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Tuesday
Nov102015

Bridge of Spies

A film in many ways about patience, Bridge of Spies is itself a patient movie, its tone measured. That said, this long film, clocking in at just a few minutes shy of two-and-a-half hours (which actually seems to be the mark Steven Spielberg aims for, at least for his movies for grownups), almost never feels its length, moving lightly, briskly on its feet across its running time. The movie is stately, but never ponderous. Even in his serious-entertainment mode, Spielberg never lets the emphasis stray too far from the entertainment. It's a commercial product that's also a work of art. 

Along with Clint Eastwood, Spielberg is perhaps the last of the classicists, and Bridge is, in form, a classic Cold War espionage thriller. Like Eastwood, Spielberg is a consummate, efficient visual storyteller; like Eastwood, he leaves breathing room for experiment and purely formal pleasures. The style of both men is, by now, serene. Unabashedly old-fashioned moviemakers, both risk being thought corny in modern terms. As the Nation's Stuart Klawans has pointed out, Spielberg's overarching theme might be "heartfelt...admiration for modest, ordinary people who do their jobs well."  

There is much here for connoisseurs of cinema to enjoy. The movie is the work of people who are the best at what they do in the cinematic arts, doing it well. I never tire of the way Spielberg's frequent cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, paints in diffuse light. Kaminski's palette is cold, even wintry, as befits a Cold War story. His Berlin is so cold it's almost bluish-white. The film was cut by Michael Kahn, who has edited basically every one of Spielberg's films since Close Encounters in 1977. The subtly suspenseful music is by Thomas Newman, who also composes for James Bond films. The screenplay was written by Matt Charman and given a "punch-up," in Charman's words, by co-writers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. The Coen Brothers' Kafkaesque world view is particularly well-suited to negotiation scenes in East Berlin and search for the elusive Vogel (Sebastian Koch).

There is a moment in what I think of as the "What is this?" scene that embodies everything I like about Bridge of Spies. The time is circa 1957. Someone has fired a gun into the living room of James Donovan, an apolitical, stalwart, wily insurance company lawyer portrayed by Tom Hanks, because he has stepped up to represent an accused Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel. It would, I suppose, be the equivalent of representing an accused intelligence agent for Isis or Al-Qaeda today (with some important differences: the Cold War was mainly a lot of mutually beneficent hot bluster, on both sides.) There is a climate of fear, an atmosphere in which citizens fear imminent destruction of all the hold dear by Soviet invasion. Citizens were all too ready to cede certain rights for certain people. Donovan is not having it. Just by virtue of quietly insisting on doing things by the rules, he becomes heroic. 

 

The police are on the scene, but one officer isn't shy about voicing his unhappiness about being on this detail. Still, when Donovan addresses him, he does so respectfully: excuse me, officer? You can almost feel the respect for the uniform and the institution in the way Hanks says it. Only when he gets a response along the lines of, why should we protect your house when you're defending this scumbag (I paraphrase)?, when he sees that this man is going to let his personal views get in the way of his oath to uphold the law, does Donovan register a pained, "What is this?" In the way Hanks says the words, you can feel how Donovan is surprised and offended on at least two levels: that he has to argue with this officer of the law man over American principles such as due process and the right of everyone to a fair trial, and also because it's a violation of professional police work. 

Donovan expects the rules to be upheld. Where they are not, he insists on it. He is angry when that are violated. When we violate our own best selves, we don't need outsiders to do it for us. Hanks is ideally cast in the role of Donovan. He's an old-style Hollywood star both in terms of consummate acting chops and in the way a Hanks performance is always a dialectical product of the character versus his persona, a persona that embodies American intelligence and decency, humor and integrity. Hanks somehow entrusts those qualities for us, the audience, and this is a quality he shares with the very best American artists, such as Bruce Springsteen.

 

The great English stage actor Mark Rylance plays Colonel Abel, a Soviet operative who really did live, paint and spy in Brooklyn Heights. (Rylance is hot off of playing Thomas Cromwell in the BBC miniseries version of Wolf Hall, which I can't wait to see.) He gives us a quiet man with haunted eyes and a deep core of inner strength and an almost Buddha-like level of patience. His sense of humor is so dry you could almost miss it, but it tickles Donovan. Abel is a man of integrity, gentle. He is guilty, not that this is relevant to Donovan. Given his druthers in life, one gets the impression that Abel would probably have preferred to live out his life quietly painting.

  

There is something else Spielberg and Eastwood have in common: despite their reputations for myth-making or flag-waving, for giving us heroes burnished in their rosy, glowing images of history, they both actually give us something more interesting. They give us patriotism as a river that flows both ways. This is not a vision where America is on the side of the angels, always, nor its foes on the side of Satan. Rather, both sides are made up of everyday people, more or less cynical, more or less idealistic, acting in what they perceive to be in their country's interests.  

(There were, of course, some important differences between the way the U.S. and the Soviets did things, and in fact the film is, in part, about those differences, a reminder about the importance of those differences, which is why its hero can be a lawyer: we don't do show trials. Although, even there, Bridge carries intimations of the Rosenbergs.)

As Donovan says in court by way of defending Abel, if he is a soldier for the other side, he is a good soldier for his side. He is loyal to his land. Similarly, think of Eastwood's Sands of Iwo Jima, about Japanese soldiers in World War II. 
                                                        
In fact, while I certainly wouldn't make the case for Spielberg as any sort of radical, his work subtly gives you pause to turn things over in your mind. He gives us a shot of school-kids taking the Pledge of Allegiance and its slyly subversive, showing that the pledge is just our method of indoctrination. 
   

 

In form, Bridge makes sure to parallel the spying activity of the US and the Soviet Union. For Colonel Abel's spying, we meet a young team of pilots recruited to pilot surveillance missions in new, "ultra high-altitude" U-2 spy planes. In 1960 the Soviets shoot down a U-2 plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) while he's flying just such a surveillance mission over the Soviet Union, taking photographs from the skies. 

Donovan had expected the eventuality that one of our spies would someday be captured. This had, in fact, been one of his arguments in his (successful) bid to keep Abel from the electric chair: one day we might need to make a trade. He is tapped by none other than Allen Dulles, head of the CIA (Peter McRobbie), to negotiate the trade: our spy for theirs. Powers for Abel. The droll scene between Dulles and Donovan may put you in mind of a scene in another Cold War picture, North by Northwest, with Cary Grant and Leo G. Carroll: FBI, CIA... we're all in the same alphabet soup. 

Nobody had expected another element in the mix, though: an American economics student studying abroad, Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers), has gotten himself picked up by the Stasi after furtively breaching a gap in the Wall as it's going up, sneaking over to the east to fetch his girlfriend (Nadja Bobyleva) back to the west. He finds himself jailed, caught up in a pissing match between East Germany and its big brother, the Soviets. (The U.S. did not even acknowledge East Germany as a country, and they feel disrespected by both sides.) Donovan's handlers, such as Agent Blasco (Domenick Lombardozzi), would gladly throw Pryor under the bus, but Donovan is firm: no deal without Pryor.
                                                                          
The scenes in East Berlin show Hanks moving past busts of Marx, paintings of Lenin, and the hammer and sickle on the wall, and it reminded me of Karolyn and my recent journeys in Vietnam. We see that while the symbols may be different or scary to us, and that heroes and villains have been reversed, that people are people. Day-to-day is still more or less normal, as hardscrabble as anywhere else. In fact, we see that ordinary people don't take communist ideology seriously anymore than they do in modern Vietnam. Still, after seeing their propaganda, which people probably naturally believe on some level, it's easier to see your own as such.
 
The scenes of the Berlin Wall going up are evocative. One gets the feeling of seeing history forged, and even the socialists among us (especially us) will be given pause to reflect on why that wall had to come down. Whisking over the wall on a train, we see a group of people shot trying to escape, to get over that wall. 
 
I should add that Amy Ryan, one of my favorite actresses, is on hand as Mrs. Donovan. Karolyn loved her dresses (the movie is set in "her" era, fashion-wise), and we were both pleased with all the hats.
 
The prisoner exchange scene was filmed on the real-life Glienicke Bridge, which spans Berlin in the east and Postdam in the west, where the spy exchange really did take place, in 1962.
 
Bridge of Spies is a fine addition to Spielberg's humane, adult cinema of "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances." I won't forget the moment when Abel turns to Donovan and says to this man who has become a kind of friend, I can wait. He is patient.
 

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:


***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

 

Sunday
Aug302015

The End of the Tour

Suffused with an elegiac melancholy, the latest film from James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now") takes as its subject not so much the late David Foster Wallace as the loneliness that suffuses life.  It is a beautiful film: the biopic as paragraph.  Its central mystery, seen through the eyes of a young, middlingly successful writer, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), is how a man can achieve the very pinnacle of the writing profession--not in terms of sales necessarily, but in terms of writing his generation's most mighty and innovative novel--as Wallace did, and still not be a happy man.  Wallace is played in an honest, moving turn by Jason Segel as a man for whom integrity was his overarching, tortuous project, and who couldn't find peace for his unquiet, fine mind.  

As most people know, Wallace committed suicide in 2008.  I did not know the man, except from his work--and the extent to which we can know the writer through the work is one of the ideas with which the movie grapples--and so I should be wary about making any claims about him or why he did what he did.  He probably couldn't have said why he did it himself, or at least not without unpacking it at book length.  Instead, I will try to restrict my comments to "David Foster Wallace" as he appears as a character in this movie.

 

 The year is 2008, and Lipsky gets the news about Wallace's suicide.  He goes to the closet and takes down a box, removes a cassette tape, pops it into a walkman.  As he hits rewind, we are borne back twelve years.  Now It is 1996, and Wallace has just dropped "Infinite Jest."  It's the talk of the town in Lipsky's NYC neighborhood.  Lipsky himself has a novel out, which is a heck of an achievement, I'd say, even if the book didn't exactly set the world on fire.  He is also a reporter for Rolling Stone.  Thus, the writing career appears to be going pretty well, you would think.  And yet Wallace is everything Lipsky wants to be and knows he is not.  He invents a plum assignment for himself: covering the last five days of Wallace's book tour for "Infinite Jest."  His editor flies him out to Minnesota.  (Joan Cusack plays the local author handler, all guileless and Minnesota-nice.)  

As Lipsky wields his tape recorder, Wallace tries to be affable and honest, yet he's deeply skeptical about the whole project.  He worries what he says is easy or trite.  He worries he doesn't have all the answers, like Lipsky expects him to.  He tells Lipsky, the image you construct in this profile won't be me.  He's acutely aware that Lipsky is a journalist, and, as such, will craft the stuff of real life into a false image, some kind of romantic idea of self-destruction.  You can't help but worry that this movie itself is an example of that very phenomenon, and so you admire the extent to which it does *not* do that, the way the screenwriter, playwright Donald Margulies, resists imposing an artificial shape on the material.  Even a story arc that has the two men hit that low point that is a prerogative of script structure feels natural, as they fall out almost completely over Lipsky's flirting with his ex-girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky).   

Since what we're seeing is Lipsky playing his tapes back in his head, almost every time we see Wallace it is through Lipsky's eyes.  His point of view is evoked by cinematographer Jakob Ihre with a camera style that deploys just a taste of the hand-held.  Ihre paints in a palette of flat light--the light of convenience stores, diners and hotel hallways--and in cold sunlight.  As we drive across the countryside of Bloomington, Illinois where Wallace chose to live, the lonely, wintry landscapes seep into you. 

I was initially rather a skeptic on Segel as Wallace.  Something was ringing wrong for me: he seemed slightly soporific, and I kept seeing, not Wallace, but Jason Segel in a bandana.  As the film went on though, he disarmed me, utterly.  The soft, hesitant cadences of his speech seemed right for a thoughtful man who treasures his "regular guy"-ness, who is self-effacing about his own genius to the point that, if anything, it seems to torture him.  Even Segel's huge body is right.  He's a big sad-sack, sweet and shy, a slumped, shambling guy lurching through the snow.  A guy who loves his pooches, whose once athletic form--he had been a competitive tennis player--has gone soft under layers of too much junk food, too many cigarettes.  Lipsky is as happy as a pig in shit when he's chain-smoking and scarfing Twinkies and McDonald's with the great man.  Eisenberg is just the right actor to play Lipsky: awkward and nervous, weaselly and wheedling, jealous and ambitious.

Wallace has an addictive personality, and his particular seduction is trash: TV, action movies, junk food.  As Wallace and Lipsky roll through an American landscape of strip malls and fast-food joints, tooling around in the front seat of Wallace's beat-up old car, they listen to a mix of pop songs, great ones like Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know."  At one point they visit the Mall of America, that peculiarly American consumer playground, with its roller-coaster.  He loves trash culture, yes, but he is troubled.  What if trash is increasingly all we consume, as Americans?  Wouldn't that be a problem?  

And so the movie is about a particularly American dream--that achievement will make you happy--and a particularly American depression, which finds its expression in the beautifully melancholy, somehow healing soundtrack.  There is R.E.M.'s "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" and Tindersticks performing that Pavement ballad "Here," suffused with so much world-happiness, and so much world-sadness.  There is a score by Danny Elfman, channeling his "inner Eno," as Ponsoldt has put it, that is itself a form of cold sunlight. 

Margulies's script is based on the book "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," Lipsky's transcripts of his Wallace tapes, and the talk in "The End of the Tour" is a dance and a boxing match that sustains the movie's 106 minutes.  The two men circle each other, enthusing over Alanis Morissette, joking, playing mind games on themselves and the other, painting themselves into corners, looking for ways out of those corners, ways to define themselves--trying on masks, and experimenting with what it might be like to live without them.  Trying to get to the heart of the matter.  Words as jails we build for ourselves, and words as a way of breaking out of those jails, to be free.    

Wallace tells Lipsky that his work seeks to grapple with the strange conundrum of "people like us."  Mainly white, over-educated: people who have been given every opportunity and advantage in the world.  And so why aren't we happy?  That's the great mystery of the film: how can the voice on the page be so strong (and it was, I remember), and the writer himself so broken?  As Karolyn said to me after the movie, in a line that summed it up beautifully,  "Depression is the loneliest illness."  

Maybe the real Wallace would have hated "The End of the Tour."  It probably would have made him very uncomfortable.  However, a part of me likes to imagine that maybe he would have seen something in Segel's empathetic take, his portrait of this man who was--always--very open.  A man for whom books were a means to connect to other people, to stave off life's loneliness.  And maybe he would have said, you know, I kind of like him as me.  There is a moment in the movie when Wallace asks Lipsky to imagine, if he can, something that could be so terrible that it's better to leap out the window--even if that means your death--than to stay in the room with it.  In my imagination, the real-life Wallace hears that and thinks to himself, yeah, okay.  They get me.  They get it.    

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:


***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

 

 

Tuesday
Aug182015

Phoenix

From Germany comes Christian Petzold's "Phoenix," a heartbreaking story and an absorbing drama of suspense. Based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, its 98 minutes are driven by something we know, and which the heel of the movie does not: we wonder what he will do when--if--he discovers the secret. The heel's name is Johnny. As played by Ronald Zehrfeld, he is more pathetic than evil. Banal, even: a mediocre man. He tells a woman he meets in a nightclub in postwar Berlin, flatly, that his wife is dead. (It's understood that she was Jewish, and that she died in the camps.) He goes on to tell her he has a plan: you will impersonate her.  Our story will be that you survived the camp and, risen from the ashes, you have returned.  Together we will claim her inheritance. (Which would be substantial, in that it's everything left to her by all her family members who died in the Holocaust.) 

But here is the twist: like Scottie in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," a movie Petzold has cited as an inspiration for "Phoenix," Johnny does not realize that the woman he is shaping and the "dead" woman are one and the same person.

The woman is Nelly (Nina Hoss). Before the war she was a beautiful nightclub singer, a chanteuse, and her husband Johnny was the pianist who accompanied her. Captured by the Nazis, shot and left for dead at Auschwitz, she survived, but her face was destroyed. As the film begins she is given a new face by a reconstructive surgeon. Her friend Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) wants to take her away, to Israel, but Nelly refuses. She still yearns to be reunited with Johnny, even after Lena drops a bombshell: it was Johnny who turned her in. She won't--can't--believe it, and at night she wanders through the rubble of the city, looking for him. It's a dangerous place, desperate, cruel, full of people doing whatever it takes to survive. She discovers Johnny in the American sector, now a dishwasher at a nightclub called the Phoenix, rendered by Petzold's usual cinematographer, Hans Fromm, in a seedy red light more washed out than the deep, deep red lounge in "Vertigo." Though he does not recognize her, she catches his eye. There's something about her that makes him think she could pull off the plan.  

 

Nelly is, of course, good at playing the role of herself, almost too good. She can mimic Nelly's handwriting uncannily. Johnny is at first suspicious, then incredulous: it seems too good to be true, but how can he deny what his eyes tell him?

As Nelly, shattered and put back together, Nina Hoss uses body language to speak volumes of a trauma that is unspeakable. Her black eyes telegraph hyper-vigilance and constant alarm. She shuffles and drags herself like a wounded bird. Her head quivers and wobbles. Hoss's approach is akin to that of Petzold, in the way that a few well-chosen details make the horror--indeed the enormity--of the Holocaust fresh and real, in a way that a less individual, less personal approach might not have. I think of the moment late in the film when we get just a quick glimpse of the rathole in which Nelly hid, a crawlspace in a houseboat with just some bedsprings and a bit of bread crust on the floor.

We come to the heartbreak that "Phoenix" and "Vertigo" share, as Johnny begins to rehearse Nelly's return, to change her makeup and hair, to mold her into the image of the "dead" woman. Of Scottie and Judy in "Vertigo," Roger Ebert wrote, "He cares nothing about the clay he is molding. He would gladly sacrifice her on the altar of his dreams." Like Judy in that earlier film, Nelly participates in the charade not for money, but to please Johnny. Ebert goes on, "Judy realizes that Scottie is indifferent to her as a person and sees her as an object. Because she loves him, she accepts this." Like Judy, Nelly allows herself to be remade by a man who does not love her. In both films, the true subject is a woman's sacrifice for love. 

Unlike Scottie in "Vertigo," however, Johnny is missing any guilty passion. In fact, he doesn't seem visited by guilt at all. That's somehow the worst of it. Everyone left standing in postwar Berlin likely did something shameful to survive, and no one wants to face it. You don't know who turned you in. It could have been a neighbor, a friend. There is a memorable moment when, quivering, Nelly insists to Johnny that there is a hole in their plan: what will I say, she asks, when someone asks me about my experience in the camps? Surely, she insists, someone will want to know. Johnny seems baffled. No one will ask, he finally says.

After the film is over (and I will not divulge anything about its remarkable final scene), you may find yourself thinking about all the chances Nelly gave Johnny to see the truth, all the hints. The way she stares at him, searching his eyes. She is looking for what she hopes to find there, yes, but also imploring him to really look into her eyes, to recognize them as Nelly's. But did he ever really bother to look? And what would he have seen there, if he had? Might not he have seen more pain than the human mind can bear?   

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:


***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

 

Friday
Jun052015

Mad Max: Fury Road

From the world of "Babe: Pig in the City," writer/director George Miller takes us now to the end of the world with "Mad Max: Fury Road." He's set a story of redemption amidst a season in hell. In this blasted-out desert-world, resources vital for survival of the species--like water and healthy young women--are hoarded by tribes of atavistic/futuristic road warriors, burning through the desert in their monster trucks, dying over gasoline. Still, it's not like they're not having fun doing it: society may have gone back to a savage year-zero, but at least these cavemen have tricked-out death-mobiles (and even a flame-throwing electric guitar).

This reboot of the "Mad Max" franchise brings the wild humor, the over-the-top cult/camp energy, the kinetic, visceral filmmaking that my boys and I munched pizza to during 'Road Warrior'-on-cable slumber parties back in the early 80s. I felt a shock of deja vu when I heard the line, 'Tell your head to say goodbye to your neck!': we're on the carpet, roaring with laughter and delight with mouthfuls of za. While some of the picture has that CGI look that's become rather a cliche since "300," it retains a heft, a pleasing physicality that comes from real cars and real people actually performing the stunts in real time. (This, as I recall, was a big draw of the originals.)

What's new is the feminist power and heart brought by Charlize Theron as Furiosa (Charlize Theron) a prized warrior-driver for the gargoyle-like warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Kealys-Bryne). Stepping into Mel Gibson's shoes as the loner Max is Tom Hardy, with his rich burr. It's urgent, deeply felt work from both actors. As the film opens Max is kidnapped by the War Boys: these are craven, ghost-white humanoids, raised as cannon fodder by patriarch Joe, so sickly they need to tether themselves to "blood bags" (i.e., human beings). During the furious Max-tries-to-escape-from-being-a-blood-bag sequence, Miller snips frames out, making it even more breathless. Meanwhile, Furiosa goes off Joe's script, swerving off into the desert during a gas-run. We soon find out she is smuggling a cargo of breeder women, helping them escape from Joe. Thus begins a furious race for a green world of legend, a place where they can be free. The image of scantily clad mothers in various stages of "showing," against the vistas of the arid, dry desert is striking, as is, later in the film, the image of a green sprout amidst the blue-black & white desert storms.

Even if the tone of "Fury Road" is unexpectedly tender, though, don't get me wrong: you're still not gonna like this if you're not up for being throw into careening, exploding cars at heavy-metal intensity for a few hours. (At least in this case we care about the people in the cars.) While a lot of the violence is cartoony, some of it no joke at all: real pain, fights that hurt.

The movie is really just a few set pieces, basically the kind of wild chases that have worked since the very beginning of cinema, taken to a virtuosic level.  It's an exhilarating feat of sustained plate-spinning on Miller's part, a pure cinematic experience. (Some of the credit for the rhythm and beauty of the Miller maelstrom should go to the cutting by Margaret Sixel and the music by Junkie XL.)  

 

Still, if it were only mayhem, the movie might divert, but would not capture the imagination the way it seems to have done. What is it about the movie that is resonating with people on an emotional level? I think it's because in the face of these badlands, it's still a story about a search for a land of hope and dreams... even if those dreams exist only as a glint in Furiosa's eye. As fierce as she is, she carries that fragile promise--the promise of a new world waiting to be born--within her as if she must shepherd it through all this darkness to a place where that seed can be planted. And if that place turns out to be pie-in-the-sky, you don't give up: you fight to make it real, in whatever real world you've got.  

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Friday
May222015

Ex Machina

With plenty of writing credits under his belt (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Dredd), Alex Garland has made the step to writer/director with this eery sci-fi feature. It's a thriller in the true sense: it may get in amongst you. Garland is steeped in Kubrick deep in his bones, right down to the picture's hypnotic narrative line. As in "The Shining," we fly in over forested mountains. We're in a helicopter with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who has won a contest to spend the weekend with his famous boss, who sits on top of the world as the head of the tech empire in which Caleb is a cog. Caleb is a green kid with a dissembling personality, bright, awkward. The boss is prickly Nathan (Oscar Isaac), intense and glowering, presumably impossibly rich, and given to pumping iron and speaking in "dude"-and-"bro"-isms (this, Garland told the columnist Maureen Dowd, is meant to be a metaphor for the way tech companies market themselves as your hip pal, even as they manipulate you.) He's also a genius, the near-future's version of Dr. Frankenstein, or Oppenheimer--or Steve Jobs, the reference point for Dowd--and a self-hating megalomaniac who habitually drinks himself to blackout.

Nathan's Alaskan compound is as cut off from humanity as the Overlook Hotel. It is beautiful, reminiscent of Wright's Fallingwater in the way it seems to grow organically out of the landscape, an outcrop of the rivers and glaciers. As the critic Josh Larsen has pointed out, the house is part nature, part man-made, and thus itself echoes the movie's theme. However, when Nathan shows Caleb to his bedroom, there's something odd: no windows. That's because the house is a top secret lab as well, Caleb explains. A bunker, really.  

Like "2001: A Space Odyssey," the picture contemplates A.I. and questions of consciousness, but this Hal has a body. And the body is crucial. As Nathan tells Caleb, you are about to witness my world-historical creation: this turns out to be Ava, a tastefully yet noticeably sexualized robot played by Alicia Vikander. Nathan gives Caleb a task: find out, what is Ava thinking? What he really wants to know is, have I merely created a parrot, or have I managed to bottle something less tangible: the mind? the soul? (When Caleb throws out the word "God," Nathan likes the ring of it.)

The movie becomes a dark metaphor for what women may suspect is the ultimate male fantasy of a woman's role in life: a bespoke robot to serve your every need. It's a sly critique, but this movie is also about female seductive power. Dowd has written of Ava in terms of the classic movie femme fatale.  

 

Garland gives us portentous title cards to announce the sessions between Caleb and Ava (again a la Kubrick), which have the flirty feel of a first date. Ava is always in a fishbowl, behind impenetrable glass. Caleb--earnest, nerdy, perhaps even a virgin--is alternately condescending, amused, fascinated. He finds himself smitten, and, soon, haunted. It begins to eat at him that there is something wrong with Nathan and that the whole project is, well, inhumane. Ava wants out; she takes advantage of frequent brief power failures, when Nathan cannot monitor them, to tell Caleb: don't trust Nathan. He is not your friend.

 

Nathan's "companion" is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizumo), whom he claims to have hired because she speaks no English and cannot divulge his trade secrets. She exists to please him; he treats her shabbily. There is a bizarre scene where they disco dance in a choreographed routine. She is difficult to read. Her expression is vacant, but her body is working it.

In the context of an often quiet piece, the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury builds to pulse-pounding crescendos of terror as Caleb's psychological state deteriorates. Rob Hardy's cinematography gives the picture a cold Kubrickian glow, and he and Garland have that Kubrick knack for making hallways almost vibrate with creepiness. Mark Day's editing puts the cat-and-mouse in the the interactions between these characters, and the performances are so well modulated across the board.  Vikander in particular brings real soulfulness to Ava. She is a former ballerina, and her training suits the not-quite-human bearing and grace of Ava.

 As Karolyn pointed out when we talked about the picture afterward, "Ex Machina" makes a nice companion piece to "Her," in which a man decided that the perfect woman was his phone's operating system. The bit from that film thatmoves me when I recall it is when the disembodied OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, dreamily explains to the man that she and the rest of the OS's are moving on now, changing into a higher state of consciousness, and she must leave him behind. As robot overlords go, those were slightly wistful as they went. We men might not get anything as human as compassion from the "ladies" of "Ex Machina." Well, the movie seems to ask: did ya really deserve it, smarties?

 

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)