BARE BONES: TENET (2020)

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TENET (2020)

A CIA agent (John David Washington) commits suicide during a mission gone awry, but finds himself mysteriously revived and now working for an organization known as Tenet. “The Protagonist”, as he is now known, is tasked with stopping Russian businessman Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from using a mysterious device to cause a global catastrophe. Both aiding and impeding his mission is futuristic technology that can alter the flow of time for objects and people alike.

Film is written and directed by Christopher Nolan and is basically a James Bond movie with a science fiction twist. There are some very clever ideas here and it is a very interesting spin on the traditional globe-trotting spy thriller with it’s time travel elements. There are some spectacular action scenes and some sumptuous locations as “The Protagonist” tries to stop Sator from basically destroying the world, like any good Bond villain tries to do. The time hopping objects and having characters from different points in time encountering themselves is all done well, but, to be honest, it does start to get a bit tiresome by the last act…especially with a 150 minute running time. Still, Nolan directs this expertly and keeps control of something that could have been a mess, though the real stars here are the editors on this sometimes too ambitious for it’s own good project. The cast also perform well with Washington being a solid hero, Branagh an effective villain and Robert Pattinson once again doing fine work as The Protagonist’s handler Neil. Definitely worth watching, though requires steady attention or it might loose you.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: EX MACHINA and ANNIHILATION

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MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature is back again, this time with the two feature films from writer/director Alex Garland. For those who like visually striking and thought-provoking science fiction, read on…

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EX MACHINA (2015)

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

Ex Machina is a great little thought-provoking piece of Sci-Fi from Alex Garland, who wrote the cult favorite Dredd and the equally thought-provoking Sunshine. It’s his first directorial effort and as such, it shows he is as adept behind the camera as he is the keyboard.

The film opens with Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee of the internet company Bluebook, being chosen to spend the week at the remote home of the company’s CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb arrives and finds this is not a social event, but he is there to assist in testing a Bateman created artificial intelligence housed inside a very life-like robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Though as Caleb begins his test to see if the A.I. is truly self-aware or just responding to programming, he starts to believe that Nathan may have a dark side and there may be far more to Ava than mere machine.

To describe the story anymore would be to ruin a really interesting and entertaining piece of Sci-Fi from British writer/director Garland. The film obviously takes us to places that we originally did not expect from our opening sequences and certainly more than one character, human and/or machine, may be more than they first appear. Garland brilliantly guides us into his set-up and gets us very interested and emotionally invested in what’s going on and then, slowly starts to pull the rug out from under us, gradually, so we at first don’t realize it. Does Bateman have a hidden agenda?…does Caleb?…or does Ava? It’s a subtle but intense journey to find out what is really going on in this remote home/research facility and one that leaves us thinking about where artificial intelligence ends and sentient life begins. It’s a subject also touched upon in last year’s equally intriguing The Machine, but Garland doesn’t bother going onto the broader implications of A.I. as weapons or something as equally cliché or grandiose, but goes deeper than that to a far more intimate and emotional arena. Just how human can these creations get…and what effect will that have on us? Where does programming end and legitimate emotions begin? Where is the line and when does it disappear?…and what if it does? Do we treat these ‘machines’ as such, or as humans? Garland definitely posses a lot of intriguing questions while skillfully entertaining us with a story that can be equal parts endearing and disturbing. On a technical level, this modestly budgeted thriller has a really interesting visual style with a stark contrast of the gorgeous Norway locations used for the exterior sequences and the colder and more sterile interior of Bateman’s home/lab. The interiors sometimes evoke Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey with it’s almost sterile and functional interior design that contrast it’s occupant with Bateman’s, casual, shoeless and unshaven appearance. Garland has a nice eye for shot framing and it is captured well by cinematographer Rob Hardy whose lighting adds a lot of mood and atmosphere. There is also a very moody electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow and the special visual FX are excellently carried out in presenting Ava and some of the more fantastic elements. A very impressive production on a limited budget.

The cast is excellent! Domhnall Gleeson is perfect as the programmer whisked into the lair of his company CEO and shown wonders he never expected. He obviously starts to have feelings for Ava and the actor makes you believe these feelings are real…and you understand his actions based on them. Oscar Isaac creates an eccentric yet brilliant man with his Nathan Bateman. He is also a man that seems troubled and may have a very dark side and Isaac let’s that bubble just below the surface before our story really starts to show Bateman’s true nature and agenda. As Ava, Alicia Vikander is totally enchanting. We understand how Caleb can start to fall for her, despite her being a machine and Vikander makes her innocent, yet intelligent and gives her a charm and vulnerability which is very convincing…and distracting. Rounding out is Soyona Mizuno as Bateman’s personal assistant Kyoko, who doesn’t speak any English and Mizuno gives her a nice air of mystery that suits the story tone.

In conclusion I really loved this movie. It’s thought provoking, skillfully crafted and keeps one intrigued and guessing. It is intelligently written, but avoids pretension and it can be very very entertaining and a bit disturbing when it needs to be. Definitely made my list of best films of the year for 2015.

-MonsterZero NJ

  Rated 4 (out of 4) Avas.

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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 likable 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 (out of 4) lighthouses.

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REVIEW: MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

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

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols’ film is a science fiction/chase thriller that evokes John Carpenter’s Starman yet, is very much it’s own movie. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a boy with some very unique and unexplainable powers. These powers have earned him a religious cult built around him that believes he can protect them from the coming Judgment Day. As he can receive communications of even the most top secret kind, the government is very interested in him as well. His father Roy (Michael Shannon) and friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) kidnap Alton from the cult and now flee across country to a place and time the boy insists he must be. With both government agents and cultists in hot pursuit, will they get there in time…or at all?

If you can imagine John Carpenter at his prime teaming with Steven Spielberg in his earlier years than this flick is what you might have gotten. Nichols writes and directs a tale of a mysterious and special boy on the run from those who seek to use his gifts for their own purposes. What makes this work especially well is the emotional depth it’s given being presented from the perspective of a loving father accepting his son for who he is and willing to give his life to see him safe. It’s this emotional core that makes this work beyond the well-executed SPFX sequences of Alton’s powers at work…which are used sparingly, but to full effect. There is certainly suspense and some tense sequences, which are all deftly handled, but it is the film’s sense of wonder and the flesh and blood characters that really draw us in. Even if the Spielbergian finale is a bit more on a Disney level than the more intense and sometimes violent rest of the film, it still works and leaves us effected even after the credits role, as Nichols doesn’t just present it, but shows us some of the effects on those around it. It gives the SPFX filled moment weight…and a sense of wonder. The director/writer takes a familiar tale and really makes it something fresh and fills it with some very three dimensional characters which give it a realism and keeps it grounded, despite the science fiction elements. It’s a really enjoyable film with a heart, as well as, SPFX, action and suspense. There is an effective score by David Wingo and some Dean Cundey-esque cinematography from Adam Stone to add to an already exceptional movie.

The cast couldn’t be better. Michael Shannon again proves he is one of the most gifted actors around as Alton’s caring and self-sacrificing father, Roy. Jaeden Lieberher is enchanting as Alton, who is more than he seems and we really endear to him despite his sometimes dangerous abilities. Joel Edgerton, fresh off The Gift, is again solid as the state trooper who is willing to break the laws he holds dear to help his friend and his son. We also have Kirsten Dunst in a touching role as Alton’s mother who loves him enough to possibly let him go, if it means his safety. Sam Shepard also appears as cult leader, Calvin Meyer and rounding out the leads is Adam Driver as a sympathetic government official who decides to help Alton find what it is he is looking for. A top notch cast that make their characters very real.

A emotionally strong and highly enjoyable thriller about a special boy and the race to keep him safe. Alton is a bit of a mystery at first, but as we journey with him, we slowly learn just how fantastically special he is. The film has a big heart with some tense action and suspense, along with a sense of wonder and some very effective SPFX moments. But unlike the CGI laden big budget FX spectacles of today, this film has a very human center at it’s core, about a parents love for their child and the lengths they will go to see them safe. Great movie that reminded me of John Carpenter in his prime and the earlier works of Steven Spielberg. Highly recommended.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 4 (out of 4) Altons.

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BARE BONES: TIGER HOUSE and THE DIABOLICAL

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TIGER HOUSE (2015)

When pretty teen Kelly (Kaya Scodelario) sneaks into her boyfriend’s house, she has no idea what trouble she’s going to get into. A group of four armed men break into the home and take boyfriend Mark (Daniel Boyd) and his parents hostage. They need Mark’s step-dad (Andrew Brent) for a robbery scheme and now only the hidden away Kelly stands between the thieves and a likely horrible fate for the family.

Directed by Thomas Daley and written by Simon Lewis, this is a familiar, yet entertaining enough, thriller. Kelly is locked in the high security house with the men and plays a cat and mouse game with them to try and release their hostages. It could have had some more intensity and one character’s change of heart seems like a contrived plot device to get Kelly out of trouble here and there, but Miss Scodelario makes a solid and very likable heroine who can hold her own and kick a little ass when she needs to. Sure, it could have been better and the big reveal was not much of a surprise, but watching Kelly outwit these guys in a limited space and with little to work with, was entertaining. Not great, but an amusing enough diversion for 90 minutes and star Scodelario earns extra points for her resilient and street-smart Kelly. Also stars Ed Skrein (Deadpool) and Dougray Scott (The Vatican Tapes).

3 star rating

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THE DIABOLICAL (2015)

Directed by Alistair Legrand, who co-wrote with Luke Harvis, this haunting story finds a pretty, single mom (Ali Larter) battling an increasingly hostile entity in her home. As she starts to investigate the haunting, she finds a connection between it and a mysterious research facility. This takes her already nightmarish situation on an even more bizarre…and personal…turn.

Flick starts out as a routine, but well enough made, haunting scenario with innocents in an apparently haunted house. What earns it a few extra points is an interesting science fiction twist about two thirds of the way through and a very strong performance by Larter, as the mom dedicated to protecting her kids. The make-up effects are also well done and presented effectively and there are some solid spooky sequences. The big reveal at the climax was a surprise and also added a little emotional weight to the flick after a familiar start. Director Legrand does give it some atmosphere and there are a few legitimate scares. Not a great movie by any lengths, but entertaining enough to pass the time on the couch if there is nothing else going on TV-wise.

3 star rating

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-MonsterZero NJ
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REVIEW: EX MACHINA (2015)

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EX MACHINA (2015)

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

Ex Machina is a great little thought-provoking piece of Sci-Fi from Alex Garland, who wrote the cult favorite Dredd and the equally thought-provoking Sunshine. It’s his first directorial effort and as such, it shows he is as adept behind the camera as he is the keyboard.

The film opens with Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee of the internet company Bluebook, being chosen to spend the week at the remote home of the company’s CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb arrives and finds this is not a social event, but he is there to assist in testing a Bateman created artificial intelligence housed inside a very life-like robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Though as Caleb begins his test to see if the A.I. is truly self-aware or just responding to programming, he starts to believe that Nathan may have a dark side and there may be far more to Ava than mere machine.

To describe the story anymore would be to ruin a really interesting and entertaining piece of Sci-Fi from British writer/director Garland. The film obviously takes us to places that we originally did not expect from our opening sequences and certainly more than one character, human and/or machine, may be more than they first appear. Garland brilliantly guides us into his set-up and gets us very interested and emotionally invested in what’s going on and then, slowly starts to pull the rug out from under us, gradually, so we at first don’t realize it. Does Bateman have a hidden agenda?…does Caleb?…or does Ava? It’s a subtle but intense journey to find out what is really going on in this remote home/research facility and one that leaves us thinking about where artificial intelligence ends and sentient life begins. It’s a subject also touched upon in last year’s equally intriguing The Machine, but Garland doesn’t bother going onto the broader implications of A.I. as weapons or something as equally cliché or grandiose, but goes deeper than that to a far more intimate and emotional arena. Just how human can these creations get…and what effect will that have on us? Where does programming end and legitimate emotions begin? Where is the line and when does it disappear?…and what if it does? Do we treat these ‘machines’ as such, or as humans? Garland definitely posses a lot of intriguing questions while skillfully entertaining us with a story that can be equal parts endearing and disturbing. On a technical level, this modestly budgeted thriller has a really interesting visual style with a stark contrast of the gorgeous Norway locations used for the exterior sequences and the colder and more sterile interior of Bateman’s home/lab. The interiors sometimes evoke Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey with it’s almost sterile and functional interior design that contrast it’s occupant with Bateman’s, casual, shoeless and unshaven appearance. Garland has a nice eye for shot framing and it is captured well by cinematographer Rob Hardy whose lighting adds a lot of mood and atmosphere. There is also a very moody electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow and the special visual FX are excellently carried out in presenting Ava and some of the more fantastic elements. A very impressive production on a limited budget.

The cast is excellent! Domhnall Gleeson is perfect as the programmer whisked into the lair of his company CEO and shown wonders he never expected. He obviously starts to have feelings for Ava and the actor makes you believe these feelings are real…and you understand his actions based on them. Oscar Isaac creates an eccentric yet brilliant man with his Nathan Bateman. He is also a man that seems troubled and may have a very dark side and Isaac let’s that bubble just below the surface before our story really starts to show Bateman’s true nature and agenda. As Ava, Alicia Vikander is totally enchanting. We understand how Caleb can start to fall for her, despite her being a machine and Vikander makes her innocent, yet intelligent and gives her a charm and vulnerability which is very convincing…and distracting. Rounding out is Soyona Mizuno as Bateman’s personal assistant Kyoko, who doesn’t speak any English and Mizuno gives her a nice air of mystery that suits the story tone.

In conclusion I really loved this movie. It’s thought provoking, skillfully crafted and keeps one intrigued and guessing. It is intelligently written, but avoids pretension and it can be very very entertaining and a bit disturbing when it needs to be. Definitely will go on my list of best films of the year.

-MonsterZero NJ

  4 Avas.

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