A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Do The Right Thing” (1989) 9.20.15

In continuing my streak of seeing older films that I admire for the first time on the big screen, this week I caught both writer/director Spike’s Lee most well known work, as well as the defining film on racism that’s ever been made in the United States (or anywhere else for that matter). It’s also perhaps maybe the single most important film to date outside of maybe Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993). Lee’s work, especially his work throughout the eighties and nineties, were arguably his best, and anyone that knows me knows that I have been and always will be an avid Spike Lee supporter. Even if the last really good project he’s released was the Hurricane Katrina documentary – “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006). It is because of this one film, “Do The Right Thing”, now 26 years old; but just as prevalent as it is in the present day as it was way back then, that I will always have nothing but the utmost deep respect and admiration for Lee the artist, even if he never puts out a single good film ever again.

It’s interesting to me now when I think about the fact that we live in a society and culture that’s both so entrenched and sculpted by the language, music, art, and aesthetic of hip hop, that there was actually a time where the force of that movement hadn’t been tapped into yet. At least certainly not in the filmmaking world. And at the same time thinking how commercial, materialistic, and shallow much of this music has become. It was once an actual youth movement that stood for something where the music was radical, subversive, and even revolutionary. “Do The Right Thing” was the first film to capture that point in time where hip hop or rap music was urgent and conscious while also channeling a lot of the issues of Black America at the time – racism, racial pride, class struggle, and urban living.

The film’s opening credits are set to an assault of beats and bombastic music of the hip hop elders and icons – Public Enemy and their single “Fight The Power”. We then meet the many different characters that occupy a dense Brooklyn neighborhood as they face one of those unbearable stretches of heat in the summertime. Most all of whom are vibrant, loud, and eccentric who ultimately cross paths and intersect and various points throughout the film. The film is anchored by its main character, Mookie (Spike Lee), a pizza delivery boy who traverses back and forth throughout the neighborhood and through who we get to meet the film’s many vibrant characters while doing so. There’s his girlfriend (played by the then newly discovery Rosie Perez), the two elders (the late great Civil Rights activists and actors – Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee – who were married in real life), the neighborhood youth as represented by; among others, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), and the Italian pizzeria owner Sal (the Oscar nominated Danny Aiello) and his two sons – Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Rounding out this large group of characters are three late middle-aged men (one of them played by one of the greatest Black comedians of all time – Robin Harris) whose scathing commentary on the day’s events provide a lot of the film’s funniest scenes. As the hot summer day progresses and tempers start to flare ordinary events take on extraordinary significance.

I’ve always declared that “Do The Right Thing” was one of my top 25 favorite films of all time. And this viewing; again my first time on the big screen, just solidified why I consider it to be such a major and important work, and yet another film that I can honestly say I have a relationship with, or a special bond to, that I do with only my very favorite of films. Lee’s expertly written (which he would receive an Oscar nomination for for Best Original Screenplay) and utterly confident piece of directing is astonishing to watch. But even more importantly, are the themes; many of which I listed above, that he interweaves into his morality play on racial tensions in America. How seemingly ordinary daily exchanges by people of different races, creeds, and colors, can explode into fiery bursts of violence (the climax of the film; which apparently caused riots in certain cities in the US upon its release, is brutally powerful and utterly devastating) and showcased police brutality and the fracturing within a community of people. This winds up being a clear metaphor for the state of the late 20th century’s American race relations. Forget Paul Haggis’ Oscar winning “Crash” (2004) that tried to tackle similar themes yet failed miserably at trying to do so. “Do The Right Thing” is a unapologetically angry film, but it needs to be in order to speak to the themes in which it explores. But even despite it being so, Lee expertly handles these difficult themes in a balancing act that’s also filled with images of black love and social camaraderie that is both so real and so rare to find, especially nowadays, in American cinema that they seem radical (and were) for their time. Shot beautifully in bright, vibrant colors that represented much of hip hop culture in the eighties, with skewed camera angles that almost make it look like it was framed to look like a comic book, along with a fine example of film editing that reflects the energetic thrust of the film. “Do The Right” thing has become one of the most influential movies in the history of filmmaking, not only stylistically, but for being the first film that gave other future filmmakers permission to draw from the experiences of lives (specifically that of Black America) that previously had been ignored or distorted in both Hollywood and independent film. It’s Lee’s calling card to the entire country in hopes of waking us up or rendering us more conscious of how racism exists and functions in America. And for it I am forever grateful.

[A]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Jaws” (40th Anniversary) (1975)

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is one of those films that is forever etched into my brain ever since the first time I saw it as a kid, only to revisit it several years later as a teenager when it was shown in my Film Studies class. What’s so unbelievable about “Jaws” was and is its impact on the shift in cinema that started in the mid-seventies, with “Jaws” being the “first” real summer blockbuster, paving the way for films like George Lucas’ “Star Wars” which came out only a couple of years after it. “Jaws” was such a success, both domestically and globally, that it catapulted the then 29-year old Spielberg as the “IT” director of the new generation of Hollywood Blockbuster cinema. As well as making him a household name overnight. Besides its undeniable impact that it had on cinema at the time, Spielberg (and author Peter Benchley) were single-handedly responsible for making an entire generation of people think twice before going into the water. In modern-day society, one can only imagine but can’t possibly understand the cultural significance of something like that. Here we are even forty years later, and you can still hear people say that they’re afraid to go in the water. All because of one single movie that was made four decades ago. Besides both the impact it had on launching Spielberg’s career as a director as well as the impact it had on cinema overall at the time. One of the greatest components about “Jaws” is its ability to stand the test of time and not seem even the slightest bit outdated or obsolete. That and its universal appeal. For someone who likes mostly art house cinema but can appreciate more commercially viable motion pictures, particularly the ones of old, I am amazed, like I was tonight, to see a fully sold out theater of people, some wearing “Jaws” t-shirts, but everyone there for the same reason. To bear witness to what is still the scariest ocean motion picture ever made.

I don’t feel that it’s entirely necessary to provide a synopsis of any kind as probably and any everyone you know, no matter what generation, has probably seen the film at least a handful of times. But very loosely it revolves around  killer shark terrorizing a fictional East coast seaside town in Massachusetts (the movie was filmed almost entirely in and outside of Martha’s Vineyard) called Amity. The town’s chief of police (played by the iconic Roy Scheider), after a series of shark attacks where people come up dead, decided to put a ban up to stop the beach goers from swimming in the water, much to the chagrin of the town’s mayor. He soon meets an oceanology expert (who was and still is my favorite character in the film played by Richard Dreyfuss) and an old sea-captain Quint (a rather eccentric but wonderful Robert Shaw). And once the situation gets too out of control for the local authorities to handle (in one of the film’s many unforgettable shots of Scheider looking straight through the gates at the sea). The three men team up on the sea captain’s boat on a Moby Dick-like quest to take down the infamous shark.

This film remains such a classic staple in cinematic history that to discuss only a couple of its components would be to do it an injustice. What it does do masterfully, is play against audience expectations, playing up to out notion of the fear of the unknown. Spielberg slowly builds up the tension by revealing the shark scenes set to one of the most recognizable and effective film scores in history by the great composer John Williams. It constantly keeps you on the edge as the three men voyage into the ocean of uncertainty, not knowing when and if they’ll ever come back. This tension I speak of is a hard feat to pull off, but Spielberg does it with a certain deftness and Hitchcock-like hand that the picture builds and builds and builds, especially in its second half, to its Captain Ahab/Moby Dick like showdown that comes in the last act of the film. It’s one of Spielberg’s most impeccably staged and shot films that it truly is a marvel to sit back and watch how it all unfolds and is executed. As the three men stand off against the killer shark, and the shark against them, it climbs to a level of suspense like no other film. Certainly no other film of its time. This was my who knows who many times seeing it, but my first time on the big screen with a packed audience. And one of the thrills of seeing some of these great older, cinematic masterpieces on the big screen for the first time, like tonight, was that you can almost feel a certain kind of energy radiating off of the crowd. It was one of the most communal, shared experienced films I’ve seen in a long time. With the packed house laughing (with Quint/Shaw providing a lot of the comic effect), sitting at the edge of their seats, ooing and awwing at every sight they see of the shark as the chase and plot thickens. Then there’s the climactic line where Scheider’s character, looking through the barrel of his gun at the shark as his ship sinks into the water, shouts “SMILE YOU SON OF A” before he finally shoots the tank in the killer whale’s mouth and then it completely blows up. This had almost every single person in the crowd clapping in their seats. Which to me exemplified this “universality” piece I speak of about the film perfectly. The film has the uncanny ability to engage us all in the same fight together, so that when the shark is finally killed, you can do nothing but sit back and cheer as so much had been built up to it. This is one of the most important and influential works in cinematic history. And I for one feel incredibly grateful to have experienced it with a group of people on the big screen. An experience that is now embedded in me forever and one that I will truly never forget.

[A+]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Mad Max: Fury Road 3D” 5.17.15

I’m not sure how many directors have gone on to make a reboot or remake of their original films. Then comes in writer/director George Miller, who, in 1979, made the original “Mad Max” (1979), and its subsequent sequels – 1981’s “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and 1986’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1986). Here we are thirty years later, and Miller presents us with his 4th installment of the series. I have to admit, when I first heard about this film I was very reluctant, as I’m not usually one for remakes, redos, reboots, or whatever you want to call them. Then I found out that it was going to be helmed by the original writer/director of the series, and after seeing a trailer way back in January after “American Sniper” I thought to myself “wow, this looks like something that has some serious potential”. I also thought either they did a really good job with the trailer and that it looked like it could be the next great action movie, or it could wind up like something more akin to Miller’s 3rd installment – a film held sacred but not by anyone I know other than its deepest admires of the series – “Beyond Thunderdome”. Which after the groundbreaking innovative first and second installments within the series, frankly put, should never have been made. What also intrigued me which I don’t usually follow was the rumor mill from the set – stars Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy were at each others’ throats, Hardy was reportedly very difficult to work with on set (not the first time I’ve heard this), and that the filming process took much longer than usual for a film to complete. However, after having recently revisited the first and second installments in my anticipation for the newest, that and its great reception coming out of Cannes last week and glowing reviews that came in at the end of last week, all but pretty much sealed the deal for me. My anticipation for it plus the bar were set high.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” starts off with a bit of back story of shots in black and white, similar to how “The Road Warrior” did, providing us with some background into how the film’s setting of a future-esque Australian desert wasteland came to be. Also, similar to “The Road Warrior”, natural resources are scarce, particularly that of gasoline. A philanthropist by the name of “Immortan Joe” employs a young woman named Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron – more on her to come) to take an armored big rig truck across the barren Australian desert to collect gasoline. Meanwhile the newest and first Max in the quadrilogy to feature anyone other than Mel Gibson, played by the always wonderful Tom Hardy, is caught in middle of the whole thing and is taken prisoner by the “War Boys”, Joe’s army, and is imprisoned to act as a blood donor for one of the War Boys (Nicholas Hoult – the young boy, now obviously much older and almost unrecognizable, from 2002’s “About A Boy”). The action really picks up when Furiosa veers off course with Joe’s five wives on board, setting off a spectacular chase scene (or shall I say chase movie) with other contributing gangs following their trail. Max is eventually freed and steals Furiosa’s rig, but the truck is soon disabled and Max and Furiosa butt heads as to whether or not she is going to allow him to carry on with her and Joe’s 5 wives on board. Though Max proves himself as a force to be reckoned with, and the two rebels band together across an action packed, visually spectacular high-octane thrill ride, fighting of the legions upon legions of Joe’s army while doing so.

To start, I’ll say that this is maybe the best action movie that has come out post-2000 (sorry “The Bourne Trilogy”, this one ups you in every department). It starts off with an absolute chaotic and balls to the wall roller-coaster that grabs a hold of you from its first sequence and doesn’t let up until the end credits role. It’s the greatest example I’ve seen so far of a film’s original creator, taking their original concept and story, and redoing it, the way it should have been done to begin with, for more contemporary audiences who may or may not be familiar with the original trilogy. I haven’t seen a movie with this much energy, this much velocity, and this much non-stop action since Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption” (2011), a film until seeing this film I would have labeled the best action movie of this century. But this movie goes deeper in that in almost every angle from an action film standpoint. I couldn’t help but think of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and the opening sequence where they storm the beaches of Normandy. Now imagine that level of visceral action and continue it throughout an entire duration of a 2 hour film. It’s a hyperbolic comparison I know. But one that seemed to enter my brain throughout. The film is also perfectly cast – with Hardy playing the epitomized loner. A man whose actions clearly speak louder than his words. Then there’s Theron in a role that puts her in the same echelon as say someone like Sigourney Weaver in the Alien quadrilogy (1979-1992). Bringing a nice blend of post fem attitude along with its several other sub-genres. Resembling something of that of a post-feminist action film, punk-western (and I really have to emphasize the futuristic punk look and vibe of the film), and post-apocalyptic road-rage chase-thriller. Lastly, I should point out its dazzling use of 3D in a film that’s a breathtaking visual splendor, with every burn, crash, and explosions coming off the screen at you. In fact, it’s the best use of the format that I’ve seen since Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity (2013) and really deserves to be seen as such, as I can’t imagine it being half the immersive experience it would had I of seen it otherwise. This is about as high-octane and thrilling of an action movie you’re bound to see all year, which also happens to be the very best in what the action genre has produced for us in as far back as I can remember. And one can only imagine that writer/director George Miller is sitting back and marveling at his creation in what can undoubtedly be considered the best in the series of “Mad Max” films to date.

in 3D [A-]

in 2D or any other format you choose to see it in other than the following [>B+]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “The Terminator” (1984) 5.3.15

This film officially wrapped up the end of the series of films at one of my local area theaters who showed several Science Fiction classics throughout the month of April. All of which (with the exception of “Blade Runner” (1982) which I chose the original “Alien” (1979) over as the two were playing on the same night) that I got to see on the big screen. Which has become a new passion of mine in revisiting some of the older classics for the first time in the theater. I’ve added several Sci Fi classics to my “bucket list” and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite some time. In this past month plus some I saw Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), as mentioned above, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), James Cameron’s (x2) “Aliens” (1986), and the recently released “Ex Machina” (2015). Alex Garland’s cerebral head trip which wound up being the best Sci Fi film I’ve seen since Duncan Jones’ groundbreaking “Moon” (2009).

I have to admit the “Terminator” franchise is one of my least favorite Science Fiction ones as I remember watching them as a kid, and while I admired the second one, I really never could find myself getting into any of the subsequent sequels. Similar to how I felt and still feel about the “Alien” franchise after its second installment. That and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even really remember seeing the first “Terminator” except for maybe bits and pieces when I was a just a young lad. And in thinking back my reason for not doing so probably had a lot to do with the fact that I saw the films out-of-order, with the second one first, then the third, and fourth. Since I didn’t much care for parts 3 or 4 seeking out the first one wasn’t necessarily high on my list. At least in my more formative years. Though since then, in becoming a student of film, I’ve come to learn that the original is highly regarded in many film circles to be one of the all time classic entries into the Sci Fi genre. So I thought to myself I should make it a point to check it out, now that I look at films analytically, to see if it earns the moniker of being up there with the all time greats like some of the ones mentioned above.

James Cameron’s debut film is a dark, dirty, post-apocalyptic vision of the future that seems very much influenced by the many films of the genre that came before it. Films like John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) both seem like direct influences on it in terms of look and style. Except where those films were much brainier, Cameron seems to change the playing field a bit here. Not really caring much for character or plot, he appears to be much more interested in style and sheer entertainment value. As there’s not really much on display here in terms of any kind of narrative. What’s different, and done quite I should add, is his ability to bring an almost new kind of kinetic energy to the genre. His ability to engage the audience while keeping the cat and mouse plot moving along from scene to scene is really the film’s greatest strength. In relation to some of the other big-budget pics of the genre, this film in especially feels more sadistic, but with a certain playfulness about it with its splatter-violence and singular vision that I call “cyber punk”. In terms this vision I speak of it breaks new ground in the genre with its seeming admiration for over the top violence and energy. Something I hadn’t been privy to of some of the more contemporary films of the genre up to that point in film history. It’s maybe the most visceral and action packed genre picture for its time.

There’s also the flat-out bad acting but which actually suits itself well to a story that doesn’t seem one bit concerned with how the actors come across but based much more around visual style and hyper violence. Arnold (Ahnuld) Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton read their lines like they’re reading off of a teleprompter (though to his credit Schwarzenegger has maybe only a dozen or so lines in the entire film). The best thing about it acting-wise was the other cyborg sent from the future played by Michael Biehn, who gives some life into what is otherwise a pretty laughable script. Though at times I felt like it reveled in the irony of its poorly acted script. The Schwarz seems perfectly cast as his bland facial expressions, thick accent, and Frankenstein body language suits itself rather well to the role of a menacing cyborg. Hamilton on the other hand is more of a feast for the eyes, as she clearly seemed to be cast more for her gorgeous looks (lucky you Cameron) than for her acting chops.

What I will conclude by saying, is that while “The Terminator” is considered to be a master work and essentially the platform for starting James Cameron’s career. It also marks the turn of big budget Sci Fi going for a more action packed, style over substance, entertainment thrill ride approach. Which for the most part it succeeds in doing. Its influence is embedded in several Sci Fi films that proceeded it. As did its kitschy one-liners (“I’ll be back”). But for all of its nicely looking visual splendor and style it feels devoid of the brainer elements that I’ve learned to love from the genre. So for that mostly personal reason, it wound up being fun to watch and critique. But in terms of its place as being considered one of the “the greatest” Sci Fi films to me it barely makes the cut. That aside, I could still sit back and both admire and understand why its considered such an important work for its time.

[strong B]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

I found it interesting that in the 100 or so+ reviews I’ve written since this blog’s inception in August of last year that I’ve not once discussed or shared how I feel about the works of the most important filmmaker of the past 50 years, Steven Spielberg. It’s probably because well, I can’t say I’m that big a fan of his as guys like him and George Lucas of the “Star Wars” films were single-handedly responsible for the death (I know that’s a big word) of the Golden Age of cinema, the 1970’s, and are noted for giving birth to the rise of the popcorn fare summer blockbusters which ultimately led to the art of film itself becoming commercialized. However one could say film has always been “commercialized” in a sense if go all the way back to the early days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Where the artistic side of the film was taken out and reduced to a mere form of entertainment. Though never was this contrast more apparent in the “change” from art film to that of the more mainstream that occurred towards the end of the seventies and early eighties with films like “Star Wars” and “The Indiana Jones” movies. Both hugely successful franchises that made a large imprint in terms of cinema history. And I deeply admire and respect both filmmakers for their vision and for the way in which they revolutionized the art form of film itself.

But if you look at the rather large filmography of Steven Spielberg (54 films and counting) and take a deep, hard analytical look at them, you’ll see why he’s the most important filmmaker of the latter half of the 20th century. And what interests me the most is more than any other filmmaker maybe ever, is the way in which he has the ability to straddle the line between commercial film and much more personal work, which to me is the most commendable attribute about the guy. I’ve always been a much bigger fan of the latter kinds of films that he’s done – films like “The Color Purple” (1985), “Empire of the Sun” (1987) “Schindler’s List” (1993 – a film I consider to be one of my top 5 favorite films of all time), “Amistad” (1997), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and “Munich” (2005). I’ve always favored these films over his more commercially viable films like the “Indiana Jones” series, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Hook” (1991), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “War of the Worlds” (2005), etc. The latter being all great works in their own right but with a considerable amount of mainstream appeal. While the former, seemed to be more personalized works that were deeply important to him as a filmmaker. And at least from my background as a student of film, are the kinds of films that I have a tendency to admire a lot more.

Within this large cannon of films Spielberg has made within his long and varied career are two of what I consider to be his best films are the ones that seem to be able to tow this “straddle the line” concept between mainstream and art film that I mentioned above. That being the enormously successful and influential “Jaws” (1975) which is really the first film that put him on the map and made him an almost household name. And his follow-up, this film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), both of which stay within a commercial context but showcase Spielberg the filmmaker’s more artistic side. While both films are very entertaining in their own respect, they’re also impeccably done from an artistic standpoint. I learned this first hand when I watched “Jaws” for the first time in high school at the guidance of a teacher of film. It was one of the seminal works in film that made me almost never look at the art form the same way again. And hit me on such a guttural level that putting it into words would be a bit too much of a daunting task to describe in words.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, while a much different kind of film in terms of genre than “Jaws”, is coincidentally not only his follow-up film to that but also my third favorite behind both it and “Schindler’s List”. It has been on my bucket list for quite some time now of movies that I chase to see on the big screen if given the opportunity. And boy was I excited when I saw that one of our local theaters in town was releasing it as a one-week engagement.

What’s so great about CEOTTK is that with the exception of maybe Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) it was the first film to deal with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. At least on the same kind of scope and level as that film. As I watched the film this time around on the big screen closely, I came to the realization of just how well executed it is from almost every single film-making component. The character and acting of Richard Dreyfuss as your simple-minded Joe Schmoe, who, after an encounter with a UFO, goes on the ultimate personal quest searching for answers is both compelling and thoroughly engaging throughout. As is its spectacular special effects and light show, which had my jaw gaping to both hear John Williams’ terrific score and see its astonishing visual imagery projected onto the big screen, with a story that produces both an undeniably compassionate and human one with an emotional core about an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

I also love the film’s timelessness and it’s appeal to both adolescents and adult thinkers alike. And more than any other Spielberg work, it feels deeply definitive in both its style and substance as well as being iconic and timeless. Finally, in what is maybe one of the single most greatest climaxes in film history – the alien mother ship sequence, is a technical delight, which had me looking up at the screen marveling collectively in awe at the brilliance of what I was seeing. This is one of the best Science Fiction films of all time that also works equally well as a thriller, and is a glimpse into the mind of Spielberg’s psyche, whose greatest gift as a filmmaker has always been his ability to grasp a hold of his viewers and allow them access to be able to marvel and wonder at the possibilities of the infinite.

[A]

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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

Ex Machina - Original UK Quad

I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.

The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.

This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.

This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.

[A-]

#4: ‘The Conjuring’ (2013)

The Conjuring Movie Poster

James Wan’s “The Conjuring” is almost about as good as it gets as far as American horror films go these days. Wan is arguably the godfather of the post-aught American horror film. His groundbreaking and undeniably influential “Saw” (2004) made him an overnight star and proved to the international film making scene that we had a new auteur on our hands. Not only that but to top it off (get this) he was only 27 at the time of filming. Being in that “Saw” was so successful and Wan set the bar so high, both artistically and commercially, it was only somewhat inevitable that his next film couldn’t possibly hold up. And they didn’t. He released 2 films back-to-back in 2007 – “Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence”. Both which failed miserably at the box office and with audiences. Enter 2010 after a few years away from the film making spectrum and Wan releases his 2nd most successful movie to date – the downright creepy and chilling “Insidious”. Marking a return to form and putting him once again in the hot seat as America’s most artistically commercial horror director. Then another 3 years later and Wan gives us what might be the 2nd best horror film post-2010. What I and some other people I know consider to be his masterpiece.

There are so many elements to talk about in regards to “The Conjuring” that its hard to break it down to just a few. But I will try my best. First things first, it is impeccably shot. And I rarely use that adjective to describe a piece of film making (I picked it up from Steven Spielberg in an interview when he once described the look of the films of the late, great Stanley Kubrick). Wan is in complete control here and it comes through in just about every frame and shot. It’s one of the most confident and assured pieces of film making from a directing standpoint in American horror since the great films of the 1970’s like William Friendkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) or Tobe Hoopers’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). The way in which he zooms in and out and sweeps through the corridors of the inhabited home is purely the work of a master. Secondly, in what I refer to as Wan’s “bag of tricks”. He utilizes just about every horror technique we’ve seen in the history of the genre. His arsenal bag of tricks contains everything from a grandfather clock, creaking doors and stairwells, white noise, evil spirits, old tape recordings, saturated lit archival footage, a game of “clap and seek” (remind me never to play that), haunted cellars, the scariest doll since “Chucky”, and what I find to be the most terrifying piece – a wind up corkscrew jack-in-the-box (used beautifully in the film’s closing shot). Last, and certainly not the least, is the all out, balls to the wall, horror show freak out that is the third act. It features some of the most haunting images that will forever be etched into my brain. To say he really brings it as the film comes to a close would be a huge understatement. The last half hour to 45 minutes contains some of the most pure, unadulterated horror that I’ve seen put onto celluloid since Brad Anderson’s brilliant and overlooked “Session 9” (2001). My one very minor criticism of the piece is that it follows the whole exorcism movie trope formula just a tad bit too closely. But again, a very minor criticism. Outside of that this is about as good as modern day horror gets. And solidifies my statement that James Wan is the Christopher Nolan of the horror genre.

[strong B+]