You’re Turing Me Apart, ‘Ex Machina’

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 8.29.12 PMThis week on The Screen Addict: sci-fi gets smart with Ex Machina, the struggles of an aging actress in Clouds of Sils Maria, exploring the world of Mad Max for the first time, and, yes, there’s a new Star Wars trailer.

I apologize and accept full responsibility for the headline of this post. You deserve better.

Ex Machina is top notch science fiction from Alex Garland
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The definition of science fiction has become so broad over the years that many are more likely to attach the label to films like Star Wars, which in fact lean far more toward the action/adventure/fantasy side of the spectrum. However, at its core, the term more aptly describes stories like Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s fantastic new film that simply creates a premise, explores it intelligently, and uses it to generate great drama along the way. It does for its genre what this year’s It Follows has done for horror; it goes back to the basics of the form and tells its story at an impressively high level. This is a shot of pure, uncontaminated science fiction, and it wrestles with some quite lofty ideas before all is said and done.

Speaking of Star Wars, Garland’s film features two actors who will appear in The Force Awakens come December: Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. The former plays Caleb, a programmer at a major technology company called Bluebook who wins a lottery to go work on a secret project at the home of Bluebook CEO Nathan Bateman (Isaac). Once there, Nathan reveals the plan: Caleb is to perform a Turing test on a new A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Immediately, the question turns to who is actually in control. Is Nathan the puppet master of the whole scenario, or has Ava found a way to manipulate both her physical environment and the (few) people around her? In the middle there is Caleb, who spends most of the film in an “observe and report” role. When he does attempt to take matters in his own hands, the results are memorable.

This is a cold, cerebral movie, but Garland is sure to maintain a slowly boiling tension as his story unfolds. Ex Machina doesn’t peel at the onion of its characters too aggressively—we never know too much about who they are as people—but all that is effectively pushed aside in favor of the larger ideas it is getting at. Even before the revelations of the third act, there is a general discomfort to the scenario that doesn’t reach a full boil until Caleb decides to go sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. From there, it explodes, but Garland wisely avoids any literal explosions. What he has in mind is much quieter, and ultimately devastating.

This is a remarkably assured directorial debut from Garland, who has been around the film world on the writing side since 28 Days Later. It may have helped his directorial efforts that Ex Machina is, as a piece of writing, an intensely focused work, but that might not be giving him enough credit. This movie is impressively done on almost every level—it looks great, its pace never lags, and it seems entirely in control of the effect every moment is supposed to have. Garland may not be a director by trade, but Ex Machina reveals him as a born filmmaker, and let’s hope this is not the last we see of him behind the camera.

Other new releases
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–I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, which stars Juliette Binoche as an actress entering her 50s and Kristen Stewart as her assistant. I do know that it is a remarkable piece of work with a couple of exceptional lead performances, and it hits on the plights of the aging actor much more effectively than Birdman ever could. A piece of enigmatic brilliance that I very much look forward to revisiting.

–Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River was met with much derision at its Cannes debut last year, and it’s easy to see why: it’s mostly a collection of arbitrary insanity, with a select few neat ideas that wind up getting drowned out by Gosling playing a weird, shapeless game of cinematic karaoke.

–It’s difficult to have too strong a reaction to True Story, which takes a fascinating subject and presents it in the most superficial, down-the-middle manner possible. It’s a bit of a bummer, considering its stars (Jonah Hill and James Franco) are capable of going to much weirder, more interesting places. Here, the faces remain far too straight.

Classic of the week
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This past weekend, I decided to fill in one significant cinematic blind spot: George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy. With the new Fury Road due for imminent release, and the trailers looking bananapants crazy in the best possible way, I decided to give the preceding three films a look in order to prepare. When I started 1979’s Mad Max, however, I was surprised to find a film that looked almost nothing like what was being advertised for Fury Road. Really, it’s just a car chase movie that takes place in not-quite-dystopian Australia, as our hero (Mel Gibson) squares off with a gang of brutal bikers. It’s a great little action film, but hardly suggestive of what was to come.

The next two sequels, The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, dive headfirst into their cartoonish worlds, suggesting that Miller’s universe has only devolved as the years have gone on. The original film showed a environment attempting to hold on to something resembling order, but there is no such thing to be found in the subsequent films. The costumes are crazier, the action is more frenetic, and the scale in general seems bigger. By the time I finished Beyond Thunderdome, the Fury Road trailers no longer seemed out of place. It’s entirely possible the new film will play well on its own, but for those seeking background, I’d suggest giving the original trilogy a go. None of them are particularly long, and they are all exciting in their own way.

Trailer of the week

It’s been an active few weeks on the trailer department, and I’ve been particularly fascinated in the marketing of two major films coming out this year: Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the case of the former, I have been put off at almost every turn, and it came to a head with the release of a clip that was so awkward and clumsy that even Avengers director Joss Whedon was calling it out publicly on Twitter. On the other hand, I’ve been continually amazed at how The Force Awakens has nailed every step of the process. First, it filled its cast with amazing actors both new and old. Then, as details emerged about its plot and production, I became increasingly intrigued. The first trailer further pulled me in, and now, the newest trailer has taken me from cautious optimism to foolish excitement. I am fully aware that heartbreak may well be found at the end of this road, but J.J. Abrams and company sure are making the journey fun.

Video/streaming recommendation
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This isn’t the newest release out there, and it’s not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s a fascinating little film that’s well worth checking out for those interested. They Came Together, a romantic comedy spoof starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, and directed by David Wain, is the kind of joke-a-minute movie that you don’t see much of these days. When they are attempted, the usually fall flat. Inevitably, large chunks of They Came Together don’t quite click, but Wain is utterly incapable of making a wholly unfunny movie. (Having Poehler and Rudd as your stars doesn’t hurt either, of course.) If nothing else, it’s fascinating just to watch a bunch of talented people attempt something with an impossibly high degree of difficulty. They don’t quite pull it off, but it almost doesn’t matter. Check it out on Netflix if you so desire.

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