Tag Archives: Ex Machina

The Green Knight

31 Jul

The Green Knight’: Arthurian odyssey, updated

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 29, 2021

David Lowery’s cinematic adaptation of the late 14th century Middle English chivalric romance (a poem about an odyssey, to be more precise), “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” is a hypnotic wonderment and one of the best films – if not the best – of the year so far. The cast and filmmaking are superb. “The Green Knight” is also the edgiest Medieval rendering since John Boorman’s “Excalibur” (1981) mixed arty filmmaking, sex and dark psychodrama into the cauldron of drama that is King Arthur’s court.

At one point the lady of a castle (Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina”) offers Sir Gawain (Dev Patel, “Hotel Mumbai”) a book from her vast collection and quips that sometimes she rewrites stories to make them more dramatic and relevant, if so moved. As evidenced by “The Green Knight,” Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “A Ghost Story” and “The Old Man and the Gun”) was so moved, keeping the bones from the anonymous original author but adding a few twists and fantastical flourishes that blur the lines of reality brilliantly and make us question the mind of the protagonist.

The yarn begins with a cozy gathering at the castle of the aged King Arthur (Sean Harris, perfectly delicate, yet commanding) on Christmas Day, as Gawain dreams of knightly fame yet spends most of his time hedonistically with his lover (also played by Vikander) and other “millennials” of the Middle Ages. The merriment (you’d think it would be bawdier, but this is a dour lot) is interrupted by the entity of the film’s title (played by Ralph Ineson), who makes a magnificent entry. Part tree, part man, he looks like something from the mind of Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water”) and issues a challenge to the court for a knight to strike him a blow; a year later, he gets to strike back at the Green Chapel, his place of residence some six days north. Gawain, seeing an opportunity to earn his wings, jumps at the opportunity and lops off the Green Knight’s head. Easy-peasy, right? Not so fast. The Green Knight scoops up the head and rides off laughing. “One year hence,” he shouts.

It’s a long year for Gawain, who balks on the eve of the quest. A sagely Arthur and the desire for knighthood spur him on, and much of the film is Gawain’s journey. Along the way there’s the bloody remains of battle, a puckish young lad (Barry Keoghan, so good in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), a frisky fox, giant women who look like the blown up Joi from “Blade Runner 2049” (2018) and a maiden seeking her head. The grueling sojourn reveals Gawain’s fragility both mentally and physically. He’s not a very apt adventurer, and his chivalry is tested when, starving and near collapse, he arrives at the castle of a twinkle-eyed lord (Joel Edgerton, “Loving”) and his lady (the book-offering Vikander), who welcomes Gawain in and nourishes him. The sexual tension between the three is deeper than Loch Ness, though there’s also the matter of a blindfolded old hag who looms in the corner of every frame during the chapter, ever watching and judging.

The cast is exceptional (including Kate Dickie and Sarita Choudhury as Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay, respectively), but the film is Patel’s, and he shines in the part of a man wanting much without doing. His long face and sad, soulful eyes lend to Lowery’s drab atmosphere of contrasting prosperity and fame, poverty and despair. The other stars are the cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo, the Irish landscape that poses for his lens and Daniel Hart’s attention-holding score, which turn the film into an immersive experience. The ending adheres to the poem for the most but launches into new areas – creating tendrils, if you will. The whole dreamy rendering is rooted but simultaneously airy, a lofty lore, freakishly forged by visionary filmmaking.

Outside the Wire

17 Jan

‘Outside the Wire’: If they survive their mission, do androids dream of military pensions?

By Tom MeekFriday, January 15, 2021

There’s no way drone warfare will ever be as cinematically visceral or thrilling as flesh and blood warriors going at it hand-to-hand in the trenches. Not going to happen. The Aaron Paul vehicle “Eye in the Sky” (2015), in which the “Breaking Bad” actor played a drone pilot on U.S. soil taking out baddies abroad, isn’t going to make anyone forget “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), let alone “Fury” (2014), the WWII chess game with tanks staring Brad Pitt. But what if you sent out the ’bots to settle things? Imagine BB-8 and Robocop teaming up to take out Isis insurgents, that could work, right? “Outside the Wire” pretty much weaves all the above into an antiwar anthem that’s ironically powered by some heavy-duty blam, blam, boom shoot-em-ups.

The film lands us in the near future, with much of the action taking place in the Baltic region. There’s a Cold War tang to the landscape and it feels as if all is calm in the Middle East, as if 9/11 never happened. Much of what drives the plot is heavy-handed hooey, but there are some big ideas touched upon and some great performances. First up we have Harp (Damson Idris), a U.S. drone pilot who, like Paul’s ace, sits in a high-tech shipping container somewhere in the United States as his drone surveys a hot military operation in an Eastern Bloc country. Up against the wire, Harp chooses to hit the site despite there being friendlies in the area, his thought being that it’s better to lose two and save 30. It gets him in some hot water, earning him an assignment over in said hot zone to learn what it’s like to be under fire. The troops in this near-future scape are supported by robotic units called Gumps – think of those cool Boston Dynamics creations and you’d have the right idea – but Harp’s assigned to aid a special ops mission led by Anthony Mackie’s uber intense Capt. Leo, who operates lone wolf style outside the wire.

The classified (and pat) crisis du jour is terrorist and rebel factions vying to get their hands on some nukes. The twist is that Leo’s an android. No, it’s not like finding out late that “Ash is a goddamn robot” in “Alien” (1979); it’s an early giveaway. Under his uniform Leo has the glowing blue internals that Alicia Vikander’s demurring AI had in Alex Garland’s sharp contemplation on creator and creation, “Ex Machina” (2015). Like Vikander’s android, Leo’s got a few computations going on beyond what his human handlers have given him, and on-the-job training for Harp at times calls to mind the good-cop, bad-cop hazing Denzel Washington laid down on Ethan Hawke in “Training Day” (2001).

The fun of “Outside the Wire” isn’t so much the narrative arc but the navigation of chaos – robotic, rebels and otherwise – by Harp and Leo. Leo’s physically gifted beyond human, a “Six Million Dollar Man” lite, but the film doesn’t ride that rail; he’s designed to appear human in all aspects (and feels pain). Some of the more interesting thinking points raised are Leo asking Harp why the Marines made him look as he does and not a blonde, blue-eyed QB (Do you dream of an electronic Tom Brady?), and in the occasionally abusive treatment of Gumps by their human military counterparts. Neither gets explored in any depth, but they are cause for provocative pause. The production values of “Outside the Wire” impress in scope and quality, and the combat scenes are well choreographed and orchestrated by director Mikael Håfström. In the end, the film succeeds on Mackie’s stoic magnetism and Harp’s wide-eyed vulnerability. Like the equally serviceable Netflix thriller “Extraction” (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth, “Wire” would be pure pap without its top-notch cast.

Annihilation

23 Feb

 

Thrumming, enigmatic strokes drive this riveting followup from Alex Garland, whose 2014 directorial debut, “Ex Machina” put sci-fi fans and cineastes alike on their toes. As a scribe, Garland’s penned such near-future nightmares as “28 Days Later” (2002) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010), and in all has demonstrated a keen eye for character, even as the world disintegrates around those characters. “Annihilation” is more of the same, and pulls in shards from such classic sci-fi staples as “The Thing,” “Alien,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and one or two others that shall remain nameless, because to mention them might just be a spoiler.

In “Ex Machina,” the ladies get the last laugh on the guys; here too the tale’s more about female resolve than male bravado. The five women who venture into Garland’s void exhibit plenty of steel under fire, until they start losing their minds – literally. After a brief glimmer of a meteor striking a coastal lighthouse, the film dotes on the emotional throes of a widow (Natalie Portman) struggling with accepting that her husband (Oscar Isaac), a special forces officer missing in action for a year, is likely dead, as well as the guilt of the affair he unearthed on the eve of his departure. Things feel like a dramatic downer, but one night he shows up, something of a zombie, a bit washed-out, disoriented and unable to give answers other than “I don’t know.” We’re hooked. Continue reading

Ex Machina

18 Apr

‘Ex Machina’: Put to the test, humans, A.I. fall for each other and think about escape

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The idea that machines could out-reason humans in games of manipulation, misdirection and emotional responses lies at the heart of “Ex Machina.” Movies such as “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “Chappie” have tackled similar turf, that of steel and silicon becoming aware, feeling consciousnesses, but sans the pervading danger underneath the Frankenstein motif that manifests in such futurescapes as “Terminator,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and even “Blade Runner.” The reality of “Ex Machina” hangs somewhere in the middle, and in the equation of four parties isolated in the gorgeous mountain retreat of an eccentric billionaire, it’s a man who’s the most dangerous – not because of his quest for knowledge and evolution, but because of his hubris pushing boundaries in ways that would bring a satiating smile to Nietzsche’s face.

041715i Ex MachinaNathan (Oscar Isaac), the mad scientist in question, made his nugget by inventing Blue Book, a stand-in for Google. He believes he’s created the perfect AI, so he invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) the company’s top coder, to his hillside retreat – it requires helicopter transport to get to – to see if his AI is as human as he believes it to be. The Turing test puts the AI through the loops to see if it can interact with a human seamlessly without revealing it’s a machine. Since Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a pretty face on a shapely acrylic body with a slight whirr and sleek cables and a soft blue neon glow pervading her translucent torso, any shell game is up immediately, but as Nathan tells Caleb over beers and pleas of “please call me dude,” it takes the test to another level. Just what that level is really, given the test’s foundation (a real one formed by the “Enigma” code cracker) never really materializes as Nathan continues to drink and descend into dark philosophical tirades and Caleb and Ava engage in interview sessions neatly separated by a thick wall of impenetrable glass, like a visitation at a prison.  Continue reading