Ex Machina (2015)

Written and directed by Alex Garland. Stars Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac.

SYNOPSIS:

A man wins a corporate lottery and meets with the secluded CEO of his company: a man who has allegedly created a true AI. It’s up to the employee to see if this is true.

REVIEW:

I love movies with a small amount of characters and only one or few locations. I love movies that explore the story through scene build-ups and not through exposition. I love when movies can remain nerdy “what ifs” but with the seriousness of brainy movies. I love when movies don’t go the easy Hollywood route and strives to stay away from tropes or manipulates their uses to subvert expectations. Ex Machina is in that weird spot where it covers nearly everything I like about movies.

More importantly, it features visuals at time on par with Beyond the Black Rainbow. That can only be good.

I really don’t want to say much about the movie because I want you to discover it for yourself. Caleb is a young programmer at Bluebook, a social networking and search engine that is an obvious take on Google’s overreaching grasp on all things internet. He wins an internal lottery to meet with Nathan, the big boss. There he meets Ava, a robot programmed by Nathan who supposedly is a true AI. Nathan asks Caleb to see if she passes the Turing test. When Caleb points out that he would have had to be unaware of her true nature for the test to be valid, Nathan tells him that he still wants to see if, knowing what she is, she can still fool him into thinking she’s as conscious as he is. Ensues a mad cat and mouse game between the three characters.

What felt particularly good about this movie is how it approaches the science part of the story. This isn’t a scientific movie; it’s a philosophical exercise that is using science as basis for a story. Everytime I thought “oh, they’ll probably explain this topic in this or that way to justify the character doing this or that later on”, I ended up being pleasantly surprised at how simply the movie dismissed overly explaining anything. Nathan at one point asks Caleb to stop talking with his big words and just tell him how he feels. I felt that he was also speaking directly to me. We do this with horror movies all the times – how can zombies even exist? – so why not do this for science-fiction? Obviously, the seventies and eighties were proof that you can do sci-fi without having an ounce of scientific knowledge but unlike the space operas of decades past, Ex Machina remains a serious, believable movie. It’s just that the “hows” are not important to the story.

Some will find it at times predictable. Maybe it is. But that’s the beauty of Ex Machina: it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. It’s a movie about human consciousness, about the differences between knowledge and feelings and it focuses solely on that. All in all, a beautiful piece.

SHOULD YOU WATCH IT?

Yes.

Manhunter (1986)

Written by Thomas Harris and Michael Mann. Directed by Michael Mann. Stars William Petersen, Brian Cox, and Tom Noonan.

SYNOPSIS:

Will Graham is asked to return to his FBI team to help find a serial killer, the Tooth Fairy.

REVIEW:

I have to admit that I was a lukewarm fan of the Hannibal saga for the longest time. Silence of the Lambs was okay, Hannibal was atrocious and I won’t even start with Hannibal Rising. I did enjoy Red Dragon, however. I liked wounded FBI profiler Will Graham a lot more than FBI cadet Clarice Starling. And then the Hannibal series started and I fell in love. And suddenly I realized why I had such taste in the above movies: I preferred the ones that had the fewest to do with Anthony Hopkins. And it’s weird, because I like the guy. No, what I wanted was a movie that dealt with Will Graham’s very fragile mental state. I didn’t want the slurping old British serial killer.

For some reason, I never tried to watch Manhunter until now. I was told it was campy, “very 80s”, too weird. It took a lot of courage for me to tackle a movie whose story adaptation in Red Dragon was the only one I found deserving.  Boy, was I wrong. Manhunter does correctly everything Red Dragon does wrong. Yes, Manhunter is dethroning Red Dragon as my favorite Thomas Harris adaptation.

I don’t want to spend the entire review comparing the other two so I’ll simply state that Manhunter has led me to realize how much Red Dragon does to attract viewers. More Hannibal scenes because people want to see Hannibal (even though his use in the novel and story is very minimal). More pointless scenes to shock people! Let’s empathise with the killer by peppering scenes all over the movie because it’s Ralph Fiennes! It’s also a lot dumber, where scenes are stretched out and blatantly explained to make sure no viewer is confused. The more I got into Manhunter, the more insulted I felt for watching the newer movie.

Manhunter is minimal, dark and yet has a masterful use of colours to express moods and patterns. It doesn’t hold your hand as it tells its story. It also more importantly focuses on the fact that Will Graham is sick. He’s in a mental state so vulnerable from following the Hannibal Lecter (in this movie, Lektor) case that he was hospitalized, and put in a psych ward. He’s not well. The very fact that Graham accepts to return to find the Tooth Fairy and agrees to talk to Lecter says a ton about the guy; is he getting tougher? Is he actually becoming what he’s chasing? Peterson does such a better job at playing Graham fighting his inner demons; Norton, though I love him as an actor, does a piss-poor job at it. His Graham looks like an uptight IRS inspector more than a mentally unstable FBI profiler.

After seeing the movie, it’s clear that the TV show took a lot of cues from it. And I’m glad it did.

SHOULD YOU WATCH IT?

Yes, absolutely.

A Girl Walks Alone at Night (2014)

Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Stars Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi and Marshall Manesh.

 

SYNOPSIS:

In Bad City, a boy down on his luck meets a girl who may be a vampire. I know, you’re thinking of that one movie but no, this one isn’t Swedish, it’s Iranian.

REVIEW:

You know, hype is a weird thing. The same sources (magazines, blogs) that hyped It Follows as the future of horror (and if you’ve read my review of it, you’ll know I don’t totally disagree) also claimed that A Girl Walks Alone at Night was reinventing vampire movies. That’s the funny thing about hype and niche movies. Sometimes you end up part of the hype train, sometimes you jump off and wonder why the hell you jumped aboard in the first place. This is probably why I’ll never understand how people enjoy Wes Anderson movies.

I can’t say that I liked A Girl Walks Alone at Night. It was interesting, sure. It was very obvious that it was a VICE movie and not only for the black and white while very obviously digital pretentiousness. There’s a point where a transvestite dances with a balloon. For no apparent reason. One of the first rules of efficient movie-making is that every scene should push the plot forward. Scenes that don’t are indulgences and this movie has more than a few. As artsy movies often do.

Maybe it was the hype. I was supposed to see the first Iranian vampire western but nothing in it was a western. Some of the shots were slightly influenced, maybe. And the vampire part… The Girl could have been a killer or a thief or anything else and it would not have changed the movie in any way. This isn’t a vampire movie: it’s a movie that has a vampire in it. The bulk of the movie shows Arash moping around because his dad is a heroin addict. It also shows The Girl as a shy girl who listens to vinyl records in her French striped shirt. If anything, this movie is a 60s French character study.

The weirdest part to me was to cast Marshall Manesh as the heroin-addicted father. Maybe it’s because I just finished marathoning How I Met Your Mother but he’ll always be Rhajit to me. Here, he’s groping prostitutes and shooting drugs. Weird.

Maybe I’m being hard on Ana Lily Amirpour. She did after all do something different, original. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched and read her interviews and she comes off as pretentious in every single one of them; listing obscure or passé bands, very obviously showing how she worships directors that normally fill a hipster barista’s list of directors to talk about (Herzog, Lynch and so on). Talking like the movie she made is the greatest gift to mankind. That may have tainted my perception of the movie a bit. It’s not bad. It’s enjoyable. I didn’t like it the way I liked Only Lovers Left Alive, which is similar in multiple ways but actually includes the vampirism in the story.

Perhaps it’s because I recognize my own flaws in Amirpour (though my list has different directors: Wright, Wan, Carpenter and so on). Maybe it’s because I also have a hard time not being passionate about the things that I do. Maybe it’s also why I can’t stand Wes Anderson, who seems to do his movies with the same zeal. Maybe I’m the elitist prick.

Either way, I’m talking about the movie. I’m writing about it. That has to count for something, right?

SHOULD YOU WATCH IT?

If you like artsy black and white movies where nothing much happens, sure.

Preservation (2014)

Written and directed by Christopher Denham. Stars Wrenn Schmidt, Pablo Schreiber and Aaron Staton.

 

SYNOPSIS:

Two brothers and a wife go hunt in the woods. Someone or something is stalking them.

REVIEW:

It’s hard for me to watch anything with Aaron Staton without seeing detective Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire. Still, here he is, in a strange little movie called Preservation. Not being detective Phelps. Not detectiving. What are you doing, Aaron?!

That’s not the only reason I ended up watching this movie. I saw the trailer a while ago and it promised to be something different than your usual “murder in the woods” flick. Was the war vet suffering from PTSD and trying to kill his brother and wife? Was the brother doing this to murder and wife and blame it on the war vet? The trailer had that air of depth that made Preservation look special.

The only way this movie is special is in how it like to hammer down stereotypes. The war vet brother always talks about the cruelty of the things he did. Always talks about life and death. The bad guys are 4chan-generation “lulz kids”, who text and play video games and thrill kill (oops, spoilers). I was just glad that they opted out of having a “urban” friend because I’m sure they’d have him rap and be a gangster. I’m not saying Preservation is racist (as race is not a factor at all in the story; rather, I would say that the movie is naïve.

Still, not everything about it is bad. The eventual reveal of the kids is interesting. A calm and serene river, three kids pulling their masks off and texting each other; there’s something unnerving about masked kids who won’t even speak out loud of the murders they’re doing. But except for a few clever moments like this, the story is so unoriginal and bland that it’s not worth seeing.

SHOULD YOU WATCH IT?

Not really, no.

Two Ave Romeros and Three Spatter Noster for your delicious sins!

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