Screenwriter Alex Garland is responsible for a number of highly regarded science-fiction screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. With Ex Machina, which opened Friday, Garland for the first time adds directing on top of his writing credits. Ex Machina has taken the film festival circuit by storm and received accolades as a Drafthouse Recommends title. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel this movie is overrated.
Ex Machina is a richly beautiful, smart, thought-provoking work of science fiction that unfortunately suffers from a viciously sexist underlying theme. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a charismatic cyber genius who at the age of 13, wrote the software that would eventually become Google. He invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee chosen by lottery, to spend a week at his remote estate for a kind of sick Willy Wonka-esque robot nightmare tour.
Nathan explains to Caleb that he has been brought to spend the week playing the human role in the Turing Test, a standard of artificial intelligence research in which a human and an AI interact. The AI passes the test if the human can't tell he's talking to a computer. Of course, it should be obvious already that by telling Caleb he's going to speak to an AI that Nathan has blown the parameters of the test.
But Nathan's plan is darker and unclear. He spends his mornings working out and his evenings passing out drunk with very little time in between for any real scientific research, and during ominous power outages Ava (Alicia Vikander) tells Caleb that Nathan can't be trusted. Tensions mount as Caleb is so convinced by Ava that he begins to doubt his own humanity.
So why do I call it sexist? Aside from gratuitous nudity and the fratboy lifestyle Nathan leads, the premise of this film is two men sitting in judgement of an innocent woman, deciding her fate. She lives her very brief life on a leash, completely under the control of Nathan, subject to his whims and frustrations. Caleb falls head-over-heels in love with her in the blink of an eye, and then she is presented as a manipulative stereotype, using her sexual appeal to influence him.
The Austin Film Society's "French Noir" series continues tonight with a Free Member Friday screening at The Marchesa of Henri Verneuil's The Burglars, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Omar Sharif, and Dyan Cannon. Based on the pulp novel by David Goodis, tonight's digital screening is free for all AFS members, and the movie will also screen on Sunday afternoon at The Marchesa.
Monday night, SXSW alumni Above All Else (Don's review) is presented by The Texas Observer. Austin filmmaker John Fiege and two subjects from the documentary about the Keystone XL pipeline protests in East Texas will be on hand for a post-film panel discussion with Forrest Wilder, associate editor of The Texas Observer. The current Essential Cinema series, "Songs Of The South," continues this week on Tuesday night with a screening of To Kill A Mockingbird. Richard Linklater is taking the week off from the new installment of "Jewels In The Wasteland," but it will return next week.
Over at the Violet Crown Cinema, the "Asian Movie Madness" series features Patrick Leung and Corey Yuen's Hong Kong classic Blade Of Kings this week. This 2004 feature was nominated for four Hong Kong Film Awards and is a sequel to The Twins Effect. Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan and Jackie's son Jaycee Chan star in this action-packed film that will play Tuesday night.
Child 44 (2015) opens Friday and features one of the darkest plots of any Spring release opening wide in recent memory. Focusing on a string of unsolved child murders in soviet Russia, the grim mystery features the always-watchable Noomi Rapace as the film's female lead.
Since hitting it big with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), Rapace has deservedly enjoyed a steady career in a variety of complex film roles. It's never anything but a pleasure seeing an actress of Rapace's talent at work, yet I can't help but notice that in so many of her projects, including Child 44, she is usually second fiddle to her male co-stars.
One of the few exceptions is Rapace's work alongside Rachel McAdams in Brian De Palma's sexually charged thriller, Passion (2012). After advertising executive Christine (McAdams) takes credit for an idea from her associate Isabel (Rapace), a personal and professional tug of war between the two women begins, leading to mind-bending consequences.
Adapted by De Palma from a 2010 French film (Crime d'amour), Passion is one of the few De Palma films to feature two female leads as central characters. While they might not have been the focus of his films in the past, the filmmaker has always had a knack for portraying strong and confident women onscreen. Michelle Pfeiffer's ice queen in Scarface (1983), Nancy Allen's streetwise call girl in Dressed to Kill (1980) and even Melanie Griffith's ditzy socialite in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) each mixed strength and sexuality in a way which suggested they were not merely an object in a man's world, but rather an equal player.
It's nonsensical that actress Michelle Monaghan isn't a bigger name in Hollywood. She is an excellent foil to Robert Downey Jr. in cult dark comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and inspires Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code. She was even in the lauded first season of True Detective (which I didn't watch). Fort Bliss, a film written and directed by Claudia Myers, is a special treat for Monaghan fans. Instead of supporting an A-list actor onscreen, Monaghan gets her chance to lead a film.
She plays Staff Sgt. Maggie Swann, recently returned from service in Afghanistan. Maggie is an army medic, quick to respond to injuries in the field, yet thrown by the changes that have occurred while she's been abroad. Her young son Paul (Oakes Fegley, This Is Where I Leave You) has lived with Maggie's ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston, Office Space) and grown extremely close to Richard's new wife Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui, Entourage). Maggie expects a warmer welcome from her son than what she receives. Her father (John Savage, The Deer Hunter), also a veteran, reminds her about the story of Rip Van Winkle, and how long absences mean dealing with change upon return.
When Drafthouse Films announced that it had acquired Roar for distribution, and that the 1981 feature would have a limited theatrical run in Austin, I couldn't help but take the opportunity to write about the film taglined "the most dangerous movie ever made."
Roar tells the story of Hank (Noel Marshall), who lives on a game preserve with a variety of wild animals including lions and cheetahs. When his wife Madelaine (Tippi Hedren) and children (including Hedren's real-life daughter Melanie Griffith) come to stay, the question of whether humans and wild animals can co-exist is put to the test with highly gripping results.
Not many people know about Roar today except for a handful of film enthusiasts. For them, Roar exists as one of the most problem-plagued productions in cinematic history, rivaling the likes of both Heaven's Gate (1980) and Cleopatra (1963) in terms of behind-the-scenes catastrophe. Factors such as financial issues, intense weather conditions and the overall unpredictable behavior of many cast members resulted in a production that lasted over a decade.
This weekend, the Austin Film Society continues their French Noir series with Claude Sautet's Max & The Junkmen, a film that was never distributed in the United States upon its release in 1971, but finally circulated in a restored print in 2013. This rarity plays tonight and again on Sunday in 35mm at the Marchesa. David Lynch's Blue Velvet picks up a second screening in 35mm on Sunday evening and Richard Linklater will be on hand to introduce the film and lead a post-film discussion. Linklater returns Wednesday night for L'Argent, Robert Bresson's final feature, and Elizabeth Taylor stars in Suddenly, Last Summer on Thursday for Essential Cinema.
The Paramount is hosting golfer Ben Crenshaw, actress Anne Archer and filmmaker Terry Jastrow on Wednesday night for the Austin premiere of The Squeeze. Jastrow has been a producer on Wide World Of Sports and The Olympics and this is his directorial film debut. Based on a true Texas-based story, it follows a talented young golfer who gives up his dreams of playing on the PGA Tour after he becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.
Specialty screenings at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz this week include 1943's Journey Into Fear on Saturday and the unfinished film It's All True on Monday night, both in 35mm as part of the Orson Welles retrospective. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis star in Artists & Models, a 1955 comedy that is part of the Cinema Cocktails series on Sunday and Wednesday.
While We're Young, the new film from Noah Baumbach, touches on multiple themes in its hour-and-a-half running time, some more effectively than others. From the ethics of documentary filmmaking to choosing a childless life to the habits of Brooklyn hipsters, there's something here for almost everyone -- which is likely why the comedy feels more mainstream than Baumbach's previous works.
The lead characters, married couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), direct and produce documentaries respectively. They stumble into a friendship with free-spirited couple Jamie (Adam Driver, Frances Ha) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried, Mean Girls). The older couple is enamored of Jamie and Darby and their lifestyle. Why spend a weekend with your best friends who just had a baby when you can spend it taking hallucinagens under instruction from a shaman accompanied by Danny Kaye's "Inchworm" and Vangelis tunes?
Local filmmaker Kat Candler is hosting a two-day indie filmmaking workshop May 2-3. As frequent Slackerwood readers surely know, Candler is an award-winning writer and director. Her films Hellion (both short and feature), Black Metal and Jumping Off Bridges screened at Sundance, SXSW Film Festival, and many other film festivals.
Candler's feature film Hellion, starring Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis, was a Sundance Creative Producing Lab participant and premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. I saw the movie at Sundance 2014 --- read my review and Don's review -- and interviewed Candler while I was there. Hellion was released in theaters last June through IFC Films.
Candler is also a 2014 Sundance Women’s Initiative Fellow, and was one of the panelists for the "Indie Filmmakers Share Their Secrets For Working With Actors" session at the SXSW Film Conference last month.
It seems the time is upon us once more for another Nicholas Sparks adaptation. The master of the sentimental once again sees another one of his novels featuring lovesick characters overcoming the complexities of life translated to the big screen with The Longest Ride (2015). The story depicts two different small-town romances (one from the past, the other from the present), which share life-altering links.
If there's one thing a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel does very well, it's giving seasoned pros plum roles to sink their teeth into and remind fans what exactly made them legends. Paul Newman, James Garner and Gena Rowlands all enjoyed scene-stealing parts in Sparks adaptations that earned them raves, even if the films themselves floundered.
Alan Alda fills that category this time around, playing a bedridden man with regrets over his past. With so few film appearances these days, Alda's performance just might be reason enough to catch The Longest Ride. In any case, it gives me the perfect excuse to write about my favorite Alan Alda movie, The Four Seasons (1981).
Updated April 7, 2015.
Slackerwood was all over the SXSW Film Festival this year. Here's the list of all our guides, features, interviews, reviews and photos.