Thursday, April 16, 2015

New movie review: Lost River

Iain De Caestecker stars as Bones in Lost River, the directorial debut of actor Ryan Gosling.

Horror films have long gotten mileage from fear of the unknown. Terror is derived from monsters lurking in the shadows or hiding under the bed or from the creeping sense of dread for what may come or what is already here. Uncertainty is powerful, and sometimes, anticipation alone can be too much to bear. From one moment to the next, we can never be sure whether we are safe or whether something wicked is waiting for us just around the corner.

In some cases, however, the most frightening demons are standing in front of us and hiding in plain sight. Popular wisdom suggests you cannot fight what you cannot see, but what about the enemies everyone sees but refuses to acknowledge? It is hard enough to run from trouble, but escape can prove impossible if your obstacles sit directly in your path to safety.

Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River is about a great many things, but mostly it is concerned with the ways our lives, our loves, and our dreams can be stolen out from under us in full view of a world that would rather just look away. There is nothing to inoculate us against the menacing forces that seek to cause harm, and the only true security is that which we provide for ourselves.

Fairly or unfairly, there is nowhere in America now that better exemplifies this milieu than Detroit, where Lost River is set and was filmed. Gosling uses the ghosts of the real world to add gravity to the story of a family struggling to survive and desperately clinging to a dream that has clearly transformed into a nightmare for so many others. The opening scene of the movie features a man hurriedly loading his things into a truck and telling the film’s teenage protagonist to get out while he can – easy advice from a man whose bags are already packed.

Lost River tells the parallel stories of Billy (Christina Hendricks from Mad Men and Drive) and her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Single mother Billy, who has a toddler-aged son in addition to Bones, is trying to keep a roof above her family’s head, but she has fallen behind on her house payments thanks to a bad loan of the kind that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. She has no money and no way out but is offered a job by a sinister banker who has come to town to clean up the mess his predecessors left behind.

Bones spends his days gutting homes that have been abandoned and salvaging whatever copper he can to sell. His nights are spent with the neighbor girl, Rat, played by Saoirse Ronan and so named because of her pet rat, though the name could be just as reflective of her place in society. Bones’ activities cause him to run afoul of the self-appointed neighborhood gangster, who deals with agitators by cutting their lips off on the first offense. Presumably, no one dares commit a second offense.

The banker, played by the magnificent Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, The Place Beyond the Pines), opens a club on the outskirts of town. He tells Billy he has done this in each of the “lost rivers” he has visited. Billy’s job offer consists of simulating self-mutilation on stage for the club’s wealthy clientele. The banker calls it a release for his customers, which it is, but it is also the manifestation of all their impotent rage over what the financial crisis has done to them. For them, this is the next best thing to lashing out in violence.

Meanwhile, Bones discovers a town completely submerged in water, one result of a nearby dam project. The town is so frozen in time that it even features dinosaurs, albeit as part of a prehistoric theme park that once existed there. Rat obsessively views an old educational film reel that was seemingly used to dupe the townspeople into believing the dam would be good for them, while her grandmother is also frozen in time with her own film. Her husband died during the construction of the dam, and she has not spoken since, preferring instead to sit in silence and watch her wedding video over and over.

The grandmother is played by Barbara Steele, a great actress from a number of classic Italian and American horror films. Her presence alone is an homage to some of Gosling’s influences, and much of the film is clearly inspired by the work of Nicolas Winding Refn and Derek Cianfrance, two directors Gosling has collaborated with multiple times. Both are even name-checked in the acknowledgements in the credits. However, while Gosling’s visual style may not be unique – though the photography by the brilliant and underrated Benoît Debie is sumptuous – his script is a densely layered, tightly woven mini-masterpiece.

As with all great films, nothing feels accidental, and even incidental moments are packed with meaning, both in the moment and for future events. Though ideas of right and wrong have lost their meaning in Gosling’s grotesque creation, there is a clearly defined sense of fatalism, in that the wrongs we perpetrate almost inevitably are revisited upon us. Billy, Bones, and Rat are good people trapped in a place with no future, only shadows of the past.

They cling to the lives they have because this is all they have ever known, but the world has conspired to tear all of that apart. Something is coming for them, be it in the form of the town bully, a devious banker, or the universe itself, but something is most definitely coming, so they are forced to choose. They can stand their ground and be destroyed or charge headlong at the monsters moving toward them. They are scared and have every right to be, but when all other roads lead to the slow death of the body and soul, the only choice is to escape.

See it? Yes.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

New movie review: Ex Machina

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson star in Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller Ex Machina.

Empathy is probably the distinguishing feature of humanity. Our ability to care about other life forms and imagine ourselves in their place is unique and a little strange, when you get right down to it. From an evolutionary perspective, it is hardly advantageous to concern ourselves with the feelings of animals or lesser life forms, particularly those we eat and those that pose a danger to us. Yet, vegetarianism and veganism do not seem to be going anywhere, and the list of protected alpha predators just keeps growing.

Other species do not do this. The lion does not think for a second about the zebra before it pounces, but I defy most people – even some avid hunters – to pull the trigger on a deer without a moment of hesitation or a pang of regret. Some of you cannot kill a bug without wondering about the implications. This sense of understanding for the lives of other feels as natural as breathing, but we cannot explain it. This puts humanity in a precarious place when it comes to beings as intelligent as we are or more so.

In writer-director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, not only do we meet that being, but we are responsible for its creation. Garland made his bones writing the screenplays for such intelligent, thought-provoking science-fiction films as 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and the critically maligned Sunshine. Now, with his first go around in the director’s chair, he has produced yet another smart exploration of how people understand themselves and each other in extraordinary circumstances.

Domhnall Gleeson (Frank, Unbroken) is Caleb a computer programmer who works for a Google-like corporation. He wins a contest to visit the remote estate of the company’s founder for a week, during which time he believes he will be mentored by the reclusive genius, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year). Nathan has other plans. Caleb has been brought to the estate to help test the world’s first true artificial intelligence.

Utilizing a variation on the famous Turing test – in which a computer is said to be artificially intelligent if the tester cannot distinguish between an interaction with it and a human – the two men set out to prove the legitimacy of Nathan’s technological achievement. However, we are well beyond the traditional Turing test, so we are introduced to Ava. She is an AI computer in the body of a humanoid robot brought to life by the remarkable Alicia Vikander.

Complications arise as Ava becomes more and more stunning in her humanness, and Caleb begins to question whether something so intelligent that seems to think and feel as he does should be subjected to testing and confinement such as this. During one of their sessions together, Ava tells Caleb she has never left her room and dreams of going into the world just to watch the people. Vikander sells Ava’s emotions with a perfect blend of computerized affectation and schoolgirl naiveté.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.
This year should be something of a coming out party for the Swedish ingénue, and Vikander’s IMDB page lists no fewer than six films in which she appears set for release in 2015. Based solely on her performance in Ex Machina, she deserves the increased profile. The portrayal of Ava is a tightrope walk. She is a computer and must always have that artificiality, but she must also be so human it is haunting. In Vikander’s mannerisms and line readings, she crafts a complete character from a being that has never before existed, and though she was created by the hands of a man, she is incomprehensible to his mind.

Nathan sees Ava as an experiment, the success of which would only feed his immense ego. When Caleb tells him that bringing about new life is the business of gods, Nathan takes this to its logical extreme, stating: “I am a god.” As the founder of the world’s largest search engine, he already has the ability to peer into the hearts, minds, and souls of humanity through his users’ search histories – an advantage he uses to form the basis of Ava’s artificial intelligence. Now, he wants the feeling of creation.

Part of the brilliance of Garland’s script is the way it plays with certain religious and mythological overtones while still delivering a riveting psychological thriller. The sci-fi genre has always been ripe for allegory because it allows artists to create worlds that reflect our own but show us something we have never seen. Garland is a master at this, hooking audiences on a visceral story level and using that engagement to force them to consider perspectives of which they may not have even been aware.

Nathan comes off as the villain to us because he seems cold, calculating, and mysterious. On the other hand, we connect to Caleb because he is open, honest, and sensitive. Ava is a wild card that represents both and neither. She is the manufactured evolution of humanity – a computer that expresses vulnerability. Nathan can only relate to her as a computer, whereas Caleb relates to her vulnerability. She is a lab rat, part of an experiment Nathan wishes to see through to its conclusion. He pokes and prods and wants results. Caleb sees the rat, but he also sees its pain and how it is afraid.

She asks Caleb what will happen to her if she fails the test. Most likely, she will be shut off and reconfigured. Put another way, she will be killed. By design, it is unclear if she understands the full implications of her own death, but like any conscious life form, she instinctually knows it is something to be avoided at all costs. Caleb, however, understands what dying would mean, and he can put himself in her place and understand her fear. He is determined to save her because in the end, it remains empathy that makes us truly human – and truly flawed.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Buzz kill: It Follows and the media hype machine

Maika Monroe stars in the new horror film It Follows.

Hype is a killer. I am probably guiltier of it than most people I know, but we have all done it – oversold a movie or a book or a restaurant and, by our enthusiasm, destroyed any opportunity for our audience to enjoy something without bias. Rather than instilling the level of excitement in our friends that we might hope for, we are priming them to be let down.

It is a natural cultural phenomenon that has been exacerbated to an absurd degree by the Internet. It makes a certain amount of sense. With a million things at once all vying for attention, it helps to stand out in the crowd, so movies are sold with superlatives. Everything is the best, the funniest, the scariest, etc. What this does, however, is it robs us of the joys of the merely good.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s new horror-thriller It Follows is pretty good, but its premiere was met with breathless praise, proclaiming it the new pinnacle of modern horror and so forth. Here is a sampling of quotes from the marketing materials:

It Follows is the best horror film in over a decade.” – Boing Boing

“… the best American horror film since The Blair Witch Project.” – The Dissolve

It Follows pretty much earns its buzz as the scariest and best-engineered American horror movie of recent years …” – Salon

The Dissolve also landed the quote that adorns most of the film’s posters, calling it “one of the most striking American horror films in years.” Notice all those superlatives, and this sample is representative. The film owns a score of 83 out of 100 on film criticism aggregation site Metacritic and has enjoyed raves from such publications as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian. It would be difficult for any film to live up to such a reputation, let alone an indie horror flick from a relatively unproven filmmaker.

As a general rule, I try not to let buzz influence my anticipation of a film one way or the other. I do not read reviews before I see movies or, indeed, until after I have written down my own thoughts. Some cross-pollination of ideas is obviously inevitable, but for the most part, I am flying blind. However, It Follows was only on my radar due to the tremendous critical praise it was receiving. As an avid horror fan, I was excited by the possibilities of a new classic of the genre and sought it out.

What I can report is that It Follows is an accomplished thriller that impresses on a technical level and features an intriguing premise but also has some real flaws. Aided by a brilliant musical score by Disasterpeace that reminds of classic grindhouse movies, Mitchell creates a genuinely chilling first half that will have you grasping at your arm rest in dread. The back half of the film is more problematic thanks to a script that refuses to address certain issues of logic and motivation.

The plot concerns a young woman played by the up-and-coming Maika Monroe who is told after a consensual sexual encounter that she will be terrorized by some kind of supernatural force that will eventually kill her. She learns the only way to avoid a gruesome death is to pass the haunting on to someone else by having sex, and this is about as deep as the plot goes. The rest is atmosphere, mood, and more than a few well timed jump scares.

Since Mitchell and his collaborators keep their cards close to their chest, any message about promiscuity or sexual freedom is murky at best and indecipherable at worst. The film lacks a true point of view and seems willfully adolescent in its treatment of sexuality and violence. In other words, It Follows is a standard teen slasher pic, which makes for a fun night at the movies if that is your thing, but it is greatly burdened by its “best this” and “scariest that” buzz.

The Babadook
Recent Australian horror picture The Babadook opened to similar critical acclaim, and while it is a more accomplished film than It Follows, it also suffocates under the weight of universal adulation and sky-high expectations. The problem extends beyond horror and beyond film, really, but the proximity to each other and similarity of response to It Follows and The Babadook got me thinking about the way we build things up and give ourselves over to the consensus.

Our culture is no longer really set up to accommodate measured consideration of complex topics – a shortcoming that affects all manner of discourse, not just films. When a line is drawn in the sand, we pretty much have to pick a side, which means It Follows is either the best horror film of the new century or the most overrated piece of drivel in recent memory.

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media await your decision, and the most ardent commenters are ready to dole out shame and punishments as necessary to those of you who choose wrong, whatever you choose. But, what if It Follows is neither pinnacle nor nadir? What if it is merely good, and the audience’s only expectation is a thrilling ride and a fun night out? Well, that would be a promise on which this movie could surely deliver.