Ex Machina Movie Review 0 78

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Cinema’s obsession with exploring man’s creation of artificial intelligence is almost as old as the medium itself, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Spike Jonze’s Her, to name but a few. The latest film to mine such fruitful sci-fi subject matter is Ex Machina, the slick, thought-provoking and attention-grabbing directorial debut from Alex Garland, frequent writing collaborator of Danny Boyle on the likes of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, as well one of those behind the awesome Dredd reboot.

Set in what appears to be the not too distant future, Ex Machina (from the Latin meaning “from the machine”) centres on young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a competition to visit the reclusive compound of his mysterious boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once there he soon discovers the real reason he has been selected: to take part in a unique experiment to evaluate the human qualities of a beautiful, lifelike A.I. that Nathan has built.

There are no prizes for guessing that all is not as it seems and certainly not the cosy and controllable, albeit unconventional, experiment first presented. Garland shrewdly lures the audience into the situation with a false sense of security, intriguing us just as Caleb is until we’re secluded in a world of advance technology irresistible to those with an interest in hard science fiction. As so many sci-fi films of the past have realised, artificial intelligence is really the Holy Grail and whether it poses a threat or enhances our lives, it’s a beguiling thing to watch.

As with all good sci-fi, Ex Machina uses its ideas to pose age-old but still utterly fascinating questions: What makes us human? How far is too far with technology? Is advancement for the sake of advancement a good thing? What are the responsibilities of creator to creation? What are the potential dangers of playing God, so to speak? (It’s interesting to note that the usual Deus – meaning God – is missing from the start of the title) It’s not always handled in the subtlest of ways as Caleb and Nathan sometimes literally sit around asking each other these questions but that can be forgiven when what they’re talking about is so fascinating and when it has the intellectual and visual goods to back that up.

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Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows off his revolutionary A.I. technology to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson)

Speaking of visuals, the CGI used to bring the artificial intelligence – named Ava – to life on-screen is quite breathtaking, far better than some Hollywood films that have far bigger budgets with which to play. Played by rising star Alicia Vikandar, Ava is quite clearly not human and yet has been programmed to act like she is. The rub here is that the point of the experiment is to show the subject that she isn’t human and see if he still has feelings for her anyway. Since Caleb is very much our anchor throughout the story, we as the audience are as much a part of the experiment as he is and it’s a testament to the combination of the writing, the realistic CGI and Vikandar’s performance that we not only believe in her as a credible being within the story but start to empathise with her and even find her strangely alluring – the film has fun playing around with the idea of sexuality and attractiveness in this technology-driven modern world.

Aside from the full-on science fiction stuff, the film also provides a good old fashioned game of intellectual cat and mouse – a sort of Sleuth for the iPad generation in which Caleb and Nathan go back and forth, subtly testing each other. It’s a lot of fun trying to work out who knows more at any given point and if Nathan is really in as much control as we think and if Caleb is as naive, all within this increasingly tense and claustrophobic setting. This dynamic is achieved largely thanks to the performances. Gleeson is very solid as Caleb, taking what could have been a slightly bland blank slate of a character and giving him real depth and pathos. Isaac is also great as the mysterious, charismatic creator luring in Caleb like a sinister, heavily bearded fisherman not yet ready to decide if he’s going to just catch and release. But it’s the performance of Vikandar as Ava – the only one of the main trio without a Y chromosome – that truly steals the show. Remember her name, she’s going places.

As the film heads towards its tense ending with a twisty-turny narrative that keeps you guessing, dipping its toe ever so slightly into creepy horror every now and then along the way, it will depend entirely on how much you’re invested in the outlandish sci-fi ideas if you’re willing to just go with it. The ending will split audiences, for sure. But whether you’re ultimately willing to throw caution to the wind or not, Ex Machina provides some truly thought-provoking, discussion-starting viewing for those who like their science fiction to get them thinking more than just provide them with empty visual entertainment. More sci-fi like this, please.

Ex Machina is released in UK cinemas on January 23rd.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 355

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 383

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10