the hall. Suddenly the doorway is dominated by a hulking brute clad in a filthy short-sleeve dress shirt, a blood-splattered butcher's apron and a sharp little hipster tie. Oh, and in case you missed it, he's also wearing a mask made entirely of human flesh.

 
After Leatherface brains Kirk with his mallet like a prized heifer at the slaughterhouse he proceeds to deliver a few more shots just to quell his death-throes. He then picks up Kirk's lifeless body, hurls it off-screen and then slams the metal door shut behind him, exhibiting super-human strength and pure, mindless rage. Between his porcine vocalizations, horrifying appearance and overwhelming might, actor Gunnar Hansen is the physical embodiment of a nightmare.

The other kills in the movie are equally traumatizing. After hanging out in the "living" room, Pam realizes that she's made a horrible mistake and heads towards the exit. Just as she enters the hallway, the metal door whips open revealing Leatherface who lets out a guttural bull-moose call and then gives chase after her. What happens next isn't so much gory as it is inconceivably awful.

What makes Leatherface infinitely more interesting than Micheal Myers and Jason Vorhees is that he's inherently human. After Jerry gets pasted, Leatherface actually starts freaking out. Still emitting a chorus of hoots and grunts, he runs over to the window in a panic, frantically looking around to see if anyone else is outside. He then collapses into a nearby chair, holds his head and starts rocking back and forth.

Clearly he's trying to figure out where all of these meddling kids are coming from and whether or not they'll stop coming. He's genuinely scared. He knows that if one of these strangers gets away and calls the authorities, the jig'll be up for him and rest of his unconventional fam jam. 

And, for the record, only one actor had been and forever will be Leatherface and his name is Gunnar Hansen. In my humble opinion, every other depiction of the character, from Bill Johnson's hyperactive, eye-rolling, two-stepping goofball in the direct sequel to Andrew Bryniarski's neck-less goon in the remake, has missed the mark by miles. Only Hansen succeeded in making the character real for me and, subsequently, absolutely terrifying.

As for the rest of the characters in the movie, most of them are just walking flank steaks except for Sally, played to frantic perfection by Marilyn Burns. Based solely on her performance here, Marilyn belongs with such hallowed company as Faye Wray and Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the greatest Scream Queens in cinema history. I'm sure the harsh shooting conditions inspired a lot of method acting on her part. Her palpable misery and mental deterioration is so realistic that it's almost impossible to watch.


During the film she's gets relentlessly chased by Leatherface, caught up in brambles, stumbles upon dead bodies, gets defiled by one of them, suffers untold head trauma, gets her back sliced up and voluntarily leaps through more panes of glass then friggin' Batman. But perhaps her most horrifying encounter comes at the hands of The Cook.

After eluding Leatherface, Sally manages to run back to the gas station we saw earlier in the film. For a second, the audience breaths a sigh of relief, particularly when the station's elderly attendant shows up. Almost immediately, however, things don't sit quite right. Sally begs him to call the police but instead he tells her to stay put while he goes to get his truck.

We're baffled as to why he voluntarily goes outside after Sally tells him that a chainsaw-wielding lunatic is lurking just outside the door. He's gone for what feels like an eternity, partly because Tobe Hooper chooses this moment to serve up a lingering shot of the gas station's BBQ cooker. The blood-red light and the sight of abstract-looking meats sizzling away inside the oven is accompanied by disconcerting news reports on the radio about grave robbing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together here.

 
Eventually the gas station manager reappears and when you see that he's holding a bag and some rope your heart just wilts. What we witness next makes Jim Siedow's Cook one of the most reviled and repellent characters in cinema history. As if beating Sally senseless isn't heinous enough, he alternates between comforting her with reassuring words and then roughly jabbing at her with his broken-off broom handle. Between the perverse script and Siedow's creepy portrayal, it's one of the most convincing depictions of mental illness I've ever seen in a movie.

YOU DON'T JUST WATCH THIS MOVIE, YOU SURVIVE IT

Just a quick side note here: many people who have seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will claim  that it's one of the goriest films ever made. These same people will also swear that Janet Leigh got "totally" stabbed in Psycho's famous shower scene. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most of the violence in Chainsaw is implied. If you get queasy while watching it, it probably has a lot more to do with the unflinching, realistic depiction of gonzo human behavior then it does with graphic violence.

Unlike any other film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is flat-out grueling to watch. Just seconds after thinking "Well, it can't get any worse!", it invariably does. Old faces show up, Sally is dragged into the most harrowing and dysfunctional family meal in cinema history, the last remaining member of the Sawyer clan re-appears with a penchant for blood and her final attempt to save herself seems doomed from the start. 

The less said about these final scenes the better. Just suffice to say that you'll be tempted to question the sanity of both Tobe Hooper and his writing partner Kim Henkel. Without reprieve, the viewer is clobbered with a series of twitchy, microscopic closeups, perfectly conveying Sally's wide-eyed terror. Watching this for the first time, you'll begin to feel your own wits unraveling along with our heroine.

As it turns out, the movie's tag line ("Who will survive and what will be left of them?") is just as effective as Alien's "In space, no-one can hear you scream". At the end we're left staring into Sally's blood-covered face frozen in a rictus grin of hysteria, her involuntary screams slowly degenerating into peals of maniacal laughter. Physically she may be safe, but it's clear that her sanity, like ours, is in tatters. The very last shot is of Leatherface, spinning around like a whirling dervish of impotent rage. The implication is chilling: we've physically survived the experience but the Insane Clan Posse is still out there. 


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has but one raison d'être and that's to scare the ever-lovin' fertilizer out of you. This isn't a horror movie with training training wheels like the Paranormal Activity films. While watching this flick you'll constantly be wondering 'What sort of damaged brain comes up with sick shit like this?'

But that's the most chilling twist of all. Chainsaw was inspired, in large part, by the real-life crimes of necrophile / cannibal Ed Gein. The brutal fictions depicted in the film are nothing compared to the real-life cruelty being inflicted by people on other people every single day. Like many films of that era, including Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust and Night of the Living Dead, this movie is Hooper's attempt to reconcile the constant parade of real-life horrors in the news. It's art imitating life, people, not the other way around.

It's not often I say this but watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changes you. Above and beyond feeling as if you've been smoked in the back of the head with a vulpine hammer, you're forced to confront the truism that truth is infinitely stranger then fiction. You're forced to wrestle with the troubling concept that dark things happen in our world that make the ghoulish goings-on depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like Frankenweenie.

For being the archetypal definition of a true horror movie in every sense of the word, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earns a perfect score.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Movie Review: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" by David Pretty


CAUTION: SPOILERS AFOOT!


The movie starts soooooo bad. But then it gets soooo good, soooo quick.


If you can't already tell, I'm a tad conflicted when it comes to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first half, with its endless parade of new words, anemic character snippets and boring exposition is so shockingly ham-fisted that it nearly sinks the entire picture. But then suddenly everything jumps into hyperspace and the flick becomes incredibly thrilling. I can't recall the last time I watched a movie that was so... schizophrenic.

Ever since I saw Rogue One I've been trying to pin down precisely why it starts off so poorly. I think screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy along with director Gareth Edwards should have given us more time with Felicity Jones's Jyn Erso, the way we had time establishing Luke in Star Wars

Yeah, sorry, fuck that Episode IV / New Hope shite, btw.


The only characterization we get for Jyn is that her dad was taken away, her mom was killed and she ended up in a hole until a family friend pulled her out. Then we smash cut to twenty years into the future and see her in jail. We don't see why she got arrested or what she's been doing to warrant an arrest. We just get a fully-formed, bitter, nihilistic "rebel" who understandably wants revenge on the Empire. Otherwise we know precious little else about her.

Diego Luna's Cassian Andor doesn't fare much better. We first see him meeting with a skittish informant during the first half's endless cavalcade of clunky, workmanlike planetary stops. After getting the information he needs, he casually blasts the dude in the back to shut him up. The idea of a morally-ambiguous Rebel Alliance is super interesting to me, which is why I was super disappointed when this wasn't explored at all. In fact, the only insight we get into Cassian's background is some vague talk later on about how he's been doing this "since he was six". Well, c'mon...pull up a space chair, pour yourself a blue milk, sit down and tell us all about it! What, no time for that? Okay, then, on to the next planet! 

Instead of investing time in our two leads we get these bland little vignettes meant to set up the supporting characters. Riz Ahmed as Imperial pilot defector Bodhi Rook really gets screwed here. Armed with a decent script he really could have been the flinty, grudgingly-accepted part of an inevitable triumvirate between Jyn and Cassian. But, no, instead he's flash-sketched with some throw-away lines of dialogue just like everyone else. We're meant to believe that he was inspired by Jyn's dad, Galen Erso (stoically played by Mads Mikkelsen) but we don't see why. It kills me to to say this, but Rogue One has a downright deplorable "show, don't tell" track record.


Oh, and don't tell me that this was in Catalyst or some other shit. I shouldn't need to read a fucking tie-in novel to give a shit about the characters. 

Even when a guerrilla-style action set piece finally meandered into the first half of the film, I just kinda sat there feeling disengaged. Watching wave after wave of extras dressed like storm troopers falling down on cue, I actually started to feel kinda sorry for the boys in white. Which is something that I never felt a twinge of while watching the original trilogy. I hated the storm troopers for killing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and for blasting at my on-screen friends at every opportunity. Here the stormtroopers just seem like just poor, sad jobbers out on patrol. To see them slaughtered in endless waves by interchangeable characters is oddly wince-inducing. 

I think the first half of the film really could have benefited from excising some of the superfluous characters. First off, I would have chucked Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera under the walker, since he's only there to pull Jyn out of the bunker, torture Bodhi with an incongruous Hentai tentacle porn monster and then expire in a scene that's less noble and more script convenience. I get the impression he's mainly there to provide some connective tissue to the Rebels cartoon.


Despite of the fact that both characters are likely there just to appeal to the emerging Chinese theater-going market, I wouldn't want to jettison Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus and particularly Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe. Mainly because both of these guys make me feel like I'm watching West End Game's Star Wars: the Role Playing Game - The Movie. Unfortunately, they're given so little screen time that they end up being about as deep as the two-line character template descriptions in that venerable, ol' RPG. And frankly, that sucks, since I love the idea of a guy who's Force sensitive but doesn't have any direct connection to light sabers and Jedi lore.

All of this makes me wonder why I didn't connect with these character very much, and I think I know why. In addition to my aforementioned case for Luke in Star Wars, we don't even meet Han Solo until about a third of the way into that same film. So why is Han so memorable and why do I have to keep looking up the names of the characters Rogue One over and over again? Well, the devil is in the details, kiddies.

As soon as Harrison Ford shows up on screen we can tell that he's a boundless font of charisma. The script isn't afraid to take a knee for a moment and let the characters talk about more than just the next action item on their galactic things-to-do list. By the time the Falcon reaches 'splody Alderaan, Ford has taken the on-point dialogue and presented it such a way as to illustrate Han as a cynical, cocksure, blowhard who exudes calm cool and undeniable skill. 


The same goes for Leia. Beyond talking sass to Tarkin and Vader throughout the entire film, we feel as if we've known her for years after she's sprung from that Death Star detention block. Carrie Fisher's spunky performance, on screen verve and flinty dialogue speaks volumes about the kind of person she is: I.E. she's highly-capable, no-nonsense and physically incapable of taking shit from anyone. Except for maybe Jyn, no-one in Rogue One gets the same consideration.

And I honestly feel bad for young people who mistake on screen bad-assery and a few casual lines of dialogue as character development. I related to Luke in Star Wars not because he was male, but because he wanted to get away from boring ol' Tatooine. He craved adventure and excitement and he also had some interesting flaws to deal with. I liked Rey in The Force Awakens for many of the same reasons, but ultimately she was so fucking perfect at everything that she didn't come across to me as a real, three-dimensional character.

Poor characterization and muddled first act aside, Rogue One miraculously "switches on" midway through and becomes the Star Wars movie of my dreams. Ben Mendelsohn effectively stamps around as Inspector Orson Krennic, having encounters with established villains that makes perfect sense within the movie's timeline. Regardless of what you may hear to the contrary, I think these scenes are highly effective and used sparingly.


The infiltration of Scarif base and the subsequent ground and space battle are undeniably thrilling. The special effects are absolutely exquisite in the sense that everything, especially the Star Destroyers, actually look like plastic models. The irony isn't lost on me but I should stress that the tactile environments, physical props and on-set droids and creature really give the film that classic "lived in" Star Wars look.

Now, some people are bitching that these cameos and call backs are gratuitous fan service but I tend to pronounce "fan service" as "continuity". Look, if I was making a film set in this classic rebellion era, a herd of wild Banthas couldn't prevent me from include some of my favorite classic characters. The only issue is that some of them show up as distractingly-obvious CGI models and spout quippy one-liners that comes across as slightly out of character. 

I also wish that they'd been more creative on the design side of things. With this being the earliest film in the rebellion era, it was the perfect opportunity to showcase some technological evolution. In other words, it would have been great to see prototype AT-ST's and AT-AT's instead of seeing this same exact things that pop up later on in the trilogy. 


And trust me, there's no shortage of awesome shit in the Lucasfilm archives; just a quick glance through my old Empire Strikes Back art book proves that! Instead, the visual impact of these vehicles will be diminished somewhat when they pop up later on in the saga. But, hey, I guess the masses might be puzzled by something familiar but not identical, so I guess we should just spoon feed them exactly what they want, amirite?

Admittedly, the last act of the film is a jaw-dropping tour de force, no pun intended. Jyn and Cassian go through pure hell to recover those data tapes, including having to deal with a mini-game that looks like an homage to George Lucas's THX-1138. All of this is juxtaposed against a backdrop of brutal, unflinching combat that might result in hordes of regretful parents wishing that they'd just stayed home on Christmas Day. This is no more apparent than in the agonizing fate of Alan Tudyk's appropriately-emo droid K-2SO who's denouement will leave no eye in the house thoroughly moistened.

And that's one genuine positive I can say about the film. All bets are off. None of these characters appear in future continuity so everyone is expendable and the stakes are pretty darned high. More the pity, then, that the script didn't give us more time with these people. It would have made the final act feel less like a hollow spectacle and more like an impactful Greek tragedy. 




Tilt: down.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Movie Review: "Ghostbusters" by David Pretty

Nostalgia can be a pretty powerful thing. Movies that were originally nothing more than nominal, high-concept diversions can eventually morph into full-blown cultural phenomenons over time.


When Ghostbusters first came out in 1984 I was fourteen years old. And, just like everyone else, I enjoyed the movie. But did I think that it would become fodder for today's rabid fandom? NOPE. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing was a failed franchise after the obligatory and scattershot sequel manifested itself in five years later and promptly evaporated from sight.

But unbeknownst to me, a tsunami of toys and cartoons featuring The Real Ghostbusters was turning an impressionable generation of kids into life-long devotees. In fact, many people in their mid-thirties look at Ghostbusters the same way I look at Star Wars. That's why the 2009 video game sequel was so successful and, conversely, why this year's patently-mercenary and wholly needless reboot got the collective cold shoulder.

Granted, there are infinitely more baffling things to me, such as the adult beatification of Transformers, Sailor Moon, My Little Pony, Power Rangers, Pokemon, and Masters of the Universe. Mainly because all of these things were initially created primarily for the express purpose of selling toys and other ancillaries. Which makes you wonder: what exactly is the statute of limitations on nostalgia? Do we need to brace ourselves for the inevitable but-no-less-passionate Teletubbies resurgence in a few years?

Now, I'm not saying that you can't feel wistful about whatever pop culture detritus that you were weaned on, but the adult human who lords a two-hour Nintendo commercial like The Wizard over the collective works of Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese is doing themselves a tremendous disservice. We all collectively need to face the cold, hard fact that many things from our childhood are just not worth dwelling on.

 
As for Ghostbusters, even though I don't think we should be treated like some sort of pop-culture Golden Calf, it still deserves some adoration. The four leads are a major reason for this, forever preserved here in celluloid amber. What amazes me is how distinctly different these four characters are and how clearly delineated their motivations are.

Take Bill Murray's Peter Venkman for example, who seems to be only nominally interested in parapsychology. In fact, you get the distinct impression that he just meandered into it in a likely-misguided effort to meet women. Murray's dry wit is on fleek and he's personally responsible for the lion's share of the film's funniest moments, many of which are delivered so casually that you suspect they were improvised. When he mutters "I feel so funky!" after his close encounter with Slimer, it cracks me up every time.

Then there's Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stantz, a goofy, exuberant man-child who literally gets a ghost-induced boner at one point in the film. Ray is Aykroyd's perfect avatar since he's completely obsessed with paranormal stuff in real life. He does a great job in the film, selling Ray's fetish-like interest in all things spectral. The scene where he brings The Destructor into being is perfectly played and has become the stuff of cinema legend.  

Next up is Harold Ramis, who's Egon Spengler has to be considered one of the best cinematic "eggheads". Ramis is note-perfect: oblivious to social niceties, consistently odd in behavior and every one of his line readings is exactly the same. Whether he's telling Janine about his collecting of "spores, mold and fungus" or confessing that he's "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought", everything he says is flawlessly deadpan. 

 
Finally Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore is the perfect every man, mirroring the incredulity of the audience. Affable, easy-going and possessed of a winning smile, Ernie Hudson just oozes on-screen charisma. The thing is, he's isn't just a sounding board for all things spooky, he's also exhibits the chops required to deliver the chills. Hudson exhibits such sincere conviction regarding his theories about the afterlife during his scene with Dan Ackroyd in the Ecto-1, he ends up giving us all serious case of the wiggins.

And, hey, what about that amazing supporting cast? First off, we've got an alternately winsome and feisty pre-Aliens Sigourney Weaver who later on becomes impossibly sultry while playing host to Zuul, the Gatekeeper. Also, seeing Rick Moranis in action makes me wish that hadn't turned his back on Hollywood, since I still think he's one of the funniest carbon-based life forms on the planet. Finally, Annie Potts is a real hoot as the prototypically-bitchy Brooklyn secretary Janine Melnitz.

Even though the olde-skool practical puppetry, miniatures and optical effects can be slightly creaky at times, this just adds to the film's goofy charm. I challenge anyone to maintain a straight face when Venkman starts berating Ray for inadvertently incarnating the "Stay Puft Marshmallow Man". On the other hand, I'm also open-minded enough to admit that the movie isn't wall-to-wall comedy gold. In fact, many of the "humorous" exchanges are kinda forced and some of one liners are pretty weak.

In spite of this, it's still a ton of fun watching all of these kooky ideas gel reasonably-well together. Only in the wonderful world of movies is such a strange high concept even possible. By the time the boys are bombing around the streets of New Yawk in the Ecto-1, trashing hotel ballrooms and getting "slimed", all to the tune of Ray Parker Jr's eponymous hit, you can't help but be on-board.


As I said before, some things aren't worthy of nostalgia, especially when you revisit them as an adult. But  Ghostbusters is certainly one of those rare and wonderful exceptions.

  
        Tilt: up.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An Important Announcement...

Greetings, Movie Mavens!

You might have noticed that there haven't been any new reviews posted here lately. If you care to know the boring reason why, you can find all the gory details right here.

Soooo, between the fact that I'm rarely if ever indoors during the summer, currently holding down part-time night job at night and getting paid to write in some capacity, I don't have any time for recreational blogging right now. The precious little time I have left is being funneled into working on my second novel.

One of my goals this fall / winter is to start up a website in an effort to monetize the massive archive of work you see here and create a home for future reviews. In the interim, this blog will continue to be the default landing ground for any new content that will most likely still appear thanks to a windfall of free time that inevitably comes from being trapped indoors all winter.

Related to that, if anyone out there reads this and would like to retain my services to write something review-related, hit me up. Being paid to write is cool and all, but I'd much rather be talking about creative / artistic  endeavors than cobbling together corporate profiles and retirement home editorials.

Cheers, Me Dears!  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: "Edge of Tomorrow" by David Pretty

 
I gotta say, folks, this one came out of the blue and pleasantly surprised me. I was expecting an addle-brained dollop of sci-fi schlock à la the remake of Total Recall but instead got Dragon's Lair: The Motion Picture crossed with Groundhog Day.


THE ELEVATOR PITCH

A feckless media-relations military officer named Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) unexpectedly finds himself at the front line of a desperate battle against a vicious race of alien invaders dubbed the Mimics.

Not only does this offensive fail miserably, Cage is snuffed out almost immediately, but not before blasting a rare alien boss and getting marinated in its blood. Because of this gory baptism, Cage wakes up seconds later, destined to repeat the whole disastrous affair over and over again in the sort of temporal causality loop that Star Trek fans have wet dreams about.

After several failed attempts to break free of this pattern, Cage stumbles upon a fellow time-looper and war veteran Sergeant Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt. Eventually she's persuaded to whip Cage into shape, condition him to adapt to his mistakes and "reboot" him (read: put a cap in his ass) whenever things go awry.

Together they eke out a last-ditch surgical strike to defeat the enemy and save humanity but will they be able to negotiate a path to victory and how many false starts will it take to get there?


NEW IDEA OR RECYCLED GARBAGE?

Well, since I've already cited no less than three different sources that this movie culls from, I'd be hard-pressed to describe Edge of Tomorrow as wildly original. But, in the immortal words of Harry S. Plinkett "the devil's in the details, my lovelies" and the execution of this flick is what gives it considerable entertainment value.

Of particular note are the circumstances that necessitate many of the reboots and the various "trial and error" branching paths that the characters must explore to try and win the day. Basically if you've ever played a frustratingly difficult video game and you're eternally grateful for the concept of "save points", you'll at least get a few chuckles out of Edge of Tomorrow.

Notwithstanding the film's ludicrous premise which is a lot more fiction than science, about the only other issue I have with the script is that sometimes we're just flat-out told that Cage and Vrataski have experienced something before, like with the helicopter scene, for example. In a perfect world, I'd rather see this than be told it but even I know that this could easily drag out the proceedings and unravel some of the impromptu dramatic tension.

Oh, and a slightly less "shiny happy people" ending certainly would have been a lot more impactful. 


HOW DOES EVERYTHING COME TOGETHER?

Actually, the film's direction is one of it's brightest spots. Even though the script features a lot of repetition, director Doug Liman ensures that these scenes are more intrigue and amusement than monotony. Another major feather in the cap of Liman and dual editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings is just how well the action scenes are mounted. Usually blender-cut, hyperactive battles come off as lazy and disengaging to me but such is not the case with Edge of Tomorrow.

Mercifully, the same dedication that Liman and company bring to spicing up the reboot dialogue scenes is applied to the action set pieces. Between the increasingly-involved beach landings to the motor home escape to the infiltration of United Defense Force headquarters, each tilt has its own visual clarity, style and distinguishing elements.


TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

There's a lot to like here. The combat suits look pretty good if not ridiculously cumbersome to move in. Many times the actors look inadvertently comical, as if they're on the verge of falling forward onto their faces at any moment. The alien design is suitably intimidating; like a combination of the creatures from Attack the Block, which proceeded this flick, and the rathtars from The Force Awakens which followed. I also dig the quad airships, the costumes and the myriad of cool-ass weapon tech on display in the film.

But perhaps the movie's most impressive visual arsenal are the stunning and seamless special effects. Clearly the creatures are CGI but it feels as if a lot of the environments aren't. It looks to me as if real sets were utilized quite often and even when I knew I was looking at a digital artifice, it still looked durned convincing to me. Perhaps my highest praise is that the special effects made me feel immersed and embedded in the story and not the other way around. High praise indeed. 


ANYTHING UNDER THE HOOD?

So, is there anything else going on in Edge of Tomorrow above and beyond all the visceral 'splodey stuff? Welp, other than a labyrinthine plot that forces you to pay attention, the movie has a lot to say about the value of team-work, practice, bravery, growth and self-determination. But that's about as deep as it gets.


ACTING!

Aside from Tropic Thunder this could very well be my favorite Tom Cruise performance to date. Even better: Cruise has an actual character arc to work with here, starting out as an incompetent, craven jackanape and eventually growing into a brave, noble and resourceful hero. I have to give it to Cruise; he's sure-footed throughout all of these transitions.

As for Emily Blunt she's also terrific. First off she's totally ripped, so clearly she felt committed enough to the character and the script to get in stellar shape. Occasionally she defaults to this dreadful slack-jawed expression of resignation which makes her look like she's been hit in the head with a 2 x 4 but otherwise she habitually strikes an imposing figure and also has the acting chops to pull off the script's subtleties.

Mild jeers, however, for hinting at a relationship between 53-year-old Cruise and 33-year old Blunt. I've seen worse but it really underscores the double standard in Hollywood today: I.E. men can continue to be action stars well into their fifties, sixties and seventies but women can only become Peter Parker's hawt aunt. Yes, Blunt does a great job and I know she's more marketable, but I would have love to have seen an actress in her late forties or early fifties tackle this role. 

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention great supporting performances by Brendon Gleeson as the hard-to-pin-down General Brigham and Bill Paxton as the Foghorn Leghorn-esque Master Sergeant Farell.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Like I said, Edge of Tomorrow kinda took me by surprise. Amidst a tsunami of sequels, remakes and reboots, it distinguishes itself just on the merit of being different. Thankfully its also smart, engaging, well-made and rewarding in its own right.


       Tilt: up.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Movie Review: "Captain America - Civil War" by David Pretty


IN A NUTSHELL

Due to a recent rash of civilian deaths and collateral damage related to super-human battles, the United Nations decides to muzzle the Avengers. Plagued by guilt after creating Ultron, Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) immediately folds quicker than Quicksilver on laundry day while Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) adamantly rejects any suggestion of government oversight. The growing rift between these two camps quickly deepens when Cap's brainwashed pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, is implicated in a high-profile terrorist attack. With sides chosen and battle lines drawn, everything builds up to the most spectacular super-hero rumble ever committed to film. Spider-Man guest stars.


IN THE WHEELHOUSE

If you want to know how The Winter Soldier pays off or, at the very least, if Joss Whedon's remaining hair loss over Age of Ultron was justified, than get in line, getcher ticket and sit yer asses down! Basically, comic fans will draw wood, general audiences will be entertained by all the imaginative punchery and critics will wonder where the hell all of this is headed.

 
PROS
  • Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to do a pretty admirable job justifying this film's existence. In spite of this some people are bitching that Tony Stark is waaaaay outta line, Steve Rogers acts far too pig-headed and civilians shouldn't be so churlish after they've been rescued by the Avengers. Based on what I've seen thus far in the series I firmly disagree on all three counts. First off, Tony was personally responsible for Ultron who, we all know, wiped out an entire city. Frankly, if I was Tony I'd be wondering why I wasn't locked up. And thanks to the events in The Winter Soldier, Steve already knows that absolutely power corrupts absolutely. He also knows that Bucky isn't acting of his own accord and has been H.Y.D.R.A.'s monkey boy all this time. As for civilians bitching about being saved, just take a minute to think about all of the moronic forms of litigation that your fellow human beings have inflicted on the legal system over the years. Even if you want to completely dismiss this out of kind, the Vision (Paul Bethany) is on fleek to drop some major science on us, noting that "In the eight years since Mr. Stark announced himself as Iron Man, the number of known enhanced persons has grown exponentially. And during the same period, a number of potentially world-ending events has risen at a commensurable rate. There may be a causality. Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict breeds catastrophe. Oversight is not an idea that can be dismissed out of hand." So, with these three things firmly established, I willingly crawled into the lead car, lowered the bar and proceeded to enjoy the shit outta the insane roller coaster ride that followed.
  • Not content with getting all of their logical ducks in a row, Markus and McFeely weave an intriguing "secret puppet master" story thread into the fabric of the script. When the presumptive "big" bad is finally revealed, his motivations are refreshingly small-scale. Part and parcel with this is a wonderful fake-out where a glaringly hackneyed and anticipated conflict is telegraphed in lieu of a gut-crushing revelation and a considerably more emotional show down between the two leads. * slow clap *
  • By some miracle, Anthony and Joe Russo have found a way to eclipse the action sequences in The Winter Soldier. In spite of its epic scale, the opening tiff with Crossbones (Frank Grillo) always keeps one foot firmly planted in the material world. Then comes a gritty and creatively-vicious sequence in which Cap and the Winter Soldier plow their way through an entire special forces unit while fleeing an apartment complex. This, in turn, segues into a stunning foot / car chase that belongs in the same pantheon as Bullit or The French Connection. Next up is the euphorically-fun airport rumble which is definitely the best donnybrook between a bunch of super-powered characters that we've ever seen thus far. The creative synergy produced when all of these nutty special talents interact is an absolute joy to behold and everyone gets a chance to shine. As if that wasn't enough, we get a smaller-scale, but even more emotionally satisfying, final confrontation that works like a charm simply because all of the character's motivations have been firmly established.  
  • It almost feels redundant to talk about the cast but they're still a major component of the film's success. None moreso than Chris Evans who leads the way with a stalwart and resolute portrayal of Captain America. With his propensity for proselytizing and blatant flag-wavery I've always hated the comic version of Cap. But thanks to the MCU and Evans's unearthly charisma, the character has been reborn as a no-nonsense individualist who is positively baffled by self-absorbed, weak-willed and easily-led sheeple. Since Bucky is literally his one and only connection to the past, it makes perfect sense that he'd go through hell and back to protect his friend and clear his name. Words can't express how excited I am to finally see a protagonist that sticks to his moral code, even in the face of so much compelling, if wrong-headed, adversity.
  • Some fans are also whinging that Tony Stark is, in Black Widow's parlance "uncharacteristically non-hyper-verbal" but, hey, guess what, he should be. It's called an "arc", morons! After creating Ultron in a moment of hubris and parting ways with Pepper Potts, Stark's confidence is essentially shattered. Arr Dee Jay does his usual awesome job, dialing the once-cocksure maverick down a few notches to the point where he's completely cowed and filled with doubt. Check out the genuine sorrow he exhibits when his dream of the Avengers starts to circle the drainpipe or when major revelations cause him to snap. All is not dour and depressing, however, as evidenced by the Peter Parker (Tom Holland) recruitment scene, which virtually demands his return to form. 
  • Another source of chronic bellyachin' is the supposed flip-floppery exhibited by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) which, curiously enough, is a trait that she's well known for in the comics. Frankly, after she was publicly raked over the coals in front of Congress at the conclusion of Winter Soldier it makes perfect sense that she would exercise some prudence and stay on the straight n' narrow path, at least until the facts shake out. In fact, a case can be made that she's the smartest, most level-headed character in the entire film. I love that her early warnings to Cap are basically designed to see just committed he is and her turnaround only happens after she's gathered enough insight to make an informed decision. Through it all, Johansson is formidable in battle and a persuasive proponent for calm, rational thought.
  • After seeing the original Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011, I would never have guessed that Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes would emerge as one of my favorite characters. But thanks to visionary producer Kevin Feige and writers Markus and McFeely, they've collectively forged one of the most tragic fictional characters in cinema history. Stan is more than up to the challenge; when he's on point as the Winter Soldier he's a terrifying, nigh-unstoppable killing machine but when he has a moment of clarity as Bucky he's sweet, sad and contrite, justifying Steve's unconditional faith in him at every turn.
  • Antony Mackie's Falcon gets a surprisingly-welcome amount of screen time here. Since Cap's intuition RE: S.H.I.E.L.D. proved to be spot-on, Sam doesn't require a lot of arm-twisting to become Steve's most trusted and unwavering ally. But things get very interesting when Bucky is added to the mix because the two of them are like oil and water, leading to a hilarious exchange in, of all places, a Volkswagen Beetle. Mackie does a fantastic job with the presumably-acrobatic, wire-related action scenes as well delivering his lines with a wry sense of perspective. Plus I was pretty jazzed to finally see his sidekick "Redwing" added to the mix.  
  • Paul Bettany's Vision and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlett Witch have also seen their roles expanded, to the point where hints of their budding comic book romance are starting to emerge. Thanks to the Infinity Gem embedded in the Vision's noggin', Bettany has inherited a character with some interesting and subtle dichotomies which he's really running with. At one turn I'm chuckling at his "trying too hard" Abercrombie & Fitch look and the next minute I'm shocked to see him lose focus during a pivotal moment in battle. In many ways, Wanda is the perfect match for him. She's still coming to grips with her unearthly powers so between her Sokovian trial by fire and the incident that kicks off the registration furor, Olsen has to temper Wanda's raw might with a vein of fragility and hesitance. And even though she reflexively falls into Stark's guilt trap, she soon starts to rail against the threat of internment, regardless of how benign it is. Together they serve up a few tender moments as well as a few wince-inducing confrontations.   
  • This entry also brings us the wonderful Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther. As a fan of low-powered superheroes with bad-ass costumes, I've always liked Black Panther and I was positively stunned that (A) he's integral to the plot and (B) he's relevant to the film's conclusion. His is an economic origin story of sorts and since the character is virtually unknown to the general public, that's probably for the best. Boseman himself is a great pick for Black Panther since he's regal, erudite and cool as fuck. Bonus points: the writers wisely give him the sort of enlightened arc that you really wish the two main principals should have embraced.
  • As Peter Parker / Spider-Man, Tom Holland is another welcome addition. Given Sony's only-recent change of heart RE: lending him back to Marvel Studios, he's not nearly as well integrated into the plot as Black Panther is. He's basically an "out of left field" wringer that Tony Stark's been conveniently keeping tabs on for the past little while. None of this should negatively reflect on Holland, however, who proves to be the most accurate on-screen incarnation of the character I've seen thus far. And even though he doesn't physically resemble who I'd personally cast as Peter Parker, he also doesn't have the "born loser" qualities of Tobey Maguire nor the emo-hip persona of Andrew Garfield. Despite being dirt poor, he's smart, earnest, upbeat and enthusiastic, clearly jazzed to join Team Iron Man just because he hero-worships the famous industrialist. Fortunately this same level of awesome is sustained well into the web-slinging scenes. I really have no idea how much of Holland is physically present during these moments but his line readings strike the perfect balance between fanboy-ism, nervous babbling and smack-talk. To make his introduction even better, the John Romita-influenced Spidey suit is something I've always wanted to see on the big screen.
  • Meanwhile, Ant-Man is Cap's insect ying to Tony's arachnid yang. Paul Rudd is absolutely delightful in the movie. At first he's star-struck after meeting the Living Legend but as soon as he's hurled into action he immediate starts livin' life large. Literally. Nope, no Man of Steel-style hand-wringery or overt mopery on display here; Rudd literally revels in his ability to surprise himself and his opponents in battle. Between infiltrating Iron Man's defenses and recklessly mashing the reverse button on his shrinky-suit just for shits n' giggles, Rudd is single-handedly responsible for some of the film's most memorable moments of giddy joy. It also doesn't hurt that he delivers some of the movie's best lines with impeccable comic timing, to the point where I'm hankering for another Ant-Man movie.      
  • Daniel Brühl is also solid as Helmut Zemo. Although I wish they'd given his character any other name, I still dig his humble origins and simple, thematically-appropriate motivations. Personally I don't know how feasible his scheme would be in the "real" world but Brühl is one-hundred percent committed to it and displays the sort of cold, remorseless intensity that only a completely ruined man would exhibit.
  • Yes, the cast is a tad inflated but every single player adds an additional layer to the film. Like the Falcon to Cap, Don Cheadle's James "Rhodey" Rhodes / War Machine is Tony's stalwart number two, floating some very compelling and persuasive reasons to sign the Sokovia Accord. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is his usual pragmatic, self-depreciating self, and I'm never gonna stop rooting for a solo flick for him. It's also great to see Cap finally get some long over-due play courtesy of the tough and highly capable Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who clearly shares his pragmatic world view. She expertly presides over several key sequences that not only solidifies Cap's resolve it also locked mine down as well. Also, Frank Grillo and William Hurt make continuity-a-riffic appearances as Brock Rumlow and Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross respectively. Given his messy fate in Winter Soldier, it's great to see Grillo back as a rage and hatred-fueled super-villain while William Hurt reminds us that The Incredible Hulk was a thing that happened way back in two-thousand-aught-eight in the most sure-footed and infuriating way possible.             

THE BAD
  •  Not much to speak of, really.
THE M'EH
  • IMHO, Winter Soldier is still superior to Civil War mainly because it's sleeker, more mysterious, the sub-text is ballsier and it's more tonally even. But I wouldn't be surprised if Civil War ultimately turns out to be the "funner" film, the one that stands up to repeat viewings better. I suppose that only time, and a few more re-watches, will tell.
  • Even though I'm kinda bummed by how Baron Zemo got "Mandarin-ed", I have to appreciate the script's gutsy bait n' switch move with him. Nice move, Markus and McFeely.       
  • As I mentioned before, I loved how the Russo Brothers never once cheated the action in The Winter Soldier. They created dynamic set-ups, shot a ton of stuff practically and pulled the camera way back so we could see what was going on at all times. Now, I'm gonna hold off turning this into a negative until I see the movie again in a non-IMAX 3-D format 'cuz the opening action scene in Lagos looked like it was filmed in FRENETIC ZOOM-IN-O-VISION. Maybe it was a stylistic choice for that particular set piece or maybe it was just my shitty perspective in the theater but, man, it was super-easy to loose track of the action during that scene.   
THE BOTTOM LINE

Civil War might have more excess fat on its bones than The Winter Soldier but it also shares that movie's penchant for sharp writing, witty dialogue, solid acting and social commentary. Most importantly, the film introduces something totally original: the first real on-screen tilt between two A-list groups of super-heroes.

A lesser production probably would have gone ahead and started shooting with this as its centerpiece but instead the producers of Civil War cared enough to keep a laser-like focus on theme, heart and emotion in order to justify their visual delights.


Tilt: up.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Movie Review: "Ex Machina" by David Pretty


Translated from Latin as "the machines of god", deus ex machina refers to five year old story-tellers (or lazy screenwriters) who come up with inexplicable and hitherto-unknown forces or events to miraculously redeem seemingly-hopeless situations. 

On the other hand, Ex Machina, literally translated as "from the machine", is certainly one of the best movies I've seen in recent memory.


Caleb Smith (The Force Awakens' Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder for Blue Book, the world's largest search engine. He wins a contest to visit the company's CEO, an obscenely-wealthy, reclusive, eccentric genius named Nathan Bateman, played by The Force Awakens' Oscar Isaac. Bateman soon reveals that he's been working on the first true example of artificial intelligence in the form of Ava (The F̶̷o̶̷r̶̷c̶̷e̶̷ ̶̷A̶̷w̶̷a̶̷k̶̷e̶̷n̶̷s̶̷'̶̷  Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander), a humanoid female robot. 

Nathan wants Caleb to apply the Turing test to Ava to see if she's passable as human. This leads to one of the movie's more portentous exchanges:

Caleb: It's just in the Turing test, the machine should be hidden from the examiner.
Nathan: No, no. We're way past that. If I hid Ava from you so you could just hear her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she's a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.
Caleb: Yeah, I think you're probably right.   

 
Nathan's unconventional thought process isn't just limited to lax testing procedures. He's obsessively health-conscious but also a borderline alcoholic. He treats his gorgeous Japanese servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) like dirt. And he develops a nasty mean streak when Ava and Caleb start to bond during their conversations. This all leads to some explosive revelations and a denouement that justifies the film's abbreviated title.

Just when I'd feared that original, cerebral, artful sci-fi had all but vanished, Ex Machina comes along to prove me wrong. Credit writer Alex Garland, who also penned one of my all-time favorite novels, The Beach. No, I'm not talking about the Danny Boyle / Leonardo DiCaprio flick, I'm talking about the original book. The movie's a piece of poo.

Sorry, I digress. Garland's script is everything I'd ever want in a sci-fi film. It dumps Caleb smack dab into the middle of Nathan's spider-web right away and almost immediately things start to percolate. There are just enough early tells to convince the audience that things aren't quite as they seem. The dialogue as a whole is organic and interesting to listen to, with the scenes between Caleb and Nathan growing increasingly tense and combative while the interviews between Caleb and Ava slowly lead both of them into deeper waters. 


Not only is Garland's script tremendous in a nuts-and-bolts sense, it also serves up plenty of unexpected revelations. Unlike so many other films of its ilk, I was genuinely pleased by the final ten minutes of the film. Even better, the script is rife with interesting sub-text. As someone who's acutely interested in Ray Kurzweil's theory of technology singularity, words can't describe how excited I am to see a cinematic work of fiction wrestle with deep thoughts like exponential tech growth, a lack of privacy in the internet age and the hubris inherent in creating an AI superior to humans.   
  
The concept of artificial life run amok is certainly nothing new, but when you consider how old 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Westworld (1973), The Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) are, we really needed a more modern take on the subject. Since we're essentially living in the future depicted in those films right now, we really needed a more contemporary snapshot of where we stand. And Ex Machina does this with chilling aptitude.  

Serving double duty as the film's director, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy have produced a coolly-distant-looking movie that, dare I say it, looks downright Kubrickian from time to time. From the epic expanses of Bateman's wilderness retreat, to the antiseptic halls of his research facility, to the reflective inner sanctum of Ava's glass cell, the film sports a pronounced visual tone of detachment and mechanical alienation. By keeping his camera in motion and indulging in off-center set-ups and top-down angles, Garland cultivates a nigh-intolerable level of unconscious discordance and paranoia. Adding to this is the dreamy, ethereal synth score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow which evokes shades of Giorgio Moroder, Brad Fiedel, John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. 


The film's unsettling tone is heightened considerably by some simple, yet highly effective, special effects that bring the aliens in Attack the Block to mind. By all accounts, everything was shot practically in-camera with Alicia Vikander's hands, face and feet rotoscoped onto a digital robot body. No green screen. No dot-covered faces. No motion capture. The effect is breathtakingly flawless and works perfectly within the context of the film's sober climate of realism.

The cast is all universally awesome. While watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens I could tell that both Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac had considerable acting chops, so it's wonderful to watch them sink their teeth into something so rich and substantial. Gleeson is eminently relate-able. He's kinda awkward, passionate about his work and clearly has a good heart. We're pulled right along with him as he starts to develop feelings for Ava and his mistrust of Nathan continues to build. Eventually Nathan's incessant mind-fuckery starts to wear on him, leading to a crises of self-doubt that's particularly harrowing to watch.  

Isaac is even better. At first introduction, Nathan Bateman comes across as your average eccentric, hipster-dot-com, Elon Musk-flavored, mock-informal tech genius. But, right from the beginning, he's also a bundle of walking contradictions, insisting on the best food and exercising obsessively while getting blind drunk almost every night. Isaac makes sure that there's something slightly askew with the whole "I'm your boss but also your buddy" tone. He's so intense, so focused and so supremely confident that he adopts Caleb's off-handed "god" reference as fact. Even after the beans are finally spilled RE: Bateman's icky motivations and past dealings, Isaac insures that our thoughts about him remain surprisingly complicated. 


And then there's Alicia Vikander, who turns in a brave, bold and heart-rending performance as Ava. She does a great job embodying this sweet, innocent, likeable captive and you really can't slight Caleb for developing feelings for her, regardless of her odd appearance and slightly-off-kilter demeanor. Vikander easily clears her biggest hurdle: retaining all of these likeable qualities while betraying certain limitations that are maddeningly obvious to her creator. Her motivations for impressing Caleb, her inability to comprehend her lot in life and her final acts of desperation all make perfect sense in the end. All of this leads to an unconventional and highly-welcome resolution. 

Now, I'm sure some people will watch Ex Machina and be bored by it. I am not one of those people. I'm one of those people who thought that the Will Smith / Alex Proyas bastardization of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot was dull as shit. Anyone can decree a CGI-soaked action sequence but very few people can craft a compelling, thought-provoking script which creates a sustained sense of dread whilst inspiring the actors to deliver three-dimensional characters that we care about.

If this movie had been handled by lesser film-makers, it probably would have ended with the inexplicable, convenient, last minute arrival of some previously-unseen "rescue 'bots" to save the day. Instead we ended up with a movie where the title Ex Machina makes a lot more sense.    


       Tilt: up.