As a screenwriter, Alex Garland has achieved his greatest success working alongside director Danny Boyle in such notable sci-fi works as The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine. For his directorial feature debut, the 45-year-old native of London chose to make another one of his scripts, the complex and riveting sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, which has earned him high-praise and fawning early reviews. The film concerns a half-mad billionaire tech genius (played by Oscar Isaac), who brings one of his star programmer employees (Domhnall Gleeson) out to his massive, remote laboratory somewhere in the Pacific NW in order to test his latest creation: a stunning, robotic AI (Alicia Vikander), as beautiful as she is intelligent. As the trio spend time with one another it becomes clear the tension between the creator and his invention is far more serious — and dangerous — than either lets on at first.
In town to promote the film, the director generously held forth about his body of work, the first film he ever adored, and his fixation with Formula 1 cars.
We’re still a good two weeks and change away from The Avengers: Age of Ultron and the official start of the summer blockbuster season, if you can believe that. You might therefore want to take a deep breath and watch some solid programming in the comfort of your own home before we all descend into the cinematic chaos of the summer time. Here are our picks for some the best recently added films you can watch on Amazon Prime right now.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean’s timeless epic about a young British intelligence officer, who is assigned to the Sahara desert in order to gather intel on the Turks in WWI, is actually intended for the big screen—and we mean BIG, it was famously shot in 70mm—but is still a marvel even watching it on your flatscreen. It made a star out of Peter O’Toole and his piercing eyes, while establishing benchmarks for Alec Guiness and Anthony Quinn. In a field of would-be spectacles of the era, each claiming to be the biggest and best ever made (see: Cleopatra, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments), Lawrence towers above the pack.
Here are some of our picks for the best and most interesting offerings from Netflix streaming this month.
Last year’s critical darling (and one much-appreciated by Ticket) is many things: an unconventional spook story, an examination of suppressed parental grief and rage, and an art-house treatment of the standard boogey-man myth. But mostly, Jennifer Kent’s film is straight-up scary as hell. Served best at night, long after the kid(s) have been put safely to bed.
“We totally just hacked the shit out of this, and it’s amazing!”
Last week, the good folks at theweek.com gave us a smorgasbord of what they called Netflix hacks to help improve your overall Netflix experience. While we technically wouldn’t call any of these “hacks” exactly, they do work as enhancers, broadening and strengthening your experience on the site. Here’s what they came up with:
1. Netflix Internacional: Perhaps you are a cultured, multi-cultural sort who would enjoy shows and movies from other countries not being shown in the States. This here browser extension, Hola, should have your bases covered. Essentially, it fools Netflix into thinking you’re based in another country, allowing you access to shows and films otherwise unavailable to you. As it’s technically not exactly on the up-and-up (and apparently Netflix doesn’t give this practice any kind of smiley face emoji), you are assuming a bit of a risk, but it’s your call to make.
2. Netflix Personalized: This is one for heavy users who would like more control over their Netflix experience. Brought to us by Lifehacker, the Chrome extension Flix Plus gives you all sorts of say on how the site runs for you: Check the IMDB/Rotten Tomatoes score, rate things by half-star (for extra precision), hide potential spoilers, and, most importantly, it allows you to filter recommendations so you don’t keep getting the same damn ones over and over.
The lo-fi indie horror genre has gotten a tremendous boost from the festival circuit over the last couple years. In 2014, we had the spooky, unleashed id of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which premiered at Sundance a year ago; now we have David Robert Mitchell’s psycho-sexual predatory nightmare It Follows to savor after commanding runs at TIFF, Sundance, and Cannes (and the upcoming The Witch from this year’s Sundance lineup).
It Follows revolves around a simple yet terrifying idea: One night a young woman has sex with a relative stranger in his car and in the process, like a form of particularly virulent VD, a horrific phantom gets transmitted to her from her apologetic partner. This phantom can take any form—a friend, a family member, a complete stranger—and it moves very slowly and deliberately, but there is no escaping it. Once attached, it will track you down and kill you most gruesomely, unless you can pass it on by having sex with someone else. The phantom goes in order, so as long as enough other people end up between you and it, you can survive.
Very often if you see one film you really enjoy, you can find other films that echo some of the things you really loved about the original. Here, we round up five movies you should dig if you like It Follows.
Ils (Them) (2006)
If you like: Psychologically deft horror films that scare you silly.
Then you should like: The unfettered genius of David Moreau and Xavier Palud's film, which revolves around an equally simple premise: A young couple spend a weekend at a country retreat and are terrorized by a mostly unseen group of assailants.
Comparison: This skillfully rendered horror opus, a French-Romanian collaboration, works largely because of its incredible restraint. In other hands, it could just have easily been turned into some kind of super-graphic, sadistic gore-porn vehicle, but that's not at all what the filmmakers are after. Instead, they use every cinematic trick in the book to induce unending dread and anxiety from the audience. Every scene is honed, every movement of the camera is precise and exacting, and the result is a truly terrifying film that uses precious little in the way of gore to get its point across.
If you like: An indefatigable villain in constant pursuit of our protagonists.
Then you should like: James Cameron's hugely popular followup to The Terminator ups the action ante in almost every possible way.
Comparison: Instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the villain, he becomes the reprogrammed cyborg trying to protect young John Connor (Edward Furlong) from the new evil robot-from-the-future, the liquid-metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick). Slick, sleek, self-repairing, and utterly relentless, the T-1000 has all the qualities of the Follows phantom, but it's also inhumanly fast. How one defeats such an unstoppable opponent is the crux of the film's drama, and one not fully satisfied until every possible erg of thrilling action has been wrung out of the script.
If you like: A shape-shifting creature who can come at you anytime, from anywhere, with anyone's body.
Then you should like: John Carpenter's delectably demented remake of The Thing From Another World, which takes the basic premise of the original—a group of scientists in a remote Arctic outpost are forced to combat a terrible alien who can take the form of any creature it kills—and turns all the dials and knobs to 11.
Comparison: Hailed now as a horror classic, the super-gory and mind-splintering film was initially derided by critics and virtually ignored by audiences. But it has earned a surprisingly robust outpouring of devotion amongst horror fans in the more than three decades after its release. The scientists—led by Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley—never know whom they can trust and where the next incredibly horrific, gory slaughter will hit next, which, in turn leaves the film's audience in equal peril. Legend has it that even Russell and Carpenter weren't totally aware of whose body the creature was inhabiting at a given time, which lends the film an edge of real unpredictability, the horror genre piece de résistance.
If you like: Being inspired to extreme paranoia for an extended period of time.
Then you should like: David Fincher's dark thriller, which posits Michael Douglas as a rich, miserable businessman who suddenly gets thrown into a macabre and deadly seeming intricately plotted scenario hatched by a company who specializes in breaking down its participants hired by his younger brother (Sean Penn), who soon vanishes.
Comparison: The enjoyment of Fincher's film—in addition to seeing the Michael Douglas-rich-snob character he's so perfected over the years get broken into little pieces by the brilliant malevolence of the game-makers—is the wash of pure paranoia it waves over you. Before too long, you're trying to second-guess every detail of the plot, and every person Douglas's character encounters on his journey. In Mitchell's film, he often places the phantom deep in the background of a given scene, and has them gradually and inexorably move towards their victim in a way that the audience sees long before the protagonist. It's a genius idea, and forces you to scan the background of every frame, searching for the phantom.
If you like: Low-budget spookiness jump-started by young, psycho-sexual angst.
Then you should like: One of the seminal examples of the modern horror flick, another John Carpenter creation, and one of the more imitated and referenced horror films of all time.
Comparison: This was one of the films that established the new rules of the genre so gleefully sent-up by the Scream franchise back in the '90s. Carpenter's high-school kids, who are terrorized one Halloween night by the return of the twisted Michael Myers to his hometown after escaping an asylum, follow what would become several of the standard characters of the slasher flick: The cute nympho (P.J. Soles) who, along with a doltish boyfriend, are among the first to get killed; the bookish prude (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose sense of responsibility and practicality help keep her alive long enough for help to come; and the anxious doctor (Donald Pleasence), whose main job to reiterate just how dangerous and deranged the killer is. The strong implication—long held by Hollywood's bizarre rules of teen sexuality—is that sexually active youth are always the first to die, punished, if you will, for their hedonism, an idea plucked out and toyed with in Mitchell's film, who follows the ensuing perils of its heroine after her brief sexual tryst, but only after her lover turns out to be a spineless cad, who drugs her, warns her what's in store for her and furtively takes off, leaving the phantom inexorably on her trail.
It Follows opens March 27th at the PFS at the Roxy Theater (2023 Sansom Street).
Piers Marchant is a film critic and writer based in Philly. Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.
As reported by Amy Kaufman in the L.A. Times, Kevin Hart’s newest comedy, Get Hard, co-starring Will Farrell, made its world-premiere Monday night at Austin’s Paramount Theater for SXSW. Despite the goodwill the actors built up before the screening (both were on stage, making yuk-yuks with the crowd), the reaction to the film, which posits Farrell as a rich, white dude busted for a bunch of financial crimes and sentenced to hard time. He hires Hart’s character—whom he naturally assumes has spent time in the joint—to prepare him for his oncoming ordeal.
Apparently, even though it got major laughs throughout the screening, the post-screening Q&A with first-time director Etan Cohen started to go seriously downhill after one patron called the film “offensive.”
It might seem as if he just sprang out of the kiln with 2009’s The Hangover, but Jenkintown’s Bradley Cooper has actually been a professional actor since 1999. Now, with his thoroughly convincing turn as Chris Kyle in American Sniper—officially the highest-grossing film released in 2014—Mr. Cooper is finally coming in to the rarefied air of some of our most celebrated male actors. That isn’t to say that everything he’s made has been gold (ahem, Serena), in fact, it’s really only in recent years that he’s been allowed to showcase his considerable talents in serious films. Regardless, here are our picks for his five best performances to date, and where you might be able to see them, in chronological order.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Synopsis: Comic insanity reigns as Camp Firewood prepares for the last day of summer camp, all while a giant piece of Skylab hurtles toward them from space threatening to wipe everyone out.
Cooper's Performance: As the popped-collar, bizarrely enthusiastic co-spirit director (along with Amy Poehler), Ben, Cooper plays off his Hollywood looks hilariously against leading-man type and shares an intimate love scene with fellow counselor McKinley (Michael Ian Black) in a toolshed. Cooper hadn't yet established his serious credentials, but his all-in performance, working with a seasoned group of comedians as Poehler, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, Judah Friedlander, and Paul Rudd, blends in perfectly.
Synopsis: A small-time writer takes an experimental drug that allows him to utilize his full brain capacity, albeit temporarily, which enables him to become a financial wizard, and a marked man.
Cooper's Performance: I know most people would put Silver Linings Playbook in this spot, but, in truth, as well as he played him, his character never really hung together for me. His emotional instability seemed all too convenient to the grinding gears of the plot. No, we'll take a significant zag here and put a vote in for his much more unheralded turn as small-time novelist Eddie Morra, who ingests a drug that enables him to dominate Wall Street and thwart the criminal forces that seek to take him out. Cooper gets to play both the struggling loser and the swaggering giant, and find the tricky through-line between both of them. The film might have its issues, but his performance is eye-opening.
Synopsis: A pair of con artists are recruited by an off-the-wall FBI agent to help ensnare a group of crooked New Jersey politicians.
Cooper's Performance: If you want a fine performance of Cooper's in a David O. Russell film, this is the far better choice. Based on a true story, he plays FBI agent Richie DiMaso, the rube of the film. He's a bearded, somewhat loathsome glory boy who orchestrates what would become ABSCAM and attempts to bolster his career in the process, with truly disastrous results. Thing is, he can't just be a snide jerk, there have to be angles and contours to his character, small sympathies that can help hook the audience into the delicious set-up, and Cooper delivers righteously. DiMaso might be a preening lummox (props to Cooper's dreadful perm), but he's also clearly in over his head, a fact that con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) doesn't fail to notice—and eventually take advantage of.
Synopsis: A small group of interstellar outcasts come together in order to protect the universe from a blood-thirsty warrior prince.
Cooper's Performance: Again, I'm going unconventional on this one, as his performance is just a voiceover for a CGI weapons-toting raccoon who is part of a rag-tag team of misfits who band together to save their galaxy from destruction at the hands of a ruthless, power-hungry despot. Thing is, Rocket's persona powers much of the film's daring charisma, and Cooper absolutely nails his delivery in so many key scenes that he instantly becomes your favorite Guardian (unless, of course, you're more into mono-vocabularied, walking trees). Pair this huge moneymaker along with the (woeful) Hangover sequels, Hustle and Sniper and you can see how Cooper's name has suddenly shot up into the stratosphere. Selma notwithstanding, the man is on a huge roll and it will be very interesting to see what he will do with his considerable Hollywood clout, which will likely never be higher. Perhaps, it will lead him to a regular stint on the director's chair.
Synopsis: A heroic Navy SEAL sharpshooter endures several tours of duty in Afghanistan and becomes legendary in the process, but there is a price to be paid in his more chaotic home life.
Cooper's Performance: The role that brought him his second Best Actor Oscar nod. Playing the controversial Chris Kyle, Cooper beefed up his body with muscle and brawn, transformed his accent into a Texas twang, and spent countless hours training with his weapon until it fit seamlessly in his hands, but his most impressive feat is to take the two-dimensional American hero character that screenwriter Jason Hall fashioned out of Kyle's controversial memoir, and make him seem authentic. The film may gloss over some of Kyle's more objectionable traits, but there's nothing phony or trumped up about Cooper's performance.
Where You Can See It Right Now: AMC Cherry Hill 24, UA Riverview
Still trying to figure out whether you’ll need to wear hiking boots, snow shoes, or Wellingtons before venturing outside? Weather is for suckers! Stay inside and fire up the TV for some home entertainment instead. Here are some of our picks for the best and most interesting offerings from Netflix streaming this month.
Finding Neverland (2004)
Before he became a weird, self-conscious parody of himself, Johnny Depp was a spry, sublimely talented actor who would seek out roles that were genuinely interesting to him. Playing Scottish author J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, was just such an opportunity. The film posits Barrie’s first meeting the Davies family, four children and a stunning widow (played by Kate Winslet), whom he would go on to befriend. Later, of course, he would be inspired by them to write his seminal children’s novel about a group of kids who don’t want to have to grow up. The performances are rich and nuanced and Marc Forster’s direction is steady and sound. It might not be a homerun, but it’s a solid base hit.
With a multitude of streaming options at your fingertips, the most difficult decision becomes what you should watch first. Here are our picks for the best stuff you can check out on Amazon Prime right now.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Back before Wes Anderson became known for his twee, adorable cinema as identifiable in its branding as West Elm or Cadillac, he was a fresh-faced kid out of Texas who made a short with his college buddy Owen Wilson that caught the eye of James Caan, who helped get his first feature financed. The result is this proto-Anderson delight: Wilson, playing alongside brothers Luke and Andrew, is the unforgettable Dignan, a sweet-minded innocent with big, caper-film inspired dreams of planning elaborate bank heists and utilizing the big con. Luke is an old friend recently released from mental institution, whose friendship to Dignan requires him to play along with his misguided schemes. Funny and incessantly charming, you can see many of the hallmarks of what would come to be Anderson’s signature style, but slightly less sure of themselves: An auspicious and thoroughly entertaining debut.
While it’s true many of Bryn Mawr native Alex Ross Perry’s films have been difficult to see outside the festival circuit, that’s been through no fault of his own: the Listen Up Philip and The Color Wheel director’s features have been ripping good times, even under extremely limited release.