Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

What's it about? Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to the isolated home of his mysterious billionaire employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to help carry out a Turing Test on Nathan's new AI creation Ava (Alicia Vikander). However, there's more going on than first meets the A-eye.

Is it any good? A thoughtful sci-fi piece, more interested in ideas than action, with a clean, clinical visual style. Story-wise, the problem it faces it that there's nothing here that hasn't been covered before elsewhere, in stuff like Asimov's I, Robot, and films like A.I., Blade Runner and, more recently, Her. In fact, the one part where it could have had something new to say is in exploring further the mining of social media to help create Ava's mind - I felt that could have been, well, mined for more interesting impact. That said, it's still a tidy directorial debut from Garland with nice performances from the small cast, which put flesh onto the slim, precise structure, with a plot that may not entirely develop the way you are expecting. It actually reminded me most of Never Let Me Go, which Garland previously co-wrote, both in terms of its examination of what it means to be human and in its slightly ethereal presentation, so if you liked that, you'll probably like this. And there's plenty of scope for a interesting intellectual debate/blazing row over gender differences and exploitation. Also, robo-boobs.

Anything else I should know? In a rather splendid piece of marketing, a profile for Ava was created for the Tinder dating app, before being launched on an unsuspecting public at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Sure enough, more than one horny punter found themselves falling for the robot, only to be left a littel shame-faced when the stunt was revealed. Then again, the picture used for the profile was of the not-hit-with-ugly-stick Alicia Vikander, who was definitely a human female last time I looked. Or is she.....?

What does the Fonz think? I, Fembot

It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

What's it about? After teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with her new boyfriend for the first time, he reveals he has passed on some sort of curse to her, which means she will be followed by a malevolent entity intent on killing her. It can only approach at walking pace, so she can easily outrun it, but it will never, ever stop coming for her, unless she in turn passes on the curse.

Is it any good? Well, ‘It’ is obviously not to be messed with, but the film itself is quite good. The central premise is clever in two ways. One, it challenges genre conventions in that having sex is really the only way to try and escape harm (Hurrah!), raising interesting ethical issues and sexual interpretations about what ‘It’ represents. And, two, the viewer will soon find themselves peering anxiously at the edges of the frame to spot the slow, but inexorable, approach of ‘It’ in a variety of guises, with the empty spaces of the widescreen presentation used to good effect in ramping up the tension. With its surburban setting, a seemingly indestructible boogeyman and an underlying synth score, Halloween is the obvious horror touchstone, but the difference is that this has a distinct indie, slacker vibe in that the people in peril are listless, disaffected youths. As such, it becomes a more leisurely, creepy affair, rather than being outright scary, but it's a worthwhile watch if you prefer more thought-provoking horror to standard frights.

Anything else I should know? Follow-up viewing (follow-up - geddit?) should include the early body-horror films of David Cronenberg and George A. Romero's zombie films, which director Mitchell drew inspiration from, whilst the ghost stories of MR James, such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You (memorably filmed with Michael Hordern) and Casting the Runes (filmed as Night of the Demon) are also useful reference points. On a personal note, for some reason it reminded me of that old quote: “Life is a disease: sexually transmitted and invariably fatal”. And yet we still insist on passing it on.

What does the Fonz think? Follow it on Twitter @itfollowsfilm

Like, whatever, man Double Bill

So, yeah, time to break out the maryjane and bongs for a couple of stoner-comedy-detective-LA-hippy films. And just think, man, maybe the films are real, like, and reality is the fiction, you know? Did you ever think about that? Yeah, man, no, really, that's, like, groovy, man.

Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) will, like, mess with your mind, man. Set in 70s LA, stoner PI Larry 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, sporting a magnificent pair of mutton chops) takes on a number of cases which end up overlapping in surprising ways. At least I think they do. Truth be told, the plot is deliberately and hilariously convoluted, so if anyone can follow who's doing what when and why, well, you know, I want some of what they're smoking, man. As well as paying homage to the labyrinthine plots of Raymond Chandler, it also takes inspiration from the stoner comedies of Cheech and Chong and spoofs like Airplane! and Police Squad! with some good sight gags, slapstick and funny cameos from an impressive cast (Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon et al). In the end, I'm not sure it really all hangs together - Incoherent Vice, eh? AMIRITE? And they drugs dull the mind. Pfft! But, well, maybe it doesn't need to make sense, maybe we should all just go with the flow, man. Think of it as the Long Good Big Sleepy Lebowski, you dig? And if you jive with this, my man...*click click*. I asked my good friend and stoner Jeff 'The Dude' Lebowski what he made of it.

Like, whoa!, man, that's such a coincidence! Cos, like, i was just watching The Big Lebowski (Coen Bros, 1998) like, the other day, man! A strong contender for the Coens' funniest film, it's also a convoluted LA tale about perennial stoner Jeff 'The Dude' Lebowski (Jeff Bridges, sporting a magnificently befuddled demeanour), who gets mixed up with various crazies in a case of mistaken identity, although his own close friend Walter (John Goodman) may actually be more crazy than any of them. Oh, and there's bowling and music too, you dig? Again a terrific cast of Coen regulars (Jon Turturro, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, PeterStormare) breathe life into the colourful characters who flit in and out of the story like, like, like.....in-and-out flitting things. I think it's an endlessly quotable, very funny and surreal spin on the LA private eye genre, but, well, you know, that's just, like, my opinion, man. Given The Dude's input above, it seemed only fair to ask my other good friend and stoner Larry 'Doc' Sportello what he made of it.

Well, what would they know? Damn pothead slackers. But you, dear reader, that was some good shit, right? Like that time we went up the lake and got a little crazy, remember? Good times, my friends, good times. And, well, what does it all mean anyway? Films and blogging and, like, life? I dunno, man, seems like sometimes you get kicked in the nuts and other time the nuts just kick you right back. Hold on, wait, that doesn't sound right....um.......wait.......what are we taking about again?

Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

What's it about? Inspired by the little-known Johnson County War, it's about a Harvard-educated sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) protecting a group of immigrant smallholders from a posse of mercenaries hired by cattle barons to drive them off their land. Of course, you will know it as the notorious box-office flop which is regularly voted one of the worst films of all-time. It ruined the director's career, bankrupt an entire studio, put an end to the New Hollywood wave and killed the Western genre for a good decade or so. Can it really be that bad?

Is it any good? Well, no. I decided to give a chance to the 219min director's cut which some critics have re-appraised as a misunderstood masterpiece. It's not. It's a mess. An epic, beautifully photographed mess, admittedly, but if you spend $44m shooting 200+ hours of footage, you're bound to find a few nice shots in there somewhere. Putting them together in order to tell a good story is obviously less easy, especially if there's no sense of what the story is. Look - it's John Hurt - his character must be important. Nope, he seems to have disappeared off to make The Elephant Man instead. Why are all these people titting about in Harvard? I thought this was a Western? Ah, here we are, some pretty Montana scenery to set the scene. Oh good,here comes Christopher Walken - I like him. Although he does have a crap moustache here. Oh, he's away too. Now who's this? Isabelle Huppert - she looks very pretty and wholesome. Wait - she's a prostitute!? Who gets paid with cattle!? What!? She seems torn between the charms of Walken's moustache and Kristofferson's beard - no contest, Kristofferson's beard is a thing of great beauty. Christ on a bike! - isn't that Jeff Bridges on roller skates? Dancing to fiddle music? For about 15 minutes? And then puking? That's a bit odd. Well, 2 hours in - I wonder is anything going to happen in this film? Ah! Some fighting at last. Walken will sort everything out, I bet. Ooops! No he won't, he's dead now, after writing the crappest death letter ever. Hold on, when did everyone suddenly talking in comedy foreign accents? And why is that man holding Mickey Rourke by the tongue? Well, onto the climactic battle. Which I can't bloody see because all of the dust raised by a pile of horses riding endlessly round in a circle. What's happening? Who's dead? Who's alive? How did Granny get a gun? Why is that man stuck under a wagon? Why is there a man sitting under a tree at a desk studiously writing in a book and seemingly unperturbed by the chaotic battle going on around him. Why did that woman shoot herself? Is that it over? Nope, there's an epilogue on a boat. Aaaaaghhhh! Kristofferson has shaved off his beard!!! Nooooooooo! Is nothing sacred? The end.

I expected a Western. I got Jeff Bridges on roller skates.
Anything else I should know? Thankfully the account of the making of Heaven's Gate is much more entertaining. Coming off the back of the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, Cimino was one of the hottest directors in Hollywood and was effectively given carte blanche by United Artists (UA) studio to realize his dream project based on an old script he had knocking around for the best part of a decade. This ill-advised decision on creative control was seemingly interpreted by Cimino as an excuse to labour over every single detail, from personally selecting individual extras for scenes, to shooting upwards of 30 takes for every scene, to making everyone sit around waiting for just the right cloud formation to roll by. As the legend goes, after 6 days filming, the production was already 5 days behind schedule. Beyond that, tales of excess included relocating an entire tree for one single shot, installing an irrigation system to ensure lush green grass for the final battle scenes, rebuilding an entire set because the street needed to be 6 feet wider and re-routing a train for a few seconds footage.

"Don't worry Kris. Just a few more hours
and that cloud will be in the right place."
By all accounts, it was mad stuff, and when he eventually gathered his 200+ hours of footage, he barricaded himself in the editing room - literally - and eventually produced a 5+ hours cut to UA, who understandably went bananas. Finally a 3 hr 39 min version was released to an absolutely toxic reception and a miserable $1.3m box-office, prompting UA to pull the film from distribution after only 1 week. A shorter, even more confused version appeared a year later to equally bad reception. Unable to deal with the losses, UA was unceremoniously dumped by parent company Transamerica, effectively ending the studio's 60-year independent involvement in the film industry. Cimino went on to make only 4 more films (all bad) and Heaven's Gate effectively became a cautionary tale and a byword for terrible, egotistical, wasteful film-making. If you want to read more, here's a rundown courtesy of the excellent denofgeek website and an article from the Telegraph which argues that Heaven's Gate makes it possible to consider a film as a catastrophe and a classic simultaneously. Or for more extended reading try Steven's Bach's book Final Cut which tells about the whole sorry affair in details. All of these are more interesting than the film.

What does the Fonz think? Pretty, but terrible. So pretty terrible, then

The Book of Life (Jorge Gutierrez, 2014)

What's it about? A fairy tale about the rivalry between two friends, Manolo and Joaquin, for the affections of the lovely Maria. Things are somewhat complicated when the quarreling immortal spirits La Muerte and Xibalba have a wager on which suitor will emerge victorious.

Is it any good? Some wonderfully imaginative animation and visuals on display here, inspired by dolls and artistry from the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities. It's colourful, entertaining fare with good musical sequences, which makes up for a fairly conventional love triangle plot, albeit one that takes us through the worlds of the living and dead, accompanied by various mythical rulers of the underworld. So maybe not that conventional, come to think of it. Also, for a film dealing with divisions between life and the afterlife, I would have liked to see a little more poignancy in the sections dealing with death and family loss, which might have given the film more heft. Still, it all looks absolutely fabulous and it's hard not to like a film featuring stampeding pigs, a skeleton fire-bull and a Latin-American rendition of Radiohead's Creep.

What does the Fonz think? Juan thumb up!

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