Sunday, 24 January 2016

Ex Machina

Alex Garland, 2015, UK

Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ does what all good sci-fi does: questioning our views of humanity and reality, giving a subjective vision of what we mean and our context. It plays games with its characters and therefore with the audience. Smarter people than I may have seen the end coming, but I was so busy watching for the moment where everything fell apart  that I wasn’t predicting anything else - but it didn’t. Quite the opposite.* One of the complaints I’ve always had the screen versions of robots is that an urge to anthropomorphise something that is innately inhuman is rarely resisted (‘Star Wars’ is a great offender of this). But Garland premise takes anthropomorphising as the very basis and weaves a who’s-being-played? chamber piece from it. Is it Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) being played as the unsuspecting programmer who wins a week with his hero Nathan? Is it even Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator of Bluebook and, it turns out, of a breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence? Or is it Ava, the thoroughly convincing AI robot/android sitting in the basement as the next potential manifestation of consciousness? 

Garland draws from recognisable digital age technology (which will probably date this in the future) and quotes and art to create a wide, recognisable canvass from which Ava springs from and exists in. She herself is a work of technology and art, and by extension humanity. This is ultimately what Nathan forgets and it causes his undoing, forgetting humanity’s (and his own) potential for violence and abuse. And its resourcefulness. It is a premise full of things to think and talk about afterwards and it feels very connected to the possibilities of the digital age. It’s sleek and stylish, looking like a magazine spread from a modish home magazine (How does it stay so clean? Where are the cleaners?). Ava herself is a formidable creation, seducing as much as she’s whirring, impeccably performed by Alicia Vikander: Vikander finds the right balance for acting something that is mimicking human behaviour, restrained but fluid. She taps into those much talked about micro-expressions to turn tables, but not going over the top to make the audience forget that she’s been programmed. Gleeson has an easy-going, appealing charm that makes Caleb instantly relatable and sympathetic. Oscar Isaac gives a cunning performance as Nathan, at once winningly disarming, frank but manipulative. The disco moment where he dances with the servant robot is a highlight, showing that Garland knows that such seemingly throwaway moments can tell an audience so much whilst entertaining.

It would seem that the accusation against ‘Ex Machina’ is one of misogyny, but this appears completely in character to me: if Nathan is holed away in his research centre by himself all the time and it would follow that he would make, shall we say, fuck buddies. His awareness of others’ humanity and agency would be greatly compromised not only by his own ego but by being so detached. Who’s to stop him? Which is probably the key to his greatness and his downfall. That is, surely the plot becomes Nathan’s punishment for that misogyny: it would not seem superfluous that he is finally murdered by Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Ultimately, it is that old story of mankind’s hubris being its own comeuppance. A logical and worthy extension of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.

And, of course, if we’re talking Deus Ex Machina meaning a happy ending for all…

I was not a fan of Garland/Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’ and felt the weaknesses of their ‘28 Day Later’ overwhelmed its strengths. I enjoyed ‘Dredd’ more the second time around. Alex Garland wrote scripts for all of these.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - some notes

Yes: there will be spoilers.

·        It’s fine.
·       You know that ‘Star Wars’ thing you liked? Plot-wise, this just traces over that with more effects.
·     Even as a kid, I sensed that the dialogue of ‘Star Wars’ (it wasn’t quite ‘A new Hope’ to us then) was deeply lacking, even though I wasn’t able to articulate it. Something about how the dialogue onscreen could be transposed word-for-word to the comic book adaptation that I bought highlighted its limitations. And don’t worry: that dialogue will now be catchphrases and they will be quoted here.
·           John Boyega is good. Of course, I was pre-disposed to be in favour of him because I love ‘Attack the Block’ so. Even so, he shades Finn with just a degree of cowardice that makes him far more interesting and three dimensional than his written gusto demands.
·     But if Stormtroopers are no longer clones here but kidnapped children programmed to be evil, then are we supposed to consider them as more than disposable henchmen and start colouring in their life stories with empathy? I mean, they are kidnapped children…
·   And if, quite clearly, Finn’s brainwashing didn’t take, what does that say about The First Order’s programming?
·  Daisy Ridley as Rey is good too, less sappy than the Luke Skywalker persona coz feisty girls sell these days (and there’s some debate as to whether Leia was short-changed on this in the original series).
·    These are nice alien vistas. Gigantic spaceships in dunes, X-Wings flying over water,  etc.
·   Well okay, this is a universe where robots are programmed to be cute. And where a future Sith lord built a gold robot and programmed it to be whiny and camp. I guess I’ll have to just suck it up and accept.
·  Wow, Rey is sure instantaneously excellent at knowing languages, flying the Millenium Falcon, lightsabers and The Force. Luckily, she doesn’t need any training scenes like Luke in the first series.
· Speaking of which, Finn is pretty instantly nifty with a lightsaber for a former Stormtrooper too. A sanitation Stormtrooper. And they put sanitation Stormtroopers on planet raids? (Yeah yeah, it's a callback to the original or whatever...)
·   Wait, if Han is sacrificing himself for his son’s betterment, doesn’t that getting-ahead-in-the-Dark-Side include blasting entire planets and killing billions and billions? What on earth was going through Han’s head??
·    I like Chewbacca. Why don’t they make anything of his super-strength? He also spends about a scene grieving over Han before reverting to Chewieness.
·   And speaking of destroying planets on a grudge and a whim: what about the planet's resources? Seems like a foolhardy waste... And this is the point where I suspect I’m over-thinking this trifle.
·  The in-jokes and call-backs are everywhere, all the time. This simultaneously will please nostalgic fans and prove annoying.They help to poke a little fun at itself, like when Rey gets Kylo Ren to take off his mask because it makes him harder to understand. Or no, it’s a new jacket. But it’s probably just a lazy cop-out when another Death Star planet destroying thingy is revealed and they just act light-hearted about his groan-worthy development by jokingly justifying it because it’s bigger.
·    There’s a lot of good visual stuff that comes at you so rapidly it bypasses a lot of critical faculties straight to the pleasure zones. The screen sure is busy and going back to the more DIY and lived-in feel of the original series is a good, good move. Even so, I find I’m dwelling on the arbitrary logic and plot holes so large you could build another Death Star in them. It seems it’s as careless as it is satisfying to franchise fans.
·    JJ Abrams is good at revamping old franchises. The structure of action scene/change location/another action scene is greatly limited but it mostly works for this.
·     It looks the part and mostly captures the tones of the original but the thin storyline does not hold any surprises at all, so there’s a feeling of disappointment.
·           It’s fine.
·        I bet if I still had it, my collection of ‘Star Wars’ comics from when 1977 right past ‘Return of the Jedi’ would be worth a  small fortune now, if I still had it.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

2015, Favourites at the cinema

  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Dear White People
  • Ex Machina
  • It Follows
  • Turbo Kid
  • Scherzo Diabolico
  • Sicario
  • Carol
  • Brooklyn
  • Sunset Song
Honourable mentions..
  • We Are Still Here
  • 99 Homes
  • What We Do In The Shadows

It was surely a great year for performances.

There was Kate Blanchett in Todd Haynes' ‘Carol’, and Saoirse Ronan in John Crowley's  ‘Brooklyn’, and Agyness Dean in Terence Davies' ‘Sunset Song’ was no slouch. There was Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland's ‘Ex Machina, convincingly using careful mannerism to convey something inhuman faking humanity. And then there was Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, meeting the action guys on their own terms without compromising vulnerability. You could almost feel these women swaying between confidence, assertion and insecurities, bristling against the restrictions of their lives. There was ‘Suffragette’ to bring women’s issue to the centre (which I didn’t see), but these other films surely brought attention to those issues, to how women are portrayed in cinema, proving themselves with great performances and characters.

Kevin Guthrie in ‘Sunset Song’ and Emory Cohen in ‘Brooklyn’ both offered refreshing and affecting takes on maleness. Guthrie gave a portrait of a soft-natured man not suited to fighting whilst Cohen gave an open-hearted portrait, full of generous smiles and a desire to do things the girl’s way to win her over. It was as far from the violent machismo of  ‘Black Mass’ as you can get, and all the more refreshing for that. Actually, Steve Carrel’s prosthetically enhanced performance in ‘Foxcatcher’ had previously proved far more successful than that of Johnny Depp in Scott Copper's Black Mass’.

And then there was Oscar Isaac in JC Chandor's ‘A Most Violent Year’, struggling not be the Italian gangster cliché that everyone expected him to be. Issac was also impressive in ‘Ex Machina’, dancing with android he had made, but alongside Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander he was only one in a trio of impressive performances.

And so on.

It was a bumper year. These were performances that weren’t just acting, but also colouring in character with nuances that rung true.

‘Brooklyn’, ‘Sunset Song’ and ‘Carol’ all possessed a quality that can only be described as literary. This had as much with letting the imagery tell the story as the scripts.

Justin Simien's direction and script for ‘Dear White People’ was full of tasty morsels to satisfy.  An excellent ensemble cast, cutting observations and a deceptively easy-going surface that perhaps hasn’t been this truly felt since early Spike Lee. Funny, political and warm-natured.

I kept waiting for ‘Ex Machina’ not to follow through on its premise, but it did. It reminded me of the thoughtful, existential science fiction films of the Sixties and Seventies – a chamber piece with significant ramifications on humanity. It also showed the genre its cinematic form fully aware of the digital age.

‘Sicario, on the other hand, overcame any tropes and narrative over-familiarity by great set-pieces and direction by Denis Villeneuve and a consistent tension that never let up.

Carol’ had gorgeous costumes and set design but proved not only to be winning as a purely visual piece, which was perhaps Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak’s failing – trying too hard visually and feeling rather artificial for it. ‘Carol’ proved assured in its visual sense from the opening shot where a pretty pattern proves to be street grating. Glances that spoke volumes beneath a pretty veneer proved its language.

But subtlety proved to not be the only lingo going. I read from some casual commentators that Mad Max: Fury Roadwas just a great action ride, but it’s the details that I found a layers and layers to dig in to. Details such as the tattoos, the smiley faces drawn onto Nux’s tumours,  the casual way it deals with Imperator Furiosa’s disability – the metal arm – which didn’t make it a hinderance at all for her role as action queen – and so on. It’s far from subtle but rarely is in-your-face action this well orchestrated, thought-out and dense.

Aside from ‘Mad Max’, ‘Turbo Kid’ offered acres of genre fun. Starting out as a homage to the cash-in VHS fodder of the 80s, just as ‘It Follows’ harked back to the John Carpenter influence, but it soon cycles past its influences to become its own thing whilst never dropping the humorous pastiche (“Hey, we can’t afford ‘Mad Max’ cars, but what if we use… BMX bikes??!!?”).

Speaking of ‘It Follows’: so this is what grunge horror looks like? As if suffering from the same teenage awkwardness it depicts by perhaps having an element of trying too hard, David Robert Mitchell’s film offers up angst and dread as the genre’s meat instead of jump scares (although it’s not adverse to those either). Despite an overreliance on homage (which is a key affliction of the genre right now) and an unlikely premise (“So, wait, what, the monster just walks to the victim?”), ‘It Follows’ rewards thinking about and repeat viewings and succeeds as a meta-commentary on the genre’s worrying about growing up.

And speaking of homage’s that succeed, whereas ‘Turbo Kid’ is hilarious with it and ‘It Follows’ is a little self-conscious, ‘We Are Still Here’ shows how to make a modern film look like it’s from decades past. It’s not trying to be genre-clever, but it’s a fine, straightforward horror with memorable acting and ghosts.

And speaking of which, ‘Some Kind of Hate´ offered up an unforgettable spook in Moira, the ghost that dispatches her victim with self-mutilation. This was the flip-side of the kind of heavy-metal horror offered up by the outrageous and funny ‘Deathgasm’.

Both ‘Deathgasm’ and ‘What We Do In the Shadows’ proved exceptionally genre-savvy comedies. The former fondly sent up the Heavy Metal end of Horror whilst the latter found endless parody at the expenses of vampires.

Adrián García Bogliano’s ‘Scherzo Diabolico’ wasn’t quite what was expected, but that’s par for the course with this director. Twisting and turning, a tale of grudges and getting ahead and taking things further than usual to see where they go. With an unforgettable final shot, as it were.

Rahmin Barami’s ’99 Homes’, which felt like it roamed the same streets as ‘Killing Them Softly’ and ‘Nightcrawler’ and possessed of reliably fine performances from Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield. Like many others in my selection, it was about how work shapes us as people.

And I also want to mention Nightcrawler’, ‘Foxcatcher’ and ‘Whiplash’, each of which I love but wouldn’t quite be appropriate on this list, even though I saw them in January. Oh, and ‘Birdman’ is great too.

And of course I am neglectful for not seeing ‘Inside Out’, ‘Tangerine’ (not to mention that 'Star Wars' film) and a host of others that were essential watching. I'll spend this year catching up.