FILM REVIEW: Ex Machina

Ex Machina  feels somehow like stepping into familiar territory and whilst this may be considered a little problematic for a film that is essentially science fiction, it shouldn’t deflect ones attention from the fact that it still manages to feel fresh and innovative in doing so.

The parallels with both 2014’s excellent ‘Her’ and the much underrated, Kubrick / Spielberg offering, A.I are obvious; that of a man-made creation of artificial intelligence looking for love, acceptance and the need to satisfy an ever burgeoning curiosity. Ultimately, in very differing cirumstances and for one reason or another, both out-grow their ‘masters’ (for want of a better word).

Ex Machina is the story of Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson), the gifted coding employee and winner of an exclusive opportunity to spend a week with Nathan, the reclusive CEO of the world’s largest internet company; the company that Caleb works for.

Right from the off, Nathan, (played by very much the man of the moment, Oscar Isaac), cuts a rather brash, yet defensive and secretive character; personal traits that will be much in evidence throughout.

Sufficiently bowled over by Nathan’s work, reputation and his high tech ‘bunker / home’ hidden away in the most sweepingly majestic of remote locations imaginable, Caleb sets about helping his new acquaintance conduct the turing test sessions for his latest project; that being the world’s first true artificial intelligence, a girl robot named Ava, a visually perfect casting for the deceptively beautiful, ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt,’ Alicia Vikander.

As Caleb becomes more and more embroiled in the project, the week will not only reveal a number of his own personal desires and motivations, but a whole number of home truths about Nathan and the reasons why Caleb is actually there.

Fuelled by the simplistic yet powerful guitar and synth refrains of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s soundtrack, (again familiar – think John Murphy’s soundtracks to Alex Garland’s previous ’28 Days / Weeks later’ films), Ex Machina sustains a feel of futuristic wonder offset by a continued sense of menace that hangs heavy in the air.

If I’m honest, I think if I hadn’t seen A.I or Her, Ex Machina would have packed slightly more punch than ultimately it does, but there are still enough twists and turns in the plot and a visually most impressive and crucially not over-done use of C.G.I, believable in every sense, allowing Ex Machina to very much stand on its own two robotic feet and to be considered every bit as good as its very excellent forerunners.

Much like the early months of last year, 2015 seems to be positively oozing with quality offerings and Ex Machina sustains that level.

Visually sumptuous. Futuristic yet organic. Another Alex Garland success.

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FILM REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey. Ubiquitous. Read by millions the world over. Seemingly omnipresent.

Where once there was Harry Potter, Life of Pi and Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth,’ these days, there’s barely a commuter line the length and breadth of the country that’s not awash with copies of El James’ best seller.

I’ve not read the book and have no frame of reference whatsoever, but as with many bestsellers, it’s just a matter of time before they hit the big screen and considering Fifty Shades’ somewhat risque subject matter, I guess it was inevitable in this case.

Christian Grey is the lead, played by heart throb Jamie Dornan; a tycoon, billionaire businessman who knows what he wants and how to get it with a virtually non-negotiable set of contractual conditions. This said and accepting that no amount of back handers or favouritism is ever going to make this offering a contender for film of the year and entering into the spirit of things, with a Grey-like approach to ordered efficiency, I shall hereby contractually agree not to take easy pot-shots at the film’s somewhat glaring inadequacies or be drawn into inevitable negativity for the sake of it; particularly in light of the film’s surrounding hype.
So, what’s all the hype about then?
Perhaps most surprising of all is that Fifty Shades, if one digs deep enough beneath the surface gloss, bubblegum and preening nonsense, hides what could have been, in the right directorial and film company’s hands, an interesting and darkly troublesome idea for a story; the idea of a truly scarring and affecting corruption of innocence; and not what we got, a sort of surface level, fleeting dalliance with a slightly strange world. Fifty Shades really does get stuck half way between undercooked, romantic fiction and toned down erotica; equally unconvincing in both areas and consequently, it’s left flapping about in no-man’s land, somewhere between the two.
I couldn’t help thinking that the film could have benefitted from a bit more of the Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman in American Psycho) and less of the Christian (aptly named) Grey. I suppose the idea is that Grey, whose unorthodox childhood robbed him of his sexual innocence far sooner than he might have wanted or expected, is greatly affected by such early trials and tribulations and thus, combining that with his elevated status of power, wealth and the generally skewed sense of reality he has from his lofty Seattle perch, it’s no wonder that this sometimes charming yet slightly alarming character comes across as a bit (but crucially not nearly enough for the film’s sake) of a creepy weirdo.
With his ‘the sky’s the limit’ approach to life and the wooing of the ladies, Grey whisks the object of his desires, Anastasia, (played nicely enough by Dakota Johnson), off in a helicopter, up in a glider, around in one of his many cars and about town via his personal driver, Taylor. She lives the dream, but all the while, Grey is intent on owning her, contractually.
Will she succumb to his sexuality and uber-persuasive powers? Will she allow herself to sign away, quite literally, her life and body to his every whim and desire? These are the questions indeed and questions that nine or ten of the audience attending my particular screening will probably never know the answers to, seeing as they bolted for the door long before the film’s conclusion. I also imagine that they won’t be back for the sequel either. Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey was left at a decidedly incomplete point in the storyline, primed for the next chapter.
I’ll not be back in any sort of rush for that one, but I hope, for the film and the film makers’ own good, that it delves a little deeper into the forbidden, twisted and generally macabre and either goes full pelt, unapologetically in that direction, or it loosens up a little and has a bit of dark, mischievous fun.
Fifty Shades of Grey really does take itself far too seriously and possesses neither the depth of plot nor intensity of action and content with which to back it up.
It will doubtless appeal through curiosity at the very least to those that have read the novel, but essentially, it’s half-baked, glossy, very forgettable nonsense.

FILM REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

There’s a lot to like about A Most Violent Year (AMVY). It’s not often that what could possibly, (if we’re really stretching the definition), be considered a gangster film of sorts, refuses to be channeled too far into familiar old tried and trusted territory. AMVY instead focuses on businessman Abel Morales and his efforts to resist the slide into a gangster lifestyle which increasingly looks like his only option as the justifications to do so, pile up.

Oscar Isaac is superbly cast in this lead role; a serious yet charming, likeable and honourable businessman, a part he plays with great conviction and gravitas, not too dissimilar to a less combustible DeNiro or Pacino in their pomp.

In many ways, the film’s title is misleading. 1981 it seems was indeed a most violent year in New York City; if we trawl back through the celluloid archives, there was many a film made in that era that will testify to that; from straight forward gangster flicks to territorial gang movies depicting areas of New york City as total no-go zones. I dare say there was a fair amount of truth in such depictions, although prone to a little Hollywood licence, I’d imagine.

What is evident though from AMVY, is that the early 80s was a pretty unforgiving time for Abel Morales. If trying to operate a fuel supply business in New York City whilst your supply trucks are being picked off by opportunistic gunmen, intent on selling the contents to corrupt  industry competition, is not enough, there’s the biggest business deal of your life in the balance, not to mention the tax man, hard on your tail, looking for any reason possible, to ruin you.

Testing times, but all addressed by Morales’ pragmatic approach and an unshakeable determination to ‘do the right thing.’

Director J.C Chandor succeeds in telling a very gritty, understated tale of corruption and honour in trying times; a film that possesses a feel and sense of realism rarely found in mainstream releases these days.

It’s not without fault and at times can feel a little under-done in both plot and character development and admittedly, it’s a slow burner that will probably leave the special effects / high-speed junky generation of film-goers somewhat frustrated by its considered, often conservative direction, but AMVY’s refusal to sell out to over-dramaticism, violence (ironically) and hyperbole, is very much the film’s chief triumph.

An underrated, understated, engaging effort that’s well worth a look.

FILM REVIEW: Birdman

Question: What does a late, mid-life crisis sound like?

Antonio Sanchez’s free-form drum improvisation that underpins Birdman throughout, is probably a fair approximation of what we might expect to hear, conjuring up a real sense of mad, rudderless mayhem. It’s a fitting backdrop to accompany Riggan Thomson’s (the excellent Michael Keaton), own neurotic quest for mid-life, artistic self-validation as he attempts to shed the public’s unshakeable insistence that he is and always will be, Birdman.

The character ‘Birdman’ has made him a movie star, earning him worldwide recognition and a legion of devoted fans, but now he’s struggling to reinvent himself as a serious actor in a Broadway show that he’s taking the bold decision to both act  in and direct.
Not only is there a public opinion to sway, but there’s a near perfect storm of fairly poisonous elements that surround him, threatening to derail his efforts at every turn and perhaps worst of all, the voice and lingering shadow of Birdman hovers over him like a bad avian smell, attempting to persuade him to forget his artistic plans and ideals and embrace the spirit and essence of Birdman. That, after all, is who he is and all he’ll ever be.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses the claustrophobic, almost labyrinthine maze of interconnecting passages that run beneath the broadway theatre, to capture the mood of frustration, of being lost and an overwhelming sense of chaos and impending disaster. It’s a labyrinth that seemingly leads nowhere and demonstrates both the confusion and doubt that pervades Riggan’s own mind. Indeed Riggan is a man desperately trying to navigate his way through life’s maze of challenges, be they a wise-ass, fresh out of rehab daughter, an overbearing, seditious and tactless co-star (the brilliant Edward Norton), who it seems, either through a calculated devious streak or massively blinkered selfishness (it’s hard to say which), is determined to put a spanner in both Riggan and the play’s works.
Add to this Riggan’s desire to kowtow to the somewhat elitist, artistic thought processes of Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a theatre critic so influential and hard-hearted, that her word can and frequently does make or break any new play that finds its way onto the boards of Broadway.
Finally, we have a messy succession of lingering romantic interests from Riggan’s life, both past and present and what should be a time of concerted, artistic focus upon a career highlight, is rapidly turning into a game of spinning plates; rapidly spinning out of control that is.
Birdman is brilliantly entertaining; a dark comedy which has everything from toe-curling, excruciating farce and embarrassment to joyous, uplifting fantasy.
Deep down I suppose, much like Birdman, we all want to believe we can fly in life and if we can do that, soaring above the streets of Manhattan, to the haunting strains of Rachmaninoff, then I guess that really is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Come to think of it, Rachmaninoff’s majestic second symphony is probably exactly what a late, mid-life crisis would sound like. We search all of our lives for that kind of elusive meaning and perfection; something we’ve never quite been able to find and let’s face it, probably never will.
Birdman; brilliant and literally uplifting.