My time in London is now in the rearview mirror and I hope to be back there again soon. Or at least sooner than 7 years from now!
As befitting a world class cultural center, my visit allowed for taking in of two films not yet released in the USA.
The first, Ex Machina, was an excellent and positive example of mismarketing. I recall the film’s trailer promising an explosive and somewhat action packed adventure and suggesting that the movie would be a familiar “rise of the machines” type action drama.
But the real film turned out to be a surprisingly intimate and provocative drama, with a few traces of action, that asks timely questions about the nature of intelligence and humanity. While the debate between man and machine is also covered along the lines of Blade Runner or some other of its cinematic cousins, this film also adds a gendered element where the machine is considered a female, while (her) observers and makers are male. In its use of an artificial or foreign female protagonist, the film recalls last year’s Under the Skin and could be seen as a continuation of that same story.
Domnhall Gleeson stars as a young prodigy seemingly randomly picked to spend a week at the secluded lab of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who is a senior ranking member of his unnamed software and computer development company. The film drops us right in to the arrival and meeting of the minds, and wastes little time on unnecessary exposition. What follows stays in the realm of eerie plausibility as Gleeson meets Isaac’s latest artificial intelligence creation, the mysterious and inquisitive Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Ava presents as female, leading to an eventual attraction between the two characters.
Although Isaac’s role could easily descend into a Dr. Frankenstein – ish extreme, his subtle portrayal, with several modern touches, ensures that the audience continues to think of him as an equal and not maniacal player in the equation between the central trio. Sonoya Mizuno also joins the fray in a minimalistic supporting turn, with one great out of left field moment.
The film eventually forces itself into a dramatic denouement along the lines of what one might suspect as the story goes on. But it never loses its initial air of intrigue and thoughtful (and somewhat plausible) integrity.
My Rating: ***1/2
The second film, I Am Michael, has attracted modest attention in the US press, from what I have seen, and seems to be awaiting an official release date as it slowly makes the festival rounds. It features a trio of well – known actors in the leading roles, with James Franco tackling the central role – and real person – Michael Glatze, a former gay activist who dramatically renounced his homosexuality and instead turned to a life as a Christian pastor in Wyoming, complete with bible school education. Zachary Quinto costars as Glatze’s long-term partner, with Emma Roberts appearing late in the film as a woman who becomes Glatze’s heterosexual partner.
I was not familiar with Glatze’s story, which was described in a New York Times article a few years back that served as the basis for this film. At some point I learned that Glatze had spent time at a Buddhist meditation center in Colorado where I have also spent time, and I might have met him, so that curiosity drew me in to see the film.
Franco appears to renounce his recent run of comedic (self-parodying) performances, which likely reached its peak or nadir with the Christmas spectacle The Interview, in this role. Instead of a smirking and self-satisfied attempt to channel a person, I again saw a real acting performance, with close attention paid to conveying Glatze’s internal struggle of how to define himself in the world.
Though Roberts and Qunito’s screen time is limited, both actors maintain the drama of the story arc. I haven’t seen much of Roberts’ work in other films, but did feel that she was particularly successful here in playing a more adult-oriented character, also presumably based on a real person.
The Buddhist connection that made me curious about the film is given limited exploration, and features primarily in a section of the film that feels like it rushes through what happens next in Glatze’s life after he breaks from his gay lifestyle. Veteran actress Daryl Hannah, who seems to have disappeared from films in recent years, appears briefly as the mediation center’s director.
The integrity and commitment of the performers felt somewhat let down by a poorly thought out script, which drew several (presumably) unintentional laughs from the audience in response to multiple instances of cliched dialogue. It seems inevitable that biopics also devolve into a run of greatest hits of the particular person’s lives.
Nonetheless, I hope this film finds an audience when it does reach the USA, if only for a closer look at several hardworking actors and a dramatic look at sexual identity, which remains a topic that is rarely seen in mainstream cinema.
My Rating: ***