Saturday, November 22, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: AUTOMATA (2014) and THE DAMNED (2014)

(US/Spain/Italy - 2014)

The visually striking but ponderous AUTOMATA succeeds in looking a lot more expensive than its $15 million budget, but it can't overcome an obvious, empty, and hopelessly derivative story that suggests at least a small percentage of whatever, if any, profit it makes should go to the estate of Isaac Asimov. Set in 2044 with 99.7% of Earth's population wiped out by solar storms that have turned the planet into a radioactive desert, AUTOMATA has the surviving humans corralled into covered cities after the ROC Corporation manufactures a line of Automata robots to build walls and climate-controlled clouds to create pockets of atmosphere amidst the dystopian hellscape. The robots have two protocols: 1) never harm a living thing, and 2) they are forbidden to alter themselves or other robots. When a robot is spotted working on itself and another sets itself on fire after being caught smuggling a piece of equipment out of a research facility, it's apparent to the powers that be at ROC that the robots have started to flagrantly disregard their second protocol. ROC insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) witnesses the robotic self-immolation and is led to cybernetics engineer Dr. Dupre (Melanie Griffith), who warns him that robot evolution is well within the realm of possibility should one of them figure out how to abandon the second protocol. Vaucan is abducted by a sex robot named Cleo (voiced by Griffith) and three others, who take him on a journey across the deadly desert to meet their leader, the Blue Robot (voiced by Javier Bardem), the robot who evolved into a semi-emotional being and began working on the others, forming a rapidly snowballing rebellion that threatens to exterminate what little is left of the human race. "Life finds a way," the Blue Robot explains to Vaucan. "Your time is coming to an end."

Co-written by director Gabe Ibanez, a protege of Alex de la Iglesia, AUTOMATA sounds like a film with heady ideas but it really comes off as silly most of the time. It's extremely convoluted and seems like a piecemeal stitching of other, better sources, with a lot of Asimov's Robot series, some Neill Blomkamp allegory (there's a definite DISTRICT 9 thing going on with humanity's shabby treatment of the robots), a bit of BLADE RUNNER in the high-tech, sleazy neon cityscapes of the protected areas, and a portion of post-apocalypse with the admittedly well-done CGI in the desert sequences, which look terrific but go on forever. Once the robots get Vaucan out there (wait a minute...isn't the desert supposed to be lethally radioactive?), the pace really slows down as too much time is spent on Vaucan haplessly demanding to be taken back to the city and Cleo replying that they "can't do that, sir," repeated multiple times over. There's a bit of a HARDWARE vibe going on as well, right down to the presence of Dylan McDermott as Wallace, a rogue, robot-hating cop hired by Vaucan's boss (Robert Forster) to venture into the desert to find him and take out the fugitive robots. A subplot involving Vaucan's very pregnant wife (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) goes nowhere and has so little effect on everything that it feels like a more expanded plot thread that's been drastically cut. Banderas does what he can and is an engaging enough hero, and Cannon cover band Millennium gets better work than usual out of the Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX. Ibanez obviously has a great eye for visual style, but with such a weak, hackneyed, cut-and-paste script, the terrific-looking but frustrating AUTOMATA can't help but feel like it's all surface and no substance. (R, 110 mins)

(Colombia/US - 2014)

Spanish-born director Victor Garcia has earned a dubious name for himself as a go-to guy for shitty DTV sequels like RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (2006), MIRRORS 2 (2010), and the unwatchable HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS (2011), a crass exercise in Weinstein audience contempt--so much so that Doug Bradley refused to reprise his iconic role as Pinhead--shot fast and cheap when they realized they were about to lose the rights to the franchise. Garcia has been a gun-for-hire on all of these, demonstrating none of the promise of other top-drawer DTV auteurs and seeming like a hack who only got the lowly sequel gigs that Joel Soisson turned down. Garcia finally comes into his own with THE DAMNED, which isn't the most original horror film you'll ever see, but it's done with such spirited verve and frenzied panache that it wins you over in spite of the usual gaping lapses in logic that seem to haunt these kinds of films. Widower David (Peter Facinelli) and his fiancee Lauren (Sophia Myles) arrive in Bogota to pick up his college-age daughter Jill (Nathalia Ramos). Jill has been vacationing with her journalist aunt and late mom's sister Gina (Carolina Guerra), has hooked up with Gina's cameraman Ramon (Sebastian Martinez), and hasn't been answering David's calls. David is persistent, but the quintet have to drive about four hours to another town to get Jill's passport, which she carelessly left behind. Ignoring the warnings of local cop Morales (Juan Pablo Gamboa), and traveling down a dangerous mountain road, they get caught in a flash flood, destroying Gina's truck, forcing them to find refuge at a decrepit inn run by Felipe (Gustavo Angarita). The guest register shows no one's stayed at the inn since 1978, and the skittish Felipe doesn't want them wandering around. Searching for a bathroom, Jill hears a voice crying for help.  She and Ramon find a little girl, Ana Maria (Julieta Salazar), in a secret locked cell in the basement. They free her, and all hell breaks loose. Ana Maria is the current host of "La Bruja," the spirit of a 17th century witch with the power to jump from body to body when the current host is killed. Felipe has had Ana Maria locked in the basement cell since 1978, and with a torrential downpour making escape impossible, now has an inn filled with interlopers for La Bruja to freely possess at will.

Screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio's (THE CALL) idea of an evil spirit moving from body to body isn't exactly a new concept, having been used to great effect in John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), William Peter Blatty's THE EXORCIST III (1990), and Gregory Hoblit's FALLEN (1998) to name a few. And the notion of keeping a demonic spirit locked away owes a lot to the second-season TWILIGHT ZONE episode "The Howling Man," and Michael Mann's THE KEEP (1983). But after years of execrable swill, Garcia finally establishes himself as a legitimate talent outside the shackling expectations of bad DTV sequels. Garcia got his start working on the effects crews on several of RE-ANIMATOR producer Brian Yuzna's Spanish productions of the early 2000s, such as DAGON (2001) and WEREWOLF HUNTER (2004). A lot of those Yuzna titles dealt with travelers being trapped in a desolate place, and in that way, THE DAMNED (shot under the title GALLOWS HILL) plays a lot like something Yuzna would've shepherded a decade or so ago. Garcia is conservative with digital effects, but really seems to prefer the practical if at all possible--it's nice to see latex and wet, spurting blood in a horror movie these days. Garcia also makes terrific use of tried-and-true genre tropes like creepy dolls, a chair rocking itself, covered mirrors, and cockroaches infesting the inn. The cheap jump scares work, and there's a doomy, rainy atmosphere throughout. Sure, characters do dumb things (David: "From now on, we all stick together!" he exhorts three seconds before wandering into another room alone), but as the film morphs into one of the more highly-energized EXORCIST knockoffs (Myles, in particular, throws herself into this), there's a genuinely sinister and unsettling method to La Bruja's madness in the way it's able to see inside the souls of those around it, exposing their deepest secrets and exploiting their guilt and weakness. You've seen most of what's in THE DAMNED before, but Garcia's enthusiasm, the film's relentless pace, and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, grief, and despair make it far more effective than it has any right to be. (R, 87 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

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