18 May 2015-05-18

Out This Week

Ex Machina (Universal, cert 15)

Joining Gravity and Interstellar, as well as a host of lower budget films, Ex Machina shows we’re in a golden age of sci-fi, this film’s theme being consciousness and whether the Turing Test has been passed: that a robot has become intellectually indistinguishable from a human. Or is it the Test itself that’s being tested?

Domhnall Gleeson is the geek brought in by his messianic megatech wizard boss (Oscar Isaac) to give the yay or nay, Alicia Vikander is the robot he clearly falls for the very first second he claps eyes on her – and with face, breasts and buttocks Vikander’s own, while the rest of her is a cyborgian chrome and perspex geeknip, you don’t wonder why.

A degrunged Blade Runner, a hi-tech Pinocchio, this is a “becoming human” story, with Alex Garland showing he’s as adept at directing as he is at knocking out his thriller-tinged novels.

Sensibly, for a debut, much of the action takes place in the simple, aseptic environment of Isaac’s Bond villain lair. Isaac again overacts but in a good cause here as the hipster-bearded, beer-chugging bad guy, while Vikander (all sibilant Abba esses) and Gleeson are far more nuanced, she letting us know that this is a robot who might be a lot more aware and self-aware than even Alan Turing could imagine possible, he a collation of lovability, nerdiness, decency and perpetual alertness – the underdog as puppy dog.

The soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow adds another layer to the modernist visuals – deep synth rumble with bright spangles jangling over the top. It’s well worth cranking up.

Ex Machina – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Whiplash (Sony, cert 15)

What to do when extreme teaching become outright bullying?

In the story of drumming wannabe Miles Teller and his brutal tutor (deservedly Oscar-winning tutor JK Simmons), the transaction swerves the discourse of abuse and is instead couched almost in commercial terms – with caveat emptor as the throughline.

But enough of the bollocks, let’s get to the plot. A scant one. Teller is the Buddy Rich fan at a music conservatory trying to bag a place on the school’s jazz orchestra. Simmons is the tough nut asking a high price of anyone who wants to join: total commitment.

And that’s it. In scene after scene Teller applies shoulder to wheel, and Simmons pushes back, most spectacularly. Not since R Lee Ermey berated his soldiers in Full Metal Jacket has there been a better demonstration of aggressive mentoring, and the dialogue is similarly salty – “you weepy willow shitsack” “you pathetic pansy-assed fruitfuck” – and so on. And Teller sucks it up.

It is the traditional “follow your dream” Hollywood film, dirtied up almost beyond the point of recognisability, and it also delivers some absolutely archetypal Hollywood thrills, the big finale finish being the standout.

Why it doesn’t feel formulaic is because Simmons is just coy enough to keep the true nature of his personality guarded to the end – is he a sadist who’s somehow been given charge of callow young minds, or a good guy who can’t let on that this is tough love, but love all the same? He’s fantastic. Teller’s great too.

Whiplash – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Altman (Soda, cert 15)

Robert Altman’s naturalistic style has become part of the language of cinema – the overlapping dialogue in particular – so it’s hard now to see how revolutionary he was. But Ron Mann’s admirable and informative documentary does it, giving us on the way a lot of footage that’s otherwise probably never going to be seen – Altman’s early years in industrial films, then directing for TV, both of which meant he knew how to shoot cheap and fast. “I became one of the top TV directors” says Altman in an extract of the archive interviews which are used well to give a flavour of the man.

Mann also drops in slightly arch declarations to camera from people who worked with Altman (James Caan, Elliott Gould, Robin Williams and Julianne Moore among them) explaining in bullshit terms what “Altmanesque” means (courageous, noble, revolutionary, godlike etc etc).

Otherwise this documentary is full of great stuff – how Altman quit when the sponsors of a TV series he was working on wouldn’t let him cast a black actor; how Jack Warner fired him for letting the actors talk over each other’s lines; how Altman’s film about pot smoking got him the gig on Mash (he was something like 18th choice). And how, even after this point, when he was one of the big names of the early 1970s, he struggled to work because he didn’t want the back office messing with his films. “I make gloves and they sell shoes,” declares Altman.

If you’re a fan, this is must-watch stuff. If not, shouldn’t you be?

Altman – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

A Most Violent Year (Icon, cert 15)

JC Chandor has given us two marvels so far – Margin Call, an ensemble piece which made the financial crash not only sexy but also vaguely comprehensible, then All Is Lost, a 180 degree about-turn of a drama about a lone yachtsman’s in peril on the high seas.

In A Most Violent Year he reaches back a few decades ambitiously trying to invoke Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in a thriller (Lumet), set in New York (Scorsese) about a businessman about to make his dynastic (Coppola) leap.

It is all a bit self-conscious, though Chandor puts enough flare in the lens and Marvin Gaye on the soundtrack to almost convince us we’re in the 1970s.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are the Lord and Lady Macbeth (Morales, in fact) of local oil distribution, and Chandor follows them as they negotiate an extremely onerous deal on some new storage with a local Hasidic Jew, the catch in the Shylockian contract being that if Morales can’t come up with the rest of the payment, he will forfeit a deposit so huge it will destroy him. And then Chandor throws everything in the way of the Morales duo to make this eventuality increasingly likely – accounting irregularity, union trouble, rival businesses, gangsters, the law, even a wobble in the marriage.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales (that name… c’mon) as a young Pacino, Chastain goes for Jessica Lawrence in her portrayal of the brassy wife, while cinematographer Bradford Young slaps on a lot of nicotine filtration, even in his barely lit interiors.

If there were a tragic flaw in Abel Morales’s character, it might all add up to something epic. As it is, it’s all very plausible, though never entirely credible. Nice to see Albert Brooks again, though, out-acting Isaac in every scene he’s in.

A Most Violent Year – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

American Sniper (Warner, cert 15)

What with Clint Eastwood’s dead-chairing of President Obama at the Republican National Convention in 2012, a war film from him with the title of American Sniper (against the more Democrat-leaning American Gigolo, American Beauty, American Graffiti, American Psycho and American Hustle, maybe?) does look like a provocation.

In fact the film is an admirably cool and remarkably standard “war is hell” affair, Clint deciding to take the Kathryn Bigelow Hurt Locker route of loving the man but hating the conflict, or at least saying very little about it. That’s wise. After all, 50 per cent of the audience probably aren’t Republican. Factor in the demographics of moviegoers/viewers and it’s probably more than that.

So, business matters out of the way, what do we have? A rather good movie, actually, Bradley Cooper resting his smirk to play real-life hotshot Chris Kyle, the naturally gifted marksman, rodeo toughie, straightforward but not stupid all-American guy who became a crack sniper out in Iraq, where he becomes known simply as “the Legend”.

As said, the arc is surprisingly familiar, though Eastwood shows you can teach an old dog new tricks – his direction is fresh, raw, tight, often handheld, and Cooper is in a lock-step with a focused, obsessive performance as a man whose interior life is very very interior indeed.

Working against them is Jason Hall’s screenplay, which starts bright and fast but then gets repetitive as one scene about Kyle’s deteriorating mental state follows another, things coming to a bit of a sorry finish when the film seems to just stop, rather than conclude… but, hey, that’s real life, I suppose.

Round the edges there is another brilliant performance by Sienna Miller as Kyle’s increasingly desperate wife. Nice to see her back (Foxcatcher was so fleeting it barely registered).

American Sniper – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Into the Woods (Disney, cert PG)

I pause before Sondheim, because I simply don’t get him.

The words, yes, those I love – his facility with a rhyme and a rapper’s ability to swing a rhythm. But the tunes, which to me often sound as if he’s taken a song from a proper musical such as Oklahoma!, thrown away the melody and kept the counterpoint, then set another, even more distant counterpoint against that. Again and again. Running up and down a modal scale is not what I’d call a tune.

This minor impediment apart, I actually rather enjoyed Into the Woods. I think it was the performances – Meryl Streep as the witch (largely borrowed from The Wizard of Oz) instructing a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to collect talismanic items from various fairytale characters – Jack the Beanstalk’s cow, Red Riding Hood’s cape, Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella’s glass slipper – their reward being a bun in the oven for her.

The singing and acting is almost universally fine, particularly Corden and Blunt, though I could have done without the Broadway honk of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the latest dressing-up-box turn from Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf.

Director Rob Marshall (of Chicago) resists the urge to make things cinematic, doing a lot with theatrical smoke and lights, throwing the emphasis back on Sondheim’s words and melodies, which are largely winning the battle to have the fairytale cake and eat it.

Into the Woods – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2015

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