Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Ex Machina"

 3.5 / 5 

Beneath the glassy, controlled surface of Ex Machina a question about technology churns and roils the waters: Do we even know what we're doing?

Though that big philosophical question lingers, to Ex Machina's credit that's not what's mostly on its mind.  Above all, it aims to be a crafty, unpredictable cat-and-mouse game, and it admirably succeeds, occasionally despite the calm, assured style that can sometimes get in its way.

Lanky, awkward Domhnall Gleeson anchors the movie as Caleb,  lanky, awkward young computer programmer who wins a contest to meet the head of his company, the barely older Nathan, played by a bearded Oscar Isaac.  (Ex Machina will likely be remembered by Star Wars fans as the movie that paired these two before they went into that galaxy far, far away.)

Meeting Nathan isn't really the big prize, though, because the reclusive, insanely wealthy head of the company has a task for the winner.  He's invented a robot that he thinks can pass as a human and wants Caleb to administer the "Turing test," a fabled examination of technology that aims to see if artificial intelligence can be mistaken for the real thing.

The robot is named Ava, and she's played with gentle complexity by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.  What she does with the role is astonishing: She makes us really believe we're watching an advanced robot, some sort of digital creature.  If her performance feels less flashy than Gleeson's and Isaac's, it's because Vikander is so convincing and captivating; the way she breathes real life into Ava is one of Ex Machina's greatest achievements.

The audience catches on to the central drama of Ex Machina faster than Caleb does: Something is not quite right about Nathan and his impossibly large and imposing technological compound.  (The movie's luxurious vistas seem to be set somewhere in the high-tech realm of the Pacific Northwest but were shot in southern Norway.)

Nathan's got a screw loose, but wouldn't anyone with a similarly vast fortune?  He insists just a little too hard that he and Caleb should be best buds, allows himself to get just a bit too drunk every night, and when the power goes off unexpectedly during Caleb's first night at the compound, Nathan's just a little too comfortable with such a giant bug in the system.

Caleb knows he's in for some trouble, but he's not quite sure what it is.  Part of the fun of Ex Machina is working it all out for yourself.  Though it has a highly sleek and polished look, make no mistake: Ex Machina is something of a funhouse.  It's not strictly a murder-mystery, but it might as well be; if there aren't bodies at the beginning of it there may well be by the end.  Imagine yourself to know where the movie is headed when it starts and you'll be sorely mistaken once the end credits roll.  It may look supremely even-keeled, maybe even a little cerebral, but you can be absolutely certain that beneath its frosty exterior Ex Machina is giddily impressed with itself.  And well it should be.  The storytelling feats it accomplishes are impressive ones, and the final moments are spot-on, leaving you with a well-earned, sinister smile on your face.

Even though I'm plagued by one central loophole I still can't quite rectify (one so critical to the plot that I can't reveal it here -- email me separately if you want to have a discussion about it), I enjoyed Ex Machina while I watched it ... and like it even more as I think about its stealthy twists and clever deceptions.

It never really delves into those deeper philosophical questions about technology, and never really needs to -- it's got its hands full just keeping all of its surprises coming, and Ex Machina is far too entertaining to need to teach us any sort of a lesson.

Viewed April 19, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks



 2 / 5 

Walter initially presents itself as the story of a young man whose job is to decide whether people are going to heaven or to hell.

It's the basis, I suppose, for a good movie, but Walter forgets about that concept more or less immediately, and instead offers up the sort of quirky, character-driven comedy that independent films do best and, truth be told, worst.

Walter knows it can't sustain such a slim story unless it dives head first into some serious religious territory.  Its title character believes himself to be the son of God, but knows full well that another guy claimed that title long ago.  So, he carries his conviction lightly and quietly.  As played by Andrew J. West, Walter doesn't claim to have any divine insight beyond a God-given ability to determine, just by looking at you, whether you're going up to the Pearly Gates or down to the land of fire and brimstone once you shuffle off this mortal coil.

He got this ability, the movie shows us, when his father died.  He also got saddled with a mother (Virginia Madsen) who has never been right since her husband's death.  She and Walter are all each other has got, except for Walter's job as a ticket-taker at a local megaplex.  The cinema is staffed with the kind of sweet-natured, middle-class suburbanites who in real life would never, ever deign to take a job as a concessionaire or usher at a movie theater that pays eight bucks an hour.

Walter goes to his job every day and believes in his destiny until one night when he sees the ghost of a man (Justin Kirk) whose spirit is trapped between here and there, stuck in a limbo from which only Walter can help him escape by telling him which way he is supposed to go.

By this point, Walter has just enough faux-eccentric charm to keep things interesting, but then it begins veering wildly off course, delving into the private life of the pretty concession-counter girl, introducing a ludicrously inappropriate psychologist (William H. Macy) and losing sight of its central concept.  Walter, it turns out, isn't really the son of God -- he might not even be all that religious, despite his nightly prayer time.  He's just emotionally damaged, and Walter wants us to see how "everyone is broken," as one of the characters puts it.

Though it runs less than 90 minutes, Walter has a tough time sustaining interest for even that brief duration.  As it meanders through plot point after plot point, it loses more and more focus as it tries to show us what happened to Walter to trigger his delusions.

Still, it all leads Walter (and Walter) to a moving moment of catharsis, one that surprises with its intensity and effectiveness -- it's just not necessarily worth all the effort it took to get there.

Walter has its charms, which might make it worthwhile Saturday-afternoon viewing some day, but with so many better films about similar subjects (The Fisher King comes to mind, as do Fight Club and K-PAX, and it's not necessarily a good thing for a film to be unfavorably compared to K-PAX) it's ultimately just too sweet, too safe and too confused for its own good.

Viewed April 13, 2015 -- DWA Theater