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: ANNIHILATION (2018)

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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 lighthouse.

 

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REVIEW: THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Third solo flick for the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) has his sister, Hela The God of Death (Cate Blanchett) returning from exile and claiming the throne of Asgard. She destroys Thor’s hammer and casts he and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) into space, where they land on the anarchic planet of Sakaar. While Hela lays waste to Asgard’s armies, Thor is taken prisoner and forced into a gladiatorial arena where he finds his old ally Hulk is the reigning champion. Ever determined to save his world, Thor plots to escape with Hulk, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and a Asgardian Valkyrie warrior (Tessa Thompson) in hiding, who has faced Hela before.

Marvel took a chance with an out of left-field choice by hiring New Zealand comedy director Taika Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) for this third entry. Armed with a script and story by Christopher Yost, Eric Pearson and Chris Kyle, Waititi delivers an audacious action/adventure that evokes The Fifth Element with it’s mix of over-the top, sci-fi action and a delightfully eccentric sense of humor. It’s tone also echos the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks, but while their humor was sarcastic and biting, here it’s very offbeat and sometimes downright weird. It makes for one of the more daring and fun entries in Marvel’s long running film series and it works far more than it doesn’t…and not all the humor hits the mark. The design of the film and it’s action sequences is stunning and it doesn’t quite look like anything we’ve seen from these movies so far, though not too different to alienate itself from the other films of the MCU. The SPFX are as good as it gets and there is a wonderfully 80s-esque electronic score from Mark Mothersbaugh. At 130 minutes it might be a tad too long, but it is never boring and when it’s not thrilling us with some spectacular action, it’s providing some solid laughs and gives us one of the stronger Marvel villain’s to boo with Blanchett’s Hela.

The cast all do wonderfully here. Chris Hemsworth shows he has a gift for comedy with a more jovial Thor. He’s still haughty and noble and a bit self-centered, but the actor also handles the comic scenes very well without weakening the God of Thunder’s heroic veneer. Hiddleston is also fun as Loki, who seems more reluctantly along for the ride this time than his usual in control, scheming self. Tessa Thompson is fiery and sexy as the Valkyrie warrior who once faced Hela and it frightened her so much she went into self-imposed exile on Sakaar’s nowhere land. There is still a noble quality hidden under the booze and bravado and it will draw her to Thor’s side despite her reluctance. Mark Ruffalo is again a delight as Banner/Hulk. The good doctor seems to have taken a backseat to his green alter ego and it’s fun to watch him deal with the fact that he’s been Hulk-ed out for over two years. Cate Blanchett is smoothly sinister as the God of Death, Hela. She is a great actress and makes her fierce and powerful, but not without a very dry and twisted sense of humor. She’s fun to watch as she chews the scenery, but she never let’s the character get too over-the-top, avoiding camp. In support we have Karl Urban as Skurge, a traitorous Asgardian who becomes Hela’s henchman, Idris Elba returning as Heimdall and Jeff Goldblum as the eccentric and flamboyant Grandmaster, who runs Sakaar’s gladiator matches. A great cast who deftly handle the offbeat tone and material.

This flick may not be for everyone, but for those who enjoy movies like The Fifth Element, or even the recent Guardians movies, this is definitely up your alley. It’s got some spectacular action, some visually sumptuous settings and FX and a healthy, but very offbeat and eccentric sense of humor. Director Waititi delivers one of the more audacious entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and he and lead Hemsworth keep Thor’s effective qualities sharp, while making him far funnier than we’ve ever seen him…and it works. There is a top notch cast of eclectic characters to back the God of Thunder up, including Waititi’s own hilarious vocalization of alien gladiator Korg and an appearance by another Marvel superhero, that won’t be spoiled here. A really fun and in many ways daring, entry in Marvel’s on-going movie series.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 hammers.

 

 

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