REVIEW: ANNIHILATION (2018)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

ANNIHILATION (2018)

Biologist and former soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) hasn’t seen or heard from her commando husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) for over a year. When he finally shows up at her door sick and disorientated, a black ops team abducts them both to a secret location designated Area X. There Lena finds out there is some sort of disruption called “The Shimmer” surrounding an area of land with a lighthouse being it’s point of origin. This “Shimmer” is slowly growing and everything and everyone sent into it has never returned…except for Kane. Now Lena volunteers to join a four women scientific team, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), geologist Sheppard, (Tuva Novotny) and Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) to enter The Shimmer and find out what is going on inside. What they find is beyond belief and whatever it is, it’s changing the DNA of all lifeforms trapped inside it as it expands.

Another well directed sci-fi flick from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina), this one from a book by Jeff Vandermeer. Not only is the film visually stunning, but thought-provoking, suspenseful and sometimes downright scary, too. Garland’s script only feeds us information a little at a time so we learn about The Shimmer and it’s effects on life, much as our four explorers do. The further they go into the anomaly, the more mutated the plant and animal life seems to get…and dangerously so. Along the way they visit an abandoned military base and an evacuated town where even more mysteries and abominations are presented to us. Add to this a group of women who are slowly coming apart at the seams and you have a sci-fi chiller that, at times, evokes the fear and paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing. We know it’s all coming down to a visit to that lighthouse at the center and what awaits us is chilling to the bone. On a production level, the film has some top notch visual FX and to add atmosphere to an already atmospheric film, is some wonderful cinematography from Rob Hardy and a fitting score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, who did the same for Garland on Ex Machina.

The cast is top notch. Portman’s Lena is a somewhat emotionally complex character. She’s a woman who has had no word from her husband in a long time and even then there were complications in their relationship. Now he reappears and is in bad shape and needs her help. Add to that a woman already interested in biology and cellular activity and it creates a character with both scientific and personal reasons to go on what could be a suicide mission. Portman handles it very well. Leigh is strong as the group leader and another woman with her own personal reasons to enter The Shimmer. She’s tough and strong and can be hard on the others, but she never reaches villainous levels. Tessa Thompson is the emotionally weakest of the group and she is sweet and very likable and the first to bond with Lena. Rodriguez is the tough paramedic, Anya Thorenson. While she is a strong character, she is in over her head in terms of what her mind can accept of what she sees and the actress plays it well. Novotny’s Sheppard is a likeable character as the team geologist and another character that bonds with Lena on this out of this world journey. Rounding out is Oscar Isaac who plays a lot of the role of Kane in a disoriented state, except for flashbacks when he is himself and does it well. A dependable actor.

There is very little to complain about here with a film that is a return to more thought-provoking science fiction. It is also a visually stunning ride, a suspenseful journey into a dangerous unknown and sometimes, a simply scary flick. We have a solid cast of strong female characters who each have their own reasons for going where only one has returned. It’s well-written, intensely directed and shows, like Ex Machina, that Alex Garland is a cinematic force to be reckoned with and a filmmaker who walks to the beat of his own drum.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 4 lighthouse.

 

bars

BARE BONES: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

MZNJ_bareBones_Marquee

now playing

Humerus-Bone1


GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

Based on the classic Anime of the same name, flick tells the future-set story of The Major (Scarlett Johansson), who is the first of her kind, a completely cybernetic being with a human brain. The Major is part of an anti-terrorist unit and is called to action when members of Hanka Robotics, the folks that created her, are being murdered. The Major’s journey to find those responsible takes a very personal turn which may compromise her mission and cost her, her life.

On one hand it’s amazing that Blade Runner and The Matrix are still influencing movies and film-makers today, while on the other hand it’s getting kind of tiresome to see the same neon drenched city-scapes and slow motion gunfight scenes. As for the 1989 Anime by Masamune Shirow, it was ground breaking in it’s day, but almost twenty years later, the story elements have been reused and warn out. So despite some hefty influences and classic source material, this live action version has nothing really to offer and director Rupert Sanders and his script by three writers can’t change that. It’s a dull affair with plot and visual elements that we’ve all seen countless times since the films that inspired them. Even Ms. Johansson’s charms are lost among-st all the “been there, done that” and barely make this watchable for. A cyberpunk snoozefest. At least the score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe was 80s electronic cool.

-MonsterZero NJ

Humerus-Bone1

bars

REVIEW: THE MACHINE (2013)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

machine

bars

THE MACHINE (2013)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

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

  3 and 1/2 “Machines”.

machine rating

 

 

 

 

bars

BARE BONES: DIVERGENT and BAD WORDS

MZNJ_bareBones_Marquee

now playing

Humerus-Bone1

Divergent

DIVERGENT (2014)

Another teen-centric sci-fi movie based on a book series. This one by Veronica Roth has a post-war walled city of Chicago where society is separated into 5 groups referred to as ‘factions’ that each serve a purpose to support the city. If you think this is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the high school class structure, it just shows how obvious it all is. Subjects are tested when they come of age to determine which group they are best suited for but, are ultimately allowed to choose their own faction… which kinda negates the point of the test. Enter Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) who is born into the Abnegation (the good kids) faction but, yearns to be in the Dauntless faction (the rebels, cool kids) who protect the city and maintain law. But, her aptitude test brands her a ‘Divergent’… someone capable of being in any of the five groups… and thus she must try to hide her designation, as being whoever you want to be, is frowned upon in this high school… ah-hem, futuristic society. Throw in her efforts to succeed as a Dauntless, falling for her hunky Dauntless trainer ‘Four’ (Theo James) and saving the city from a coup d’etat and we have all the paper thin messages about being who you are, being whatever you want to be, overcoming adversity and first love that any pimpled teen could want. The saving grace is that director Neil Burger (Limitless) moves everything at a brisk pace, takes this teen angst metaphor seriously and gets good work out of his cast especially leading lady Woodley, who is no Jennifer Lawrence and her ‘Triss’ is no Katniss, but, she is charming and endearing enough and makes a feisty heroine. Overall, it’s actually manages to be somewhat entertaining despite how obvious and derivative the material is. Also stars Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson and Jai Courtney.

3 star rating

Humerus-Bone1

bad_words_xlg

BAD WORDS (2014)

Actor Jason Bateman makes his directorial debut in this deviously funny and delightfully inappropriate comedy about 40 year old grade school drop out Guy Trilby (Bateman) who exploits a loophole in the rules to enter a children’s national spelling bee. Trilby obviously has an agenda, other than embarrassing a bunch of 10 year olds, as he drags a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) along and enters in a friendship/rivalry with a precocious Indian boy (Rohand Chand) who also wants the championship. Andrew Dodge’s script has some blisteringly funny moments, though there are a few sentimental ones too, and director Bateman gives a really hilarious performances as the bitter and angry Trilby, who will stoop to any level to mow down his pre-adolescent competition. Bateman also gets very good work out of his fellow cast members, including young Chand, and crafts a movie that is not afraid to ‘go there’ and present it’s young spelling bee contestants in hysterically inappropriate spots. Suffers slightly from a routine, sentimental climax but, otherwise is a daring and very funny work from first-time director Bateman and writer Dodge. Also, at 88 minutes the movie knows not to wear out it’s welcome.

three and one half stars rating

Humerus-Bone1
bars

REVIEW: LUCY (2014)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

Lucy-2014-Movie-Poster

bars

LUCY (2014)

Lucy is an audaciously ridiculous sci-fi/action flick from writer/director Luc Besson based on the myth that we only use 10% of our brain capacity and what would happen to one young woman, when that changes. Science aside, it is a flick that is so brazenly off the wall that it is very enjoyable on a popcorn fun level, despite how silly it all is… and Besson knows it.

The film tells the overblown story of student Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who is tricked into delivering a briefcase to dangerous drug lord Kang (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik). Kang decides to use the terrified young woman as a drug mule to smuggle a new synthetic drug to it’s distributors. When the young woman is roughed up by one of the thugs, the bag breaks open and the experimental drug leaks into her body and begins to increase her brain capacity transforming Lucy into a superhuman who can control more and more with her mind as her brain function increases. But, as she tries to find a way to deal with her new abilities by seeking help from renown scientist, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman)… Kang is in hot pursuit to get back his drugs and avenge himself on her. Car chases, pseudo science and telekinetic activity ensues.

Besson’s flicks as both director and producer can be very hit or miss, with The Fifth Element and The Professional being his best. Lucy isn’t quite up to those two but, if you can go with it’s outlandish premise, it can be a fun 90 minutes of action and Star Trek level sci-fi. There is plenty of action throughout and a lot of colorful SPFX sequences too, especially the more powerful Lucy becomes and she gains control over the people and things around her. Besson is having a good time with his premise and let’s you know this is all in fun by adding in snippets of stock footage to accent what is going on on-screen, such as footage of a leopard stalking it’s prey inter-spliced with Lucy walking into the hotel to deliver the briefcase. It’s silly but, that’s the point. Mixed in with the silliness and the outrageous science techno-babble, Besson gives us some surprisingly bloody violence with a few fast-paced car chases and ballistic shoot-outs that he does do very well and always has. The action and FX are all top notch and despite the ridiculousness of the whole thing, the cast take it very seriously too and it helps us to go along with it as much as we do.

As for that cast, it’s Johansson’s show and she gives a very good performance as a woman coming to terms with her transformation into something more then human. She handles the action scenes well and in the brief time before her transformation, she gives us a glimpse of a very likable, if not slightly ditzy young woman. We continue to like Lucy even after she transforms into logical, uber-Spock/Carrie and stick with her even as she becomes more emotionally detached from the world. Besson appears to like strong female characters in his movies and Lucy is no different. Freeman is good, as always, creating a vastly intelligent man who meets Lucy and is drawn back into the boyish sense of wonder that probably got him interested in science to begin with. It’s fun to watch him stare in awe at Lucy as she does her telekinetic thing and the actor is charming as ever. Min-sik is a typical, vicious drug lord character but, does it well, as does Amr Waked who presents a noble policeman in his Del Rio, a cop who gets drawn into being Lucy’s ‘partner’. When dealing with a silly story like this, a solid cast goes along way in getting us to buy it, at least until the movie is over and we start thinking about it… but, by then it’s too late, we’ve had a fun time.

So, overall I liked Lucy. It’s outrageously ridiculous but, Besson knows it and keeps things moving fast and furious enough to keep us from thinking too much about it. It’s colorful, crazy and filled with a lot of action and SPFX and with a strong turn by Scarlett Johansson who really has come into her own with her performances in recent flicks like Don Jon, Her and Under The Skin. Sure when it sinks in, you realize what a dumb movie it is, but, for the rapid-fire 90 minutes that it’s blasting it’s action and imagery at you, it’s a bloody fun popcorn flick that knows exactly how ridiculous it is and runs with it. Overall, kinda forgettable?… maybe… a lot of fun?… yes, it is.

3 Scarletts.

don jon rating

bars

REVIEW: EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

Edge_of_Tomorrow_Poster

bars

EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

Edge Of Tomorrow is a completely derivative yet, actually pretty enjoyable Sci-Fi/Action flick starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. The film is based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s Manga All You Need Is Kill and tells the story of a not too distant future where an alien invasion force has landed and taken a strong foothold in Europe. The beings called ‘mimics’ seem to anticipate the united armed forces’ every move until a victory in Verdun, France, led by Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), gives the Earth a glimmer of hope that the enemy can be defeated. A U.S. military PR man Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is brought in to sell the world… though not sure why the world would need to be ‘sold’ when the situation is so dire… on a massive armed attack on the beaches of France by covering the attack from the front-lines to which the cowardly Cage protests and even tries to blackmail his way out of. This gets him arrested and busted down to foot soldier to now to join the invasion in actual combat… where he is killed within minutes. But, Cage wakes up from death the morning before when first being sent to his new squad and relives the day till being killed again… only to awaken 24 hours earlier once more. With full memory of the previous days, he gets better and better at staying alive until he runs into Sgt. Vrataski who knows what’s going on… it’s happened to her too! His encounter with the blood of a special alien drone known as an ‘Alpha’ has given Cage the alien ability to re-set time and now teamed up with “The Angel Of Verdun” Cage must keep dying till the two successfully destroy the hidden alien power source and stop the enemy before all is lost. But, the re-set power is not permanent and one of Cage’s deaths could be his last… if his own forces don’t lock him and Vrataski up for being crazy first.

Sure this flick is a Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Battle: Los Angeles, and Aliens thrown in a blender with a bunch of other movies but, under Doug Liman’s direction it’s actually a lot of action-packed fun. The action is staged well and the film moves at a good, steady pace and really avoids becoming the mess it could have been with such a convoluted story. The SPFX are flawless and while the design of the film gives us little new, it is suspenseful and has enough of a sense of humor about itself to get past any familiarity. We also get some likable characters to become endeared to and they are well cast. Sure we may not like the cowardly Cage early on but, the more he grows as a soldier and a person the more we like him and are right there with him when he graduates to full blown hero. The time travel elements are also kept pretty basic and while there are always questions when time travel is concerned, Edge keeps the glaring problems to a minimum by not getting too over enthusiastic with it’s use and while certain story elements will fold under too much scrutiny, the film moves fast enough to keep you from thinking too much about it. Liman also gives us some intensity but, keeps the tone of the film from getting too dark and the mix blends just right to keep things on an entertaining level. The script by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth never gets too complicated and is smart enough to change up the formula about half way through to avoid predictability or monotony even though we still have a good idea how things will work out. The only real stand-out flaw is a an ending that is a little too neat and convenient in order to keep this flick a crowd-pleaser but, it’s not bad enough to not go along with it or, seriously hurt the movie.

A big plus is a good cast that perfectly understand the material. Cruise has fun playing a sniveling coward for a while before transforming more into the action hero he is renown for. And once that happens he is as solid as always. Blunt is obviously enjoying being able to play such a badass but, one that doesn’t loose her humanity or femininity. Vrataski is tough but, very likable and sexy and we certainly wouldn’t mind a post battle celebration in her bunk after the war. We also have fan favorite Bill Paxton as a scenery chewing Southern Master Sergeant who leads Cruise’s platoon of misfits into battle over and over and refuses to believe him when Cage has said he’s done this before…. which leads to another small peeve, that in such a dire situation and despite how much foresight Cruise’s Cage seems to have, no one ever gives him or Vrataski even the slightest benefit of the doubt that they can end the war and defeat the invaders. No matter how much info they seem to know, they are completely dismissed. True, it’s a far fetched story but, the world is about to be lost you’d think someone would at least entertain their notions except for his oddball platoon, who are the ones least likely to believe him… especially when they have a physicist to back them up… but, even the physicist is cast aside despite his wealth of knowledge. Makes no sense.

But, despite it’s flaws and being basically a mash-up of things we’ve already seen, Edge Of Tomorrow is an entertaining 113 minutes and was far more satisfying then expected. Go in not expecting much and you might actually come out surprised and having had a good time. A fun Summer movie.

3 and 1/2 sexy sergeants.

edge of tomorrow rating

bars