Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spring Sci-Fi Surprise: Ex Machina

     Anyone who has seen the British show Black Mirror knows how deftly the show balances tension and worry about a near-future where technology has evolved slightly past our grasp: its 7 episodes are weird, funny, scary and exciting. The recent Ex Machina, with it's futuristic AI plot, falls into the same niche: a story about the general anticipation and fear of technology gaining a consciousness. Directed by Alex Garland (making his feature film directing debut)--writer of modern horror classic 28 Days Later and the sci-fi film Sunshine--Ex Machina is the best film so far this year, a slow-burn of Artificial Intelligence and Turing Tests that is centered around three great performances from a few great young actors.

     It's best not to know too much about Ex Machina other than the basics: Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac, turning awesome acting into a common occurrence) the owner/creator of the world's greatest Internet search engine, BlueBook. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, son of the great Brendan and building a fine film resume of his own) works at BlueBook and wins a contest to meet CEO Bateman for one week, who lives far far out in the mountains in a futuristic estate full of luxurious technological advances, living like a hermit.When Caleb finally reaches the automated door of this modernistic mansion, he realizes that the contest that he "won" may be less a victory and more the most interesting week of his young life.

     The two Male performances are precisely what propels Ex Machina into the real of recent sci-fi greatness. Oscar Issac has been noticeable in two recent films: 2013's Bob Dylan-esque Inside Llewyn Davis and last year's A Most Violent Year. Both showcased his ability but were subdued. Ex Machina allows Issac to unleash his darker side, as he slowly reveals to Caleb his plans for his stay. Gleeson is also noteworthy as the nerdy Caleb, showcasing a solid arc of emotions as the week progresses. But it's not just men who make you sit up and watch: newcomer Alicia Vikander portrays a character named Ava with deft skill. It's Ava's situation that brings out the more thought-provoking ideas of the film

     Ex Machina is exciting, but it never veers too far into horror or thriller territory. It's more a slow-burn type of excitement, as Caleb continues to learn more and more about Bateman and the way he lives his life on his remote estate. Secrets are slowly revealed as the tension builds, and Nathan--the mega-rich recluse--begins to grow into a mad scientist rather than a gracious host. Ex Machina eventually delves into notions of Artificial Intelligence, human morality, and the responsibility of creating "life". Nathan's thrill of discovery is was drives him, manipulation his most common character trait.

      Director Alex Garland shows that screenwriting is only one of his skills. Ex Machina is slick and shot without distractions. The music/score is also stellar. If Ex Machina has a fault, it's the fact that it raises plenty of interesting moral questions but doesn't dig too deep into them: but when we're left with such great performances and an ever-building tension, even if the story doesn't break any new ground it's still infinitely watchable. So far, 2015 hasn't seen many films of note, but Ex Machina rises to the top, a film the general public and pimpled sci-fi nerds can all enjoy.     (A-)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Spreading Your Legs in It Follows

     It only takes a few moments of the new low-budget horror film It Follows to realize that it's going to be a far different watch than most of the mass-produced horror films that are pushed into theaters nowadays (just before the movie started, there was a preview for a glossy remake of Poltergeist and the third incarnation in the Insidious (?) saga). Within minutes, the electronic videogame-esque soundtrack begins pumping and director David Robert Mitchell's wide-angle stylistic filming has striking shots that are far more Kubrick's The Shining than recent horror like 2013's The Conjuring. It takes a lot to impress in the horror genre nowadays: a new scary movie either has to have a unique hook that will wedge into your brain and actually scare you or an interesting film-making style that is memorable in its depiction of the events. It Follows has both: no, it's not the greatest horror film in decades like some are proclaiming, but it's an incredibly well-spent 90 minutes at the movie theater and it's the best film so far this year.
      I wouldn't suggest reading any of this review if you haven't seen It Follows but you are planning to see it one day. I went in only knowing the bare minimum: no review reading or trailer viewing. Like any horror film that sometime relies on surprises and shocks, the less you know the better. Let's just say--like 2007's humorous Teeth--it promotes a strong case for young adult abstinence. Maika Monroe (formally seen in last year's The Guest) stars as Jay, a happy young lady who has recently fallen for a mysterious guy who--when we first see him--seems a bit paranoid: he's always glancing around like something is watching him. On a fateful night, Jay decides that she's ready for the next step in their relationship, so they jump in the backseat of his car and (as seen in the movie poster above).
      Turns out--in the film world of It Follows--that HPV and getting pregnant aren't the only things that young women have to worry about after having sex: Jay's boyfriend, in the afterglow of their first sexual experience together, turns violent, and explains the hook that the rest of the film relies on. He's passed on a sexually-transmitted curse. Until Jay spreads her legs for another guy, "It" will be after her. "It" takes on any human form and can show up anywhere, but it always walks, never runs, straight at you, regardless of setting. You can avoid "It", but if it gets close enough and touches you, you die. Yeah: sounds like typical PG-13 horror to scare teenie-boppers whose parents dropped them off at the theater. But It Follows is much better than that.
     It Follows does not rely on jump scares, like demonic children or loud noises. It also doesn't rely on unrealistic special effects, like a girl crawling out of the static of a television set or monsters morphing into other nightmarish beings. It nearly completely relies on a feeling of dread and excellent directorial choices by Mitchell. It may not sound like humans walking slowly toward you is scary. But think of the scene in The Shining where Danny walks into the forbidden hotel room and sees the hideous old woman. It Follows scares are like that: effective and haunting, scares that build at slowly tugging at your nerves instead of blowing it all early and often. And it's effectively a scare that never ends and never leaves you: no matter how many people get transmitted the curse, if those people die, "It" can always work its way back to you. "It" never stops walking, never stops searching for the next victim: the only solution is to get as far away as possible from "It", whether that be travelling far, far away or attempting to distance yourself from it by horny sexual partners who will continually pass it along.
     One could easily write a dissertation on the metaphoric plot points of It Follows: is it promoting abstinence, so "It" will never come to get you? Is it a parable about AIDS and how you can never escape it? Or is it something different, as the only way to get rid of "It" is to actually have more and more much sex as you can to distance yourself from the horror. No point to delve into that stuff here though: the basic fact is that It Follows is a very well-made horror film from a promising new director (this is only Mitchell's second film), a simple and effective little package that may make you think twice about your next sexual encounter,     (B+)