Monthly Archives: April 2015

“Ex Machina,” Reviewed: Aye, Robot.

Oscar Isaac, left, and Domhnall Gleason in "Ex Machina." (A24 Films)

Oscar Isaac, left, and Domhnall Gleason in “Ex Machina.” (A24 Films)

In Alex Garland’s moody, thought-provoking sci-fi thriller Ex Machina (rated R), people use people and people use machines, so it’s only natural that machines might also use people. That’s cynical stuff, and to be sure a strong thread of cynicism runs through Garland’s story. But there’s also that sense of hope that comes with discovery: The characters are opening doors that have never been opened before, and they’re not quite prepared for what might be on the other side.

Garland is an ace screenwriter who cut his teeth working with Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007), so it’s not surprising that he would efficiently set the stage for his directorial debut. In the first five minutes or so we learn that Caleb (Domhnall Gleason), a computer programmer for the world’s largest search engine company, has won a lottery to spend a week at the secluded estate of his reclusive employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Much of the estate appears to be an underground, concrete-walled bunker, and Nathan tells Caleb that’s because it’s actually a research facility. Nathan has what we would call a terrible work-life balance, and he’s brought Caleb into his inner circle not for a vacation, but for a project. For the next week Caleb is to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid artificial intelligence Nathan has built from scratch. The inventor needs a third party to test-drive Ava’s A.I. and see if she really represents the quantum leap that programmers have lusted after for generations.

Nathan, we soon learn, is a true genius and a genuine jerk, but Caleb quickly moves from being in awe of his boss to being enamored of his boss’s creation. In a series of interview sessions with Ava, the wide-eyed programmer finds himself falling for this exotic mélange of ladylike curves and exposed wires. Vikander, a Swedish actress with only a few past roles under her belt, uses her onscreen anonymity to her advantage: She comes across as a true cipher here, and we’re so busy being impressed by Ava’s self-awareness that we forget what it might mean if this machine is really self-aware.

For his first time behind the camera, Garland shows no trace of uncertainty: He draws definitive performances from his actors without having them say aloud every thought that obviously crosses their minds. (This effect is particularly powerful with Nathan, played by Isaac with just the right balance of enigmatic arrogance and vulgar friendliness.) The austere interiors of Nathan’s concrete palace are beautiful yet claustrophobic, creating an atmospheric soup of the perfect temperature for these characters and their surreal journey.

It feels important somehow not to give away too much of what actually happens in Ex Machina; there’s a thrill of seeing it for yourself that shouldn’t be denied. This is an important film – the best movie of the year, so far, and a once-a-decade sci-fi experience that addresses big issues in an utterly relatable way. Remember that sense of discovery I mentioned above, the ones that the characters encounter? Audiences are about to discover something too. Go see Ex Machina. You’ll want to be there when Nathan, Caleb and Ava start opening those doors.

Take Five: Man’s Best Friend.

Jackpot Jones Local Hero.

Jackpot Jones Local Hero.

First, an apology. It’s been more than a month since I last put up a post here, and that’s just not right. I blame my personal life, which started intruding into my movie time when my father slipped and fell and wound up in long-term care. He’ll recover, I think. And then my dog, Jones, got sick. And then Jones died. And that was terrible.

Except to host a couple of post-show Q-and-A sessions at the recent Greentopia Film Festival – commitments I made a month earlier – I took several weeks off from seeing new movies in theaters. For a film critic, that’s too long. I’ve caught a few VOD releases at home, but getting back to a movie house waited until this week, when I watched Get Hard (don’t bother) and It Follows for a second time. I first sat down to see that in Toronto last fall, and my stepdaughter loves horror movies. In effect, she helped me get off the couch and out of my funk.

Last night I watched Furious 7, and I’m back in the swing now, I think. But before I close the books on the last month of my life, here’s a quick list of the five best dog movies I know:

my dog tulip (new yorker films) blog

‘My Dog Tulip.’ (New Yorker Films)

My Dog Tulip. In a world where “animation” equals Disney, it took too long for someone to make a ’toon that depicted the relationship between human and pet with sophistication and mature tenderness. And yes, that meant including more than we needed to know about bodily functions. Based on J.R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir, Tulip is an elegant, intimate recollection of the connection that grew and endured between the author and his German Shepherd. Christopher Plummer does fine voice work as Ackerley, assaying the landscape of affection and bizarre fascination that unspools organically during his 15 years with Tulip. The hand-drawn animation is wonderful to look at, and the story it tells is simple and utterly unforgettable.

Turner & Hooch. Yes, Turner & Hooch. Have you seen it lately? Tom Hanks, fresh off Big in 1989 but still primarily known for his comic chops, gives good controlled mania as a neatnik small-town cop whose life is turned upside down by his inadvertent adoption of a drooling French Bull Mastiff who happened to witness his owner’s murder. Journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode has never made a great movie, but he finds a deft balance here between goofball hijinks and earned emotion – both in Hanks’ budding romance with a soft-spoken vet (Mare Winningham) and his growing fondness for that darn dog.

It’s a Dog’s Life. This 1955 film is narrated by its title character, an English Bull Terrier who survives an early life of urban dogfighting to eventually find happiness as a pedigreed show pup. In real life, it hardly ever works this way: English Bull Terriers, like their Pit Bull cousins, are routinely inbred and abused by owners who see them as savage raw materials rather than animals with the same loving instincts as every other dog.

Michele Williams and Lucy in 'Wendy and Lucy.' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Michele Williams and Lucy in ‘Wendy and Lucy.’ (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Wendy and Lucy. I picked this 2008 film over the somewhat similarly themed Umberto D. (1952) only because it might be easier to find. Michelle Williams plays an impoverished woman, living out of her car while contemplating a relocation to Alaska, who leaves her dog outside a convenience store. Then she’s arrested for shoplifting, and when she returns from jail the dog is long gone. Kelly Reichardt’s remarkable film is lean and relentless – Wendy can’t catch a break, and her despair at losing her only real emotional connection is palpable. Ultimately, it’s both an affecting portrait of life’s potential for chaotic devastation, and a reminder that love can sometimes be better expressed by something other than a traditional happy ending.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. Traditionally, dog movies aren’t allowed to reach their final reels without sadness creeping in. Hachi, directed in 2009 by Lasse Hallström, is probably the finest example of this wretched trend. It’s based on a true story of an Akita whose bond to his owner lasted for years beyond the man’s death, and if you watch this film to the end you’d better have Kleenex handy. It’s sentimental in the worst sense of the word – manipulating your tears like a puppeteer plucks at a marionette’s strings – and yet there’s a strong sense of earnestness to the affair that keeps it resonant and true. The only way to avoid making this movie sentimental would have been to not make it at all – which, now that I think of it, sums up the dilemma of anyone who’s ever loved, and lost, a dog.

And now, back to our show.