Review: Blumhouse thriller ‘Don’t Let Go’ never goes all-in on its fantastical premise

“Don’t Let Go,” a supernatural crime drama arriving in the dog days of summer from writer-director Jacob Estes and Blumhouse, is just strange and unusual enough to belong in the production company’s stable of strange and unusual movies, though also enough of a conceptual bait-and-switch that it stands out among the much zanier “Happy Death Days,” “The Purges” and “Paranormal Activitys” of the world.

The story juggles multiple timelines, puncturing the fabric of logic when Jack (the reliable David Oyelowo), a cop mourning the sudden murder of his niece – along with his brother and sister-in-law – suddenly receives a phone call with her on the other end and seemingly from before the crime, ostensibly setting up a trippy mind-bender of a movie.

But Estes here is interested mostly in humanity—not genre. The high-brow is just a different, if not unearned, guidepost to a formulaic cops-n’-robbers story, with shades of domestic drama barely potent enough to keep the world from operating outside a palette full of gritty greys. Continue reading →

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Review: Olivia Wilde is a weary warrior in the contemplative, inconsistent ‘A Vigilante’

I’m not totally sure if “A Vigilante” – the feature debut from writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson – is meant to be soaked up as entertainment so much as a reconciliation between movies-as-art and movies-as-therapy. The small-scale story is interested in a single dominating issue, that of domestic violence, though in ways that feel inconsistently intentioned, despite the high amount of promise on display Daggar-Nickson.

Her screenplay is a contemplative, slippery ice puck of a revenge-fantasy story, slip-sliding everywhere in chronology and priority. The movie has some interesting, if questionable, points to make about an issue that many other films are frustratingly content with circling overhead of, namely: Does eye-for-an-eye have a place in the age of #MeToo? Where is the line drawn between moving on and fighting on, and – more urgently, at least in the movie’s purview – are they one-in-the-same? Continue reading →

Review: Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is a deeply-layered, uber-ambitious genre movie

“Blink, and you might miss it” is the great, contradictory nature of horror. Spontaneity is an on-ramp to FOMO when watching a scary movie; there’s a reason the genre is so closely associated to images of multiplex audiences practically peeling back their eyelids like they themselves are the target of the flashing knife, the pouncing boogeyman, the black-magic spell being cast.

For as long as we’ve been terrified by the nightmarish images conjured up by Hollywood’s twisted minds, we’ve been equally as enamored. Our hands can be cages in which we’d gladly cut ourselves off from watching what unfolds on-screen, but – to borrow from the same metaphor – our fingers are also the bars. And some deep-rooted force is typically victorious at encouraging us to bear witness.

Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Velvet Buzzsaw,’ a painting is worth a thousand gallons of blood

In “Velvet Buzzsaw” – Dan Gilroy’s third film in five years after “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – art is a destination for curious eyes, eager wallets and ostensibly deep critique.

It’s also, eventually, a channel for horror, bloodshed and shlock. The contrast isn’t accidental, and the transition happens nearly as fast as it took you to get to this paragraph from the one above.

The general absence of subtlety in Gilroy’s film, a contemporary art-market satire drunk with a few drops of cinematic absinthe, makes parts of “Nightcrawler” feel like a PBS documentary. For better or worse, hyperbole is a way of the world in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and even more so as it reaches the realm of violence. “I think sober hasn’t been good for him,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s faux-elitist art critic utters at one point. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t think so either.

Continue reading →

Review: ‘Widows’ is an increasingly rare caliber of thriller, and bold new territory for Steve McQueen

There’s a scene early in “Widows” – Steve McQueen’s latest and most unorthodoxly mainstream movie – in which Robert Duvall’s aging, racist local statesman tells his son and heir that his new $50,000 painting comes across as mere wallpaper.

Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan responds with a nondescript rebuke, as if on a deeper level he doesn’t fully disagree: “It’s art.”

The brief exchange can garner a universal chuckle for those watching in a moviehouse, but one gets the sense that isn’t McQueen’s intention. How we react to the scene, after all, is also a product of our experiences.

Would $50,000 turn our lives around? Is it pocket change? Do we ever dream of being at a place where that sum of money could be spent on a single, needless piece of wall decor? Could we dream of it? Continue reading →

Captivating performances and a soaring script elevates Ex Machina above the grandeur of modern blockbusters

What if what we think is the right thing actually isn’t so? How far are we willing to go for a love we’re aren’t sure is real? Who do we place our faith in: a mysterious creator or the ostensibly naïve created?

These are the kinds of questions set forth by Ex Machina, an intimate yet intense thriller that combines all the elements of classic science fiction to craft a two-hour cinematic metaphor about the occasionally faulty outputs of human nature.

Writer-director Alex Garland, known for penning Danny Boyle’s zombie classic 28 Days Later, doesn’t leave a stone unturned as he creates a wholly original and memorable movie that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.

Domhnall Gleeson (Unbroken, Frank, Harry Potter) plays Caleb, a programmer for the world’s most powerful search engine, Bluebook (sorry, Google). He wins a contest to spend a week with one of the leading thinkers of Bluebook, Nathan, and examining the tortured genius’ newest project – Ava, the world’s first artificial intelligence.

But as these tales always go, there is more than meets the eye with almost every party involved, and the film consistently has an air of mystery and dread to it that fills every scene with tension.

Much of that is attributed to Oscar Isaac’s (Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) performance of Nathan, suspicious and intriguing from the moment we meet him. Isaac adds another illustrious performance to an otherwise colorful yet overlooked career, but that should change with the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He is as intellectually sound as he is drunkenly enigmatic, perfectly conveying Nathan’s sense of gaudy superiority.

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Gleeson also puts in a fantastically believable turn as Caleb, with whom the audience can relate almost all the way through, with every untrustworthy conversation with Nathan and the more intimate experiences with Ava.

But she is undoubtedly the star of the show, played by the Swedish Alicia Vikander (The Fifth Estate, Anna Karenina). Surrounded by an aura just as mysterious and threatening as her creator, the audience is put through the same test as Caleb is to ensure that Ava can make us believe she is human, and she does. Vikander perfects a curious naiveté while seemingly knowing all there is to know about being human that we forget she is until we hear the mechanical whirring of her being when she makes even the slightest move.

From her slightest of smiles that always turn a moment too soon, to the craving in her eyes to know about the world outside Nathan’s lab, Vikander is simply incredible, overpowering and overbearing just in the way she speaks.

Like every great entry in the science fiction genre, Ex Machina has a certain self-awareness about it where the audience never feels cheated. Every piece of dialogue, every plot point is carefully constructed to form a bigger picture that is slowly revealed, and there is almost never a slow point precisely because Garland keeps us so engaged in what is happening on-screen.

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In addition, he takes us on such a deep journey through each character so as to make us feel it is reality and not just science-fiction, as if we have to question their motives for our own sake. Deep philosophical questions are at play, some which are admittedly too grand to get a grasp of in a first viewing, but the film is predominantly about the struggle to differentiate between what we think we know and what we are led to believe.

It’s easy to focus on those themes, too, because the plot is so straightforward and delicate. Isolation is another key theme in Ex Machina, of both the literal and figurative kind. At times you feel like you’re peeking into a conversation or an action that you shouldn’t be, and that is a testament to Garland’s direction and the actors’ performances.

All good sci-fi also has a haunting soundtrack, and Ex Machina’s is blistering and preeminent at times, like the most macabre parts of a David Fincher movie.

The strength in Ex Machina, and what makes is so wholly original, is that it’s impossible to know what forces are really at play. Motivations are foggy and Garland is so cunning a writer that there is a never-ending stream of twists and turns conjured up, and you never see them coming because you’re so drawn in to what you think you know.

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Garland is out to tear apart what preconceptions are formed in an hour and a half in the final twenty minutes, every moment of which is thrilling, poignant, and cinematically gorgeous. You never see the ultimate villain coming, and, indeed, might not even be sure who the bad guy really is, leaving it as a topic of debate in the audience’s head long after the credits have rolled.

And he does it without explosions, without warning, without conviction. Just a careful deconstruction of what we’ve seen, thinking at first that it makes no sense, only for it to come full circle once we do what the movie asks us to do: examine ourselves and our faulty superiority.

 

In a Nutshell

Most science fiction is content with offering up a distorted view of the world and saying it’s a metaphor for reality. But when it comes to questioning our own lives in an intimate and profound way while building up to an ending that is entirely uncommon and satisfying, Ex Machina reigns supreme.

 

9.5 / 10

 

 

 

Ex Machina is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Directed by Alex Garland

2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at alex.695@hotmail.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.