“Ex Machina” Review

There’s a strange gentleness and a warmth to something as dark and unsettling as Ex Machina. A man sits behind glass and watches as a female robot cautiously enters into the room. She sits down and talks to the man with a curiously inquisitive nature. It’s one of many moments in this little sci-fi picture that feels like a breath of fresh air in its ambiance and script that challenges the viewer more than it does the special effects budget.

The plucky young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen by his search engine company to be one of the few to visit its CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He’s flown out to Nathan’s secluded mansion deep within the jungle and located underground. Once he passes through the security, Nathan’s home is quite cozy and uniquely designed with just enough room for his science lab. It’s a stylish interior, but it becomes apparent to Caleb after spending a few days with Nathan that the isolation has taken its toll. Nathan places words in Caleb’s mouth as if it were a conversation with a biographical ghostwriter.

But Caleb wasn’t just invited out to the secret hideaway for booze and dancing (as Nathan prefers). Believing that he is on the cusp of perfecting the world’s first artificially intelligent robot, Nathan sets up interview sessions with Caleb and the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). With her flesh face and transparent circuitry, she cautiously enters a room and sits down to talk with Caleb behind glass. Tasked with finding flaws in the creation, Caleb treads lightly through his conversations with Ava. He asks questions that challenge her own originality which in turn makes her question Caleb. But there’s something more sinister to Ava’s conception and her developing thoughts that she only shares with Caleb. And with Nathan being both aloof and a drunk, there’s nowhere safe in this trap of an experiment.

Through its simple premise with a likely conclusion, Ex Machina leaves itself plenty of time to ask the big questions and challenge perceptions. Caleb’s sessions with Ava are intelligent and thought-provoking the way both attempt to probe each other. There are no stupid questions or answers such as “can you love?” and “what is love?” The subject of romance is approached maturely as when Caleb asks where Ava would like to go on a date if she were let loose in society. She remarks that she’d like to visit a traffic intersection to observe the behaviors of passing patrons. Sitting for hours watching people go about their lives is of endless fascination to Ava. Whereas others just see a common presence of a city, Ava spots a playground of psychology.

This is what makes Ex Machina such a brilliant piece of science fiction. It finds the perfect moments of beauty, intelligence and fear in a story of isolated frustration among technological breakthrough. Writer/director Alex Garland is able to both craft and express these ideas with real tone and atmosphere that rewards the viewer who wants more. I’ve seen movies where computer-generated robots smash through glass or crush cars like tin cans. Rarely do I ever see a film so decadent in its special effects and uses them to tell a human story with real character. Only after its slow-burn of unease does the climactic showdown actually have weight and substance. It feels good to finally be writing about a science fiction film like this that doesn’t feel the need to dip its toes too deep into the realm action.

Ex Machina is that infatuating bit of hard science fiction which begs for repeat viewings. It’s smart without being dry and thrilling without being simple. Everything about this film – from design to script – is intelligently crafted with an amazing atmosphere of innocence and tension. This is an exceptional purchase without question. It’s one that I’ll certainly be coming back to again and again, stacked close to my copy of Blade Runner and Dark City.

“Strange Magic” Review

Bless George Lucas’ heart for wanting to create an alternative animated film for his daughters. He puts forth an admirable effort to create an animated picture both unique and old-fashioned with its female-favoring story and plenty of musical numbers amid a classically told story of love and kingdoms. Strange Magic is a movie I want to love so badly in how daring and different it aims to be from the usual template of animated features. And yet I cannot bring myself to that point simply for all the familiar George Lucas faults, which remain present even when he’s not directing.

The story starts off simple enough, but soon twists itself into a series of love triangles. There is a good part of the forest with plants and fairies and a bad part of the forest inhabited with swamps and bugs. The good-natured Fairy Kingdom is about to have a wedding as the ecstatic princess Marianne is to be wed to the cocky Roland. But when she discovers that Roland has secretly given his heart to another, Marianne quickly sheds her princess persona to become a hardened warrior vowing never to fall in love again. Fairies must have wicked mood swings to go from romanced royalty to battle-hungry soldier in a few minutes. Perhaps the abundance of too much splendor in an overly cheerful forest kingdom brings out a quick wish to strife.

While Marianne builds up her angst, her best friend Dawn becomes kidnapped by the evil Bog King of the dark swamp lands. This comes just as the shy elf Sunny has acquired a love potion he hopes will win him the heart of Dawn. But when Dawn inhales the potion, the person she spots to fall in love with is the Bog King. Thus begins an adventure tale of sword fights, giant forest creatures, romance and musical numbers.

While all the songs are sung by different characters in context to their current emotions, these are all cover songs of classic rock and pop tunes. Nearly all the songs are actually sung by the lead voice actors Evan Rachael Wood and Alan Cumming. While their singing voices are more than decent, it made me wonder how much better they’d fair with more original songs as opposed to the overly familiar melodies of Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. George Lucas stated that he initially wanted to have Beatles songs, but they were too expensive. While it might have made the music a little more interesting, I doubt it would’ve improved the presentation nor would the other idea to simply make the movie an opera.

The biggest hurdle for any animated film to conquer – especially one that has been tossed around to various companies – is the animation itself. In terms of design and texture, this computer animated world doesn’t look half-bad. There was certainly some detail put into this as one of the cast members remarked how many changes her character’s hair went through. And while it’s pleasing to see computer animation with designs more anatomical than stylized, it certainly could have used more appeal. Maybe it was due to the production lasting 15 years in various stages, but the characters resembled those old animation tutorials I used to use in college. The fairies, trolls and elves all resemble designs that seem ripped straight from a student animation. It’s an A+ student project, mind you, but this is a theatrical animated picture we’re talking about written by an accomplished filmmaker.

There is some humor and spunk to Strange Magic, but it’s just as shoehorned in as the musical numbers amid a twisty plot of romances. All of the appeal – progressively appealing as it seems – just narrowly misses the mark. The animation is decent, but most kids are not going to respond to an animated film of decent quality. The songs are a charming addition, but outplay their welcome as the relation grows more base with the on-screen emotions. And, most importantly, it all just doesn’t blend as well it should. A fairy romance/action/musical animated picture may work someday, but not with this movie. With its fluctuating tones and simple story elements, Strange Magic is more strange than magical.

“Ida” Review

It may seem a little expected and a little cliche that one of my favorite films of 2014 is a black-and-white foreign film of a quiet manner echoing Ingmar Bergman. But Ida is a film I can’t help but love for how it stuck in my brain with its unforgettable imagery and characters. Despite being a rather dreary drama about a bleak era in Poland, everything about this production kept me glued to the screen from its unique character studies to some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen all year.

The film follows the orphaned girl Anna of a Polish convent, readying herself to take her final vows as a nun. Having spent so much time devoting her life to Christ and knowing little of her lineage, Mother Superior recommends she takes time to visit her only living relative, aunt Wanda. This woman is everything Anna is not; she is a judge who spends her off hours drinking and sleeping with all sorts of men, damaged by the world she grew up with. But Wanda does have one big bombshell to deliver; Anna’s real name is Ida and her parents were Jewish. Her parents, murdered by Nazis during the war, were never accounted for. So Ida decides to take a trip around the snowy and gloomy countryside to find some closure in her parents’ secret resting place.

It’s a scenario that puts any awkward family road trip to shame for both the grand revelation, the dreadful end goal and the differing morals of the two women. Wanda constantly tests Ida by mocking her values in her various states of stupor. In all that downer babble, however, she does bring up one point that gets to her. How can you knock sin if you’ve never experienced the world outside a convent? Living a sheltered life in the convent, Ida has a very limited view of the world. She’s quiet, shy and very protective of her holy items.

But the more Ida explores the cold and cruel landscape of Poland, she starts to see the beauty and allure of it all. Wanda speaks of a barn they intend to visit in which her relatives would craft stained glass windows for. When Ida finally witnesses this bit of craftsmanship, she is quietly stunned by the sight. The presumably colorful light seeping through the elegant design says more than words ever could. But, just in case, Wanda perfectly describes it as beauty amid horse manure.

That is indeed what Ida finds in this world. Poland is not a good looking country from this perspective. It’s freezing, most of the locals are bitter individuals and the quest unearths nothing but heartbreaking closure. And, yet, there is some room to live a joyous life. While on their way to a hotel, the two women befriend a musician who will be playing at the same building. He’s an attractive boy and Ida finds herself somewhat consumed by his allure. She listens to his band and finds herself ever engrossed in such an individual. The constant taunting of Wanda drowning in booze makes her fearful of these new feelings, but all the more excited to take a leap into the unknown.

The cinematography of Ida sticks out in my mind most prominently in every way. Everything is shot to be deliberately boxy and large the way the characters occupy their world. The film was shot in the boxed 4:3 aspect ratio as opposed to the widescreen formats of current movies. I’m not sure where the director found these locations or what tricks he used with the camera, but every single exterior appears to tower over the characters.

Ida enters the offices of mother superior with the entrance featuring a flight of stairs that seems better suited for the upper entrance to a house. She later climbs what appears to be a giant set of stairs for an apartment complex. And the hotel she visits with Wanda is so barren to the point where a simple dining room appears like a spacious ballroom. What helps accomplish this as well is that the character never appear perfectly centered in shots. Every closeup forces the character so far down into a corner that they are just barely on the screen with the environment consuming them. The color choice of sticking to black and white provides a great contrast for the snowy setting. Life in this area appears cold and desolate as a country struggles to repair itself internally.

Ida, for all somber tones and sterile color, is amazing to witness for its masterful cinematography on a deeply emotional subject. For being a rather slow-burn of a road trip movie that only leads to heartache, there’s a strange sense of love and life amid all the depression of cold country trying to heal wounds. The more I talk about it, the more I just want to race back to my television and fiddle with the pause button to take it all in once more.

“American Hercules: The Legend of Babe Ruth” Review

Babe Ruth was a figure I first heard about through the classic baseball movie The Sandlot. The children of that picture talked of the man as if he were a god among men for his legendary skills at bat. It was only later through various documentaries and books that I learned more about the man and his historic career. So many features and segments have been presented on the Babe that this DVD actually loads up the special features with plenty of previously produced content.

So what more can this Major League Baseball produced documentary provide outside of a few more clips from the archive? As the title implies, this hour-long feature attempts to find parallels between Babe Ruth and the mythological tales of heroes. But if that seems a little out there as more of a thesis paper, the documentary thankfully pulls back enough to focus on Ruth’s major contributions to American culture.

Martin Sheen narrates this decent documentary that’s suitable enough for television with its motion graphic displays. There are plenty of talking heads from elders of the era, historians of Ruth’s work and baseball greats that talk up the legend as such. They all share some great stories about the man amid the amazing archival B-roll footage of Ruth on and off the field. It was especially entertaining to see how the man acts around his family in home movies and how he appears as a celebrity doing cameos for film. This footage is pretty neat to watch which baffles me why we get to see so little of it. This would have been an opportune selling point for the DVD to feature this footage uncut in the special features.

But let’s discuss what you’ll really get out of this documentary as opposed to any number of documentaries on Babe Ruth. Yes, the documenters do indeed compare the Babe to Hercules from both a story and character level. While there are some clever similarities discussed in the struggles and triumphs of both men, this is sadly where the documentary starts to go a little Ancient Aliens on us. You can tell that the people who wrote this picture went in with the best intentions of delivering a unique examination on baseball’s greatest player. But they ultimately struggle to fill up the meager running time by focussing far too much on the mythological aspects of the man. This leads to a lot of what-if theories that sounds like the words of a madly-obsessed Babe Ruth fan. If this documentary had been any longer, would they really go down the road of asking if Babe Ruth could defeat Hercules at baseball? I wouldn’t want to meet the talking heads for that segment.

Did Babe Ruth’s life really require such a documentary comparing him to Hercules? Probably not. After all, there’s enough interviews, archival footage/photos and plenty to talk about with the man’s legacy that it doesn’t need this extra layer of mythological discussion. Perhaps this angle was taken to give the next generation a new feature on the Babe with a more appealing aspect. But do kids really need history to go to this level to be interesting? It feels unneeded as if it’s trying to match the likes of Ancient Aliens with its wild ideas. Babe Ruth is already an amazing figure in his own right – he doesn’t need this extra fluff to convince the audience that he was larger than life. If only this picture had the confidence in its own source material to showcase the spectacular footage the MLB archive has to offer, it could have been a more engaging feature. Save that Herculean mythological comparison for a thesis paper or the next bickering bar fight about who would win in a fight.

“Focus” Review

Focus is a caper that offers a challenge to the viewer. It dares you to try to follow along with its constant twists, double crosses, fakeouts, staged events and sneaky tactics at getting rich. You can try to tag along with the ever-bouncing plot that refuses to halt with the surprises right up until the last scene. At some point you just have to throw your hands up in the air at how constant and ludicrous the film becomes with its gotcha moments. But, like any caper, there’s enough pleasing elements to the eye that offer a welcome divergence from the plot.

Nicky (Will Smith) is an expert con man so familiar with the scam game that he willingly throws himself into traps just to see how far the scammers can get. When Jess (Margot Robbie) tries to pull the jealous boyfriend bit where she hires an actor to threaten Smith’s character, Nicky merely laughs at the execution having seen it many times. Intrigued by her determination for tricking others, Nicky decides to take on Jess as a sort of con job apprentice. He trains her in the fine art of always keeping the eyes open for areas to exploit and swipe from unsuspecting victims. He puts her to the ultimate test by keeping her out of the loop on a wagering game he performs at a football game where he seems to be losing millions of dollars. But Nicky ultimately wins a big payout thanks to a ridiculously intricate plan of subconscious suggestion.

The two part ways after the gig, but find themselves crossing paths while working on a con job for a race car driver. From this point the movie becomes a guessing game of who is playing who, who is in love with who and who is staging which events. Similar to both the title and Nicky’s tactics, this is a caper that dares you to keep your eye focused on the plot with so much flash going on around it. If you follow closely, you’ll start to see how ridiculous such a story becomes for twist after twist after twist until the story has tied a messy knot of money, deception and sex.

But, thankfully, Focus tries to distract the viewer with lots of shiny. The set pieces of stylish hotels and rich interiors give a perfect backdrop for the effective acting talent of Smith and Robbie. They have a unique chemistry on-screen for their teacher/student relationship that coyly develops into a romance where they’re not too sure if such a thing can exist in their line of work. And their schemes – for as ridiculously intricate as they’re conceived – are actually fun to follow in how they attempt to play gotcha with your perceptions. It may be a mess of twists and turns, but it’s a sleek and sexy mess that never bores.

Focus entertains with a handful of surprises, even if the surprises cause a few plot holes. Let’s face it, though; the real reason for this movie is to see Smith and Robbie together and they’re certainly the best aspect of this caper movie. This is a decent rental for some lightly sly thrills that’s refreshing for a first viewing, but not as strong on its second to warrant a purchase.

“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” Review

Though this year-long documentary on working in Antarctica is one filled with many dangers and bitter temperatures, it actually feels more like a travel brochure in how appealing it displays the tundra. The empty mountains of snowy silence, the cozy comradery of the staff and the amazing sights make for a spectacular journey around Earth’s coldest destination. It’s no cake walk for sure, but even with all its faults – and there are a large number of them – I’m still drawn to this different world. And considering I live in Minnesota where it already gets snowy and cold in the winter, that’s saying something.

Documentarian Anthony Powell spends an entire year working in the Ross Island region of the continent – home to the American and New Zealand research bases. The engineers and scientists that occupy these bases have a unique culture. When not stooped in their monotonous work, they find plenty of ways to blow off steam and have some fun. Be it an outdoor festival of drinks, an indoor match of video games or just a good book, there’s no shortage of entertainment for a cold-climate environment. There are film festivals between all the various bases as a creative means of keeping in contact. They have parties outside with freezing dips and live music. All of this makes the isolated nature of the base seem as though it’s the best place to work. Their recreation sure beats the heck out of a company party at Applebee’s.

But Anthony does more than just film the people of Antarctica considering he’s here for work – shooting footage to be used for BBC’s Frozen Planet. He travels to the most desolate of areas to setup equipment for photo and videos. There is complete quiet and silence – a serene atmosphere for one of nature’s grandest displays of snow and mountains. That being said, I’m glad that Anthony doesn’t hold anything back the way he mentions the pungent aroma of penguin feces that pollutes the area. You won’t hear about that in March of the Penguins.

Aside from the temperature forcing a more indoor lifestyle and isolation from the rest of the world, living and working in Antarctica doesn’t seem all that tough. That is until the large dark winter months of February to October. This is where the true test of devotion lies for accepting such working conditions. A good chunk of the staff ends up leaving as this winter doesn’t allow for any flights coming or going out of the region. The skies grows dark and black as temperatures drop and blizzards kick up a storm. The remainder of the workers who stay behind for this period mostly have one task: maintain the bases until the winter is over. And this is by no means easy. Just ask Anthony who ventures out to one of the small bases to unfreeze pipes while a storm barrels down on the walls.

And as if the colder than cold weather wasn’t bad enough, the constant darkness and indoor lifestyle can lead to T3 Syndrome. This conditions refers to when the T3 hormones of the brain divert to keep muscles warm during winter. This causes a bad case of the cabin fever with memory loss and mood swings. Routine actions that workers go through everyday start becoming new to them. A general store cashier notes that her usual customers start believing their first-timers to the shop. Thank goodness the workers still find plenty of fun indoor activities to shake off the dark winter blues and maintain some sanity.

But Anthony keeps a chipper spirit throughout all of this and it’s easy to understand why. The majestic nature he captures on film is more than worth the trip, from the northern lights to the shifting plains of ice. And getting to experience it all with a group of unique and entertaining individuals just makes the continent seem like a little slice of heaven. It’s certainly a land of hard-working individuals that have to sacrifice much. Being cut off from the rest of the world has got to be a little depressing as one man finds himself regretting not being there for the birth of a new family member. There are even some sad protocols as when workers cannot intervene with a seal lost from ocean – doomed to die on land. But the experience is unlike anything on Earth with real struggle and joy. In another life, I would’ve jumped at such an opportunity. As it stands, I’ll settle for Powell’s documentary which let’s us come along for the ride.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” Review

With all the controversy surrounding the sexual nature of Fifty Shades of Grey, I expected something either titillating, scandalous or laughably questionable. For a movie that features bondage and domination, I found myself surprisingly bored with the experience. Is this really what all the hub-bub was about? I’ve seen teen sex comedies and dopey romantic comedies that present copulation with more explicit content and more romance. If the original book was intended as trashy smut, then this movie adaptation certainly seems to fit that genre. However, it’s only risqué in a softcore sense the way it seems to be for older women who want to see something sexual, but not really sexual. A nipple hear and a butt there is plenty of titillation for that crowd.

Spawned as fan fiction from the tween-pleasing Twilight phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey entertains the scenario of a plucky college student being wined, dined and dominated by a rich boy. Ana (Dakota Johnson) has her whole life ahead of her as a college graduate, but decides to devote it towards pursuing one single man. Filling in for a friend, she interviews the wealthy industrialist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and is drawn to his mysterious nature. There isn’t much of any charm to his quiet personality, but that doesn’t stop Ana from glowing around the good-looking hunk. Whether she’s lost in his eyes or his skyline views, she’s impressed enough to start pursuing a relationship with mister Grey.

What pertains to their relationship? Lots of paperwork, lots of sex and lots of dry field trips in Grey’s various crafts. There’s no meaningful dialogue between the two – just more mystique about being so shy and closed off from each other. Some of their first encounters involve Grey making Ana sign a NDA and later attempts to get her to sign a contract for sexual intimacy. Is this what makes for an erotic fantasy in this new age? Paperwork over dinner about negotiating whether or not to use butt plugs? Has the art of wooing a woman over charm become a lost art form? According to this movie, you can skip all that if you have enough looks and money.

So since we can’t really rely on the characters to develop a romance, all that the movie leaves us with is an abundance of sex scenes. Their sex is of the bondage variety which involves plenty of leather, ropes, crops, feathers, etc. Based on the display of Grey’s playroom, one might expect some displays of passion that are a little intense. But director Sam Taylor-Johnson softens all the sex to a ludicrous degree. There are no explicit moments of intimacy – only laughably edited shots of nudity with a soft rendition of a pop song playing over the lovemaking. These moments are as artificial and soulless as the relationship itself.

This creates a shifting in tones for a movie that’s clearly terrible, but on different degrees of awful. At first, it’s so bad that it’s good. The dialogue is ridiculously juvenile, the characters are ludicrously flat and the sex scenes are so timid with all the sex appeal of a diamond commercial. I laughed for a while, but the laughter soon died down as the pattern set in. Ana and Grey have sex. Ana and Grey have an awkwardly dull dinner. Ana and Grey have sex. Ana and Grey go for a plane ride. Ana and Grey have sex yet again. On and on the formula continues until the movie mercifully decides to just stop dead in its tracks.

Fifty Shades of Grey is erotic junk food targeted at the women who want a smutty movie, but not too smutty. Rather than make something daring and telling of a relationship with a billionaire, the movie makes the raunchiest of teen sex comedies seem more heartfelt. There’s just nothing much to be felt by any of this – no arousal for its intimacy and no outrage over is subject. By the end of the picture, I was thoroughly bored with a mundane roller coaster relationship of Ana and Grey. And boredom is not something that should be attributed to a movie with bondage sex.

“The Babadook” Review

The real horror in The Babadook is that it doesn’t rely so heavily on its own boogieman. In doing so, it capitalizes on the one thing most horror movies seem to forget about: the characters. It’s not that the creep in the shadows that terrorizes this little family isn’t frightening (believe me, it is). But by turning this movie into more of a family drama about coping with grief, it becomes a far more personal story and less of a series of spooky boos and jump scares. Again, not that the scares are not terrifying (they really, REALLY are).

We see single mom Amelia, tired and worn, trying to raise her over-reactive and emotional son Sam. She has to check his closets for monsters, but still ends up with the frightened child in her bed. His fears, however, are more for his mother as he just doesn’t want to lose her the same way he lost his dad in a car crash before he was born. This is confirmed as the boy prepares for battle by assembling mobile catapults and homemade crossbows. He knows he is in a horror movie and is preparing for war.

But to his battered mother, she just sees it as more misbehavior. Unlike most films of this nature, however, we understand her rationale. We see her weary state from days of little sleep and constant work at an elderly care center. We see the frustration from her son’s constantly high-pitched whining and cries. We see her bitterness for an ill-equipped school to handle her son and her snippy friends who look down on her parenting. The last thing she needs is some invisible madman terrorizing her household.

The Babadook first enters into the household through the storybook Mister Babadook. Sam picks the odd book off the shelf for bedtime story. Amelia reads through the rhyming pop-up book with its black-and-white illustrations. The book grows increasingly frightening as it tells of the creepy Mister Babadook. He arrives with the sound of three knocks sounded out as baba dook-dook-dook. He lets himself into your soul and will make you wish you were dead.

After another night of nightmares, Amelia rips the book up and throws it away.
Not only does the book return to her doorstep the following day with the pages taped back together, but it now has new passages and pop-ups. The book claims that it will only get stronger and take hold of the mother. The last few pages are foreboding pop-ups of Amelia choking the family dog to death, stabbing her son and slitting her own throat. The Babadook is clearly going to use Amelia as a host for his violence, but it’s an easy vessel to inhabit. After all her complications with Sam, work, family and even social workers, it doesn’t take much to bring out the anger and fury of the woman who is fed up. Her murders could easily be dismissed as the woman who was pushed over the edge by a society that has failed her.

Amelia’s possession is seen as a fever dream for the overworked parent. Her quiet moments feel werey and passive between moments of intense bickering with her son. She starts to doze off while watching TV and starts seeing creepy visions of Mister Babadook on television as well as more premonitions about her being a murderer. As a parent, The Babadook plays on my worst fears: being the bad parent where stress overtakes your spirit. Amelia snaps viciously at Sam when he asks for something to eat, which Amelia coldly responds with “why don’t you eat sh*t.” Her hostilities grow progressively worse as she shouts and hollers at the boy causing him to wet his pants in fear (which she also blows up about).

The fresh writer/director Jennifer Kent has given commercial horror a run for its money with her sound characters and true sense of terror. Whereas other horror films struggle to make the audience jump, Kent aims to keep you in your seat and creep under your skin. This is what makes The Babadook such an effective horror picture – it stays with you long after the final frame making it much more memorable for the plot than the scares. But, again, the scares are super effective especially for the overworked parents tired of being used as two-dimensional puppets for these productions.

“Extraterrestrial” (2014) Review

Movie aliens tend to greet Earthlings with either open arms or open mouths. If they’re not trying to meet, they want to eat. Or, in the case of District 9 or E.T., gas up and go home. The purpose of the uninspired greys from indie horror Extraterrestrial appear rather confusing. It’s pretty clear from the horror leanings that these beings do indeed want to slaughter humans, but for what gain? Whereas other movie aliens seem to have a goal in mind during their visit, these creatures appear more confused about what they want to do with their human subjects. They spent all this time trying to get to Earth and must have just forgot about what they came here to do in the first place.

But this isn’t so much a sci-fi picture as it is your a-typical teens in the woods picture. It’s your standard template with the exception of an alien race written in as the creature of the feature. College kids venture to a cabin in the middle of crazy country so they can party and get stoned. Should we expect anything less? None of them are all that unique or interesting, fulfilling basic horror movie archetypes. One of them has a breakup, one of them is a party animal, one of them is crazy about discoveries and there’s the obligatory handheld camera floating about to wedge in that style as well. Michael Ironside pops up as the local weed farmer of the area, but he’s a wasted bore even as a conspiracy theory hermit.

Then our group of youngsters encounter a downed UFO they find in the woods. Of all the spaceships I’ve seen in movies over the years, Extraterrestrial has one of the least inspired designs. It’s the old-fashioned spinning saucer with too many lights and too little detail. The freaked out teens soon return to the cabin and the aliens begin to terrorize them. Keeping with the style of the UFO, the aliens are your stereotypical greys. They’re big, lanky, grey and have big eyes. The only thing about these aliens that doesn’t feel conventional is their motive in that they don’t actually have one.

The aliens are kept mostly aloof at first with a developing mystery about their presence. A cop investigates the region with claims of abducted individuals and mutilated cows. What exactly do these aliens want? At first, it seems they just want to abduct humans for some sort of experiment. But their experiment appears more like a confusing process than a calculated means of study. One unlucky victim finds himself abducted into the alien ship with half his arm as he handcuffed himself to a tree to be spared. Onboard, the victim is tortured and probed by a robot until he dies via a probe into his butt. Either there’s some intricate method to these alien plans that human just cannot fathom or these aliens are just screwing with us for the heck of it. I’m inclined to believe the latter since the aliens also perform some confusing kills in the way they grab faces and use ESP to force their victims into suicide.

Right up to the very last scene, which has one of the most nonsensical left-field endings of any horror picture, you’ll be scratching your head in confusion and anger. There is no point, plot or pleasing element to Extraterrestrial. It just wants to stage standard horror with aliens and doesn’t want to write anything interesting around that premise. Director Colin Minihan and writers The Vicious Brothers don’t want to give you anything to think about in an alien horror picture. They believe all the viewer needs to be satisfied with such an experience is a death by anal probe.

Extraterrestrial offers nothing more than typical aliens and mild terror, refusing to let either mix properly. Whatever intricate tale The Vicious Brothers were trying to weave with this film is drowned by too many tropes and nonsense kills that mean nothing. If Cabin in the Woods finally put down the college student slasher genre, Extraterrestrial just gives up and commits suicide the way it just throws random violence and spectacle at the screen. Maybe some aliens can abduct this film and use their superior minds to decipher just what director Colin Minihan was thinking when he made this mess.

“Selma” (2014) Review

How does one make a film about the crucial aspects of Martin Luther King? Do you focus more on his personal life to make him more human or do you shoot for more of his public actions for the civil rights movement? For director Ava DuVernay, it was both and neither. She doesn’t just want to singularly show King as the complete human being and hero he was, but also how he affected all those around him. From the infuriated opposition to the unlucky martyrs that followed him, DuVernay provides many angles and perspectives for one of the most important events of American history.

David Oyelowo is thankfully the centerpiece performance as Martin Luther King. He plays the iconic historical figure with the right amount of courage and doubt. When speaking before fellow African-Americans on the street and in the church, he’s an inspiring voice of civil rights. When speaking among close friends and family, he’s a simple man that has the same amount of fear as those who follow him in the marches. Oyelowo encapsulates every aspect we want to see of King in a picture such as this – not just focusing on his historic speeches and movements, but his personal struggles. Based on various accounts of his actions, we get to see how he copes at home with his family and dealing with phone assaults to the foundation of his marriage.

But Selma, as the title implies, is not just about MLK. Ava DuVernay’s best films prior were those that dealt with women trying to deal with men. From that aspect, I expected her to deliver on MLK’s wife Coretta and she does not disappoint. Carmen Ejogo gives just as strong of a performance, capitalizing on Coretta’s fears and frustrations with having such a figure as a husband. She visits him in jail and puts up a stoic front as she can for seeing him in such a place. She confronts her husband when accusations of cheating have been suggested to her and approaches the subject with cautious reasoning.

And then we branch out into other characters around MLK. Oprah Winfrey plays a determined female voter who follows King despite being subjected to the violence that came with non-violent protests. Andre Holland plays a motivated Andrew Young who encourages King to continue with a march he has doubts about. Tim Roth fills out the role of the bitter Alabama Governor George Wallace who makes his racist nature public by recommending the use of force to put a stop to these marches.

As with any historical drama, there are some artistic liberties that for many is going to make or break the film. The most prominent being the handling of President Lyndon Johnson as a more apathetic figure in the civil rights movement. Most historians, including those who worked with LBJ, can attest that he was more of a fighter for the cause than a man who had no dog in this fight. At one point LBJ calls on both King and Wallace to knock it off as if he were trying to be more of an outside moderator. DuVernay altered this presumably for a better story in which MLK really did feel like he had nobody to turn to in his hours of truth. It may have also been done to give LBJ more to do given that his performances by Tom Wilkinson is not too shabby and nowhere near the level of a cartoonishly ignorant white leader. Even when trying to distance himself from the issue, he really does appear to be on the level in the way he chews out Wallace during their meetings.

Ultimately, though, Selma succeeds at capturing the importance of rising against racism the peaceful way for what is right. It aims to portray MLK as more of a human than a figure, bringing the man and his mission to the forefront for modern audiences. If nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission just to see David Oyelowo revive MLK’s presence and voice for the words that should remain immortal.

The film, for all its liberties with history, presents a unique and important aspect of Martin Luther King more human than icon. It’s a brilliant film for the classroom to wake up students from the overused archive footage. MLK’s speech footage is still the important piece of film ever captured, but a dramatized film helps breed more empathy for a man’s dream of equality. Worth every penny for the strong performances of a biopic that succeeds strongly at capturing a powerful figure and his effect on the country.