Sunday, April 26, 2015

THE FIVE SLY WAYS "EX MACHINA" IS THE BEST FILM OF 2015 SO FAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of EX MACHINA (copyright 2015)

If you’ve seen EX MACHINA, the main themes of the movie are quite obvious. The brilliant new sci-fi thriller about a robot being tested for its humanity enjoyed the year’s top specialty debut at the box office two weeks ago, and continued its ‘indie’ reign when it went wider last week. Buoyed by that, distributor Universal pushed the A24 production to 1,255 screens this weekend and the film came in with a better than expected 5.44 million. There is an audience for terrific science fiction, and this tense, cerebral character study has been proving it for almost a month.

And while the film’s commentary on artificial intelligence and humans playing God are clear, such themes are delivered with complexity and nuance. Even subtler are some of the big ideas that the movie also is trafficking in. All science fiction, even though it takes place in the future, tends to comment strongly on our world today, and EX MACHINA is no exception. In fact, some of its more clever themes are not only its most entertaining tropes, but they are searingly editorial as well. Here are five that writer/director Alex Garland has infused his movie with that you may not have fully realized. (If you haven’t seen the movie yet, there will be spoilers following.)

For starters, EX MACHINA is a clever, new riff on the “Frankenstein” horror story. As you’ll recall, the monster in “Frankenstein” isn’t the creature but rather the doctor who invented him, betrayed him and ruined any chance his ‘invention’ had for normalcy. Much of that is going on in EX MACHINA as well. Only Garland goes Shelly one more here by having not one, but two humans who exhibit the rather monstrous behavior.

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in EX MACHINA.
EX MACHINA stars Oscar Isaac as Nathan, an Internet billionaire who has created an artificial-intelligence robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He flies a top coder from his company named Caleb (Domhnhall Gleeson) down to his remote estate to conduct a Turing Test on Ava to determine the her level of “humanity”.  (You’ll remember that the Turing Test recently received a lot of talk and attention as it was at the center of 2014's Oscar-winning THE IMITATION GAME. It's the test that Alan Turing created to determine if a computer could pass for a human.)

Clearly, Nathan is like Dr. Victor Frankenstein here as he is playing God and trying to create life. And like Frankenstein, Nathan’s ego is monstrously out of whack. Not only does he play mind games with his guest Caleb by constantly reminding him who’s the boss and who’s the genius, but he belittles the slight and timid young man into feeling the need to demonstrate his masculinity. Nathan’s bullying leads Caleb to side with the AI. And when he becomes attracted to her sexually, as well as develops an urge to help her escape her confines, he strays from the mission and soon, all bets will be off.

Alicia Vikander in EX MACHINA.
This predicament leads to another of Garland’s clever conceits in the film - the idea of false gods. The billionaire clearly thinks he is closer to God than most humans because of his brilliant invention, and he positively basks in Caleb's praise when he says so. But he also lords his superior intellect and power over everyone at all times. He controls the comings and goings of Caleb, which rooms he can enter, when they'll venture outside, etc. And Nathan bosses around and controls his ‘girl Friday’/lover Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) as well, though much more cruelly. His treatment of her is misogynist and psychopathic.

Nathan clearly fancies himself a deity in his domain, but the other false god at play is Caleb. Early on in the story, Ava confides to him that Nathan is a liar and warns him against taking anything the scientist says to heart. Caleb decides not to share that conversation with his boss and in trying to rig and effect the test's outcome, Caleb too exhibits a need to control that borders on a God complex too. And it gets worse because it develops into a savior complex.

Soyona Mizuno and Oscar Isaac in EX MACHINA.
Caleb naively believes that he is the one to save Ava from Nathan’s cruelty. And his hubris is similar to that of many who thought they too could make a difference and demonstrate that they were bigger than the gods. He may be outwardly less masculine than the brutish, hirsute Nathan, but inside Caleb clearly has too much testosterone for his own good. 

If you need any more proof that Garland is indicting man's vanity, check out the cutaways and transitional elements he employs in EX MACHINA. They're all nature shots: big, beautiful examples of God's green earth. There's a lot of world outside Nathan’s house but the men inside it are too self-absorbed to give the mighty fortress that is God much due. With those images, Garland is shrewdly reminding us how small a world Nathan has created versus the ginormous one outside. 

Another theme at play in EX MACHINA is its indictment of the Internet. In a way, the entire story condemns what the web has wrought. Not only has his success as a search engine guru enabled Nathan to become an untouchable and reclusive rich man, but everything in his house acts as an extension of those rituals we’ve all developed in the online habitat. 

Everything is filmed. Everything is watched. Everything is made public. It's all part of some data somewhere. Every single move made is methodically chronicled, logged, and stored away. There is no privacy. Nathan's world is like its own version of everything we experience online. Heck, even Caleb's watching of Ava takes on a  voyeuristic ogling as if she's an unattainable object being viewed on a webcam feed. 

Not once, during the entire movie, does Caleb touch Ava. She is always behind glass, boxed in a world that he cannot penetrate, literally or figuratively. Is that much different than our friends and followers we connect with on social media? Are we not being conditioned to think those are real relationships as well, even though we never actually step inside the same room with those 'friends' either?

Writer/director Alex Garland.
Nathan has placed cameras in every corner of his home, which also is a searing indictment of the paranoid world we now accept and live in courtesy of the NSA, homeland security, and our post-9-11 politics. 

And Garland doesn't have kind things to say about search engines either. In the movie, Nathan used his search engine's tracking data of people’s most intimate behaviors online to create Ava's complex and expansive brain. It's also allowed him to pick the perfect guinea pig in Caleb because he was able to study the poor schlub's surfing profile, distressing family history, and even his porn preferences. Nathan has learned just how to manipulate Caleb, not much different from the way that Amazon and Google anticipate our needs and suggest consumer opportunities. Computers are starting to know us better than we know ourselves, and Garland is wondering if we know or care to change that disturbing trend.  

One of the visual themes that Garland threads throughout his film is the idea of duplication. Everything here tends to be a mirror image of something else in the movie. Some of them are more obvious than others. Caleb watches Ava through a ‘glass screen’ as he interviews her while Nathan watches them on the glass screen of his computer. Ava's caged in a very confined area, just as Nathan confines Caleb too. (The place often resembles a prison with card keys, forbidden rooms, and windowless corridors.) And when Ava dresses in human clothing to make herself more human to Caleb, her true intentions seem to become covered as well. 


Garland slyly parallels the band on Ava’s mesh attire to echo the piping on Caleb’s casual shirt. The failed prototypes before Ava are hung in a closet like last year's outdated wardrobe. And the destruction of one character mirrors the fact that she was singularly mute while she was alive. 

Perhaps the best and savviest of the visual doppelgängers is Oscar Isaac's hairline. He shaved his head for the role and it not only underline's Nathan's intellect, but it is pretty much the exact shape of Ava's face line on her metallic skeleton. 

Finally, many have missed the movie's feminist theme, instead believing that Garland is being sexist by objectifying the female characters in this film because they're subservient and often nude in the last third. That couldn't be further from the truth. EX MACHINA indicts men, not women, throughout its story.

And Garland clearly is siding with Ava from the get-go. Thus, so is the audience. We are originally drawn to Caleb as well, but as soon as he betrays both Nathan and Ava's trust, he forfeits our affections. Meanwhile, our feelings for Ava grow. She truly seems to become more of a person throughout, and emerges as the most soulful character on screen. She's an AI all right, but her humanity could teach the men here a lot.


As for the nudity, it's there to show how sexist Nathan is when he was creating companions. The first AI that we see that Nathan attempted was a black female, and that could be because of his sexual peccadilloes or a snide commentary on the virtual slave he was trying to create. How chilling too that the first prototype's remains are left without a head. It's as if Nathan just wanted her body to fetch, have sex with, and do his bidding, but with no questions, no voice, no thoughts. That's a putdown of machismo, certainly not women.  

And Ava's escape is meant to be a triumph for her and the audience. We invest in her, and the victory she achieves at the end is one that parallels the struggle of women throughout the world to achieve their freedoms as well - the quest for their voice to be heard, for their lives to be their own, for their paycheck to be equal. It's a struggle for equality. It's a struggle for basic human value.  


The truth is this film is a million miles away from being sexist. Nathan's caveman tendencies are the ones under fire here. His bullying, his sexual domineering, his binge drinking - these are all ugly sides of men who feel entitled to wreak havoc with little consequence. Nathan casually spits on the floor in his pristine hallway after a workout and you know he won't clean it up. The movie savages men, and if some critics missed that point, well, they weren't paying attention.


EX MACHINA is one of the year's best movies, and easily one of the best science fiction or horror movies in ages as well. And while this film may illustrate the limits of man, it should expand the possibilities for Garland's future as a filmmaker. His film is one great and thoroughly thoughtful entertainment. It passes both the Turing Test, as well as the popcorn one.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

IN DEFENSE OF CINDERELLA


Disney is determined to capitalize on their princess franchise as much as possible these days. Indeed, their current cinematic output is looking more and more like the princess section of their Disney stores. This spring’s CINDERELLA had no less than the estimable Kenneth Branagh directing, and its strong reviews and box office have opened the door for more live action versions of Disney classics to come our way.

It makes sense that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is next on the docket for two big reasons. First, it’s based on what is one of Disney’s most prestigious animated efforts before associating with Pixar. It was so heralded it was even nominated for Best Picture back in 1991 when only five films made the list. And two, despite the success of the live action CINDERELLA, there has been an inordinate amount of backlash, so Disney likely feels compelled to present one of its most modern princesses for the post-FROZEN audience. 

Much has come under fire in this new version of CINDERELLA, from the slender appearance of lead Lily James’ waistline, to the story’s core conceit that the heroine needs to marry into money to escape her economic misfortunes. The latter is going to be inherent in any version of CINDERELLA and that's a fair criticism in this day and age. Still if this is a caricatured version of women, aren't superhero movies similar cartoon versions of manly men? Maybe we should go after DC or Marvel more, no?

Lily James in FAST GIRLS (2012)
Branagh stressed that there was no digital modification of James’ body in this film. Rather, she is a petite actress who happens to be in remarkably good shape, and the design of the dress accentuated the V of her figure. Also, Branagh said, lighting helped add more to her sleek physique.  

Critics shouldn't deride James for being fit however. She's played athletes on film and if you rent 2012’s FAST GIRLS you’ll see that slim waist of hers again playing a professional sprinter. No matter, James’ Cinderella shows a physical poise and strength throughout the film that should be lauded. She’s not a girly girl, wan and weak. She’s strong and agile, whether she’s taking care of her family and household, dancing at the ball, or riding a horse at full gallop.

Perhaps doing another version of CINDERELLA after the more progressive portrayal of princesses is a worthy criticism. This one is still an “old school” fairy tale in many ways, and shrinks compared to the feminism of FROZEN. Here indeed, a woman needs a rich man to rescue her, but the filmmakers at least do a good job of creating an environment where it's logical.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Branagh explain the dire economics faced by Ella (before she becomes 'Cinder-ella' for doing all the dirty work around the house), along with her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and step siblings (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). The death of breadwinner Father (Ben Chaplin) renders them without an income. It's hardly 2015, but that's the story. 

Beyond that though, this CINDERELLA has a lot in common with FROZEN or Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, starting with the way Cinderella is written by Weitz, directed by Branagh, and played by the assured and confident Lily James. She’s not a clichéd damsel in distress this time out, but rather a strong, smart, and courageous woman like the heroines from those more admired Disney movies.

Lily James as CINDERELLA, driven to a life of hard labor.
And James demonstrates the same positive and winning slyness whether she’s playing in scenes with men, women or against CGI mice. Isn't that feminist? There’s a maturity to James too that belies her 26 years of age. She’s got that British brevity to her, and her theater-trained grace and gravitas truly add heft to the movie’s motto of “Have courage and be kind.” This is a Cinderella whose hardships have been created for her by the economics of deceased parents and a stringent kingdom, but her pluck and perseverance will get her out of that abysmal state.

This movie doesn’t create a stereotyped prince either. Richard Madden’s Kit, which he prefers being called, is about as modern as a man can be in fairy tales. He’s humble, kind, sensitive, and actually treats Cinderella like his superior. He worries that he isn’t worthy of such a smart and capable woman. And he’s utterly embarrassed by his royal heritage, not wanting to be adored as a monarch, but rather, loved as a person. 

Derek Jacobi as the King and Richard Madden as Kit, the Prince.
He and Cinderella are kindred spirits this time out. They both struggle with domineering parents and want desperately to forge their own way in life. These are a lot of the same themes you'll find in THE HUNGER GAMES and the DIVERGENT series. It's appealing to teens and their justified fear that this world holds few opportunities for them regarding jobs and upward mobility. In that way, this Cinderella is very much a product of our times.

Screenwriter Weitz has always written great younger characters starting with his film ABOUT A BOY, which he also directed back in 2002. It had similar themes of teen outcasts struggling with parental control. And his heroine is certainly post-modern, laughing at her shortcomings and being as fun and feminine running around in flats as she is in glass stemware. 

Weitz also writes throughout with a nod to modernity. The Fairy Godmother (a hilarious Helena Bonham Carter) has an AB/FAB brusqueness to her that is anything but noble. And he creates plenty of dark-humored fun by having the animals turn into men that aren't fully human for Cinderella’s big night. The two lizards that become coachmen courtesy of the Fairy Godmother’s wand don’t lose their reptilian origins. Their skin keeps a greenish cast, and the tails of their coats swish back and forth suggesting their true appendages. These winks are cheeky and knowing and play well with the adults in the audience. Weitz has modernized the old tale as much as humanly possible.

Director Kenneth Branagh with his leading lady Lily James.
Branagh was an inspired choice to direct too as he’s always worked wonders making stories from yesteryear seem fresh.  Look what he did with HENRY V, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and HAMLET, let alone THOR. All that royal family drama between Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston could have been stoic and stuffy, but it was utterly relatable. Branagh does the same here.

He’s respectful and reverent to the fairy tale tropes, yet he doesn’t let the clichés bog down the fun. He keeps the pageantry from overwhelming the story. And the actors’ director gets marvelous performances from his entire cast. Royals like the King (Derek Jacobi), the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) and the Captain of the Guards (Nonzo Onosie) could have been mere stuffed shirts, but Branagh gets three-dimensional turns from all of them. Even comic Rob Brydon shines in a brief but hilarious cameo as an artist whose tongue paints more vivid pictures than any of his brushes.

Of course, top-billed Blanchett registers vividly, as one would expect, but we understand why her Stepmother feels such spite, and her villain is quite sympathetic. She’s a widowed woman with two children to support and that’s never easy in the best of times, let alone during those years that were practically Medieval. And Branagh ensures that her character’s pain registers in every word, gesture and longing look. He’s even gotten his splendid costume designer Sandy Powell to drape Blanchett in green, ensuring that she always wears her envy of a better life on her sleeve.

One could find more spectacle in the average episode of THE BACHELOR than there is here, and the episode where Farmer Chris took Jade on a “Cinderella date” was more sugary sweet than anything here. Not only does Branagh move through the showy ball scenes quickly and deftly, but he plays them more for humor than romantic idealism. When the pumpkin turns into the golden carriage, it’s played as a burgeoning obelisk, not a spiffy ride, as it nearly smothers Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother while transforming in the pumpkin patch.

Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother in CINDERELLA.
And Branagh doesn’t make too big a deal out of that glass slipper either. Kit knows who he’s looking for; the search for the right maiden's foot is mostly for his Kingsmen, who don’t know what she looks like. And when he finally places the shoe on Cinderella, it’s shot modestly. Even the beautiful score by Patrick Doyle doesn’t overdo the strings at that moment. 

Kit is a character who knows what he’s looking for, and he’s already found her, shoe or no shoe, at that juncture. Has any CINDERELLA ever made so little out of the story's big show-stopper? Doubtful. And yet underplaying the symbolism of the glass slippers is, dare I say, perfectly fitting to the tone and style of this much smarter than usual adaptation.

So why is there so much backlash online? The Cinderella story has been derided for years as being sexist, so what's new? The same criticism was levied at Hollywood’s versions that starred Julie Andrews, Lesley Anne Warren and Brandy, respectively, when they took on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The trouble lies in the dated story, but it’s let's cut it some slack. After all, it is a fairly tale. 

Or should we condemn any work that has an antiquated view of women, or portrays women as subservient figures in a male hierarchy? Should we then condemn Jane Austen for writing about women needing to marry to survive in the nineteenth century? Is it fair game to slander feminist icon Gloria Steinem for choosing to play up her curves as a Playboy bunny to study men? Should something like “Dancing with the Stars” be taken off the air for the revealing outfits that showcase Peta Murgatroyd’s thighs or Kym Johnson’s toned stomach? Sometimes, critiques can go a bit too far.


It certainly is fair for critics and audiences to expect fairer presentations of female leads in movies than something as overdone as the saga of Cinderella. But can’t we applaud this new version of that heroine who equals the Prince in every way accept economically? Can we not admire its portrayal of a young person whose life approach promotes courage and kindness? And while she’s attractive, isn't the fact that this movie makes more of Cinderella’s inner beauty worthy of great praise? 


Let’s remember as well that for all of their strengths, FROZEN traded on cliched issues of frigidity, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST had a heroine named for her looks. Branagh, Weitz, James and team have done wonders with CINDERELLA and it doesn’t deserve its berating. At least Cinderella never gives up her voice to land a prince like Ariel did in THE LITTLE MERMAID. Let’s see how Disney gets out of that one when they attempt a live action version of it.