Saturday, May 02, 2015

Ex Machina



Ex Machina posits that a reclusive search-engine billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has developed an artificially intelligent being named Ava (Alicia Vikander) in his home laboratory. Nathan brings Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) , a young programmer, to his estate for a week for the job of performing a "Turing test" on Ava. The test is meant to determine if Ava's intelligence is indistinguishable from that of a human, but Nathan throws in a few wrinkles. The test is conducted in a series of face to face conversations, and Ava herself turns out to be a bombshell whose component parts are visible unless masked by clothes. What's a lonely young programmer to do?

Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with Ex Machina, and the film puts humanity in peril much more subtly than Garland did in his scripts for Sunshine or 28 Days Later. The question of what it means to be human isn't exactly a new one, but what happens if humans fall in love with machines that are indistinguishable from people? Caleb is almost immediately smitten with Ava, whose one-room existence leaves lots of time for drawing pictures and causing the mysterious power outages that are the one blemish on life at Nathan's compound. Vikander gives Ava some fine, delicate shadings of curiosity and self-awareness, but if you begin to think that her personality seems to address Caleb's vulnerabilities a bit too perfectly then you may be onto something. The events that unfold over the week Caleb and Nathan spend together have a hidden purpose, one designed to find out just how much of a monster Nathan may have created.

The chilliness of Nathan's home and Ava's cell are cut against by Oscar Isaac, who gives Nathan the perfect degree of controlled megalomania. Isaac plays arrogance very well, he did it in Inside Llewyn Davis and here he underplays a messianic fervor regarding humanity's eventual replacement by A.I. Pay attention to the irritation Nathan shows when his silent housekeeper (Sonoya Mizuno) spills some wine, it's more than just embarrassment at a social faux pas. Isaac gives the film a needed jolt of energy, since Gleeson's character is required to project so much onto Ava that he ends up being a little blank. Though Caleb is very sweet when nervously chatting with Ava and smart enough to figure out Nathan's plans I didn't feel quite enough about the place he's in at the end, and that's probably the film's biggest flaw. Still, Alex Garland has a vision which he executes with superb control. The final uncomfortable shot of Ex Machina could serve as his depiction of the beginning of our end.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

While We're Young


Noah Baumbach begins While We’re Young with lines from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, with two characters in dialogue about the promises and difficulties of dealing with the “young”. The epigraph signals a portentous film, maybe one about the relationship between age and power or between youth and creativity. In fact While We’re Young is the most light-footed film of Baumbach’s career and maybe his most purely entertaining film since he debuted with Kicking and Screaming in 1995. Josh (Ben Stiller) is a Brooklyn documentary filmmaker whose wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is the daughter of Leslie (Charles Grodin), whose own documentaries have rated a fete at Lincoln Center. Josh and Cornelia are drawn into the social orbit of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a mid-20’s couple whose affectation of pre-digital culture and “making” seems like something entirely new to two busy, post-40 New Yorkers. As Josh and Cornelia begin to embrace the world of their new friends, attending a “street beach” and taking hip-hop dance classes (Naomi Watts’s dancing may ensure she’s never cast in another period role), it emerges that Jamie’s easygoing demeanor masks a keen ambition. What indeed do the young want from their elders?

Ben Stiller was excellent in Baumbach’s Greenberg and he’s almost as good here, though he’s helped by the fact that the role offers chance for some broader comedy than we’re used to in Baumbach’s films. Stiller is particularly funny in a sequence where Josh receives the ministrations of a “shaman” (played by musician Dean Wareham) whose practice involves getting communicants to consume a herb that induces prodigious vomiting. The fact that the humor of the scene masks deeper questions about the marriage of Josh and Cornelia - about the degree to which the couple’s childlessness is a hole in their relationship - is a testament to the thought behind the writing. I don’t know whether sequences like the montage that cuts between Jamie and Darby listening to vinyl and watching VHS movies and Josh and Cornelia using their mobile devices were scripted or emerged in the shooting, but I very much appreciate that fact that Baumbach feels confident enough in what he’s doing to wring some humor out of the material. There’s also a very funny hard cut that puts Josh and Cornelia at a party thrown by their friends (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) which Baumbach uses to show just how uncomfortable the couple are beginning to feel in their 40-year old skin. All of these choices and more bring out the best in Stiller and also in Naomi Watts, who very much enjoys the chance to be funny, sexy, and nakedly emotional all in the same film. We begin to understand Cornelia’s struggle when she accompanies some friends who are parents to a children’s music class. Cornelia’s reassurance that she’s fine with no kids masks a deeper pain, and Watts also adeptly plays the cost of juggling the tension between her husband and her father. (While We’re Young is in one way a movie about a marriage with a third person in it.) Watts gives the kind of performance that deserves more acclaim but that will probably have to settle for being another line on a strong resume.

The most important line in While We’re Young is spoken by Darby late in the film. When musing on the way in which she and Jamie will grow old she says that it will probably be “just like everybody else”. It is allowed for Darby and Jamie (whom Driver plays with an odd, darting quality that speaks to his talents) to have ambitions just as it is for Josh and Cornelia to try new things and to speak honestly about the state of their marriage. That’s why even when the plot involving Jamie’s filmmaking efforts takes over we never view him as a villain. While We’re Young feels like a transitional film for Noah Baumbach, one made with both confidence in his own style and a new sense of contentment in his own life. (Ever since Frances Ha no self-respecting culture website has missed a chance to document Baumbach’s personal life at least once.) Baumbach’s career has something in common with the documentary that Josh labors over in While We’re Young: It could go anywhere from here.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Furious 7

Before seeing Furious Seven I watched the original Fast and the Furious for the first time, and seeing the two films back to back is an excellent illustration of sequel bloat. Fast and the Furious is a B movie in the best sense, 100 minutes of fetishizing cars and speed but also about people looking for an outlet. By the time we get to Seven the characters played by Vin Diesel, the late Paul Walker, and the rest have been rebranded as international operatives with unlimited access to the government’s toys. (Kurt Russell has a ball as the spy who recruits our heroes.) The centerpiece of Seven occurs in an luxury Abu Dhabi high rise where Diesel and Walker pilot a car through all three of the complex’s towers without it ever touching the ground. Talk about movin’ on up.

With all the stunts and action sequences - my favorite was a extraction that the team performs on a mountain road with the engines running - there isn’t much time for character. The Dominic Toretto (Diesel) of Fast and the Furious actually enjoyed being the leader of his loose gang of highway bandits, but the battles of sequels past must have weighed on him because here Toretto seems tired of the game, Whatever wit there was in Diesel’s performance is long gone and has been replaced more shots of the backsides of numerous female extras. But nobody goes to these movies for the characters, right? Diesel’s voice has become so low and rumbling that broadcasting it over a theatre’s sound system seems like a threat to building’s structural integrity. At least Diesel doesn’t have to say the lines written for Dwayne Johnson, whom I’m pretty sure may actually be a CGI effect. I was struck however by the fact that for all the elaborate action sequences no could think of anything for Toretto and his nemesis (Jason Statham) to do other than drive their cars directly at each other twice. Couldn’t they have at least raced? What emotion is called for is supplied by Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. The fancy dress fight between Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey is the one sequence that doesn’t choose directorial tricks over physicality; indeed the fight between Diesel and Statham feels like something out of a video game.

Furious Seven closes with an acknowledgement of the death of Paul Walker and an affirmation of the franchise’s emphasis on “family”, a word that applies even when the family in question is a gang of high end thieves. There will no doubt be more Furious movies, but the loss of one of the signature stars will put the series that much further away from where it started.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Leviathan


Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is a punch in the gut to anyone who has even the slightest romantic notion about Russia or its people. This prize-winning drama (Best Screenplay at Cannes, Golden Globe, and Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film) is scathing about the relationship between ordinary Russians like Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) and structures of power. Kolya's family home is about to be torn down to suit the corrupt Mayor of the coastal village where the the story takes place. That Mayor (Roman Madyanov) is open to be worked by anyone, including the Church, as long as there's something in it for him. The arrival of Kolya's lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) signals a chance for some justice, but this is a story of both personal and political tragedy and soon Kolya's situation is even worse. The most memorable performance in Leviathan comes from Elena Lyadova as Kolya's wife Lilya, a woman both exhilarated and terrified by the possibilities life opens up to her. Zvyagintsev uses his setting well; there's a feeling of the characters (and the country) having barely escaped an earlier, rougher time but still being on the edge of wildness. Kolya's fate seems almost preordained, but the irony and hypocrisy on display in the film's last scene is no less devastating for the sense that it couldn't happen any other way. Leviathan is an important work, and I'd very much like to discover Zvyagintsev's earlier films.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

It Follows

If you have been reading my reviews for some time then you’ve probably noticed that I almost entirely ignore horror films. There might have been some childhood experience that I’ve long buried that accounts for my taste, but if so I’m not remembering it any time soon. But since I’m possessed of an above average memory - I can still remember the opening shot of Star Wars from seeing it in the theater - the idea that I’m repressing some scare of my youth seems unlikely. As an audience member I’ve never enjoyed being scared, and as someone who thinks critically and writes about film I have never known how to think about a genre the pleasures of which depend on the execution of certain tropes.

So where does all that history leave us with It Follows? Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has scored the first surprise hit of 2015 with his low budget story of a sexually transmitted haunting. Mitchell begins with a stand-alone sequence in which a Detroit teen (Bailey Spry) is pursued by an unseen menace. Cut to Jay (Maika Monroe), whose life of community college, swimming, and hanging out with her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and their friends is brightened by the prospect of a date with Hugh (Jake Weary). After a strange trip to the movies - Hugh says he sees a woman that Jay can’t see - the stakes are established when Hugh and Jay have backseat sex in the shadow of a blasted out Detroit building. (The empty houses and abandoned industrial spaces of Detroit complement the action as opposed to distracting from it.) Hugh tells Jay he has passed a curse to her: She will begin to see an apparition, which can take the form of anyone, following her. She can only free herself by having sex with someone else, but if she is caught by the spirit then she will die. It’s important to note that It Follows isn’t a parable about the dangers of teen sexuality, and Jay’s encounter with Hugh isn’t her first experience. We learn later that she has a prior history with Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the neighbor who offers himself in order to free Jay of what’s pursuing her.

It would be unfair to reveal too much about what comes next, except that Mitchell has orchestrated a series of well-done set pieces that reward close attention. It Follows is a film where danger can come from anywhere in the frame, and what Mitchell doesn’t provide in “gotcha” scares (the kind I don’t like) he more than makes up for by maintaining a complicated mood. There’s a melancholy to Jay and her friends, a sense of being trapped by circumstance, and if Jay’s haunting “represents” anything then I think it’s to do with the fact that a decade from now they could very well still be drinking on front porches together. It’s significant that the climactic appearance of Jay’s haunting is in a form she recognizes, but Mitchell wisely doesn’t overexplain the meaning. It Follows is also refreshingly character-driven. It feels like Jay’s friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) has always been reading Dostoevsky aloud and that the most innocent member of the group has always been Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the one male. We’re only as far ahead of Jay and her friends as the amount of time it takes for Jay to see her next follower, and it’s almost possible to feel Mitchell figuring out the film as things break down. My previous reservations about the horror genre haven’t changed, but I enjoyed It Follows both for the exuberance of its originality and for the way it wasn’t everything I expected.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel



The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has a curious problem. This sequel to the popular 2012 film - which grossed $136 million worldwide on a budget of $10 million - has no reason to exist except to create a franchise where Hollywood didn’t know there was an audience. The thought of studios rushing to make films for underserved moviegoers leads to a sort of utopian vision of female, gay, elderly, African-American, Hispanic, and other themed projects filling the multiplex, until we come crashing back to earth with the thought that a significant number of these films would be just as bad as the ones we have now. I would like to be able to report that the pleasure of the company of Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, and the rest of the returning cast is enough to make this Marigold go down smoothly, but this unexpected sequel is undone by the same lack of purpose that pervades so many better-known second tries.

When we find Marigold Hotel entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel) and manager Mrs. Donnelly (Smith), they are in California seeking funding to expand the Marigold name. Sonny has his eye on a second location, but his attention his also consumed with his impending marriage to Sunaina (Tina Desai). A word about Dev Patel, who is much the most irritating thing about this film: I’ve seen Macy’s Thanksgiving balloons give subtler performances than Patel gives here, but since the plot is driven to a large degree by Sonny’s screw-ups I can’t really blame Patel for committing to the role. One of the many storylines in play involves a character played by Richard Gere (who seems a little surprised to be here) as a man who may be concealing his identity as a hotel inspector. Gere’s character is smitten by Sonny’s mother (underused Lillete Dubey), but instead of spending time with them we’re stuck watching Judi Dench and Bill Nighy finding excuses not to be together. If you thought Dench’s widow and Nighy’s freshly ditched husband got together at the end of the first Marigold, then remember: if they had then this film would be 30 minutes shorter. Thank goodness for good old British diffidence, and for the fact that both Dench and Nighy are masters at wringing the maximum effect out of the most economical acting choices. There are other subplots involving characters played by Celia Imrie (who gets the “White Person being kind to Indian” scene), Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle that are mostly filler, since Ol Parker’s script is more concerned with whether or not Sonny’s jealousy of a business rival (Shazad Latif) will derail his wedding.

To the extent that anything saves these proceedings, they are saved by the indomitable spirit of Maggie Smith as Mrs. Donnelly. We don’t know how much time Mrs. Donnelly has left but Smith does, and she fills every moment (in a film that doesn’t really have time for her abilities) with a humanity that eschews cheap comedy or easy sentiment. Mrs. Donnelly carries the message of Marigold, that life is full of surprises and every moment must be savored. I didn’t really understand how Sonny earns what happens at the end of Marigold (though it is a stunning blow against colonialism), but I perfectly understood the film’s last shot: Mrs. Donnelly in medium close-up, full of both resignation and excitement.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Still Alice



Let’s get this out of the way: I’m very pleased that Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her role in Still Alice. While there is some truth to the idea that Moore won this year as a sort of career honor - Still Alice is Moore’s Crazy Heart - it is also hard to argue that she isn’t as spiky and engaged here as she is in more celebrated films like Boogie Nights or Short Cuts. Moore plays Alice Howland, a Columbia lingustics professor whose unexplained memory lapses lead to neurological tests and a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice and her doctor husband John (Alec Baldwin) enjoy busy professional and personal lives and at first Alice is determined to keep up her schedule. What’s right about Still Alice, written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, is the way it charts Alice’s slow retreat from herself and her family in quiet moments rather than melodramatic disaster. Alice doesn’t forget to turn the stove off when making tea or how to use a knife in the kitchen, but she does veer from lucidity to confusion with horrifying quickness. The choice to play the humanity of Alice’s situation work so well of course because Moore can handle it with great specificity; note the way she plots how the awareness drains from Alice’s eyes through the film. 

As a whole I found Still Alice a bit too tidy. The emotional dynamics of the Howland family are more alluded to than dramatized, and in a post-Affordable Care Act world it’s difficult to see the need for films in which someone battles a serious illness and no one worries about money. Only the scenes between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) have a real spark. Lydia is an actress determined to live her own life and Stewart is well cast as the blackish sheep of an ambitious family. John’s slowly unfolding selfishness and the coldness of pregnant oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), both determined to move on with life, each deserve a fuller hearing. Yet of course life doesn’t always offer such opportunities, and Glatzer and Westmoreland understand that. The moving last scene of About Alice involves a simple  moment of connection, one that speaks volumes about what has been lost and how much yet remains.