Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Tribe

Someone explain to me the point of this movie. If it was to confuse me, like to say, “Hey, this is what life is like for deaf people on a daily basis, they don’t get the conversations going on around them,” then okay, I tip my hat. Other than that, I don’t get the aesthetic. And do you really need 132 minutes to accomplish that?

I love minimalist filmmaking, ask anyone I know. I could watch a woman bake a potato a dozen times in a Bela Tarr flick. I think Wendy and Lucy is one of the best American films of the decade. Don’t even get me started on my defense of The Brown Bunny. But there’s a line. There’s a scene in the film where a character applies for a visa. She fills out the multi-page document in real time, only to discover she’s made a mistake and must start all over.

And why should we care about any of the characters? We don’t understand their motivations, the film doesn’t explore the psychology of any of them. Is the lack of spoken word supposed to camouflage the fact that its story of humanity and equality is tired, that it wallows in sex and violence? American critics are going to eat this movie up. They’ll call it sophisticated and edgy. They’ll probably employ a still of two characters engaged in the sexual practice of 69ing to prove their point. But don’t be fooled.

Here’s the story, at least what I was able to ascertain. Someone who understands sign language may be able to explain it better. By the way, is sign language universal? Would American signers get the movie or would they have to be from Ukraine? A deaf teenager, the credits call him Sergey, although there’s nothing in the film to let you know that’s his name, registers at a boarding school for deaf children. After a period of hazing, he is accepted into a gang. Incidentally, he is forced to take on three students in a fight as a form of initiation. Rather than delivering a raw and harrowing wake up call, the brawl evokes the ludicrous acts of The Three Stooges. Sergey is soon looting trains and pimping out female students. We see the same two female students turning tricks at the same truck stop at least five times in the movie. And there’s zero consequence to anything the kids do. A student literally gets killed during one of their outings. There’s no remorse on the part of his friends. There’s no interference from a law enforcement agency. The woodshop teacher who drives them to these various crime scenes is never called into question.

I’d be remiss to say there weren’t spectacular scenes in the movie. Nothing can prepare you, for instance for the stripped-down reality of a young girl getting a back alley abortion. The scene is completely devoid of compassion and the actress causes us to forget we’re watching a movie. Subsequently, this is one of the few times we actually hear one of the actors’ voices. But that wasn’t enough to make me like it. As an experiment, it was interesting for a while, but its authenticity was reduced to gimmickry by the end. I was over it within thirty minutes.

The Harvest

Remember when Samantha Morton gave Billy Crudup a dance boner in that movie where he shaved Dennis Hopper’s face while waxing poetic about Elvis Presley movies?

That was before her London apartment caved in on her causing a debilitating stroke and the subsequent weight gain that got her expelled from Hollywood’s A-list. Anyway, she’s back as the overprotective surgeon mother of a deathly-ill boy named Andy (Charlie Tahan) in IFC Midnight’s new suspense thriller, The Harvest.

Also returning from a long hiatus is director John McNaughton, the guy most known for creating Henry: Portrait of a serial killer, the movie he claimed wasn’t exploitation despite showing Michael Rooker stab his best buddy for 32 seconds before dismembering him in the bathtub.

The Harvest is the very antithesis of Henry. In fact, its run-of-the-mill locale, crisp photography and ominous music awakened memories of the after school specials of my pre-internet youth more so than McNaughton’s grisly bio pic. It’s bookmarked by Little League baseball scenes for crying out loud. Still, it’s everyday approach, chilling atmosphere and believable human nature transcend its commonalities. Horror films are always most effective when they meddle in the real world, when they conform to the conventions of morality. The Harvest eschews visceral anarchy for creepy tension. It stays within itself right up to a culminating scene involving a fire (which seems a bit out of place).

Natasha Calis heads an all-star cast that includes the aforementioned Morton, along with Michael Shannon and a wasted Peter Fonda as the naive grandfather who putters around saying, “Far out.” Calis plays Maryann, an inquisitive Veronica Mars-type who has recently moved in with her grandparents after a tragic accident claimed the lives of her mom and dad. When exploring, she taps on Andy’s bedroom  window, ‘cause that’s what kids do when they stumble upon mysterious houses. Despite the protestations of his mother, the two embark on a burgeoning friendship that mostly includes playing video games.

You know something ain’t right with the cringe-worthy Morton and her wussy son. Consider a scene when she smashes his television as retribution for him sneaking outside to play catch with Maryann. So, a final twist is not quite awe-inspiring, but it’s still shocking enough to be satisfying.

The Harvest is a tough movie to categorize, which is probably the reason it sat on a shelf for two-and-a-half years. There’s enough there to give you the heebie-jeebies, but there’s also a coming-of-age element that resonates with the adventure-seeker in all of us. It’s not overly flashy or hip, it’s not particularly original, but it gets the job done and I’m happy to have seen it.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


I tried to make an armature once. You know, little bits of wire and metal joints. I had an idea for a movie about a buffoonish alien called Nyby who attempts to win the respect of his royal family by taking over Earth only to crash at Area 51. Unfortunately, the clay kept getting caked in the joints and I never finished.

Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the AI researcher in Ex Machina, benefitted from nearly 20 years of advancements in technology when he created Ava (Alicia Vikander), his smoking-hot thinking computer who uses seemingly real emotions and perky breasts to convince an employee (Caleb played by Domhnall Gleeson) to set her free.

Ever since Mary Shelley sat down with Lord Byron on the rocky shore of Lake Geneva, people have been fascinated with science and fixated on the idea of man creating man. Most recently, roboteers broke the internet with rumors of an international giant robot duel between the United States and Japan. At a time when game consoles no longer require controllers and baby dolls grow facial hair, the Terminator franchise seems more a forewarning than popular entertainment.

Ex Machina, the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), does well to speak to the fears of an American public overwhelmed by technological advancement. Part of this blog, BTW, was created using my cellular phone, a device that doesn’t require physical contact with my finger to be controlled.

In Mary Shelley’s story, the presumptuous Dr. Frankenstein uses unorthodox methods to create a hideous yet perceptive creature. The monster is shunned by his creator and society. Likewise, the creature’s fear of mankind forces him to flee into the wilderness.

Ex Machina shares a few narrative details with its predecessor.  Like Mary Shelley’s work, it too features an arrogant genius obsessed with creating an unnatural being. The humanoid robot in this case however, is beautiful. She is sensual and enchanting. She seems as intrigued by humans as they are by her and it is her dream to become part of human society. And she looks great in yoga pants.

Ava’s human-like behavior appeals to a young programmer who determines her internment to be abuse. The question is, are her emotions real, or has she conquered the human art of mental trickery.

I don’t know how my smartphone works. I know it connects me with everyone around and answers all the life-changing questions my mind generates while sitting on the potty. I know its sleek construction and dark coloring look nice sitting on my night stand. I know it scares me a little. I also know I’ll be the first in line when the next model is released.

Ava is able to convince Caleb she needs him because she has sultry eyes and a gorgeous body. She appeals to female viewers because she looks dainty in her modest house dress. The real life Bonnie and Clyde didn’t look like Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Hamburgers aren’t only eaten by men in hard hats and women in bikinis. I’m convinced the Dreamcast didn’t catch on in America because it wasn’t pretty to look at. That’s the one thing Victor Frankenstein didn’t understand. People like pretty things. They would have been more accepting of the monster if he looked like Aaron Eckhart.

Ex Machina is one of the best films of this young year. It is visually stunning and superbly acted. This is Oscar Isaac’s third score in a row following Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year. It is a fascinating examination of our obsession with science and technology and beauty. It’s suspenseful and edgy and has me constantly checking IMDB for Garland’s next movie venture. Still unknown. Ugh.