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Stories of artificial intelligence becoming self-aware have been told over and over from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Colosus: The Forbin Project to The Terminator and this year’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. There’s something chilling about an advanced machine thinking on it’s own and deciding we are obsolete…and it works more often than not. Caradog W. James’ British Sci-Fi chiller, The Machine is no different.

Story is set in the near future where war with China is looming. Enter Dr. Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) who is not only developing a fully robotic being with it’s own artificial intelligence, but implants that restore lost brain function to injured veterans and cybernetic replacements for lost limbs. While the Dept. Of Defense’s goal is to have an army of robotic fighting machines ready for when full war breaks out, McCarthy’s personal goal is to use his A.I. tech to save his daughter from a rare brain disorder. He uses the brain waves of his pretty new assistant Ava (Caity Lotz) to build the A.I. for his first fully robotic entity and when the inquisative Ava is suspiciously murdered, McCarthy makes the robot in her image. Government bureaucrat, Thompson (Denis Lawson) has more lethal plans for “Machine” (also Lotz) and as she is secretly turned into a fighting soldier, Machine’s more benign programing conflicts with her training and the self-aware automaton decides maybe it’s time robot and cybernetic veteran alike, took control from the corrupt humans.

Despite it’s familiar story, writer/director Caradog W. James makes it work by giving it…and his ‘Machine’…a heart at the center of all the cyber-tech and Star Trek level dialogue. Machine is a very endearing character and her almost child-like reaction to varied emotions makes her very ‘human’ despite her hardware and superhuman capabilities. This makes us emotionally invested in her story and we feel her confusion as she is caught between well-intentioned Dr. McCarthy…who she loves…and the more sinister intent of Thompson who wants an obedient instrument of war. It’s not hard to guess what side she chooses or how this is going to end up, but the robot’s emotional journey is at the core here and that is portrayed very well. Even the good natured McCarthy has his own secret agenda…benign as it is…and thus Machine is forced to do what’s best for her and her kind. Director James portrays the situation with a solid emotional base that makes it all work. We do really feel bad for Machine being caught in the middle of two opposing ideologies and don’t blame her for choosing her own ‘destiny’. On a technical level the FX are quite good and there is some very well-staged action in the final act, including some surprisingly bloody moments. The music is a very 80s electronic score by Tom Raybould, that really fits and there is some nice cinematography by Nicolai Brüel. For a very low budget film, it has strong production value to go with a solid, if not familiar story.

Big factor in making the story work is a strong performance by Caity Lotz (The Pact) as Ava and Machine. Her Ava is an intelligent and idealistic young woman whose naivety to the evils men do gets her killed. It’s easy to see with the use of her brain patterns to create Machine as to where the robot gets her heart and moral center from. As Machine, Lotz creates a being that has both a child-like innocence and dangerous superhuman capabilities. Her reactions to her new emotions are endearing, as is her youthful enthusiasm when enacting simple things we take for granted, such as touch, feel and dancing. Lotz also makes her a bit scary when she is given her lethal training behind McCarthy’s back and uses it to stage the last act rebellion against the sinister bureaucratic establishment at the hidden base she was created in. It is a very three dimensional performance by the actress and really helps make James’ flick come to life much like Machine. Stephens makes for a noble if not flawed Dr. McCarthy. He has good intentions, but Stephens gives him a bit of an edge, as while his ulterior motives are understandable, he is allowing his work to be used for a darker purpose and he knows it. He also portrays well McCarthy’s change of heart when it comes to Machine’s use as a weapon upon learning she is far more ‘human’ than expected. Denis Lawson makes for a perfectly slimy villain. His Thompson is a man with an agenda and who will lie, cheat and kill to get it done. It’s a very stereotypical character, but Lawson makes him work by oozing douche bag from every pore.

I liked this movie a lot. It does have a very familiar story, but also has a heart that makes it work beyond familiarity. Caradog James creates a very interesting near future which is bleak, but somehow given hope by a machine that has a clearer and less selfish view of the big picture of life. He has a good cast, especially leading lady Lotz who really gives her robotic character some nice dimensions. It’s an oft told tale, but told from an interesting angle that makes it’s automoton a lot more ‘human’ than most of those around her. An entertaining little Sci-Fi thriller that packs a bit of a punch when it needs to.

-MonsterZero NJ

  Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) “Machines”.

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THE PACT 2 (2014)

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I really enjoyed Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact. It was a spooky little movie with some nice surprises and well-acted by it’s small cast. Obviously, I was hesitant that they were making a sequel without McCarthy’s involvement and while The Pact 2 doesn’t come close to the original, it was a moderately entertaining supernatural thriller.

The story takes place after the events of the last film and focuses on pretty crime scene cleaner June (Camilla Luddington) who is also an aspiring illustrator. June is having dreams about a woman named Ellie (Suziey Block) who is the recent victim of, what appears to be, a Judas Killer (Mark Steger) copy-cat. Without realizing it, she is drawing her dreams and revealing Ellie’s fate in her work. Worse still, an eccentric FBI agent (Patrick Fischler) feels she might be in danger due to a shocking connection to the original killer and one of his victims, Jennifer Glick. Finding no comfort from her policeman boyfriend (Scott Michael Foster), June turns to the one person who might be able to help, Annie Barlow (Caity Lotz), the woman who finally took the Judas Killer down. But, can either escape this new and unknown serial murderer…or the vengeful spirit of the original Judas Killer?

Written and directed by Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath, this unnecessary sequel does have some spooky moments but, also gets a little convoluted by it’s end. Overall, it was moderately entertaining but, the writers do stretch things a bit to get their new character June, connected to the Judas Killer and it’s a bit cliché. Of course, having a policeman boyfriend and an FBI agent around is of no use to her and she has to investigate things on her own and with the help of Annie. This conveniently puts them both in harm’s way and even Ellie’s spirit giving them clues, doesn’t bring them all that closer to the killer. As for the copy-cat reveal, it comes out of nowhere and is there to add shock value and not make real sense. What helps the film is that, as directors, the pair do give the film some atmosphere and there are some genuinely spooky moments, as June is haunted by both, victim Ellie and serial killer Judas.

June is an interesting character and thought the rest of the cast are a bit flat, Luddington and the returning Caity Lotz are both likable and we wish the film had focused on their teamwork a bit more. Patrick Fischler’s FBI agent Ballard seems to only exist to provide exposition and suspicion and Foster’s cop boyfriend pops in and out of the story when needed. Like the original film, this focuses on a small central group of characters, mostly on it’s leading ladies.

So, this sequel passed the time and I was never bored though, there was little fresh or innovative. The filmmakers are far better directors than writers, as the script is a bit convoluted and cliché but, the film is atmospheric and has some creepy moments. Lead character June is likable as is Camilla Luddington in the part and it was nice to see Lotz return. There were some familiar faces and links to keep this from being a completely detached sequel though, we wish McCarthy had some involvement to make things mesh a bit better. Overall it’s worth a look but, go in with moderate expectations and don’t expect an equal to the enjoyable and spooky first film.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 cute, creeped-out crime scene cleaners

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THE PACT (2012)

The Pact is an effective and, at times, very creepy, supernatural mystery chiller that achieves a lot of atmosphere on it’s small budget. Flick tells the story of Annie (Caity Lotz) who arrives at her recently deceased mother’s house to meet her sister, Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) for the funeral. But Nicole is missing and soon strange things start happening in the house. Annie begins to have strange dreams and there seems to be a supernatural presence there with her. As it increasingly tries to get her attention, Annie begins to find clues about their mother, a mysterious woman and a serial killer case from decades before. What does it all mean and what does this supernatural presence want from her?

To say anymore would spoil an entertaining little chiller as the film takes us along with Annie on the path to finding the truth. While not perfect, The Pact is very effective at times and actually provides us with a nice mystery to go along with the things that go bump in the night. The atmosphere of dread is well maintained by writer/director Nicholas McCarthy and the cast, including genre vet Casper Van Dien as a grizzled veteran cop, all do well with the material. There are some very spooky sequences and some good scares and it all leads to a tense and suspenseful last act. The FX appear refreshingly all in camera and work well, only a few dragging effects get overused a bit by the end and their effectiveness is also diluted since we’ve seen them used a lot lately with the Paranormal Activity series.

An enjoyable little horror/mystery from Nicholas McCarthy. A sequel has been announced though, disappointingly, McCarthy doesn’t seem involved, but this filmmaker to watch is coming out with a new horror called At the Devil’s Door starring Glee’s Naya Rivera later this year.

A solid 3 spooks!