Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

May 21, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews


In the superhero era, sci-fi movies these days are bigger, louder and more special-effected (is that a word?), and so I was really looking forward to Ex Machina, the low-budget (US$15 million) directorial debut of career screenwriter Alex Garland, best known for penning the scripts to sci-fi semi-classics like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go (and he wrote the novel The Beach, which was made into that movie with Leo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen).

The film received an avalanche of hype as early as last year, and I’m glad to say it does not disappoint. As a pure sci-fi story that goes back to the roots of the genre, Ex Machina delivers. Despite very little action and a deliberately mellow pace, the film is gripping, thought-provoking, tense and claustrophobic all the way through.

Without giving too much away, the film begins with a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) from the world’s largest search engine company, Bluebook (basically Google), winning a contest to meet the company’s enigmatic billionaire CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who lives in a secluded research facility that requires a helicopter to access. Nathan invites Caleb to participate in an experiment involving his latest creation, a beautiful humanoid android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It’s Caleb’s task, through conversations and observation, to judge whether Ava has consciousness, or whether she’s just simulating consciousness. And so begins an intriguing series of “sessions” between Caleb and Ava as Nathan looks on through surveillance video.

As you would expect, things are not as simple as they appear, and soon Caleb finds himself with a lot of unanswered questions. There are mini twists and turns galore, with Caleb growing more paranoid about both Ava and Nathan, and eventually, himself. Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? Who’s playing whom? It’s one of those films where you never stop questioning the characters’ motives and what they are trying to achieve, and it’s this mystery that provides the strong pulse to the heart of the tale. It helps that it’s not a hackneyed plot that relies on one massive twist to shock audiences — this is a fascinating sci-fi story from start to finish.

In typical classic sci-fi fashion, there is a surrealistic feel to the experience that is almost dreamlike. The high-tech facility where the bulk of the film is set is grey and sombre, and the windowless walls seem as though they are closing in on Caleb as his paranoia and claustrophobia grows. The facility is juxtaposed nicely with the outdoor scenery the characters occasionally escape to, providing a technology vs nature dichotomy that plays into the film’s layered themes.

The film would not be what it is without the spectacular performance of Alicia Vikander, a Swedish actress whom I had only seen once prior, in the disappointing Seventh SonVikander is a perfect blend of beauty, sexuality and grace, and her dancing background really helped provide the right mix of human and robot to Ava. You believe what she is — a highly intelligent robot who could easily be mistaken for an attractive human but for the see-through limbs and mid-section. Everything about her performance, from the way she moved to the facial expressions and even the way she spoke contributed to making Ava so authentic that she bordered on creepy. Most importantly, she makes you believe in Caleb’s reactions to her. Vikander’s going to be a star, no doubt about it.

Oscar Issac also impresses as Nathan, a genius with demons to exorcise. After seeing him shine in Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January and A Most Violent Year, I knew this was going to be the case. Isaac is a chameleon capable of playing anyone, and the intensity he brings to Nathan elevates the character into more than it should have been. Can’t wait to see him in the new Star Wars film at the end of the year.

By contrast, Gleeson is the weakest link. He’s pretty good as Caleb — just not as eye-catching as the other two — though I suspect the burden of suppressing his Irish accent in favour of an American one affected his performance to some degree. Interestingly, the first time I saw Gleeson was in an episode of Black Mirror, the brilliant Charlie Brooker sci-fi series, where he played a life-like android himself. That was a phenomenal story with parallels to this one, and I’d recommend fans of the movie to check out the “Be Right Back” episode of Black Mirror if they haven’t already.

Ex Machina does have a few holes in it as the story veers towards its tense conclusion, a problem common to even the best sci-fi films, though on the whole it’s hard to ask for much more from Garland in his directorial debut. It’s also a fine film from an aesthetics perspective; the special effects are used sparingly but effectively — mostly on Ava’s semi-transparent body — and the cinematography does a solid job of balancing the emotional and visual aspects. This is a fable that will make you think about the inevitable fallibility of human nature and the future of technology, especially in an age when artificial intelligence is making it difficult to distinguish sci-fi from reality. Even Stephen Hawking said recently that he believes “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Now think about that.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

February 24, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

A Most Violent Year

Now that the Oscars are over I’m going to continue my movie reviews with a huge snub. For whatever reason, the critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year was not even on any radars this Oscars season, which is strange considering it features so many critic-pleasing characteristics — a unique premise, moral quandaries, superb performances, gripping drama, crafty action, and that solemn, Oscar-bait feel of a top-class production.

Written and directed by JC Chandor (previously best known for Margin Call), A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, widely regarded as one of New York’s most violent years. Oscar Isaac (Finding Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) is Abel Morales, the seemingly upright owner of a heating oil company on the verge of a major breakthrough. But when his oil trucks begin to get hijacked, making him to lose not just money but also precious reputation, Abel finds himself being painted into a corner and forced to take drastic action. At the same time, a local assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) begins to target Abel for alleged anti-competitive practices and tax evasion.

A Most Violent Year, despite its name, is not a particularly violent movie by today’s standards. What it lacks in violence, the film makes up in tension, atmosphere and style, though the presentation is grounded firmly in reality. In an age where protagonists are typically remarkable people with otherworldly skills, experiences or attributes, Abel is portrayed as an ordinary man with real fears and emotions like you and me. Unlike typical modern crime thrillers, are no criminal masterminds in this film, no outrageous coincidences, no expert marksmen or world-class racing car drivers in getaway cars.

And yet, rather than coming across as dull, the film becomes actually more compelling because it enables us to genuinely sympathise and empathise with the characters and their predicaments. Overexposure to onscreen surrealism has made most of us numb, so it’s refreshing to be reminded that, hey, guns are scary; dealing with mafia people is scary; burglars are scary; police looking into your business — even if it’s perfectly legitimate — is scary.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without Chandor’s skilful direction and script, which prove that he is a filmmaker who has clearly studied the classic works of the genre and the techniques of the masters. Rather than loud and shaky, the action sequences are smooth, slick and suspenseful, notwithstanding the lack of explosions and rapid cuts. Rather than pretentious and dull, the silences and lingering shots actually have meaning.

The other key element is the central performance by Isaac, who is destined for stardom and will apparently appear in the next Star Wars movies. He’s a tremendous talent who deserved recognition for this controlled and charismatic performance where anger, desperation and fear are all delivered with nuance and subtlety. It’s perhaps not a stretch to say he channels a young Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone.

All of the supporting actors are very good too, especially Jessica Chastain as Abel’s astute wife, whose father is implied as not being the most upstanding citizen. David Oyelowo, who got a whole lot of attention at the Oscars ceremony for his Selma snub, is also solid, as are Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s troubled employees.

I will readily admit that it is not a film for most modern average movie-goers, who tend to expect a lot of things to happen on the screen at all times. A Most Violent Year has a deliberately measured pace I would have found slow in my youth, and it adopts a “less in more” mentality in its execution some might find dull. While it is undeniably interesting, I would not be surprised if others wonder what the fuss is all about.

This is a ultimately story about a good man trying to survive in a corrupt world, and having to make some very difficult choices and compromises along the way. Gritty and brooding, and powered by Chandor’s self-assured approach, A Most Violent Year harks back to crime classics like Goodfellas, Heat and even The Godfather. It’s of course not quite on the level of those epics, but it is still a classy, well-executed film that commands your attention and respect.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Two Faces of January (2014)

November 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

two faces

First the mirror, now January. Seems like everyone has two faces these days.

The Two Faces of January is an intriguing and elegant thriller set in the early 1960s featuring an A-list cast. It’s based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mrs Ripley), about a young con man (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis) working as a tour guide in Athens who gets involved with a seemingly wealthy American tourist (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst).

It’s one of those classy yet twisted tales where interesting and complex characters who are not who they seem keep falling deeper and deeper and into a mess they can’t get out of. The fun comes from not knowing who is telling the truth and who is ultimately playing whom. There are twists and turns galore, but the progression of the narrative is subtle and deliberately low-key. Rather than a series of ups and downs, the film begins on low heat and gradually simmers all the way to the end without ever boiling over.

All three leads are phenomenal, as you would expect. Viggo, in particular, always one of my fave actors, shows again why he perhaps the most versatile and underrated performer of his generation.

The confident, controlled direction of debut director Hossein Amini, who also wrote the screenplay, is enviably stylish, creating a constant sense of tension and paranoia that’s hard to shake. Amini also wrote the screenplay for Drive, one of the slickest films of 2011, and the talents he demonstrated in that adaptation are in full bloom here.

The problem with the Two Faces of January, however, is that despite its look and feel of a top-shelf, A-grade thriller, the film’s story doesn’t quite live up to everything else. When you boil it down, the plot is actually quite mediocre and over-reliant on coincidences, resulting in a limp payoff that disappoints following the spectacular set-up. It’s one of those films that comes across as much better than it really is, and the more you think about it the less impressive it becomes.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the build up a lot and have feeling that Amini will go on to bigger and better projects. While it may fall short of potential, I’d still recommend The Two Faces of January for those with a taste for old-fashioned, character-driven thrillers.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

February 11, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


My love for the Cohen brothers is profound. They may have had some misses over the years, but when they hit the mark the sky’s the limit. Their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, a comedy drama about a struggling folk singer, is not a miss, but it’s not quite a spectacular hit either. It features some of that trademark Cohens quirky humour that I love and plenty of wonderful music, but the story itself is not quite engrossing enough to keep me drawn in for the entire 105-minute running time.

Set in New York in the 1960s, Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is not doing too well. We can tell from the opening scenes that he’s a pretty good signer, but his solo album, which shares the same name as the film, isn’t selling, and he is forced to sleep on the couch of a friend’s family. He’s not a horrible guy but he’s not exactly likable either and often comes across as a bit of a dick who’s not afraid to speak his mind regardless of how offensive his words  may be.

It’s a bit of a meandering film with no real direction, one that follows Davis around for a week as he tries to land gigs and score performances to earn himself some dough. We see him looking after a ginger cat, get hassled by his casual girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) and taking a road trip with some interesting people. His personal life is in a complete mess and his relationships are all over the place, and his existence is more or less one misadventure after another, and the majority of them are his fault. It’s not exactly a riveting plot, and at times I wondered what the heck it was trying to say, or whether it was trying to say anything at all.

And no, it’s not one of those poignant dramas either. There’s no touching message about life or underlying beauty. It’s just Davis being who he is, for better or worse, battling to survive in a tough industry where artists often find themselves making compromises to make ends meet. I actually prefer that, though I wish there was more of a focus and a proper story to tell.

The strength of the film lies in the offbeat comedy that the Coens are masters of, and much of it comes from the sharp conversations between Davis and the people in his life. There are plenty of witty and dumbfounding lines that elicited chuckles from me throughout the movie, though not many huge belly laughs like the ones I got in Fargo.

I had never heard of Oscar Isaac before but he’s terrific in this — both his acting and his singing. And I had no idea that there were so many big names in supporting roles, from the aforementioned Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F Murray Abraham, Max Casella (Doogie Howser’s buddy!) and Girls‘ Adam Driver. All of them stand out in their own way, especially Mulligan, whom I didn’t think much of before but was thoroughly impressed with here as the straight-shooting and ball-busting ex. She was very funny.

In the end, I don’t really know what to think of Inside Llewyn Davis. I enjoyed this finely crafted film and found it highly amusing, no doubt, and I also surprisingly liked the music a lot. But at the same I was a little disappointed with it and wished I could have liked it more. It’s a strange experience that will probably polarize viewers, but if push comes to shove I would probably still recommend it, especially to people who enjoy a good Coen brothers project.

3.5 stars out of 5