Ex Machina (2015)

★★★★ / 👍

A gorgeous display of minimalist style, and minimal substance, in a film as limited as the week-long Turing test that is the basis for its plot.

I’m an antisocial nerd over-reliant on an inflated measure of my own intellect, who dabbles in non-specific contempt for the human race. The cold and distant aspects of Kubrick or Nolan films are frequently the only things I find tolerable about them. I loved this movie, and I find that disturbing, because it has very little to say.

One difficulty in stories about AI—particularly ones based around the notion of a Turing test—is the difficulty of constructing fictional people who seem like real, baseline human beings. Garland doesn’t do this (or try to). All of the characters in Ex Machina, be they human or android, are simulacra whose moving parts and emotional subroutines are conspicuous in their operation.

The most consistent theme in Ex Machina is not the wonder of intelligence in an artificial being, but rather the limits of sapience in Homo sapiens. If the subject of Ex Machina is a Turing test, the form of Ex Machina is a reverse Turing test, in which very talented actors spend two hours trying to confuse the audience as to whether their characters are actually as stupid as they seem, or merely pretending to be so. (That the film tends to the latter more than the former doesn’t necessarily make it less tedious to watch.)

This is a remarkably well-crafted film, and I sincerely respect that. But I don’t particularly want more films like it.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

The best James Bond film since the Casino Royale reboot.

Each of the three films Christopher McQuarrie has directed has been bigger and, for better and for worse, less quirky than the last. I personally love the “slow car chase” from The Way of the Gun, but the muscle-car pursuit in Jack Reacher topped it in every way. The much more expansive (and expensive) mayhem in Rogue Nation is probably as readable and exciting as you can get without going too deeply down the latter-day Fast & Furious franchise CGI rabbit hole.

As is so often the case in this phase of his career, Cruise is most convincing here when showcasing his prowess, and least convincing when feigning vulnerability. This is actually a somewhat disappointing regression from his previous collaboration with McQuarrie as director. One of the reasons I let Jack Reacher off so lightly despite the utter miscasting was the relative novelty of seeing Cruise actually show fear during some of the more death-defying stunt work. Ethan Hunt, however, is made of sterner stuff. Like James Bond, he may falter occasionally, but in the end, he always wins. (At several points in Rogue Nation, the paeans to Cruise’s [alter] ego become so effusive that they almost feel like a sly joke, but ultimately that’s just a bit of clever misdirection.)

The film loses a bit of momentum near the end, if only because it starts out so strongly. Happily, this shift to a smaller-scale espionage thriller allows Sean Harris to retain more of his menace—and dignity—than Philip Seymour Hoffman or Michael Nyqvist were allowed to in previous installments.

Southpaw (2015)

★★½ / 👎

A boxing picture, subtype riches-to-rags-to-redemption, in which Jake Gyllenhaal overcomes enormous odds to out-mumble Forest Whitaker.

The script for Southpaw is exactly what I’d expect from Kurt Sutter: melodramatic nonsense about a testosterone-driven dude with a temper who is ultimately less interesting than every other character in the story. (Despite every other character being an underwritten cipher who exists only to serve as a foil for The Great White Dope.)

I know I’m not the first person to snicker at the idea of Gyllenhaal and McAdams as foster kids from Hell’s Kitchen, but this film’s vision of Noo Yawk owes a lot more to Leo Gorcey in Dead End than it does to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. I grew up as a poor white kid in city-owned housing in the 1980s East Village, and found these characters—my alleged contemporaries—not only ludicrous, but alien to my own experience.

Forest Whitaker uses all of his trademark twitchiness to (almost) convince you the character he’s playing is a real person instead of a particularly effective Yoda puppet. Oona Laurence gives possibly the best performance in the film as Gyllenhaal’s young daughter; she shows a fair bit of emotional range, and only falters when the script fails her. McAdams and Naomie Harris are both wasted in thankless roles, but do what they can. (So does Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, but what he can do is very, very little.)

If you want faux-erudite earnestness about overcoming impossible odds that feels like the sincere output (however misguided) of an auteur, watch Rocky Balboa or Redbelt instead. If you want to watch a movie in which a pale male underdog triumphs in a field long since overtaken by people of color, preferably while an Eminem track plays, watch 8 Mile. If you want melodrama that actually feels like it has something to say about the men who step into the ring, watch Gavin O’Connor’s vastly superior Warrior. If you need to kill two hours in a dark, air-conditioned room this summer, then okay, watch Southpaw.

Ant-Man (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

I genuinely enjoyed my time with Ant-Man more than I did my time with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yes, it’s product straight off the assembly line from Marvel Studios, but it’s better than it had to be, and much better than I expected it to be.

Rudd is charming. The humor is mostly engaging. The special effects are adequate if not spectacular. Evangeline Lilly shows just enough range here that I may finally be able to move on from how much I hated her (character) for six seasons on Lost.

The mix of caper comedy, science fiction, superhero action, and family drama is definitely awkward at times, a little too “Ocean’s Eleven meets Interstellar, but Marvel” for its own good. It feels like a film that needed a few more drafts to hide the seams of the jackalope stitched together by Adam McKay & Paul Rudd after Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish left the project.

The fairly deep references to the evolving lore of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are exciting to someone like me, who was preaching the “comic books are our Greek mythology” gospel long before I knew what words like “intertextuality” meant. It’s a pity that production circumstances have turned the Pym/Ant-Man legacy into a mere copy of the Stark/Iron Man story, right down to the Evil Bald Corporate Mad Scientist. Still, any suggestion that this universe’s history wasn’t entirely on hold while everyone waited for Cap to defrost and Tony Stark to “mature” is very welcome indeed.

Finally, I would watch the hell out of a reboot of The Streets of San Francisco starring Bobby Cannavale and Wood Harris. Your move, ABC/Disney.

Jurassic World (2015)

★★★ / 👎

Adequate programmer that didn’t particularly work for me, but was a real hit for the dozens of children in my screening, complete with laughter, screaming, and thunderous applause at the end.

The sexism angle has been talked to death, but I agree with at least some of it. Pratt’s self-described “alpha” character reacts to romantic rejection with boorishness. Realistic, but insufferable.

More disturbing is the film’s glee at combining PG-13 violence with caricatures to allow guilt-free consumption of brutality. Watching a matinee full of pre-teens cheer the deaths of Fat Guys and Snooty Authority Figures and Bad Soldiers felt exactly like sitting in a midnight screening of a slasher film, listening to an older crowd root for the death of The Slut and The Jock.

(Yeah, I know the counterpoints: identification, catharsis, exercise in empathy. Fine, whatever. I still felt the distinct sensation that I was the odd man out sitting in the middle of a pack that, however weak the individual members are, could tear me apart if it chose to, with zero weight on its collective conscience.)