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Lady Pam De GraffEX MACHINA (2015) UK
FEATURING: Domhnall Gleeson, Corey Johnson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
TAGS: thriller, mystery, sexbot

PLOT: A naive computer programmer falls into a precarious behavioral experiment when a troubled scientist picks him to test a sophisticated android.

COMMENTS: Wow. I wasn't sure what to think going into this robot flick. I was expecting something potentially poignant -OK, make that a little saccharine, like Her (2013), in which Joaquin Phoenix's yuppie character falls in love with his Sirius-style computerized personal assistant. But it's obvious from the classy way that Ex-Machina opens that it's going to be interesting and substantial. Usually, good craftsmanship is immediately apparent and it promptly indicates that a film will provide a serious viewing experience. Ex Machina starts like this.




Granted, the movie takes some artistic license. A super-genius computer egghead probably doesn't conduct himself like a character in a Bret Easton Ellis, or Jay McInerney novel, alternately waxing philosophical and throwing-up in doorways. And a powerful android really ought to have an easily accessible ON/OFF switch, just in case... Well, just in case!



If patched however, corrections would make Ex Machina's robots and scientists story about fifteen minutes long -so we readily gloss over the discrepancies, because in the end, Ex Machina isn't really about robots and scientists at all. It's about human nature, more specifically, the damning human frailties to which we are all subject, and which we too often forget to guard against.

Ex Machina's title makes a play on words of the Latin expression, "Deus ex machina," or "God from the machine," with its roots in classical theater. Writer/Director Alex Garland's sci-fi film title means literally however, "of" or, "from the machine." There's a reason for this, and when one reaches the perturbing dénouement, a dramatic slap in the face awaits for forgetting the phrase.



In Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a high-tech code writer who takes an assignment to determine if a "female" sexbot's (Alicia Vikander) artificial intelligence operates at a human level. Which is to say, is she self-aware? Truly conscious? Or just pretending, the product of a sophisticated simulation program?




The taut setting dictates the ensuing mood of the film. The android's designer, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), flies Caleb to his alpine research facility. Part bachelor pad, part modernist bunker, everything is locked down. Once you get in, you can't get out. Caleb's access within the site is restricted to what his proximity badge authorizes. Caleb learns he's now under total surveillance -for life, starting NOW, part of his non-disclosure agreement

All of that's unsettling enough, but add to it the remoteness of the imposing high-north mountain location, and it creates an atmosphere right out of The Shining. Hemmed in by rugged peaks and intimidating backcountry, Caleb's movements are regimented by a maze of concrete corridors and sealed electronic hatchways (to what?). It's just Caleb, Nathan, an elusive assistant...and the android. The situation is uneasily reminiscent of writer/director Philip Chidel's 2006 Frankenstein update, Subject Two, in which an inscrutable researcher lures a callow medical student to his snowy mountain cabin...and unleashes hell upon him.


In fact, Nathan does project a disconcerting Dr. Frankenstein type vibe. He's wrapped too tight...perhaps a little disturbed...dangerous maybe. Nathan coerces Caleb into intellectual sparring, but heavy Nathan is way out of Caleb's weight class. One begins to suspect that Nathan has an ulterior motive, a calloused, twisted agenda. The uneasiness isn't alleviated when Caleb meets Nathan's creation, Ava. She clearly knows more than she's at liberty to tell Caleb. Nathan is always monitoring them. Except during mysterious power outages, but are these orchestrated to observe how they interact when they think no one is watching?

Ex Machina draws its psychological suspense from an undercurrent of ambiguity and the resulting tension which churns through Nathan, Caleb, and Ava. The actors are well-cast. With adept deployment of nervous facial mannerisms and awkward body language, Gleeson as Caleb, exploits his blonde, corn-fed appearance by projecting innate naiveté. Caleb is like a quivering lamb fresh for the slaughter. As Nathan, Isaac is dark, physically and brilliantly imposing. Portraying Ava, Viakander's graceful, but slightly mechanical movements and, subtle, flat expressions project a paradoxical aesthetic -at once alluring, yet uncanny. The give and take between the trio suggests trickery, cruel mind games, and potentially homicidal one-upmanship like that with Milo Tindle and Andrew Wyke in Anthony Shaffer's play, Sleuth. Who's the real subject of the behavioral experiment?

With this story set-up, the mind reels to predict in which of so many potential directions Ex Machina's plot will now race. Ex Machina hits upon the true essence of science fiction, because ideally, the genre is about ideas. So seldom do we see this fully executed. When we do, the result can be intelligent, but dryly tedious as in Shane Carruth's cerebral time machine yak-fest, Primer (2004). Too often, writing themselves into creatively destitute corners, or fearing audience boredom, sci-fi filmmakers abandon an otherwise enthralling premise and derail their effort into horror or worse, into silly action. Ex Machina's premise and backdrop are primed to render an eventually mortifying revelation about the full extent of Ava's technology, or an increasingly gripping duel of scheming and second-guessing between Nathan and Caleb.

Appallingly, Ex Machina does neither. Three fourths of the way to its climax, the whole thing seems to collapse, threatening to take a familiar angle and transform into a disappointingly trite and tired adventure vehicle.

Then Ex Machina redeems itself in spades.

For true to its fiber, Ex Machina's plot gratifyingly stays consistent after all, remaining faithful to its intertwined themes of trust, doubt, presumption, deception, misdirection, and social trompe l'oeil.   The story makes a point, a strong one about how people think, and offers a chilling lesson. It's just that you won't realize it until the film's devastating ending.




This movie can also be streamed on Amazon!

Lady Pam De Graff

THE VISIT (2015)
FEATURING: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunaganl, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger
TAGS: mystery, horror

PLOT: Two youngsters find something terribly amiss when they make a first time visit to their estranged grandparents in this Hansel and Gretel/Red Riding Hood update.

COMMENTS: An Internet search for M. Night Shyamalan invariably returns the deliberate corruption, "M. Night Shamalamadingdong," a play on words from the title of a '60's pop song parody in the 1978 comedy, Animal House. It's the humor of a cynical, jaded audience which considers itself much too hip to be taken in by the director's unconventional plots (and some say) predictable twist endings. Of the 6 horror/sci-fi films M. Night shot up to After Earth (including Devil, Lady in the Water, The Village, Signs, and Unbreakable), all are arguably flawed by logic holes, yet all are engrossing and totally watchable. There's just something about M. Night's filmmaking that pulls us in, luring us into suspending disbelief no matter how cynical and jaded, or sophisticated we think we are.


That "something" is hard to pin down. Maybe part of it has to do with Shyamalan's use of his native Philadelphia locations which offer us scenery which is visually different from tired LA settings. Or maybe it's that while Shyamalan's movies are conventionally filmed, his production technique is unique in a way which makes him seem to subtly thumb his nose at rigid Hollywood formulae.  An example of this can be found in Shyamalan's eschewance of jump scares. When a lead is creeping through the dark in a tense situation, no off-camera stagehand throws a cat at her, accompanied by a ridiculous feline shriek that no cat we know has ever uttered.

Instead, M. Night gives us red herrings, but not pointless ones. They build tension. In The Visit, teenage Becca's (Olivia DeJonge) disturbingly peculiar grandmother (Deanna Dunagan) repeatedly entices her into an oversize oven. We're sure Becca is going to be tomorrow's roast. It's an eerie point in the story about youngsters visiting the grandparent's they've never met -way, far away out in the woods. Their sprawling, rustic, wood plank farm house is right out of a Grant Wood painting, as are "Nana" and "Pop Pop" (Peter McRobbie). Simple, practical, isolated from the electronic world of mass produced culture, their agrarian lifestyle revolves around the simple things; crops, homemaking, county fairs, and farmers' markets. They seem to be from another era. Pop Pop could easily be the planter in the painting, American Gothic. The only thing he's missing is the sharp pitchfork.



Or is he? Because something's not quite right around Pop Pop's and Nana's homestead. Increasingly during Becca and younger brother Tyler's (Ed Oxenbould) visit, there's a churning undercurrent of repressed menace, which isn't helped much when the duo observes a concerned neighbor visit the farmhouse, but never sees her leave.





So it's with trepidation that we observe Nana gently coerce Becca into an oven. It's no ordinary oven. True to the colonial style New England homes which were built around a massive heat block -a cluster of oversize, back-to-back cooking fireplaces which heat the entire dwelling -Nana's oven is big. Really big. Big enough to bake a baby hippopotamus. And according to Nana, it always needs cleaning. Especially in the murky far reaches.




When Nana urges Becca to climb all the way in and "get back there, all the way back," we're just wating to hear the heavy oven door latch shut behind her with a resounding thunk. It doesn't happen the first time. But like the principle of "Chekhov's gun" (to paraphrase, "A gun introduced in the first act (of a play) must be fired in the third.") you suspect Nana is only building Becca's confidence, and Becca will soon be compelled into the oven again. What will happen next time?

Story elements like this keep us guessing. Morbidly. And that's the fun of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. There are tons of these elements and they don't all pan out, but they build tension, a lot of it. The kinds of things we imagine they will lead to are in keeping with the nature of the conundrum in which the protagonists find themselves. This isn't a gimmicky waste of our time, because M. Night's thrillers, whether they weave a sci-fi or supernatural tapestry, are at their hearts, always mysteries.

Granted, Shyamalan's scary movies aren't traditional whodunits, with strategically placed clues dotting linearly unfolding events, and laying a logical path for a sleuth to pursue. Instead, these are twisted riddles, both in sequence and essence. M. Night unveils ghastly situations to which there might be no decent boundaries. The director plunges his protagonists, and us right along with them, into enigmas of dread and terror. Those aforementioned red herrings we encounter along the way only heighten our fear and accentuate M. Night's bizarre situations. It's akin to a literary adage explained by Stephen King in his non-fiction, Danse Macabre;

"Nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door. ... You approach the door in the old, deserted house, and you hear something scratching at it. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she ... approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten- foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. 'A bug ten fee tall is pretty horrible,' the audience thinks, 'but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.'"




So while not every unsettling encounter in M. Night Shyamalan's stories is pertinent to foretelling the conclusion, they spur our grisly imaginations. M. Night confirms that this is one his cinematic goals in a recent interview about The Visit with the website, "Something that’s frightening to a viewer triggers their sense of the unknown. It could be little things… a noise in another room, even a job offer or a commitment to a relationship. All of those things can trigger an unknown fear factor." That's the key to why the filmmaker's scary movies grab our attention. When you're thrust into the middle of a mindboggler, you can't easily gauge the significance of disturbing developments. It's not until you have all the puzzle pieces that you can discard the chaff and figure out how many feet tall the bug behind the door will be. Given Shyamalan's characteristic twist endings, it may well turn out to be not a bug at all, and even if it isn't a hundred feet tall, getting to that door itself is half the terror, and half the fun.



You can also stream this movie on Amazon...HERE!

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