In the Earth

Release: Friday, April 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Joel Fry; Ellora Torchia; Reece Shearsmith; Hayley Squires; John Hollingworth; Mark Monero

Distributor: Neon

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Cabin fever never sounded so appealing after “getting back out there” in the new psychedelic experiment from avant-garde British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. His tenth film In the Earth is a thoroughly disorienting and unsettling venture through the woods, one set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Filmed over the course of just 15 days and during a locked-down August 2020, In the Earth may be horror done on the cheap but it doesn’t particularly look or feel like it. What admissions there are chiefly surface in some character interactions that feel rushed, while later on the more abstract passages can feel indulgent to the point of being filler. Impenetrable though it may become, you have to be impressed with the fact Wheatley has wrangled together such a crazy movie amidst creatively infertile conditions.

It’s what he manages to pull off with setting and atmosphere that leaves a bruising mark and that serves as the best distraction from the film’s financial limitations and, quite frankly, the barriers to comprehension it tends to build, particularly towards the end. A stone monolith with a perfect hole in the middle watches over all. You’ll spend almost the entire movie trying to get in its good graces so that it may allow you to understand what the frikk it is. The table-setting (and plain old setting) is reminiscent of Annihilation (2018) but this time the foolish entrants aren’t loaded with pistols and rifles and thingies that explode. Nope, just backpacks and research materials. And, as with so many characters in this kind of story, plenty of arrogance.

Stripped of the basic comfort of likable protagonists — they’re not unlikable per se, but hard to get a read on — In the Earth is a trippy, gory and at times perverse horror that follows a scientist and a park ranger into a forest laced with threats, some natural and others inexplicable — a surreal and dangerous ecosystem with its own rules, its own creepy mythology and maybe even its own agenda. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a lodge that’s been converted to a research facility on the edge of a dense forest just outside Bristol, England. He’s here to check in on a colleague and former lover, a Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who hasn’t been seen or heard from in months.

Upon arrival he’s whisked through a rather serious sanitization procedure and meets a few researchers hanging about the place, all of whom seem physically and mentally worn down. Martin is to make a two-day trek to her research base deep in the woods, accompanied by experienced park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). With all his focus on rescuing Wendle, he has no time to really care about the strange painting on the wall of the lodge, a depiction of an apparent woodland creature known around these parts as Parnag Fegg. That’s nice. It’s just cool artwork though, right?

The journey starts off with a bad omen as Martin confesses with annoying nonchalance to a lack of fitness and experience roughing it. Then a midnight assault in which both campers lose all essential equipment, including shoes, forcing them to continue barefoot. (Does this style of hiking ever end well?) Eventually they cross paths with a grizzled loner (Reece Shearsmith) who after a tense standoff introduces himself as Zach and offers to help and heal. It is at this point your brain might recall that early childhood lesson: Do not drink the mushroom milk offered by strange men in the woods.

All of this, including the unholy and stomach-churning sequence that soon follows, remains predictable for a horror flick buried deep in the deciduous. Especially when you have nervous doctors back at the lodge foreshadowing the shit out of people’s tendencies to get “a bit funny” in the woods. On another level, for those better traveled in Wheatley’s exotic and weird brand of filmmaking you know the film is, sooner or later, going to walk off a cliff.

Avoiding of course the literal precipice, In the Earth frustratingly descends into an edit-fest, assaulting you with aural and visual menace in massively churned-up chunks of footage that feel pieced together from the weirdest acid trip you could possibly have. Dissonant sound overwhelms while strobing lights penetrate the eyeball like knives. Encroaching fog presents a terrifying new challenge while the stone monolith continues to breathe and sigh. The final act is something to behold, if not quite believed or even understood. Like the film overall, it becomes something to admire rather than enjoy.

Stoned out of your mind

Moral of the Story: Though appearing to be set in a time similar to our present miserable reality, this appears to me to be as much a movie about man’s relationship with nature as it is one about man and virus. Far from a crowd-pleasing good time, In the Earth is a novelty horror for the more adventurous. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Let me guide you out of the woods.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.movieinsider.com 

A Quiet Place Part II

Release: Friday, May 28, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: John Krasinski 

Directed by: John Krasinski

Starring: Emily Blunt; Millicent Simmonds; Noah Jupe; Cillian Murphy

 

 

 

 

****/*****

Speech is silver, silence is golden.

The old proverb has turned into a post-apocalyptic motivational poster in the brave new world John Krasinski has created with A Quiet Place, one in which survivors of an alien attack must mute their every move, their every syllable to avoid being gobbled up by these terrifyingly sound-sensitive invaders. When characters do communicate words and gestures carry weight. Sorry to the aliens, but it is the human factor — fear of failure, coping with loss — that is bringing audiences back for a second helping. The question is, was the prolonged wait worth it?

Short answer: an enthusiastic (but whispered) ‘Yes.’ The secret sauce may not have the same kick twice, for now we’re expecting unbearable silence, but Krasinski has great insurance against damages done by the element of predictability: He’s got strong characters (now handled by Part 1 scribes Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) and the caliber actors to take those creations to an even higher place. Big Tuna’s genius stroke, though, is in shifting the perspective to the kids, turning Part 2 into a legacy film wherein the younger actors have much more agency and influence over events. If the original was an allegory for parental fears of failing your kids, Part 2 swings the other way — Regan’s fear of not measuring up to Dad coming through in her damn-the-torpedoes attitude as she increasingly takes matters into her own hands.

More or less picking up right from where we left off in 2018, barring a prologue that gives us the origins of the creatures in chaotic fashion, A Quiet Place Part 2 wastes no time in justifying the big-screen treatment while along the way introducing some new faces and new albeit not surprising threats. Krasinski, who returns as sole screenwriter this time (and for a brief cameo in the film), sacrifices the intimacy of Part 1‘s more insular location for a larger playing board loaded with even more hazards, some of which truly catch you off-guard, while others might have you cringe for the wrong reason.

Jump ahead 474 days and the Abbotts, the world’s most resourceful family, are now on the run, bereft of Dad and the relative safety of their farmhouse. They are down but far from out. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt — Edge of Tomorrow; Looper), with her surviving children Regan (Millicent Simmonds — A Quiet Place; Wonderstruck), Marcus (Noah Jupe — Honey Boy; Wonder) and newborn in tow, is hoping, perhaps against hope, for someone out there to be kind enough to let them in.

They eventually come across a grizzled man hanging out in a dilapidated factory. It turns out to be an old friend from back in the day, Lee’s buddy Emmett (Cillian Murphy — Peaky Blinders; Batman Begins), now uncannily sporting a face covering and a shell of his former self having failed to protect his own family. Understandably he’s reticent to allow anyone else in to his safe space. Of course, uh, he does (otherwise this is going to be A Very Short-lived Quiet Place). It’s not long before the kids are getting restless and Regan, by way of Marcus, discovers there may well be other people worth saving out there. Maybe, upon uniting with them, both factions can help each other. Marcus, however, is not as willing to embark on a suicidal Stand By Me-esque venture into the unknown. And Emmett has made it clear there is nothing out there left to save.

A very likable cast goes a long way in offsetting some of the movie’s shortcomings. For example, it helps to have Murphy and Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel; Blood Diamond) fulfill archetypes. While the latter is almost comically incidental to the plot, discarded in a third-act sequence that feels rushed at best, he at least brings a quality of calm to a movie where quietude usually does not translate to peacefulness. As a flesh-and-blood character Murphy fares better. His presence, which evolves from estranged, put-upon uncle to supportive father-figure, becomes integral to the sequel’s themes of perseverance and learning how to move on, especially when he begrudgingly agrees to return Regan to Evelyn.

Part 2 is certainly the louder film. That’s not a bad thing. As the narrative opens into a trident of nerve-racking objectives that finds each Abbott uniquely in peril Krasinski blitzes us with moments of pure thrill while never compromising the humanity at the heart of his story. In fact some of the best character work in either film can be found in Part 2, whether it’s Regan showing compassion for a man who clearly is not her father (skilled in nonverbal communication, possessed of the patience required to work through such difficulties in moments of high anxiety), or Marcus battling something more than monsters as he holds down the fort/furnace while Mama Bear goes searching for precious supplies of oxygen.

Superficially Part 2 doesn’t offer a vastly different experience than what we went through in 2018. I’m not sure it is actually a superior movie but consistency counts for a lot here. Thus far we have two films whose structural integrity very much resembles that of the Abbott’s old farmhouse: Plenty of reliable, sturdy support beams in the form of well-worn genre tropes but also a few really neat, custom bits you won’t find anywhere else. It’s those little details, the way Krasinski and company relate the characters to situations, that will make A Quiet Place worth returning to again, hopefully sooner.

Ya did good, son.

Moral of the Story: The rare sequel that truly works on a conceptual as well as emotional level, A Quiet Place Part 2 welcomes audiences back to theaters in exciting, chilling fashion while laying a clear foundation for more to come. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Run!”

Check out the “nerve-shredding” Final Trailer here! 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.buffalonews.com 

Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


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Photo credits: IMDb

Short, Sweet and Screamy: “Huluween” Reviews

There’s no denying short films have gotten short shrift on Thomas J. I’ve got a few stashed away here and there (and here, too) but the overwhelming majority of my total output has been focused on feature-length productions. And why not? It’s very difficult to review a short film and not spoil it!

I’ve been given an opportunity to try my hand at it (again), what with the recent advent of Hulu’s “Huluween” Film Fest. (Apparently they did this last year, so this isn’t exactly news.) In the spirit of ultimate customer satisfaction, the streaming platform has inundated us with over 800 Halloween-centric titles, movies and shows alike, and have also curated a collection of seven short spooky stories made by up-and-coming indie filmmakers to get viewers in the spirit of Halloween. What follows are some brief thoughts of those offerings. I’ve sorted the reviews in the order in which I viewed them. See what you think. Have you seen any of them yet? What were your experiences? Which was your favorite?


Undo · 7 mins 9 sec · Directed by Nicole Perlman · An interesting moral conundrum — if you could reverse the flow of time and prevent bad things from happening, would you? I’m off on the right foot with this tense, atmospheric piece about a physicist who is celebrating a major breakthrough with his experiments when suddenly fate comes a-knockin’. Set almost entirely in the confines of his swanky urban home the premise is intriguing, the main character is appropriately strange and a little off-kilter, but some shaky CGI and pretty iffy acting in the moments that matter most take this one down just a peg. (3.5/5)

Swiped to Death · 7 mins 28 sec · Directed by Elaine Mongeon · Here’s a film that provides a surprisingly engrossing build-up — especially for me, he who doesn’t do the whole Tinder thing (and now I really won’t!) — and a duo of convincing performers making nervous/awkward/dark jokes prior to their late-night meet-up IRL. The story twists and twists again, rendering you occasionally psychologically disoriented but annoyingly the execution of its denouement really left me flaccid. (3/5)

The Ripper · 5 mins 49 sec · Directed by Calvin Reeder · Unfortunately there isn’t much going for this clearly low-budget short from Calvin Reeder. The premise finds one of the guitarists in an amateur metal band pressed to perform a solo, something his bandmate demands as they’ve already got a rhythm guitarist. Things take a nutty turn, the band’s superfluous second rhythm guitarist proving he indeed has some hidden talents but none that are particularly useful. The acting is bad, the special effects are even worse. I can’t even really say the “otherworldly” ideas driving the story are worth your time either, and at five minutes that’s rather pitiful. (1.5/5) 

Ride · 6 mins 46 sec · Directed by Meredith Alloway · Spin classes take on a sinister quality in this intense, colorful and energetic short about a young girl who, in trying to make new friends in a strange city, unwittingly signs up for the ride of for her life. Among the more effective shorts in this year’s crop, Ride pummels you with its style, the blaring music engulfing the viewer in a heady trip into the cult-like obsession of one scarily committed group of fitness junkies. Hey, if you can’t keep up, all you’re doing is slowing us down. A dark parody that’s a pure adrenaline rush. (4/5) 

Hidden Mother · 5 mins 21 sec · Directed by Joshua Erkman · Subtlety is key in this highly effective and expertly crafted short film about a recently widowed mother receiving one of the creepiest gifts a sister could ever give you — a photo frame that apparently harbors the presence of a sinister spirit. If the conclusion is the measuring stick by which we judge a short film, Hidden Mother is indeed masterful. However practically every minute here is worth its weight in gold, the atmosphere and tension and the rhythmic, labored breathing making this easily the best of the bunch. (4.5/5)

Flagged · 7 mins 16 sec · Directed by Chelsea Lupkin · When a young woman takes a new position as a moderator for a major social media platform called FriendFollowers, she quickly realizes the job description may have left out some deadly details. Though professionally mounted — the effects here are certainly better than The Ripper — and the multiple locations give the impression the filmmakers are playing with a bit more money than their Huluween ’19 peers, ultimately the film collapses due to its muddled message. I think it’s meant to be a cautionary tale about blindly accepting jobs that seem “too good to be true,” particularly feeding on the insecurity of millennials desperate to secure that reliable 9-5 paycheck. But it could just as easily be a broad swipe at the internet and what it’s doing to us. I dunno. Next, please. (2/5)

The Dunes · 6 mins 21 sec · Directed by Jennifer Reeder · Gorgeously shot and cast with Hot Actors, The Dunes I can only pray to Pennywise was pitched as a comedy because that’s the net effect of this silly little romp. A young couple’s beach date gets interrupted by a disturbing presence, something pulled from The Conjuring universe but sans the creepy veil of shadows and darkness. In that way, the film does a decent job of creating and sustaining a sense of dread in the golden light of evening, but really there’s not much to see (or be scared by) here. (2.5/5)


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I Am Mother

Release: Friday, June 7, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Lloyd Green

Directed by: Grant Sputore

I Am Mother is another movie ideally suited for those of us already harboring a healthy distrust of robots. An often disconcerting experience, this post-apocalyptic thriller from Australian and first-time director Grant Sputore uses the relationship between a matronly AI and her flesh-and-blood daughter to create a fascinating allegory for parenthood.

The DNA of some undisputed sci fi classics is infused into the core of this dystopian family drama. While I Am Mother nods toward The Matrix in the climactic moments and a pretty cool rug-pulling moment wherein our perception of the truth gets inverted, and on more than one occasion evokes Skynet’s ubiquitous presence and ruthless determination, the newbie director blends the familiarly awesome and uniquely eerie in a satisfying way, threading plot twists through a claustrophobic, stainless steel environment where not everything is as it seems.

Stripping the world down to a fail-safe bunker and a single automaton (voiced by Rose Byrne, ambulated by Luke Hawker), the story begins in the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic event that has wiped out all of mankind. Mother awakens and promptly sets about her duties, making breakfast, reading the morning news and, oh yeah, seeing to the pretty important task of repopulating Earth. She’s in charge of some 60,000 human embryos, all waiting to be “born” into a decidedly more austere life where Mother’s many rules are a sophisticated calculus to keep everyone safe. From what, exactly, we’re not sure. A relatively fresh face in acting, Danish singer Clara Rugaard plays the first human occupant of the bunker, and to keep things simple awkwardly formal (and no doubt symbolic) she’s only ever referred to as “Daughter.”

Her formative years — halcyon days captured beautifully in a brilliant usage of Bette Midler’s “Baby Of Mine” — appear lonely but the structure is not unlike that afforded a child raised in a loving, well-to-do, albeit more traditionally fleshy family. Limited though they may be she develops passions outside of her schooling, overseen by, who else, Mother. A cute little montage has a young Daughter covering her robo-mommy with stickers. Birthdays are celebrated. For a time, the world is perfect. As she grows she develops a curiosity about the world around her: “Why are there no other children?”

I Am Mother‘s man-machine conflict revolves around trust, something to which I’m sure those who are more qualified to speak on such matters might attest (i.e. actual parents), is a real mother of a challenge. Life’s a harrowing, endlessly twisting tunnel full of unexpected right and left turns. Raising a child is more complicated than the inner gizmos driving a machine. Often it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Unlike for AI making mistakes is part-and-parcel of the human experience. You can be great at nurturing but you won’t ever be perfect.

Which is why it’s so difficult for Mother when an uninvited human guest (an intense Hilary Swank) shows up, seeking shelter from the wasteland and bringing some alarming news with her. Daughter lets her in under certain conditions and in brazen defiance of house rules. “We’ve talked about this. No potentially hostile, gun-wielding guests after 9, got it?”

It’s a point of no return in which I Am Mother‘s fascinating moral conundrum goes from simmering to full blaze. It’s also where Swank essentially wrestles the film away from the erstwhile stars of the show, her wounded-outside-and-in Woman jolting the film with an urgent energy — an adrenaline rush we kind of needed right as the prolonged first act begins to drag a little. All the while the soothing in Byrne’s voice takes on more menace, the native Aussie never inflecting so much as a blip of emotion. It’s brilliant work from a performer you never see. Rugaard remains a sympathetic presence, selling her character’s ingenuity and intelligence, her compassion and her confusion. It’s a complex performance that she handles well, even if her rapport with Woman develops a little too quickly. (I’ll lay more of the blame there on the direction.)

Minor flaws aside, I Am Mother is a meticulous work of art. There are a lot of details that need to come together in just the right way to create that gutsy cliff-hanger-like ending — one that’s sure to keep viewers talking for awhile after. And let’s not overlook the production design, for it’s a character unto itself. The clinical setting of the domicile never makes one feel like they’re at home, while Peter Jackson’s own visual effects company Weta Workshop render the homemaker as a cross between Alicia Vikander’s Ava (from Ex Machina, a movie you could consider the more polished British cousin to I Am Mother), the T-800 (especially when she’s in full-on crisis control mode) and that single, unblinking eye just screams Hal-9000, arguably the mother of all cinematic AI.

Yes, my child, the future is indeed female.

Recommendation: I Am Mother is catnip for fans of intelligent sci fi, with a trio of strong female performances leading the charge and the dystopian aesthetic pulling from a number of big-time (and male-dominated) sci fi of years past. There’s also touches of more contemporary pieces like Ex Machina and 10 Cloverfield Lane as well. And it’s a movie whose ambiguous ending has and will continue to divide opinion. After nearly a month of sitting on this movie I am still unsure what to think of it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “Mothers need time to learn, too. Raising a good child is no small task.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Mission of Honor (Hurricane)

Release: Friday, March 15, 2019 

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Ryan; Alastair Galbraith

Directed by: David Blair

David Blair’s World War II film arrived on American shores earlier this year as Mission of Honor. It was originally titled Hurricane. Just to be clear this is not an account of violent weather but instead one of heroic actions taken by a cadre of mostly Polish and a handful of Czechoslovakian fighter pilots who joined the British RAF in August of 1940, united in the cause to stop Hitler and specifically motivated by their love of their own country.

Mission of Honor isn’t exactly destined for the Library of Congress for its contributions to cinema or society as a whole, but it’s too well made to ignore and the story it tells is equal parts inspiring and devastating. Director David Blair is a patriot but he isn’t afraid of exposing some uglier truths. He’s made a suitably grim movie about an utterly thankless assignment. He directs a story loosely based on real events by Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith.

Mission of Honor follows the exploits of a group of hardened fighter pilots led by the stoic Jan Zumbach, played by Iwan Rheon (you might recognize him as the psychopathic Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones), who escape the oppression in Poland and enlist with the British RAF. They want to do whatever they can to help. They are to be overseen by Canadian RAF pilot John Kent (Milo Gibson). The sixth son of Mel Gibson is graciously provided one of the few moments of levity the film can muster, shown having an amusingly difficult time corralling the troops. It gets a bit silly through here, but trust me — you’re going to want to stuff some of that comic relief into a flask and take it with you from here. Impassioned, steely-nerved and at times combative, these are well-qualified, highly skilled pilots who, as time progresses, become increasingly distressed by the reality of what’s happening back home.

The drama depicts multiple battles being waged. The dogfights between the Hawker Hurricanes (hence the film’s original title) and the enemy Messerschmitts comprise most of the action. These sequences are fairly engaging but are somewhat undermined by poor computer renderings and some awkward tight zooms that insist we really notice the actors “in” the cockpit. When it comes to demonstrating skill, emphasis is placed upon ace pilot Witold Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorociński), who was single-handedly responsible for 17 confirmed kills, while in stark contrast to that deeply religious Gabriel Horodyszcz (Adrien Zareba) is shown grappling with the philosophical ramifications of killing.

On the ground at the Northolt Base we have the internal clashing of culture and personality, the Poles often at odds with the refinement of the British RAF. Language barriers and emotionality generate a lot of tension within the ranks. The actors bring an everyman-like quality to proceedings, though these good-old-boys are ultimately overshadowed by the quietly raging Zumbach, the striking Welsh actor using his piercing green eyes to convey something about war that words cannot. Meanwhile battles for common decency are being waged as women fight their way into positions previously occupied by men. Blair examines the working lives and social environment for women at the time, using Stefanie Martini’s (fictitious) Phyllis Lambert and her uncomfortable interplay with Marc Hughes’ boorish CO Ellis as a less-than-subtle nod to #metoo.

During the Battle of Britain, No. 303 Squadron RAF had more success than any of the other 16 Hurricane squadrons, downing as many as 126 Messerschmitts. They were officially operational August 2, 1940 and disbanded December 11. Of course, the movie cuts off before we can actually get there (although it offers an acknowledgement at the end with some text) but fate — and the Western Betrayal — looms large on the horizon and is constantly foreshadowed by the way the British characters in this movie routinely wrinkle their right honorable noses up at the scrappy underdogs trying to make a difference.

But it wasn’t just governments failing to uphold their military, diplomatic and moral obligation to their besieged Eastern/Central European neighbors. An opinion poll showed that 56% of the British public wanted the Poles and Czechs to be repatriated. Their efforts are considered significant factors in turning the Battle of Britain in Churchill’s favor. And yet they returned home, many to face persecution, imprisonment or their own death. It’s this darkness toward which Blair’s war film treads a weary path. It’s not an uplifting picture, and he’s pretty brave in the way he candidly describes his fellow countrymen in what history tells us is their finest hour.

Checkmate.

Recommendation: Mission of Honor gets a firm recommendation on the basis of the true-life story it depicts (with an apparent loose interpretation of events), and some solid if far from awards-worthy acting and a suitably bleak milieu. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Searching

Release: Friday, August 31, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Aneesh Chaganty; Sev Ohanian

Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty

Searching is undoubtedly among the year’s most pleasantly surprising discoveries. Featuring a unique presentation style that repurposes your local big screen as a 20-foot-tall facsimile of your own favorite personal devices, as well as a crucially sympathetic performance from star John Cho (of Harold & Kumar fame), Searching is an über-modern thriller that’s as technically impressive as it is emotionally involving.

You read me right. The internet-set Searching earns a Roger Ebert 👍👍. It’s hash-tag legit with the way it makes you 🤔 and 😮, effectively doubling as a police procedural in the age of social media-fueled misinformation and obscured identity. In it, father David Kim (Cho) engages in a desperate search for his daughter Margot (Michelle La), who disappears without a trace after attending a study group one night. A Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to his case. She and her team will carry out the ground investigation, while a dismaying David is tasked with tracking Margot’s online activity for any potential digital leads.

Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film proves nothing less than a feat of meticulous craftsmanship, one in which identity becomes the key search term. The story is fairly simple but the canvas is anything but basic — an ever-shifting landscape of multiple open tabs which expose everything from chat history to diary confessions to bank account anomalies. What David thought he knew about his daughter, who’s on the cusp of high school graduation and appears ready to take on the world, turns out to be woefully inaccurate as his necessary privacy violating offers a heartbreaking discovery process steeped in today’s en vogue communication tools — FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, Instagram and YouCast to name a few.

As the investigation heats up and earns national attention viewers are led down a dark, twisting path paved with red herrings and often culminating in frustrating dead-ends. The screenplay, co-written by Chaganty and writer Sev Ohanian, is intelligent and sharply focused. Limited as his physical appearance is, Cho rises to the occasion and builds an affecting portrait of a father way out of his depth. Learning on the fly the basics of life on the internet, David’s newbie status offers parents in the audience a fresh set of nightmares to contend with, simultaneously cautioning millenials over the dangers of volunteering up sensitive information about themselves to third parties. Importantly, this never becomes a lecture. All of these realities are seamlessly woven into the fabric of a genuinely gripping story.

As a film centered around relationships — arguably the lack of them — perhaps the most fascinating one is that which it establishes with us. Watching David’s face contort in anguish and confusion while Twitter users come out of the woodwork calling him a pervert and more besides, we find ourselves in the awkward position of being on the other end of a live stream in which we are unable to interact, try as we might. It moves us to commit major moviegoing sins like breaking out our phones and seeing what it is that we can do to help find the missing Margot. The drama is that authentic and that urgent. It inspires reaction to the point of interaction, and that’s a kind of depth paradigmatic films such as Unfriended and its sequel The Dark Web failed to tap.

Quite hash-tag honestly, it carries a profundity that a great many films fail to grasp, however they are presented. This is a must-see movie folks. 👏

Recommendation: Bubbling with emotional conviction and stuffed to every corner with detail, Searching is a beyond-impressive début feature from a man who knows a thing or two about what the internet can do (director Aneesh Chaganty used to work for Google). Judging this particular film by its cover/poster would be a rather unfortunate mistake in my view. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Dunkirk

Release: Friday, July 21, 2017

→IMAX

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

In memory of my late grandfather, John Little.

In his first historical drama, one that gives the acclaimed writer-director an opportunity to fly that British flag high, Christopher Nolan is deeply committed to creating a singular, sensory experience that goes beyond a mere reenactment. Relying on an intimate relationship between its technical elements as well as time as a constant factor, the acutely distressing thrills of the mighty Dunkirk you will feel in your marrow.

As always, Nolan doesn’t just go for style points. Firmly entrenched within the chaos and destruction of this senses-shattering summer blockbuster lies “the Miracle of Dunkirk,” a story of survival and stoicism nearly lost to the sea of newspaper headlines declaring an embarrassing defeat for the good guys. In fairness, much was lost. This was desperation. Even the British Bulldog acknowledged, sprinkling a pinch of salt upon his heaps of praise for his boys: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

June 1940. The Nazi campaign was steamrolling Europe and had pinned a significant number of Allied forces against the grimy waters of the northern French harbor of Dunkirk. An increasingly desperate Luftwaffe, to whom the task of preventing any sort of escape had ultimately fallen (after a significant delay), had been engaging the opposition on the water as well as in the air. Devastation was catastrophic on both sides, though the Germans suffered greater aerial losses — some 240 aircraft over a nine-day span. In that time 200 marine vessels were sacrificed, including a hospital and the famed Medway Queen, a beautiful British paddle steamer. Out of a total Allied strength approximate 400,000, some 30,000 were either killed in action or presumed dead or captured in this violent and pivotal clash.

Because the Brit has built a career around an intellectual yet highly entertaining brand of filmmaking, the bluntly observational Dunkirk feels somewhat like a departure, if for no other reason than it feels gauche to call this entertainment. The material demands a certain intonation, and as a result Nolan has created his most harrowing, his most sobering movie to date. Even more to his credit, his approach consistently shies away from excessive bloodshed, making this, in some ways, the anti-Saving Private Ryan. The anti-Hacksaw Ridge. The anti-any war film that subscribes to the notion that gore and blood are necessary evils if a viewer is to be properly immersed in the action.

In realizing a significantly world-shaping event, Nolan finds himself as a director adapting to the circumstances. Instead of philosophizing and extrapolating, he takes a more back-door approach to accumulating profound emotion. Empathy for the masses doesn’t require an intimate relationship with any one character. The point is to highlight the commonality found within the calamity. To that end, two things tend to strike you about the film: its narrative style, which follows key role players on each of the three fronts, and the sound design, chiefly realized through Oscar-winning composer and six-time collaborator Hans Zimmer (who clearly took the memo to heart when Nolan told him to make a show of force).

The scenery has changed, yet the element of time remains Nolan’s favorite ball of yarn. Once again he demands it be a malleable object, able to be manipulated in order to heighten the sense of all-encompassing, inescapable danger that crashed upon the stranded repeatedly like waves against the beach. His nonlinear triptych spreads the workload of presenting each unique aspect of the Good Fight across an incredibly efficient 107 minutes, resulting in frequently intense and dynamically intersecting perspectives that show all parts working together. It’s the epitome of cinematic, as opposed to the simple trick-fuckery some critics have dismissed the technique as.

Presented first is “The Mole,” so named after the long breakwater pier upon which thousands stood awaiting rescue, and it describes everything that happens on land. This is where we meet a trio of young soldiers, privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) and a low-ranking soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). We follow them through an obstacle course from hell. Nolan brings aboard a few recognizable faces to give weight to the proceedings, like dry-as-a-box-of-saltines Kenneth Branagh, who doesn’t do much as a British commander, but then the role requires that his hands be tied. James D’Arcy is alongside him as an army colonel.

“The Sea” is the second thread introduced and it develops over the course of a single day. It’s characterized by a death-defying crossing of the English Channel. Mark Rylance gets the distinction of representing this stalwart civilian effort, playing a regular old Joe who felt a great sense of duty to answer Churchill’s call. He’s joined by son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local boy (Barry Keoghan). The purity in this gesture, in their desire to help, is what the movie is all about. Because sometimes actions really do speak louder than words, Nolan keeps dialogue to a minimum in Dunkirk, allowing the actions taken both by the individual and of the collective to drown out even the bombast of Zimmer’s incredible score.

Last but certainly not least is “The Air,” which features all the acrobatics aloft. This segment takes place over the course of just one hour. In it we experience the way Nolan has interpreted the ‘dogfighting’ phenomenon associated with World War II. Needless to say, it’s breathtaking and deeply involving. Bullets ricochet cacophonously. The tin sound is abrasive. Radio comm between the RAF and Farrier screams ’40s simplicity. Some of the most stunning and graceful sequences of combat you will ever see in a war film result from Nolan’s decision to place IMAX cameras on the bodies of actual Spitfires, and returning DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s ability to create unique, disorienting angles. Don’t blame Nolan for any confusion. If anything, lay it all on Hoytema, who turns cameras sideways as we sink into the water to give the impression ‘the walls are closing in.’

As time ticked away and spirits and ammunition ran out, the thousands — mostly British and French, but among them a smattering of Belgians and Canadians — stared longingly across the Channel, wondering if they’d ever make it back to the familiar shores of their hometowns. Others looked skyward, hoping for a miracle in the form of the Royal Air Force, only to be disheartened by the sight of a Messerschmitt dive-bombing right for them. And the lucky left wondering if they’d ever see (and hear) the end of this unrelenting period of undulating, unbearable stress.

Nolan’s latest test piece is about so much more than an historic military debacle. The pearl that lies inside, the drama that lies underneath the drama as it were, is that Churchill got ten times the number of men that he had hoped would bolster the effort in the inevitable Battle of Britain. The moral victory that resulted from Operation Dynamo’s success, the widespread cooperation, epitomizes why Nolan makes movies. As do the incredibly high stakes. The cumulative effect gives modern audiences a better idea of how close we had actually come to living in a world in which the Nazis had conquered more than Europe.

Recommendation: Relentlessly intense and loud, Dunkirk poses unique problems. As an event film that embraces a wide audience, I saw a number of people exiting the theater with their hands over their ears. Perhaps its ambitions as a senses-throttling experience do have drawbacks. But there is no denying the approach makes this a unique war film, and the epitome of a Christopher Nolan production. It doesn’t get much more profound than this. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’m on him.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon — 12 Angry Men (1957)

It has been an absolute delight getting to deliver a third round of film reviews for the Decades Blogathon! On behalf of my excellent co-host Mark, of Three Rows Back, I would like to give everyone another round of applause for taking the time to write something for our little event. You guys make it possible. With any luck we’ll be back again for another, so if you found yourself missing out this year, keep those eyes peeled. Without further ado, here is my take on Sidney Lumet’s 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men


Release: Saturday, April 13, 1957 (limited)

[On Demand]

Written by: Reginald Rose

Directed by: Sidney Lumet

Something I didn’t expect to take away from Sidney Lumet’s astounding feature debut 12 Angry Men was just how much perspiration would be involved in the deliberations. An equally fitting title would have been 12 Sweaty Men. Of course, the drama here is in the details and without the pit-stains, malfunctioning fans and the regular employment of handkerchiefs and cough drops throughout, we’d have a much different movie.

It’s the summer of 1954. While humidity hangs in the air thick as molasses, the fate of an 18-year-old boy hangs in the balance. These 12 men have been summoned by the New York City public court system to determine whether the accused stands guilty of murdering his own father. Because this is a murder trial a unanimous decision must be reached.

Each juror is further reminded they must set aside personal judgment in order to render a fair verdict. Behold, the crux of this particular legal drama. One particular detail worth mentioning is that the boy’s ethnicity is never explicitly stated. It’s less of an accidental omission given the film’s position on the timeline of American history. Set several years prior to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, 12 Angry Men sticks a thermometer into the waters we were treading prior to one of the darkest decades in American history. According to what we witness in the Jurors Room, that water was already boiling.

Lumet, adapting from the 1954 teleplay of the same name created by screenwriter Reginald Rose, cracks open the file with a simple but incredibly effective establishing shot that pans up the building’s exterior, its towering pillars of justice and the cavernous enclave inside. In these rare moments outside the Jurors Room there’s great reverence for the power of the American judicial system. The deliberate framing of the shot(s) a reminder of the weight that is placed upon anyone so lucky to have their number called upon for jury duty.

The brilliance of 12 Angry Men is — well duh, it’s the screenplay — but specifically, the way it crafts drama out of simple debate. Of course, the nature of the discussion itself is far from simple but the premise isn’t much more than finding a way to reach a unanimous decision on whether an 18-year-old non-Caucasian male should receive the death penalty for actions it has been presumed he has taken. In fact that’s the only thing we’re here to discuss: the presumption of guilt.

Or, at least Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 is wanting to talk about it. A lone sheep amongst wolves, he simply asks if there should at least be some discussion about the decision to send a kid to the electric chair. In an early vote, the majority of which assume will be the only one necessary, Juror #8 is the only one to cast a dissenting opinion. The film famously sets about exploring the myriad points of view that have gotten us to this point — where only one man considers otherwise and in so doing becomes the antagonist. What kind of justice is this? That’s a question Fonda would love to have answered.

12 Angry Men uses these jurors to offer a cross-section of the American public of the time. These are individuals from wildly varying walks of life and with different sets of skills, values and personal histories, and while each of them have an important part to play the real stand-outs boil down to a foursome, excluding Fonda’s pivotal Juror #8. Lee J. Cobb plays Juror #3, a loud-mouthed, self-made man who has estranged himself from his own son, perhaps fitting as he is the juror who is also the most resistant to reason and logic; Joseph Sweeney plays the elderly Juror #9, the first to change his vote after hearing #8 out; Jack Klugman as Juror #5 exudes a meek and mild personality but his rough upbringing helps the case immeasurably; and last but not least there’s E.G. Marshall as Juror #4, a man who prefers dispassionate, deductive reasoning over emotional gut-reactions.

As the debate intensifies, certain aspects of each juror’s lives prove influential in ways that are both helpful and distracting. Cobb’s bigoted Juror #3 is the biggest perpetrator of potential wrongdoing as his absolute certainty courses as a venom throughout his body. His views on the matter are both outspoken and dangerous. Other jurors of course have their reasons for holding their vote, but as we come to learn, some opinions are more shakable than others.

The performances, especially from Fonda, are magnetic. This is a film whose heart-pounding action is generated by the spirit of the discussion. Often its ferocity. 12 Angry Men is a movie about arguing, and it swallows your attention whole as it jumps dynamically and effortlessly from one consideration to another, maneuvering the minefield with deft precision you’d think this were actually written by someone with experience in case-building. But fundamentally the film isn’t as interested in the minutiae of legal proceedings as it is in finding the humanity, finding decency. Finding justice.

Recommendation: A scintillating, razor-sharp screenplay and some fine performances from a versatile and impressive ensemble make 12 Angry Men a legal drama for the ages. Hands down one of the best of its genre and one of the better movies from the ’50s in general. How it has taken me until the Decades Blogathon to watch this thing is beyond me, but am I glad that I have finally. An epic saga that unfolds in a single room and over the course of an hour and a half.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Morgan

'Morgan' movie poster

Release: Friday, September 2, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Seth W. Owen

Directed by: Luke Scott

No movie, especially one dabbling in the science fiction genre, has an obligation to make the viewer feel all warm and cuddly inside. You can be both the coldhearted bastard and The Year’s Best Movie, but if you plan on being as brutally dispassionate as this year’s attempt at Ex Machina-ing the AI subgenre back to life, you better have something interesting to say.

Morgan‘s got nothing. What it does have though are 90 of the most unpleasant, uninteresting minutes I’ve spent at the movies this year.

There were only four of us in my 3:45 screening and the film played out as though it were anticipating as much. You might attribute the film’s disinterest in engaging the viewer to Scott W. Owen’s thoroughly unoriginal screenplay, a story about the dark side of cutting-edge science so bland you sit there realizing that you’re thinking about how bland it is. Annoyingly that meta thought begets another. And then another, and soon enough, twenty minutes have gone by and still nothing’s happened. Oh, look. Time to refill the coke and popcorn. (Spoiler alert: do it in the first 45 minutes because you won’t miss a thing.)

Unfortunately though it’s a real team effort, as the son of the great Ridley Scott doesn’t steer the project in any meaningful direction with an uninspired vision that substitutes substantive scientific and/or philosophical questioning for grisly and pretty cruel action sequences. There are so many questions. What makes Morgan special? Why should we believe she’s the AI creation of the cinematic year? What is her true potential, what is her purpose? Can she really be controlled? Should she be? And the million dollar one: why should we care, about her or this world she inhabits?

If foreshadowing doesn’t destroy Morgan‘s shot at profundity, then it’s a lack of depth and substance. There’s no extrapolation as to what this says about where we are in society, only easy answers — solutions tailor-made for this specific narrative. All the bloody hand-to-hand combat reserved for the ending is an overt solution to the problems introduced in this dreary, monochromatic world. What makes Morgan special? This karate chop! That crazy look in her eyes. (It sure isn’t that fucking boring hoodie.) Why should we believe she’s the year’s coolest AI creation? Because she’s a murderer, with a lust for blood not seen since Ted Bundy. What is her true potential? To be more Ted Bundy than Ted Bundy. Why should we care? Um . . .

The story takes a more political/business approach to the world of scientific endeavors, one of its few distinctive features. Morgan focuses on the tension between a corporate entity seeking total control and the idealistic virtues of those working directly on the company-funded Morgan Project. It pits Kate Mara‘s supremely unfriendly risk manager Lee Weathers against the strangely more sociable project overseers, a group that includes doctors Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), husband-and-wife duo Darren and Brenda Finch (Chris Sullivan and Vinette Robinson), Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), and Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh). After an incident in which Morgan attacked another scientist, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the second role this year that has required her to cover her face in physical-abuse make-up, Lee is called in to assess whether the project is one still worth pursuing or if it needs to be terminated.

Mara may not look the part, but she kind of does feel like The Terminator, and Leigh’s bedridden scientist even calls her “a goddamn assassin.” She’s here on business and won’t leave until that’s finished. From the moment she appears Mara delivers each of her lines in the same monotone, several inflections away from sounding like a real person. It’s actually a pretty terrible performance from a reliable thesp. (But not as terrible as the ending.) Corporate red tape wears out its welcome quickly with Ziegler and his colleagues. Perpetually on the defensive, the team continues trying to justify Morgan’s sudden outburst as anomalous. Morgan describes it as “an error.” Nonetheless, a psychiatrist is brought in for an evaluation. It’s Paul Giamatti, so at least you know what you’re going to get out of him. And he surely delivers, pushing Morgan to the limits as he questions why she thinks she is alive. Why she thinks the people around her are her friends.

Judged through a tedious first section and an even slower second act, Morgan isn’t very eventful but it’s well-crafted. A reasonable amount of tension is generated from our ignorance to what Morgan is capable of doing or what she is actually going to do to her captors once she gets loose. (An event we await with bated breaths.) Mara is a constant bummer but the rest of the characters are fairly likable in their restricted capacities. Anya Taylor-Joy (the break-out star from this year’s The Witch) is for some time empathetic and her distinctive features make for a suitable alien-like presence. Boyd Holbrook plays a hunk with serious culinary skills. Because we needed that for levity, I guess, but I’ll take it if everyone else is just going to be a misery to be around.

But when we’re exposed to what the filmmakers have in store for us having waded through a lot of nothingness, the wheels fall right off the wagon, spectacularly. Who had M. Night Shyamalan on speed dial for that big reveal? It has his fingerprints all over it. In fact his sense of atmosphere and ability to maintain tension makes it feel like Morgan doesn’t have any Scott blood running in its veins at all. Slavishly adhering to structure and with no personality of its own, this Ex Machina wannabe has been conditioned to not think for itself.

Recommendation: Slow, unoriginal and featuring an uneasy mix of cerebral meditation and shocking violence, Morgan gives me too many reasons to call this just a total freaking mess. As I personally wasn’t hugely anticipating it, calling it a disappointment might be a stretch but it certainly is disappointING that good actors and a reliable premise, granted a thoroughly worn out one at this point, aren’t enough to bring it around. Film also finishes on one of the lamest notes I have seen since Now You See Me, so unless you’re willing to risk leaving a movie wondering why you even bothered, I’d have to say keep a respectable distance from this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “There was joy in her heart, before we shoved her back into that box.”

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Photo credits: http://www.screenrant.com; http://www.foxmovies.com