Ex Machina (2015)

Somewhere between M.C. Escher sketches and Stanley Kubrick nightmares lies the contemporary classic sci-fi Ex Machina.

Caleb, a young programmer at a Google/Apple-esque tech powerhouse, is recruited by its CEO Nathan on a special assignment. He is flown by helicoptor to Nathan’s secluded home, a sleek labyrinth of glass and stone, to perform the Turing Test on Nathan’s new Artificial Intelligence creation: Ava. In a series of sessions, Caleb meets with Ava, a robot with a lean, white female appearance, to test whether she passes the test for Artificial Intelligence and thinking for “herself.” These discussions are recorded on video, and Caleb checks in regularly with Nathan to fill him in on his progress.

What Caleb doesn’t share is when the power goes out and the cameras cease to function, or so he is told by Nathan and later Ava. The Ava under surveillance of her creator is calm and complacent, while the off-camera Ava flirts with Caleb and warns him that Nathan is not to be trusted.

Ex Machina is a spellbinding power play not only between these three figures, but between the film and us, the audience. The three main players are never fully honest with each other, and we the audience feel somewhat in the dark on the action before us.

For some movies, this disconnect can seem frustrating, but for Ex Machina it becomes all the more thrilling. There is an exciting irony in a story concerning emotional manipulation between man and robot, told through a medium of fake, recorded images manipulating our senses. We fall for this story, as we do any piece of fiction, just as the characters fall for the others’ emotional trickery.

This film contains echoes of Kubrick in visual style and foreboding intensity, but Ex Machina‘s nomination for Best Original Screenplay is a highly deserved one. There isn’t really a film like this, and it was so exhilarating to watch a movie unfold and you have no idea where it’s going. I’m confident a second visit to Ex Machina will uncover even more layers than I’ve written here, but this initial viewing was a terrific experience with one of the most surprising and truly spellbinding thrillers I’ve seen in recent memory.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

The seventh episode of the monumental Star Wars saga opens just like every Star Wars should. The iconic print logo and opening fanfare. The introductory prologue written in yellow. A wide shot revealing an ominous spacecraft.

Followed by a cut to the interior of a rattling space pod, overhead light flickering on the helmets of stormtroopers about to invade. As traditionally as this film begins, it suddenly jumps and disorients us within a dark, confined space.

The Force Awakens is a brilliantly constructed and spectacularly told film. It manages to both give audiences what they want, while subverting action film norms through its consistently surprising narrative. The tropes of action films are often mocked, and almost always dismantled, by the charming relationship between the sharp, powerful, self-sufficient heroine Rey and the occasionally old-fashioned-minded Finn.

Not that you can blame him – Finn is a product of the First Order, a neo-fascist return to the days of the Galactic Empire. He knows only the world he was taught, and his antiquated attitudes are a product of the only life he knows. There is even a metafictional irony in this, as Finn is one of few black heroes in any blockbuster film – he himself is an anti-traditional male lead (another trend this film will hopefully dismantle).

They join forces (along with some other familiar faces) against Kylo Ren, the terrifying new villain played to chilling perfection by Adam Driver. While it’s hard to imagine anyone filling Darth Vader’s shoes, Kylo Ren seems to come as close as you can get.

[Semi-Spoiler] And the best part is, we’re deeply invested in these characters and the story by the time familiar faces arrive. This is a terrific decision by the filmmakers, to allow us time to get to know the new stars, who will hopefully carry this new trilogy, before bringing back iconic figures from the originals. [End Semi-Spoiler.]

I had the opportunity to see this on its debut Thursday night, with a terrific audience: applauding as each new character is introduced on-screen, cheering in key moments (like the first lightsaber “unsheathing”), and gasping at plot surprises (there are plenty). I didn’t get to watch the original Star Wars back in May 1977, but seeing The Force Awakens on opening night sure feels like the next-best thing.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

My experience watching the Coen Brothers’ musical Inside Llewyn Davis ranged from sheer magic to frustrating bleakness and back again. Its circular nature makes me curious to revisit, though my initial viewing left me less floored than I had been about halfway through.

The first half, the film’s strongest act, is a masterful recreation of the folk scene of 1960s New York. Beautifully shot imagery, of muted colors and deep shadows, paired with very strong music, evoke a time and place many of us will only dream of. Of course the reality of the situation, particularly that of struggling guitarist Llewyn Davis, is anything but a dream, as he crashes couch to couch, heckles other folk performers, and gets girls into jams.

Not that Inside Llewyn Davis is some romanticized take on this era; the East Side was undoubtedly full of Llewyn Davises, doing their rounds in artistic circles for a shot at a hit and finally striking it big. But seeing Llewyn in his element, facing the struggles that surely rings true for others in that time, is where this film really hits its stride.

Where it falls off is through a very long detour to Chicago and back; while plot elements are revealed, Llewyn doesn’t seem to evolve much from this experience, making the 20-30 minute stretch of the movie seem less than necessary. Particularly as he returns to New York, finding himself back in the same situations as where he started, his character arc isn’t quite as satisfying as perhaps intended.

I could be completely off – the point may be that Llewyn is so numb to the rejection and failure, he’s past the point of epiphany and growth, and the narrative succeeds in this plateau of maturity. From my perspective however, the film did not seem to go much of anywhere.

Not that it really needed to, either; the setting and exposition were constructed beautifully. I liked the vision of 1960s New York and wanted to see that better established. From the initial glimpses into the folk subculture, I began to expect an alternate version of Robert Altman’s Nashville but about another time and place in American music (which would be terrific – I’d want to see that movie).

It also must be said that Oscar Isaac’s performance as the titular Llewyn Davis is remarkable. I hadn’t seen him in anything playing more than a small supporting role, so to set him center stage, and have him sing, showcases his abilities wonderfully. From this movie alone, he is absolutely a talent to keep an eye out for.

There’s a lot to like about Inside Llewyn Davis; despite its murky middle, the story is bookended by a strong, fully believable view of 1960s New York, supported by a solid, starmaking performance by Mr. Isaac.