The Endless

RATING: [B-|🍅]

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the Unknown.”

[H.P. Lovecraft]

A trilogy of horror and sci-fi that puts Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson alongside Shane Carruth, Brit Marling (w/ Mike Cahill & Zal Batmanglij), and Alex Garland as the pioneering indie American filmmakers of the genre.

The first is Spring (2014): showing glimmers of potential in place of setting and writing (notwithstanding the farfetched City of Angels narrative), the combination of Benson and Moorhead delivered a worthwhile indie romantic body horror that showed future promise fully realized in their recent installment.

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This latest film takes along the continuum of Resolution (2012), where the two main characters (Michael Danube and Chris Daniels) find themselves in a Blair Witch Project-type cabin haunted by a devil of determinancy who shows them their present and future recorded paths in an offer of escape that they appear to never reach.

Resolution

And, yet they reappear in The Endless, confined by the horsewhip of space and time in the same house, seeking to escape the perpetual cycle of events (“Life’s Rubik’s Cube”) begun in the previous film and finding comfort in the repeating forms of suicide as a means to restart the cycle, on their own terms.

As for the others, the two main characters (Moorhead and Benson) find themselves, in the vein of Resolution, called back to a cult-camp by a strange video from an undisclosed sender. Once arrived, one of them is drawn to the allure of the supernatural presence in the camp; while the other, confused and wary, is seeking for an escape. The struggle for self-identity in the atmospheric location that exudes mystery speaks to the repetitive struggle in their own lives and the process of breaking free from their day-to-day “miserable” existence. A powerful concept that could have been fleshed out further concerning our own vocational loops.

endless

The critics have embraced this film and for good reason. Overcoming past budgeting struggles, the combination of Moorhead and Benson have placed themselves alongside other independent filmmakers whose films richly delve into textured storytelling, proving that creative films can be just as effective as studio productions. Sure the acting and the writing is at times ineffectual, but the creativity and ability to paint a tantalizing narrative turns out to be more important.

Phil De Semlyen (Time Out) really nails this: “[t]his impressive low-budget indie starts slowly but gets better and better as it weaves a genre-defying tapestry of weirdness, atmospherics and cultish horrors across a dusty American setting.” This is a special film and certainly a promising start to a much-needed genre in independent filmmaking.

RATING: B-

Zoe

RATING [C|👎]

Zoe was essentially the complete reverse of Her with just a touch of Bicentennial Man to keep the moralistic aspects relatively grounded. Actually, saying it was “essentially” a complete reversal would be putting it lightly. Zoe explores the pathos argument surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) in a similar manner that one would expect a Freudian psychotherapist to badger their patients about how a particular event “made them feel.” The film teetered a little too close to being pretentiously “art-house,” all the while keeping the attention of the audience . . . even with the constant shaky cam.

Zoe (Léa Seydoux) works for a matchmaking firm that helps couples identify the chances of their relationship being successful, and helps its single clients find close to perfect matches. As Zoe guides clients through the survey that feeds Cole’s (Ewan McGregor) algorithm, she begins to long for the type of companionship she sees everyday. While this synopsis doesn’t seem all that intriguing, adding a couple of AI characters actually makes the story down-right appealing. In fact, Theo James makes another showing as a character that gains your respect and admiration through the duration of the film.

The acting from all three of the aforementioned talents does an admirable job of portraying the confusion of love, and the script does a wonderful job of drawing a line between the “finding the one” trope and the more realistic “for better or for worse” mentality that would help healthy relationships endure. Both of these factors kept my attention throughout the film, which is not an easy thing for the great majority of romantic dramas.

While the actors did an astonishing job at portraying their respective internal conflicts, the camera work gives the audience a sense of being a sort of voyeur rather than mere spectators. If the shaky camera is meant to make a scene (or in this case, film) feel tense or more personal, then Drake Doremus’ directing leads the audience to feel uncomfortable in their involvement with the budding romances on-screen. From stumbling through a first date, to struggling with one’s own emotions about the future of a relationship, every shot implies that most of what is seen is far too personal for the audience to be a part of. It’s one thing to give a personal aire, but it’s wholly different to bring outsiders in to what is presented as being private.

As far as romance stories go, this was actually an enjoyable and slightly uplifting example. The biggest detractor was the awkward and uncomfortable camera work. The soundtrack blended in almost too well, as it served only as ambiance to fill a scene to keep absolute silence away. Zoe is enjoyable as a film, but it doesn’t really approach any new facets of relationships or what it means to be “conscious.” For those reasons, the film is respectably average.

RATING: C

Upgrade

RATING: [F|👎]

Ever see a film that continually treats the audience like children that have to be led by the hand through basic addition? That’s the case with Upgrade. The short and simple version of this review is this: saturating a screen with the trappings of a transhumanist, cyberpunk plot does not give the script the right to explain away massive plot holes while claiming “deus ex machina”.

Spoilers follow, but I’m honestly writing them for your own benefit. If some young, techie, multi-billionaire starts describing their new widget as having the potential to “make humanity better” (or some other flowery, utopian, nonsense), understand that this is likely lazy foreshadowing that the new tech will attempt to usurp its’ creator. Furthermore, what good is it to present a character as a senior Detective if they can’t even put together that someone proven to be in the area of a murder (multiple murders, in this case) is clearly hiding something? No matter how unlikely that suspect might be, it’s not too far of a reach to think that they would be involved in some way at that point.

Much of the plot reminded me of early childhood programming where the enthusiastic host would stand listlessly in the frame whilst one-sidedly pleading with the non-responsive audience to identify the “elephant in the room”. Except in this case, the enthusiastic host is the deadpan AI that only the paraplegic man with the “miracle implant” can hear, and the proverbial “elephant in the room” is the thinly veiled plot to make the user dependent on said AI to give it complete control.

There was a time not too long ago when I got excited to see Blumhouse release a new thriller. With rare exceptions, that nostalgia has faded to a realization of either my growing (if not pickier) tastes, or Blumhouse’s more laissez-faire vetting. Add this pulpy excuse for a “psychological thriller” to the slush pile.

RATING: F

Anon

RATING: [B-|🍅]

Andrew Niccol presents his take on a slightly distant future Orwellian dystopia in Anon. The effect of which is quietly chilling as we slowly see his concepts lurking in dark alleyways. While Niccol leaves any direct predictions of his projected reality out of the film, the subject matter is almost too timely to brush off, if not pandering to the more “alarmist” crowd. As someone who watches trends in social-media and other online venues with great interest, Anon poses a question that should be asked by anyone who utilizes our modern online tools of convenience: How much personal information are we simply giving away to the public?

To quote Amanda Seyfried’s character in response to a similar question:

It’s not that I have something to hide; I have nothing I want you to see.

While the film is pertinent to our modern era, there is something to be desired of many of the stars’ performances. Many of the characters come across as though their points of view and personal agendas are more pertinent than that of the other characters’. While this might actually be part of the effect of essentially living in an interconnected social-media that also acts as an elaborate digital government nanny, the effect of the characters’ interactions comes across as preachy and disinterested in other parties. Again, that might be the intent. Regardless, it presents an off-putting air about the characters that tends to seep into the plot itself.

This is one of the few films in my recollection that uses a first-person perspective in an effective manner. Since the main technology is an implant that allows citizens to view the world and any desirable information as an augmented reality (AR) overlay to what is in their view, it makes sense that advertisements and memories would utilize the available technology. Where the effect is truly effective at world building is when an individual decides to ignore what is being projected to them and sees the environment as it actually is. For times when memories are being shared between characters, the perspective showcases vivid reminders that nothing an individual does is ever truly private.

Overall, this shows somewhat of a plateau in Niccol’s storytelling and film making. Many of the similar touchstones for his films are still there: apathetic characters, grim circumstances, and a balanced projection of what the future might hold. However, many of the perceived short-comings could be explained away by the world in which the film takes place. Considering the film clocks in at 100 minutes, it almost could have been mistaken for a one-off special of Black Mirror.

RATING: B-

Annihilation

RATING: [B|🍅]

W​‌­h​​⁣e​‍‌n‍⁡ ​‌⁢y​‍⁤ο‍⁡u​​⁤ ​‌‌s‍⁡e​‍⁣e​‍⁤ ​‍‍b​‍⁠e​‍⁠a​‌‌u​‌​ty іn desolation it⁰сhanges somethіng ⅰnsⅰde you. Desоlatⅰоn tries to cоlonize you

Alex Garland in Ex Machina brought us a world of the megalomaniac human impulse to create: ultimately leading to obsession and extinction. And, in Annihilationhe does it again, this time from the internal flames of the desires and medical unpredictability that is the human condition. What we see in Garland’s second film is at moments absolutely brilliant. An on-screen/off-screen confluence of the branding of two disjunctive elements requiring us to probe the duality in our own conditions.

Two worlds: one flowing within the purview narrative of the intended author, controlled and methodical, changeable and compulsory, predictable and inevitable. And in the other, we see a glimmer of our own humanity in the confines of the self-destructive predilections of our own choosing and of our own design. In the end, what takes place, is destruction and the mold. Recreation, adaptation, and a picturesque setting of the vulnerability unto death/surrender versus a tendency towards survival for the sake of love.

cancerTo make simple: after the return of Lena’s husband, Natalie Portman’s character, along with a “damaged” crew of females, driven by the will for the restorative potential, enter the prism of uncertainty, driven purely by the force of two theories: self-destruction and renewal. There, inside, they each must face the challenge of forward progress and capitulation seeing now that the surrender, that some of them so desperately desire, could be all too naturally enjoyed in an environment made specific for the normative end-cycle of the human condition.

Some are taken, others are simply unfolded into the canvas of opportunity. The outcome of each drives the narrative within the narrative.

I won’t pretend to understand the extent of the film and its hidden qualities. The theme of cancer and its malignancy is central. Seeing it first hand speaks volumes about the physical and mental toll the spread inflicts and the twin nature of the battle. I don’t know the science well enough, but I’ve seen those who surrender and those who seem to resist the poisoning of the mind, and the dual world experience rings loud the depths in Annihilation. Those with a thorough background in the field will likely enjoy the film much more and in retrospect, if you have the patience and time, you can read a biography on the sickness before going in.

What I do know is the film is rich and layered. Distracting at times for the sake of entertainment with ineptitudes and horror, seemingly unfolding into a conclusion that forces a redeeming re-imagining, but offering more than enough introspective analysis to leave viewers in a state of unsettlement.

Without saying more, its worth the price of admission.

RATING: B