Ex Machina is Stylish, Intriguing

EX MACHINA  (2015)
Directed by Alex Garland
DNA Films/A24, 108 minutes, R (language, nudity)
* * *

Alex Garland doesn't foresee a rosy future. Ex Machina marks his directorial debut, but previously he has written scripts for dystopian future films such as 28 Days Later (a killer virus), Never Let Me Go (organ harvesting from clones), and Dredd (cops with instant-sentencing powers). But then, a guy whose heroes include Wittgenstein, Ray Kurzweil, Stanley Kubrick, and post-apocalyptic video games can't really be expected to be a rosy-eyed optimist, can he?

Ex Machina derives its name from the Greek drama device deus ex machina in which gods made their appearance by being lowered onto the stage by cranes. When gods appeared, it was seldom a good thing for mere mortals. Neither was it a good thing when hubris struck, that reckoning for arrogant pride in which humans behave in ways reserved for deities. This film takes us to a not-so-distant future in which a corporate entity called Bluebook (!) has perfected data mining. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson—Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films) is doing coding for Bluebook, when his screen flashes with the exciting news that he has been chosen to spend a week with Bluebook's reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, last seen in Inside Llewyn Davis). So it's a helicopter ride deep into Norway's mountain glades to hang out with Nathan.

The character of Nathan is a mash of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Larry Page–that is, equal parts genius and sociopath. Nathan's keycard-activated/security camera-heavy compound is remote for a reason: he's a misanthrope alone in his sprawling eco-paradise except for a housekeeper/sex partner named Kyoko (Sonya Mizuno), who speaks no English. He is unsure whom (if anyone) he can trust with a big secret: his advanced experiments in AI (Artificial Intelligence). How advanced? Caleb is allegedly on site to see if his prototype, Ava (Alicia Vikander) can pass the Turing Test. Fans of Blade Runner will recognize the Turing Test as the method by which one is supposed to be able to determine if a being is an android or fully human. Nathan is so confident of his creation that only Ava's face and hands are humanoid in appearance—the rest of her comely body is a see-through frame of sensors, circuitry, and machine parts. That setup has drawn comparisons to Frankenstein, which is mostly apt, though Ava is essentially Star Trek's Mr. Data with the elusive emotion chip in place. Like Frankenstein, though, we suspect something more sinister is afoot and that hubris will rear its head.

Ex Machina is psychologically tense and stylish. It's also very claustrophobic, though, as most of it unfolds within Nathan's sterile retreat, especially its clean rooms and windowless areas. There are reasons for this that make plot sense, but we the viewers often feel as if we need some fresh air. The acting is good, though Isaac's dark side is way too obvious and Gleeson overplays the naïf role. Score two for the ladies, as both Vikander and Mizuno make the best of what they are given. The script is rather male-centric, though again there are plot reasons that make internal sense.

Ex Machina garnered decent reviews and it doubled its $15 million price tag, but it stalled as a sci-fi niche film in both the US and UK markets–perhaps because Gleeson lacks star power, or perhaps because such a film invites comparisons to the vastly superior Blade Runner or the heart-thumping action of I, Robot.  Or maybe it's because we can too easily infer where deus ex machina and hubris will take us. At heart it's about whether, metaphorically speaking, we are building a better hammer or if, literally, we are planting the seeds of human destruction. And don't we all love our little electronic buddies too much to consider the second option?   

Rob Weir


Amy: A Muddled and Manipulative Look at Amy Winehouse

AMY (2015)
Directed by Asif Kapadia
Universal Music, 128 minutes, R (language, drug use, alcoholism)
* *

Wasted life/wasted film
There’s an adage about a train wreck that goes, “It was so horrible I couldn’t stop looking.” The documentary Amy recounts the tragic train wreck life of British jazz/pop star Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). It proves the adage wrong—you stop looking when you stop caring and, for me, that happened early in a film I found dull, manipulative, and dishonest.

Winehouse is a member of the 27 Club, the musicians’ variant of the Icarus myth. Other dead-at-27 bottle rockets include: Robert Johnson, Pigpen McKernan, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain. There are also honorary members who managed to squeak past 27, like Charlie Parker (34) and Tim Buckley (28). You don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to understand why the late twenties are dangerous for celebrities; it’s the period of life when you’re supposed to fly on your own and people stop making excuses for you. In “Morning Glory,” Tim Buckley referred to fame as a “fleeting house,” and if you’re famous and still wrestling with demons as thirty approaches, there are only three possible outcomes: you get lucky and don't keel over until middle or old age (Billie Holiday, Jerry Garcia), you get sober and write a tell-all autobiography (Keith Richards, Pete Townshend), or you flame out.

Would that director Asif Kapadia acknowledge that. Can you imagine a Janis Joplin documentary that portrayed her as a shrinking violet? Her pre-death biography parallels that of Winehouse (though Joplin was smarter), yet even those devastated by Joplin’s death agree that Janis fed her demons more than she battled them. By contrast, Kapadia wants us to see Winehouse as the British Judy Garland—an innocent pushed forward too early, manipulated by others, and ignored by those who should have intervened. There’s some truth to that, but also lots of hogwash. She was 19 when she went professional, recorded her first album when she was 20, and began touring heavily at 21. That’s young, but Garland was on stage at age 2 ½ and a reluctant professional at 7. Kapadia does show Winehouse behaving badly, but the overall portrait is that she was a misunderstood naïf who was an easy mark for others.

I agree—to a point. One of the film’s strengths is its look at heartlessness inside fame’s fleeing house. The images of Winehouse disappearing amidst the glare of camera flashes wielded by stalker paparazzi are horrifying. They infer that hulkish bodyguard Andrew Morris was either totally inept or just collecting a paycheck, and we suspect the latter of Winehouse’s manager Raye Coshart and producer Salaami Remi, both of whom observed Winehouse’s descent—one literally etched in an ever-expanding array of tattoos upon her bulimic body—but were more invested in advancing her career than saving her life. The worst bastard was her father, Mitch, who busily reinvents himself whilst vicariously basking in his daughter’s instant fame.

My vote for the film’s creepiest character goes to ex-husband Blake Fielder, though his presence shows the wobbliness of the myth that Kapadia tries to build. Fielder was a horrible match for Winehouse, but she pursued him with a steely determination bordering on obsession. Like (too) many women who make foolish choices, she was attracted to the allure of Bad Boy, foolishly thought she could domesticate him, and got burnt. Then again, she wasn’t a particularly likable person herself, as her first manager and two closest childhood friends determined when they pulled back from her. They knew–as anyone who has been around an addict knows–that it’s pointless to trust a junkie and drunk. Winehouse, after all, infamously sang, “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, “No, no, no!”

If you don't get blindsided by the fame (including six Grammys in 2008), you come to see Amy Winehouse as an attitude-laden brat just a cut above the blood-sucking paparazzi and cash-cow milkers that surrounded her. At that point, the viewer experiences the ennui one might of watching a prima donna take a temper tantrum. Had I not been with others, I would have exited this dud halfway through. As it turns out, many in the theater that night (around 75) felt the same way. If you’re inclined to skip this one, here are observations that are closer to reality:

·      Winehouse was an unbelievably gifted jazz singer, but…
·      Some of her gifts were exaggerated. With just a few exceptions, she was a pretty bad songwriter in the June/spoon/moon tradition of poetry.
·      Her contributions were magnified by death. Though she won awards, she made just two albums in a career whose glory years spanned just 2004-08. By 2009, she was already spiraling downward. Her final years were marked by sparks of genius and forest fires of controversy.
·      Her death was pointless and tragic.
·      Others exploited Amy, but she was often a willing victim.

Speaking of exploitation, please note the irony of a documentary that’s a filmed in the style of the tabloid journalism we are supposed to see as having sucked out Amy’s life and soul. Kapadia’s movie is almost entirely cobbled from footage shot by paparazzi and from interviews with those we hold complicit in her demise. His film is (unintentionally) useful as a takedown of celebrity culture, but here’s the other thing about the 27 Club: there ain’t a saint among them. How do you decline membership in the Club? Contrast Amy Winehouse with Madonna and Lady Gaga, each of whom has used the Music Industry Machine on their own terms. (By the way, all three women have sung with Tony Bennett!) As for the documentary Amy, my advice for this train wreck comes courtesy of “Dixie”: look away.
Rob Weir


If The First, Why not the Second?

If we can ban these...
It's (alas!) rare these days when politicians set aside ideological differences, transgress party lines, and make moral decisions in the public interest, but one must give credit where it's due. Though Northern skeptics may scoff, it took political courage for South Carolina's Republican-saturated government to buck 154 years of inert tradition and declare the Confederate battle flag what it is: a symbol of racism, division, and white folks behaving badly. That bloody old rag is headed for Palmetto State museums—where it belongs– and it appears that even Alabama and Mississippi will soon follow suit. Dylann Roof, the little monster whose church killing spree precipitated this brush with reality, must be stewing in his racist bile as news of the anti-Confederate backlash filters into his cell.  

It is tragic that it took the loss of nine noble lives in Charleston's Emmanuel AME Church for South Carolinians to admit that the old Stars and Bars have always been nothing more than an enabler for hate–a wall behind which past monsters such as Roof hid behind whilst declaiming "Heritage! Heritage!" I would gladly re-raise that putrid banderole if it could bring back those nine lives but, like most people with a conscience and an IQ over 60, I must content myself with the small good that has come out of this enormous tragedy.

We should also consider the larger implications of the reversal we see unfurling before us. The decision to ban the Confederate battle flag from official sites is another de facto recognition that the First Amendment has limits, especially when the public good is endangered by so-called individual rights. Alarmists—or are they monsters in disguise?–are busy blaming Obama, Political Correctness, the NAACP, and wimpy pols for this alleged "shocking assault" on "freedom," but pay no attention. U.S. law has always applied a modified common-sense standard to the First Amendment. Call it the you-can't-yell-fire-in-a-crowded-theater standard, but there are lots of limits to the First Amendment:  you can't advocate lawlessness in an already-dangerous situation, commit libel or slander, distribute child pornography, plagiarize, advocate treason, spew obscenities on the airwaves, sexually harass someone, or violate community standards of decency. (Ask Janet Jackson about the last one!) Lots of communities, schools, agencies, and businesses have "fighting words" ordinances. I'd be the first to admit that some of the restrictions on free speech and expression are dodgy, but the greater point is that freedom is not a synonym for absolute liberty to do as one pleases. Insofar as the First Amendment is concerned, there are limits.

...why not ban these?
If we can limit the First Amendment, why not the Second? I am heartened by the speed in which morality trumped hatred in South Carolina. Roof's hate-filled rampage took place on June 17 and the flag left South Carolina's State House on July 9–warp speed for politics. Contrast this with what did not happen after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2013. Or after any of a number of other school shootings; for heaven's sake, American school shootings have their own Wikipedia page! In most cases, meaningful gun control laws were discussed, but dismissed with the speed of an Uzi discharging its rounds. Now consider the gut-wrenching slaughter of 16 kids and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland. Thomas Hamilton committed his heinous deed on March 13, 1996 and by February 27, 1997 two new laws were in place that effectively banned most handguns from the United Kingdom.

As in the United States, anti-gun control advocates cried that Dunblane was the action   of a single deranged individual and that collectors, hunters, sportsmen, and self-defense advocates should not be penalized for Hamilton's behavior. They lost, and guess what? Hunters still hunt and collectors still collect in the UK; they simply face restrictions on what they can legally buy and are held accountable for the ammunition they can (legally) purchase. British laws are not a panacea; they only restrict handguns and it's still possible to shoot up a school, as was tragically seen in a 2010 incident in Cumbria, England, in which rifle-wielding Derrick Bird killed 12 people before offing himself. Still, the firearm homicide rate in the U.K. is .05 per 100,00; in the U.S. it's 3.55, a level surpassed only by lawless and failed states. Nor has Britain seen increases in home invasions or attacks on unarmed citizens. Mind, this is because only some kinds of handguns were banned.

The bigger issue here is similar to that of the Confederate flag flap. If we can place restrictions on the First Amendment in the name of the public good, isn't it time to do so with the Second? As in the case of those alarmists who for years defended the Stars and Bars, legislators need to ignore shrill and selfish voices and act morally in the name of a more sane and civil society.