Saturday, November 7, 2015

Movie Reviews: Ex Machina, Welcome to Collinwood

Ex Machina
directed by Alex Garland
This futuristic science fiction film was very well grounded in both the science and the moral questions that scientific advances raise. Unlike many speculative fiction stories Ex Machina was relatively quiet and didn't spend a lot of time invoking violence or showing off special effects. When it did get to those filmic aspects the movie was that much more impressive for doing so at its own leisurely pace. So if you're looking for something with a tremendous amount of nudity or stylized violence this is simply not that film. That stuff is there but only briefly. Long portions of this film are just two people talking. And talking some more. In many aspects this film reminded me of Splice. It also had some very obvious ancestors in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep/Bladerunner and Pgymalion. There might even be a few feminist or depending on how you look at it anti-feminist themes which are explored. Where does our morality come from? Well everyone has different ideas about that based on their religion or lack thereof, internal ethics and philosophy and culture. But most people would agree that the arc of history in what is called the West at least, has generally seen moral considerations extended to more and more out-groups. Or to put it another way, our sense of who deserves moral treatment, who is us, in other words becomes more sensitive over time. Race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion and sexuality are all important identifiers but with few exceptions most people today agree that those should not impact our moral relation to each other. That doesn't necessarily mean we pretend they don't exist, although there's obvious disagreement on that front. No, all that means is that you can no longer openly treat someone as less than or commit crimes against them and be blissfully untroubled by your actions because of their difference. Obviously not everyone has gotten the memo on this but many people at least give lip service to this idea. And that is quite different from the moral standards of say a century ago or even fifty years ago.

For many people this moral consideration in its strongest form stops at humanity. Despite the often hidden ugliness of killing animals for food or clothing or sport, most humans are not in favor of stopping this. And even those who are in favor of such limitations can be discomfited by the moral comparison of a cattle slaughterhouse or animal medical laboratory to a human slave plantation or concentration camp. Most of us still believe that there is some important difference between humans and everything else. We think that there is something special about us. Perhaps that is the soul? Maybe is it self-consciousness or the ability to create art and language or understand abstract ideas. Ex Machina challenges the viewer to define and understand what makes us human. It doesn't tell the viewer though. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a relatively low level programmer/analyst for Bluebook. Bluebook is a titanic company which among other things runs the world's preeminent search engine. No one is sure just what they are doing with all that data. Smith wins an internal company competition and is chosen to spend a week at the CEO's home. The CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), is a certified genius and cutting edge talent in the field of artificial intelligence. As it turns out he has a plan for Caleb. Nathan has in secret (that whole genius thing again) created a humanoid appearing artificial intelligence. Being a man, he has given this AI female appearance and what he believes are female instincts and nature. He wants Caleb to interact with this AI, named Ava (Alica Vikander) and report back to him if Caleb can believe the AI is human, despite already knowing that it's (or is it she's) not. It's an experiment you see.
This kicks off a series of conversations between Caleb and Ava and between Caleb and Nathan. You could say that Nathan and Ava are each trying to seduce Caleb to their way of thinking. Of course it's arguable as to whether Ava actually has a way of thinking as she is Nathan's creation. But is she his creation as a car is a designer's creation or is she his creation the way a daughter is a father's "creation"? Those are very different concepts with extremely different moral requirements. You own a car. You can never own a child. Caleb is also hindered by the unfortunate fact of being physically and emotionally attracted to Ava. Although Ava's obviously a machine she also has exaggerated feminine characteristics which are suspiciously close to Caleb's internal ideal. Of course being attracted to a machine is problematic for other reasons but that's enough plot description I think. This is a very cold looking movie but that visual style works for the subject matter. Nathan is a cold person who's not fond of outside contact. There are some hidden and not so hidden Freudian motifs. Let's be clear. This is a movie based on ideas and talking and less so on physical conflict and special effects. It will make you think about what it means to be human and how we treat each other. There may or may not be an obvious bad guy in this film. Whether you think there is or not once again depends on how you define and experience your own humanity. Are you able to be described completely by a series of electrical impulses programmed by another human being? Where does your circle of moral inclusiveness stop?

Welcome to Collinwood
directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
This is another favorite older film which bears rewatching every so often. It didn't make very much money. In fact I think it bombed at the box office, despite having a cast of hot names and well known character actors who would only become even better known later in life. This film is worlds apart from the Russos' later work like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's a remake of an Italian comedy Unknown Persons.  I like intimate films like this that aren't afraid to show everyday people doing small time things. Although almost everyone in this film can at best be described as a loser I would argue that the film doesn't just laugh at them. It's laughing with them just as much. There are a few scenes which do fall flat however. Collinwood is a working class neighborhood in Cleveland (the Russos' home town) which during most of the post-WWII era was home to a mix of European immigrants and Black and White migrants from the South, all drawn to the heavy industry work available. When the work dried up the area declined. This film is set in the time of that decline. No one has any money. Even the criminals are hard up for cash. These aren't quite hoodlums with hearts of gold but they are by no means mad dog killers. They're working stiffs looking for the big score just as surely as the working suckers lining up to buy lottery tickets. And just like their non-criminal counterparts, the chances of these guys landing the big fish, perfect crime or in their patois, the "Bellini", are slim to none. But a man's gotta try doesn't he?
Local thief, con artist and loud stick up man Cosimo (Luis Guzman) gets busted for auto theft. While in prison he talks to an older con doing a life bid. The older man wistfully tells Cosimo of the Bellini he could never pull off: the burglary of a jewelry store with bad security. Excited, Cosimo tells his girlfriend Rosalind (Patricia Clarkson) that she needs to find him a sap or "Mulinksi" who will confess to Cosimo's crime in exchange for payment, thus freeing Cosimo to pursue this Bellini. She also needs to put together a crew to assist Cosimo once he's out. But it's Cleveland so pickings are slim. For the sap Rosalind picks Pero (Sam Rockwell) a boxer whose incompetence is only matched by his swagger. And the crew she gathers includes Leon (Isaiah Washington), a well dressed and soft spoken man who's dangerously protective of his younger sister (Gabrielle Union), Riley (William H. Macy) a low voiced thug whose desire to throw a beating to someone is frustratingly modulated by the fact that he has to give constant care to his newborn (his wife is in jail), and Basil (Andrew Davoli) who basically defines cluelessness. Pero may look like a sap. He makes many mistakes throughout this story. But he's cagey enough to pull a double cross and try to go after the heist without Cosimo. The crew seeks help from arrogant self-proclaimed burglary expert Jerzy (George Clooney) while trying to avoid the suspicions of Detective Babbitch (David Warshofsky). Jennifer Esposito shows up as a love interest. Michael Jeter is Cosimo's original partner in crime who suffers from some divided loyalties and severe lack of brain power.

The film veers back and forth between more subtle comedy and out and out slapstick. You may find this uneven. There's some shameless mugging, particularly by Clooney, Jeter and Macy. Rockwell plays it mostly straight if only because his character is too dumb to know how dumb he truly is. Actually you could probably write that about a lot of the people in this film. But there is tenderness as well, both from a hidden romance and Riley's desperate quest to make enough money to pay for his wife's bail. He loves his wife and wants her out. This movie runs just under 90 minutes. If you enjoy heist films or comedies that are somewhat offbeat then this movie might be worth your time. These guys are NOT professionals, and some of them know it.
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