Review – Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Directed and written by: Alex Garland
Produced by: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Academy Awards: Best Visual Effects

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

 

Hollywood has been making films about robots for a long time. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, robots were portrayed as evil, as something to be feared. As our understanding of robots increased over time, films like Star Wars (1977) showed them more as helpful companions to humans, and they were often used for comic relief. Now that we are well into the 21st century, and robots have only become more advanced and commonplace in the world, where does that leave us? Many people have expressed their concern involving the role of robots in society – in particular artificial intelligence. Because of this, the film industry has reverted back to it’s portrayal of robots being a threat, playing on people’s fears that they will eventually take over our society.

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Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland. Our main character is Caleb Smith (Gleeson), a young programmer who works for the company BlueBook, the world’s most popular search engine. He wins a competition to spend a week with the CEO of the company, Nathan Bateman (Isaac). Caleb is flown out to his remote estate, and as soon as we are introduced to Nathan we can see a stark contrast between the two characters. Caleb fits the classic stereotype of a nerdy programmer, he is skinny and shy, somewhat awkward. Nathan however is attractive and charismatic, he seems very sure of himself. At the start, he is welcoming to Caleb, treating him like an old friend rather than one of his employees. However as the film’s plot progresses, we soon see a rapid change in Nathan’s behaviours and personality.

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After signing a non-disclosure agreement, Nathan informs Caleb that he has created a robot named Ava who has artificial intelligence, and he has brought him to his estate to perform the Turing Test on him – in other words, if Caleb can believe that Ava is capable of forming her own emotions and thoughts, and if he can form a connection with her despite knowing she is a machine. The only other person living in Nathan’s home is Kyoko (Mizuno), a servant who Nathan claims does not speak any English. The acting really is one of the best parts of Ex Machina – Oscar Isaac is great in his role as an antagonist, and Sonoya Mizuno puts in an amazing performance for a character who has no spoken lines.

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Caleb has a session with Ava every day – the seven days format is one example of the theme of religious imagery in the film (a reference to God taking seven days to create the world). At several points, Nathan is compared to a God, as he has created Ava. Ex Machina also has parallels to Frankenstein because of this, in that it follows the story of a man driven to insanity by his own creation once he realises what it is capable of. A close relationship quickly develops between Caleb and Ava and she begins to flirt with him, but Caleb is unsure if she has been programmed to do this or if she really is capable of having feelings for him. She also tells him not to trust Nathan. This leaves Caleb with the dilemma of who to believe – while most people would not trust a robot over a human, Nathan has started to show worrying behaviours such as angry outbursts and heavy drinking.

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Caleb comes across some disturbing footage of Nathan interacting with other robots he had created in the past, and learns that he plans to upgrade Ava, essentially killing her. Kyoko reveals that she is also an android, and Caleb becomes paranoid that he is a robot himself, cutting open his arm in a scene that feels very reminiscent of Blade Runner. Although they definitely have their differences, I do think that you would enjoy Ex Machina if you are a fan of Blade Runner. This series of events leads Caleb to put his trust into Ava, and they plan to escape that night.

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When Ava escapes from her room, Nathan attempts to stop her and a struggle ensues which leaves Nathan and Kyoko dead. Ava takes skin, hair and clothes from Nathan’s previous android models to give her the appearance of a human female. She then leaves the house, ignoring Caleb’s screams for help as he is locked in Nathan’s room, and boarding the helicopter that has arrived to take Caleb home. The ending leaves the viewer with a lot of questions on their mind, and also shows that Ava has passed the Turing Test. Throughout the film we are lead to believe that Ava truly is capable of human feelings and consciousness, but as Nathan says towards the end of the film, she was programmed to use Caleb as a means of escape, and now that she is able to do this he is no longer any use to her. My only criticism on the ending is that I feel the last few minutes were unneccessary, and would have been more effective if it had ended at the point where Ava gets into the elevator and leaves Caleb behind.

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When watching Ex Machina, it’s quite clear to see Alex Garland has been influenced by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Aside from the obvious similarities to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with a plot featuring artificial intelligence, Ex Machina also has that feel of isolation and descent into madness shown in The Shining (1980). Both films take place in large homes in a remote area, cut off from the rest of society. The shots of nature in Ex Machina show a contrast between the advanced technology that is taking place within the house, and the simplicity and stillness of the outside world. When you watch The Shining, you can tell from early on in the film that something is not quite right, although you can’t put your finger on what it is straight away. Ex Machina has this same effect. The cinematography is fantastic, the film is beautifully shot, but also very simple, not over the top or flashy like so many of those in the sci-fi genre. The score also plays a vital part in adding to the creepy, uncomfortable atmosphere that runs throughout the entire film. Although it is not a horror film, I felt quite unnerved at several points while watching it. The use of red lighting in the power cut scenes was particularly unsettling, and the idea that this could someday become a reality is what makes it somewhat scary. We know that zombies or vampires or werewolves aren’t real – but AI robots are, and with technology becoming more and more advanced every day, it’s difficult to predict where it will go next.

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Ex Machina opens up a number of discussions about artificial intelligence and technology in general – are robots really capable of independent thought and feelings? Should we be concerned about them becoming more intelligent, are they a threat to our society? A film doesn’t have to make you think or question things to be good, but it’s always interesting when it does, and Ex Machina is a great example of this.

 

Overall, I would give this film an 8.5 out of 10.

 

Review – Charade (1963)

Charade (1963)

Starring: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Directed and produced by: Stanley Donen
Screenplay by: Peter Stone

Charade is interesting to look at in terms of film history because it shows the transition from the Golden Age of Hollywood to New Hollywood. It was released in 1963, a kind of awkward in between period where films were beginning to drift away from the Classic Hollywood formula and were less strict about following the Hays code. Three years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho, which may seem tame by today’s standards, but shocked viewers in 1960 with its depictions of sexuality and violence.

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Funnily enough, many people think that Charade is a Hitchcock film, when in reality it was directed by Stanley Donen – most well known for famous musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain and Funny Face. It does share many similarities with a lot of Hitchcock films – you can see why people would assume a spy thriller starring Cary Grant with untrustworthy characters and witty, suggestive dialogue would be a Hitchcock picture. Because of this, it is often referred to as ‘the greatest Hitchcock film Hitchcock never directed.’

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The film starts with Regina Lampert (Hepburn) on a skiing holiday, telling her friend Sylvie that she plans to divorce her husband. We are also introduced to Peter Joshua (Grant), when he and Regina have a short but flirtatious conversation. Regina returns to her home in Paris and is told the news that her husband has been murdered. She begins to realise that her husband was not who he said he was, and that she is being threatened by three men who believes she has $250,000 that her late husband owes the US government. Regina is soon visited by Peter Joshua, the man she met while on holiday. He offers to help her and protect her from the three men that are threatening her. But Peter isn’t exactly who he says he is either, and the film takes us through a series of twists and turns that keeps you on edge wondering whose side he is really on.

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Charade definitely has a distinct style and very true sixties feel to it. When most people think of Audrey Hepburn, they probably remember her black Givenchy dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or her classic blouse and skirt combo in Roman Holiday, but her clothes and makeup in this film are worth noting too. They show how her style developed as she grew older, as well as how trends were changing in general with the rise of the sixties mod style and the shift away from the ultra feminine, more conservative looks that were popular in the 1950’s.

Audrey Hepburn, Charade (1963) starring Cary Grant

Although he was almost sixty years old when filming Charade, Cary Grant is just as charming and good-looking as he was when he was younger. Despite their large age gap, the two actors have fantastic chemistry and make a gorgeous on screen couple. Their romance is an important part of the plot, but it isn’t overbearing – there are no prolonged declarations of love or cheesy romantic lines to make you roll your eyes. Regina and Peter are fun and lighthearted, they tease each other, but you can also tell they care for one another.

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Charade is a fast-paced mix of comedy and suspense, with wonderful performances from two classic, well-loved actors. If you would like to watch the film, it is in the public domain and therefore available to watch free of charge on the Internet Archive.

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Overall, I would rate this film an 8/10.

My Top Five Best Picture Winners

Since the very first Oscars ceremony in 1929, the Academy Award for Best Picture has been one of the most sought after awards in the film industry. While there have been numerous controversies surrounding the award – from certain genres and foreign language films being underrepresented, to the mix-up earlier this year with Faye Dunaway announcing the wrong nominee as the winner – there are many Best Picture winners that are for sure worth a watch. These are my personal Top 5 Best Picture winners.

1. Rebecca (1940)

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The only Hitchcock directed film to ever win Best Picture, Rebecca is a thriller/mystery based on the classic novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Joan Fontaine plays a young, shy woman who falls for the charms of the wealthy and charismatic widow, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) after meeting him in Monte Carlo. They quickly marry and move to his estate, Manderley, back in England. Joan Fontaine’s character – who is known only as ‘the second Mrs de Winter’ struggles to settle into life in her new home, which is filled with constant reminders and possessions of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. The film follows the second Mrs de Winter’s desperate attempt to fill Rebecca’s place as she deals with the coldness she receives from the Manderley staff, and comes to terms with the fact that Maxim is still in love with his first wife.
This was the first film that Alfred Hitchcock made in the United States, after a long and already successful career in Britain. You can definitely see differences between Rebecca compared to his British productions, and it is interesting to see the true classic Hitchcock formula begin to develop. It was also produced by the legendary David O. Selznick – they later went on to work on Spellbound and The Paradine Case together.
I love the way we are unaware of the second Mrs de Winter’s first name, as well as never seeing Rebecca on screen, only hearing of her. This gives the viewer a sense of feeling lost and confused, much as Joan Fontaine’s character feels for a majority of the film. Rebecca has all the elements of classic suspense and twists and turns that you would expect from a Hitchcock picture, keeping you guessing and not knowing who to trust until the very end.

2. The Godfather (1972) and the Godfather Part II (1974)

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I want both of these to be on the list, but I feel like they don’t need separate posts so I’m sort of cheating and putting them both into one point. The Godfather and it’s sequel, which tell the story of the fictional crime family the Corleones, are widely regarded as some of the best films of all time, and probably the first thing that come to mind for a lot of people when they hear the word ‘classic’.
The Godfather focuses on Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), showing his hesitance to take over his father’s role as a powerful mafia boss and his complicated relationships with both his family members and his girlfriend Kaye (Diane Keaton). Al Pacino’s acting is subtle yet brilliant, compared to his overacting in some of his later films. It also features an iconic performance by Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, who famously rejected his Best Actor award for this film, as a protest against the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood.
The Godfather Part II is one of the rare sequels which I prefer to the first film, and was the first sequel to ever win the Best Picture award. The plot continues the story of Michael Corleone, who has adjusted to life as Don of the mafia. It also gives us insight to the back story of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) and his rise to power. The combination of the two plots is very effective and growth of the characters and the comparison between father and son.
Both pictures are directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and in my opinion they are some of the few films that could truly be rated 10/10. Everything from the acting, to the score, to the cinematography, to the screenplay is practically perfect, and although these are long films (over three hours long each), every minute counts and comes together to produce two truly flawless films.

3. All About Eve (1950)

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All About Eve has a fairly simple plot, and is very character driven. Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a Broadway actress whose life starts to take a turn for the worse when she becomes acquainted with Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve is a young woman who is a fan of Margo, and becomes her understudy. Margo soon starts to suspect that Eve is trying to steal her career and interfere with her relationships, but Eve plays the innocent, adoring young fan so well that Margo’s friend Karen assures her she is just being paranoid. Another Best Picture that keeps the viewers guessing – is Eve truly innocent, or does she really have an ulterior motive to insinuating herself into Margo’s life?
Bette Davis is fantastic in dramatic roles, and All About Eve is no exception. George Sanders and Celeste Holm give great supporting performances, and we also see an early appearance from Marilyn Monroe in one of her first major film roles.
The film shows a reality that is still very relevant to today’s entertainment industry – that holding onto your career can be difficult for aging women, as there will always be someone prettier, younger and just as talented as you to take your place.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

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Only three films have ever won all five of the major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress) – It Happened One Night, The Silence of the Lambs, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While I enjoy all of these films, I do think that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the most deserving of all five awards.
The film is set in a mental institution and features one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances, playing the main character Randle McMurphy, who has been transferred to the institution from prison. This is another film which puts a focus on the characters and their stories. We meet many interesting characters in the institution, in particular Chief – a Native American patient who everyone believes is deaf and mute, but later develops a sort of friendship with McMurphy. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an odd mix of humour and heart-wrenching moments, but it works perfectly. Although McMurphy is clearly not a good person, it is quite easy to sympathise with him and some of his actions.
Louise Fletcher gives an incredible performance as Nurse Ratched – acting is more than just reading lines from a script, and she is a perfect example of this. Nurse Ratched consistently appears on lists of the greatest film villains. While a lot of villains are outright insane and prone to emotional outbursts, Nurse Ratched is cold, calculating and always in control. Fletcher’s portrayal is definitely one of the highlights of this film.

5. Casablanca (1942)

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Casablanca is universally loved for a reason. You don’t have to be a fan of romance to enjoy this – though it is a romantic drama, it isn’t over the top and is also a story of loneliness, heartache and sacrifice. Set during World War II, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a cynical, guarded man who owns a nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco. Many of his patrons are refugees who are looking to travel to the United States, which has still remained neutral at this time during the war. Rick’s ex lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) makes an appearance at his club, and we are shown their story through a series of flashbacks. It is clear that they are still in love, and we see the heartbreak they have both suffered when they were forced to be seperated.
I think a lot of the time when a person is used to modern films, they watch a classic and find it cliché, without realising that the film itself is why those clichés exist. Casablanca definitely fits into this category, and when you watch it for the first time you will recognise a large amount of quotes and references from other media that you maybe didn’t even know the original source of.
An impressive amount of character development fits into the 102 minute run time, showing how Rick’s past has turned him into such a jaded person, as well as Isla’s struggle to make a decision between staying in Casablanca with Rick, or leaving for America with her new husband. The screenplay is beautifully written, and Bogart and Bergman have great on screen chemistry.