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.

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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.

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.

Danny Collins (2015)

★★★ / 👍

In synopsis, Danny Collins sounds like it could go very wrong indeed. It’s basically a small-scale version of Crazy Heart, built around a legendarily larger-than-life actor (who can’t actually sing), playing a version of himself struggling with irrelevance and late-career regret. Despite the potential for disaster, I enjoyed this film far more than I expected to.

There’s no doubt this is Pacino’s movie—and the best performance I’ve seen him give in well over a decade—but it’s much more of an ensemble cast than the one-man show (or Pacino/Bening two-hander) I’d assumed it would be. Bobby Cannavale in particular is interesting enough to make me idly wonder what the film would have looked like if it had been built around him, with Pacino in the supporting role. Likewise, I thought Jennifer Garner did better work in her first scene here than in the entirety of Dallas Buyers Club, but that may be a matter of the aforementioned low expectations (and my general indifference to Garner).

The script isn’t nearly as sentimental as I’d feared, which is a big plus, particularly given how frequently the film’s overall approach crosses over from straightforward to on-the-nose. (The constant John Lennon tracks are more distracting than illuminating.) I never really believed the “patter” between Pacino and Bening, but I wanted to, and with a movie like this that surely has to count for something.

Run All Night (2015)

★★★ / 👍

Run All Night (2015) poster

Taken meets A Walk Among The Tombstones, by way of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Often generic, sometimes absurd, and occasionally aggressively stupid, but still enjoyable. (It probably helps that I’ve avoided most of Neeson’s post-Taken output, so the formula isn’t stale for me yet.)

Unlike, say, some of Denzel Washington’s entries in the Tough Old Guy genre—and I presume most of the Neeson flicks I’ve skipped—Neeson’s character isn’t quite an unstoppable badass here, just a guy with greater-than-expected stamina who’s had lots of practice shooting people. He’s less a force of nature plowing through obstacles, and more of a survivor type who has long since pissed away most of his reasons to keep living, but whaddaya gonna do.

The number of great character actors turning in solid performances in tiny roles in this dopey little genre film—some of them single-scene cameos—puts even John Wick to shame. The action choreography emphatically does not, although it’s mostly pretty good until (as so often in these sorts of films) the final action set-piece just goes on too long to maintain tension.

The major reason I saw this movie theatrically is that it features two actors I really wish were already much bigger stars than they are: Joel Kinnaman and Common. Alas, both display the talent and charisma their earlier roles have showcased, but neither actor has much new material to work with here. At this point Kinnaman can do Working-Class Man With Ambition And A Chip On His Shoulder in his sleep. A few scenes in Run All Night made me idly wonder if Kinnaman would be a better Agent 47 than Rupert Friend—the trailer for the second Hitman movie was attached to this one—but I wouldn’t really want his career to go in that direction. Common actually does play a professional hitman in this film, and acquits himself as well as possible, considering the script requires him to engage in fisticuffs with a man decades older than himself, and to consistently display worse marksmanship than your average Star Wars Stormtrooper.

Birdman (2014)

★★★ / 👍

Birdman (2014) poster

You know, I’m a total sucker for this sort of thing. I prefer Opening Night to A Woman Under The Influence, Brewster McCloud to Nashville, and even Friz Freleng’s “Show Biz Bugs” to Chuck Jones’ “Duck Amuck.” I liked much of Birdman, and think that it’s more self-aware than a lot of people acknowledge. But even I wouldn’t have given it four Oscars. (Or at least, not the ones it received.)