Sunday, July 17, 2016

Horrors from Inside, Horrors from Outside

Ex Machina (2015): written and directed by Alex Garland; starring Domhnall Gleason (Caleb), Oscar Isaac (Nathan), Alicia Vikander (Ava), and Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko): Critically acclaimed science-fiction film written and directed by the screenwriter of the underappreciated Dredd and the much-appreciated 28 Days Later. This is a nuanced, often creepy walk through Frankenstein territory, with a few nods to The Island of Dr. Moreau. But we're in the present day, in a world where building an Artificial Intelligence involves educating it with social media. Is it any wonder things could go wrong? Or perhaps 'worng'? 

The three principals are all very good. Domhnall Gleason is the young programmer brought to his tech mega-billionaire boss' gigantic Northern estate to help test whether or not the machine-intelligence Ava is truly self-aware. Oscar Isaac is the charismatic, mercurial, manipulative tech giant; Alicia Vikander is the the charming, inquisitive, and seemingly innocent robotic Ava. Weird things start to happen, all of them playing out in counter-pointed sterile interiors and Sublime exteriors filmed in Norway in glacier country. Hey, Garland actually seems to know the connection between Frankenstein and the Sublime! Ex Machina is very good science fiction and leaves one wanting more of its middle sections, in which ideas are debated and sometimes yelled about. Highly recommended.

Chronicle (2012): written by Max Landis and Josh Trank; directed by Josh Trank; starring Dane DeHaan (Andrew Detmer), Alex Russell (Matt Garetty), Michael B. Jordan (Steve Montgomery), and Michael Kelly (Richard Detmer): Josh Trank and Max Landis' fine, found-footage superhero drama led to Trank's horrible Fantastic Four movie, which really seems like a case of Unintended Consequences. 

Oddly, the means by which the three teenagers in Chronicle gain their telekinesis-based superpowers would have made for a good new origin for the Fantastic Four -- as indeed one character's descent into madness would have made for a reasonable take on Doctor Doom. So it goes. 

The found-footage premise works organically through much of the movie, especially once the characters can telekinetically fly the camera around on its own. Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan do fine, nuanced work as our three super-powered teenagers. And Chronicle, despite its (relatively) low budget, does a nice job of showing the wonders and terrors such powers would visit upon people while also creating actual, sympathetic, flawed characters. 

All this actual storytelling means that a concluding super-hero battle actually possesses the ability to shock and disturb. Easily one of the ten greatest superhero movies ever made because it's actually a movie and not an Ad for American Exceptionalism, Toys, and Fast Food. Highly recommended.

The Visit (2015): written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Olivia DeJonge (Becca), Ed Oxenbould (Tyler), Deanna Dunagan (Nana), Peter McRobbie (Pop Pop), and Kathryn Hahn (Mom): A decent thriller from M. Night Shyamalan... with a twist! This movie only cost $5 million, which is why it was considered a financial success despite grossing almost exactly the same amount of money domestically as the universally reviled M. Night Shyamalan bomb The Happening, a.k.a. The One Where Mark Wahlberg Runs Away From Wind

The Visit is blessedly short and gifted with four out of five decent actors in the main roles. The non-decent actor playing grandson Tyler isn't necessarily a bad actor -- he's just been burdened with a cutesy rapping obsession that probably looked a lot better on the page than it plays on screen. 

The plot is simple -- the two children of a mother estranged from her parents since before the kids were born go to visit the grandparents for a week, mostly against their mother's wishes. Meanwhile, Mom goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. The oldest grandchild, the granddaughter, is filming everything because she's obsessed with film and hey, this is yet another 'found-footage' horror movie. Shyamalan wrings a few new shocks out of the first-person camera. Certainly not a great movie, but enjoyable. Recommended.

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001): written by Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter; directed by John Carpenter; starring Natasha Henstridge (Lt. Ballard), Ice Cube (Desolation Williams), Jason Statham (Sgt. Jericho), Clea DuVall (Kincaid), Pam Grier (Commander Braddock), and Joanna Cassidy (Whitlock): Grungy, grimy sci-fi horror-Western from the great John Carpenter. It's worn really well, possibly because it's the antithesis of today's PG-rated, CGI-heavy action movies. The cast is a hoot. Teaming up the Amazonian blonde Henstridge (Species) with Ice Cube is all sorts of awesome. 

There's some smarts in the movie's back-story, and some thrills in the various explosion-heavy battles with the monsters on Mars. One sometimes wishes for better monsters. So it goes. The premise works as a weird sort-of-sequel to Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth). Carpenter worked with Kneale while producing Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, for which Kneale wrote a screenplay that he then took his name off because of concerns about the film's violence. Hmm. Recommended.

Alien: 2003 Director's Cut (1979/2003): partially based on the stories "Black Destroyer" and "Discord in Scarlet" by A.E. Van Vogt; written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shushett; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), and Yaphet Kotto (Parker): As a restored, director's cut on BluRay, Alien looks terrific. It's like a whole different movie, with the looming alien ship and surrounding wasteland dominating the proceedings (and dwarfing the puny humans) in the first half. One forgets how gradually things build: it's nearly an hour before the real horrors erupt, but once they do, they come in a flurry. 

The cast is uniformly fine. The Director's Cut adds in several scenes in which the cast interacts, countering the crew's isolation from one another in the original cut. Yaphet Kotto's Parker benefits most from the restoration -- he's clearly the second protagonist now after Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Like her, he's also the voice of Reason throughout the film. 

The set design and Ridley Scott's shooting of it is another character in the movie. The future has never looked like such a combination of the Gothic and the industrial. And there's the Alien itself in its various manifestations, kept off-screen or only partially glimpsed until the climax. It's still a masterpiece of design based on H.R. Giger's creepy ideas. 

The re-insertion of a scene that prefigures the colonist-stocked alien 'nursery' of Aliens is the most gratifying addition, especially for those of us who first encountered the scene in Alan Dean Foster's novelization of Alien way back in 1979. A Lovecraftian, haunted-house-in-space masterpiece that's probably still Ridley Scott's best movie. No sequel or prequel has surpassed it in terms of a horror movie that combines the cosmic with body horror. Highly recommended.

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