“Ex Machina” & “Transcendence”

I keep waiting for Mary Doria Russell’s novel “The Sparrow”,my favorite sci-if book, to be filmed. A Jesuit in another dimension is a convention of the genre,as are meditations of what it means to be human. I adored Spike Jonze’s “Her” ( reviewed February 10th),so I had to see Johnny Depp in “Transcendence”,another foray into hybrids. “Transcendence” held my interest,though a few slow scenes could have been deleted.

Rebecca Hall was grand as the possible new Eve,Evelyn. Paul Bethany and Depp were convincing and evolving.Depp is Dr. Will Castor whose wife Evelyn and best friend Max support his Artificial Intelligence research. Dr. Will Castor is killed by an anti-tech terrorist and Evelyn uploads Will’s consciousness. Here his consciousness madly develops and tries to be the All-powerful. The World Wide Web was to make the world smaller,but paradoxically without it the world becomes smaller and still, the product of one man’s ego.Power and control themes end in a ridiculous fake sunflower cameoing. Still among the blinding white images there are topics to discuss. This is Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. “Transcendence” was written by Jack Paglen.

Much more artistic is the new film “Ex Machina”. Here Alex Garland, talented British author of “The Beach”, makes his film directing debut. “The Beach” dealt with an utopian society in Southeast Asia. Here, he mines the creating of synthetic beings with gel-like fluid brains and crystal,fiber optic, spider-like ganglion so that these wire and mesh forms create their own synaptic consciousness.

Named after Wittgenstein’s “Blue Book”,our genius’s company has provided him with the means to purchase the most beautiful and isolated setting known to cinema. Filmed in  Valldalen, Norway, the interspersing of nature’s forests,waterfalls, graphite-like mountains and the modern glass bunker-like lodge and research center (Juvet Landscape Hotel,actually) is one of the keys to this film’s success. The fog over mountain symbolism mirrors the trust issues in the storyline. The birdsong and babbling brook ground us. Technology’s power is somehow balanced in this natural setting which few have seen in this primordial form. What sentient being would wish to leave? Two hours of helicopter flying does not cover our scientist’s estate. Without any story at all, this scenery is worth your movie ticket! But there is a story and big questions about Artificial Intelligence and the furthering of evolution.

And there is the amazing Oscar Isaac! He commands the screen. Here, as bearded and head-shaven Nathan Bateman,he explains how he gave sexuality to his synthetic women. ” She can have sex and she will enjoy it.” He later admits to the “prize winning” 26 year old programmer,Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) that he fashioned his AI’s features from an amalgam of porn star sites Caleb visited. Controlling,intense,art-and-music-loving,Nathan can drink,dance and use “fuck” like most millennials as a groovy adjective ad infinidum. “I want to share it with you. I want to share it so much it is eating me up inside.” This sounds honest in Isaac’s mouth. The potential for danger is set.

The film is also divided into numbered sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander),who is both vulnerable and wire-shiningly sophisticated and evolving. As AI,she has us asking “Who is the smartest?””Who is the most moral?” ,while Nathan asks Caleb if he can tell he is interacting with a machine. After session # 7 “fucking unreal” becomes an ironic understatement.

The score composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is atmospheric, and the the violence heart-stopping in its slow motion. Ava triggers power outages, and Nathan detoxes on brown rice and mineral water. Caleb steals Nathan’s key card as he is passed out on the couch, and Caleb thinks he has taken charge. Directives like “Please approach”,”Face the screen” , and “You may now enter” no longer apply. Caleb,the human component, is now trapped and his facile words are useless. The AI is head-turningly free to “break the ice” on any city intersection in the world. Ava has used empathy and emotional intelligence to con the good kid. Has the analytical won out? Is what makes us human to be our downfall? This film is unnerving and destined to become a classic,both in content and design.

“Danny Collins”

What an incredibly well-acted “slice of life” drama awaits in the film “Danny Collins”! Al Pacino’s charm and depth captivated me. I was ready for a has-been debauched old stoner, not for a self-deprecating and self-reflective “heart-of-golder”. Pacino is marvelous. He makes you care about him because of his flaws, not despite of them.

The storyline is all too familiar. A talented young lyricist’s earnestness gives way to selling out for fame and remuneration. Major mistakes are made and regret takes hold. Pacino’s Danny knows that fame and money open doors,but it is not enough. The way these advantages are used is central to underscoring his self-distain.”I haven’t written a song in thirty years. I was the real thing once. I gave up. I’m broken.” He is worldly tired of people’s response to his fame.  Yet, Pacino plays Danny as personable and playful,rather than depressive. His funny “I like your lawn” brings laughs, but somehow he seems genuine.He has the performer’s need to please.Drugs are the aged rock star’s crutch. We just put up with his unbuttoned shirt,neck scarf and chest hair. Forget the dye,drink and polish.

Supporting cast members are flawless,too. Christopher Plummer,as manager Frank,doubles as savvy friend and wise sage. Annette Bening is so real in her print blouses and patter that you appreciate how she can keep in character and not outshine the lead because we know she is capable! Her Mary Sinclair is solid and honest,and yet surprised by how smitten she is with Danny’s attention. Jennifer Garner is fresh and different as daughter-in-law Samantha, a role that could have been easy to schlep through. Her facial control and line delivery near perfect. “Shame on you,you missed out on the perfect daughter-in-law” was understated,but heartfelt.Bobby Cannavale has the hardest part. He makes sick, angry and appreciative meld with exasperated, scared and nurturing. He has so many emotions to portray that the viewer’s own rise and fall at roller coaster speed. If the above is not a call to view this movie on the big screen, consider the best performance ever by a first-grader in need of an IEP (Independent Educational Plan).Giselle Eisenberg’s energy exhausts you,but keeps you smiling long after she exits the screen. As the symbolically named “Hope”,I found her spontaneous,and well ~amazing. The backyard- kiddy- pool scene is evocative of every postage-stamp-backyard family. Her answering the front door is adorable and singing “itsey-bitsey spider” and repeating her father’s slow nose-breathing poem will melt every grandparents’heart.

In fact,this film is scene driven often with two people in dialogue. No fancy camera work or scenery, here. The final setting in a doctor’s examination room is a stunner. Down to the tap on the door, we are there director-Dan Fogelman-style.

While the symbolism is a tad overdone,that framed prized letter from John Lennon unites Danny’s progression from awed-desire to letting-it-go gift-giving. Be prepared for good dialogue and snappy humor. “Hey,Sylvia Plath”, “gumming licorice for two hours”, and “that’s fucked-up in a lot of ways” and “wear a shirt with some buttons”,”sweet and weird like I like them” all resonate in a long,but smart script.

The Beatle’s lyrics “love is real” and “Love is wanting to be loved” and Danny’s “Autumn leaves do fall” work as layers on a theme. “I’m walking blind on this road in search of higher ground.Don’t look back,don’t look down” does not seem coying. It fits like the bag of bagels.Danny’s huge tour bus pulling away from a residential New Jersey curb tears off tree limbs and leaves a great frame of Tom Donnelly (Cannavale) amidst twenty bags of Toys R Us detritus. As a sub-theme states “Only you can corrupt your art”. This is a chord this film does not play as Pacino lets go of his past and “lives for today”. A tad schmaltzy,but an actor’s must see.

“Woman In Gold”

Helen Mirren does a mean glance and a meaner stare. Both show up many times in the much-advertised “Woman In Gold”. When her young attorney,the son of a friend exclaimed that an event happened a half century ago,she eyes him incredulously and questions, “You think that is a long time?” We are drawn in with her demeanor and her carriage of a life having been lived. The remainder of the film bravely intertwines her past with the future.

This is a story of survivor’s guilt,art and music’s evocations,and Austria’s soul. Based on the true story of Maria Altmann, niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer the subject of Klimt’s portrait “Lady In Gold”, and of her dogged attorney ,  E. Randolph Schoenberg ( grandson of the Vienese composer, Arnold Schoenberg), who sacrificed family and job to pay homage to his ancestry.The past asking sacrifice of the present is a central theme.

Reasons to see this film besides learning about art restitution laws and adding to the genre of “less we forget” pieces would be the cast. Ryan Reynolds is so believable as he passionately prepares and delivers his Supreme Court remarks:” She came to America for peace. Let us give her justice,too.” We root for this man who began for money and finished for heart and justice. The “can of worms” imagery will delight any litigator, by the way. Katie Holmes is sweet, supportive and savvy.Helen Mirren funny and heartrendingly responsible. Her “I left them there” will bring tears to your eyes.

The music and lyrics “Mary, don’t you weep no more”  is just perfect as Maria faces her ghosts. The screenplay written by Alexi Kaye Campbell  is rife with understatement. Mirren delivers “The postcard doesn’t do her justice” and “I wish they would have accepted him (Hitler) to the art academy” with aplomb. Explaining the stacks of boxes in one room after her sister Louisa’s death, Mirren smiles and says “my sister moved in with me when she died.”

Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele introduces the film. We watch him as he prepares a section of the gold leaf to embellish his canvas.I thought this was an ingenious way to showcase the care and preparation required to produce this masterwork. Later, I considered the attorney’s verbal preparation and brief a masterwork,too. Back and forth, our understanding comes from Maria’s memories: her wedding, her aunt’s tutelage, and the most realistic foot chase scene as Nazi police try to stop Maria and her husband from fleeing Vienna.

The scenes of 1940 Vienna are extreme. Maria’s father’s cello playing,her husband’s operatic serenade, and then the humiliation of Jews made to scrub the pavement with acid, and the jack-booting Nazi parades. After 1998, a different kind of patriotism is called for, and the investigative reporter who aids their cause in Austria tries to make up for the sins of his Nazi father and his Fatherland. Again,the past is asking for something of the present lest we forget. See this film directed by Simon Curtis  and remember anew.

“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

On occasion when I am not particularly looking forward to a sequel,I will let a few weeks pass and let others see it first. I remember enjoying the 2012 “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel For The Elderly and The Beautiful” all the while knowing that the film was capitalizing on my age group and beyond. The characters were well drawn and the pace was delightful in its introductions and comminglings. Friends varied in their feelings for “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” 2015. Three friends raved ,two did not like it and one actually reviewed it with a theater worker’s comment, “a Marvel action film for senior citizens”. I saw it with my husband this afternoon because I had to see for myself,and it was a rainy Monday. We both felt the sequel fell short of our low expectations.

Three years is a long time to remember the circumstances of all the varied players.I can’t imagine seeing the sequel without having seen the original. I will flatly state don’t try it. You are immediately thrown into a California scene where Maggie Smith and Dev Patel are in a convertible driving down Route 66. They magically end up in San Diego, not in L.A. The fast-talking Sonny (Dev Patel) is seeking financing for his second hotel. We guess that Muriel Donlevy (Maggie Smith) is brought along for her “economy of expression”. We later learn her part in the second enterprise is more critically important.

After suffering through some weak lines about weak tea,we are back in India at the local ex-pat. club learning that the boarders all have part-time jobs be it watering down the wine,guiding tours badly,or buying pashminas and fabric for a retail company. The hotel is home of the “happy hunters”, many looking for sex and companionship. Madge(Celia Imrie)has one of the worst lines. On seeing Guy Chambers (Richard Gere)register, she yelps “Lordy,Lordy, have mercy on my ovaries”.

Other banalities ensue. “It takes teamwork to make a dream work” and “We can still shake it,you know”. “Good things don’t come on their own,one must make them.” “Water doesn’t flow until you turn on the tap” and “No one is checking out until the ultimate ‘check-out'” are bromides less than wise.Snarky comments like,”what a busy little pensioner bee” and questions like,”When was your last check-up?” are the funniest.

There are too many mini-vignettes to enumerate besides a major engagement party and a wedding. Instead of the end of things and the beginning of things, we see a continuation of the same misunderstandings and befuddlements. Should we have more respect for our elders? Well, if they deserve it. Too many of this lot are still into scheming,bartering,cheating and insinuating. Don’t expect much wisdom here. These guys are still trying to figure life out, but for one exception. The wisest,Muriel, (Maggie Smith) gets the voice overs and the right to call Sonny a self-pitying mess-up.

I loved the dancing and the Indian music and ambiance. Tina Desai was beautiful as Sunaina,the bride. I hated the “novelist” hoax with the weakest lines I have ever heard Richard Gere deliver.Dev Patel reminded my husband and me of Ray Romano in his goofiness. I missed Tom Wilkerson and thought Bill Nighy and Judi Dench mis-matched. Whether the “Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is “franchised or foot-noted” better not be up to me for director John Madden’s sake.

“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”

If you demand physical movement in your movies,this rabbinical court drama is not for you. If you find amusement in farce and affirmation in how sad women’s lot is in much of the world see “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”. You will leave the theater frustrated,but enlightened.

In traditional Jewish law, a woman can not initiate a divorce. A “gett” is a divorce  document ( a cutting of the scroll) ,and it can only be given by the husband and processed by a court of rabbis.  For Orthodox Jews in Israel, there are no civil divorces ,or for that matter, civil marriages. This fact was new to me,but the fact that women are controlled by men in much of the world was not.

Headshots and confined rooms in colorless frames draw our attention to the dialogue and the silences. We learn that a woman of 45,married for twenty years and separated for three seeks a divorce. She is the mother of four grown children,and she supports herself as a hairdresser. Her husband refuses her divorce request,and her attorney attempts to help gain her one. Her freedom is all consuming, and she is patient ~ unnervingly so.

There is no adultery or physical violence,yet Viviane’s unhappiness is visceral. Her simple statements “He hates me” and “I want my divorce” and “Give me my freedom” highlight a complex masking of pain.We learn an interesting fact. Viviane’s mother-in-law has lived with Elisha and her for the twenty years they have been married. Her “I’m not going back” will remind literary types of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”.

Ronit Elkabetz is the co-writer,co-director and the star,Viviane. Her sister Shlomi co-wrote and co-directed.They have a message to send the world:Many women are not in control of their lives. Viviane’s visage will stay with you as she subtilely  shows her suffering and her passion and her disdain. She is never resigned to her husband’s “no”. Elisha,her husband, will not speak to her. He stalls and ignores summons after summons. There can be no hearing without him,and he knows he has the upper hand. He states that he will not come to court until  Viviane comes home.

The judge played by Eli Gornstein firmly reiterates that he must have grounds. The witnesses bring humor and the premise that truth is in the telling. Viviane’s oldest brother champions her husband,”when he sings,the birds stop and listen”. “Women need boundaries.” He then proudly states that his sister has raised their children “to the glory of Israel.”Viviane’s sister-in-law is called next to bear witness. She hysterically states that she would like to share Viviane’s fate even though ” a divorced woman in Israel eats shit.” Viviane can not control her giggles at this vitriolic display of female bonding.

Five years pass and we still only see them at the table. Besides witnesses being called and family members attesting and judges dismissing themselves, humiliation and honor get further confused. There are rumors at the synagogue! Interrogations and questions reveal a little of everyone’s life. Respect is bandied about,but hard won. In the end,Viviane walks the straight and narrow still,and we ask ourselves why.

There are rules to be followed and bargains to be made in this tightly-honed art piece. From bare legs and painted toes to forgotten skull caps,power bristles. The attorney Carmel (Menashe Noy) does his best as his client seethes in silence and his own honor is put to question.”She does not love or respect you. Grant her a divorce and free yourself,too.”

I must remark that I liked the symbolic divorce ritual shown. I found it moving and compelling. This,too, was new to me and another example of how fine film can bring the foreign near. I longed for this untying of the knot,far superior to our hand-delivered court summons or decree. The husband places the gett,or divorce papers in his hands and with his soon to be ex’s arms parallel to the floor, he drops the paper into her open palms. He recites “you are hereby permitted to be with any man”. The problem with this admittedly dictatorial decree is that Elisha has made Viviane promise celibacy prior to his giving permission! “No one after you.” The shutting door opens a host of questions for me. Highly recommended for the serious film-goer. It will become a classic. Please add your commentary on the film. There is so much that I left out.

“Cinderella”

On occasion who doesn’t need a little romance and the re-instilling of the importance of the magical attributes of kindness,imagination and courage?! How fitting then that at “Cinderella” ‘s  heart this is the “KIC” one gets right to the vein: kindness,imagination and courage. Kenneth Branaugh directs this classic fairy tale with perfect underdog spirit and a new bit of backstory. Mother love is championed and skullduggery still loses out.

First,see this Disney movie for the cast and the costuming. Then see it for the transformations and re-transformations of pumpkin,carriage and entourage. And finally, see “Cinderella” for glorious horseback and waltz scenes. Lily James is enrapturing.

Cate Blanchette,always pose-worthy in her hautiness,shows just a glimmer of agape’ grace and self-reflection. Helena Bonham Carter begins in Tim-Burton-fashion with serious aplomb,her macabre originality now legendary. Add the male cast,all besotted and love-stirred,and enjoy how pheromones fly.

Satiny mustard citrons and emerald greens for Cate, pinks and oranges for two step-sisters and the most dazzling corn-flower blue for Lily all add to a visual delight. The designs will take your breathe away,just like it did Cinderella’s when the Prince placed his hand on her waist. I loved all the embellishment except for the glitter,but then, as my friend reminded me,I was not deemed the target audience. I just got a “KIC” out of the screenplay written be Chris Weitz and the costumes of Sandy Powell. Oh,and the maxim: “schemers beware” provides social uplift for those who don’t believe in love at first sight.

‘ 71

War through the eyes of a new British recruit has never looked more out of control. While in conventional war no matter how much one trains, one is never prepared for the happenstance of hellish circumstance. At least,  the enemy is known. Spies and counterspies  are not on the battlefield. In Northern Ireland in 1971 this is not the case. With the Irish “Troubles” as the backdrop,  loyalty and discipline contort and reassemble again and again. Stunned and fear-filled,the lost and left Gary Hooper (Jack O’Connell) shows us what we ask of our trained soldiers. This is a new recruit’s story. This time there is no survivor’s guilt. Conversely, children taking part and dying is  ’71 ‘s central motif.

The film begins in darkness. No images divert our attention from the sound of punches being thrown. Then the film explodes with UK lads boxing, and then running through a beautiful countryside,then crawling commando-style through rocky streams and glorious bubbling creek beds. There are culverts to be tunneled and constant teamwork. Platoon rifle practice,barrack and crested beret displays are all shown in silence. The entrance of dialogue comes in the emergency orders for in country deployment to Belfast, and Hooper consoling his pre-teen son with “I’ll be back soon”. War experience will deliver a changed father and a changed film-goer, I suspect.

Mothers lose control of their sons in this war. They collaborate,steal firearms, throw bricks  and are primed to kill. Like in the Middle East and in Africa, child soldiers burn our sensibilities. When a fourteen year old named Sean is coaxed with “Come on,Sean, don’t think about it. Pull the trigger. We are at war here. I know you can. Pull the trigger.”,we wince.

There are impossible sets of loyalties. There are opportunists,infiltrated police,and “wee man” children whom filmgoers will never forget. One ballsy-talking eight year old swallows beer when Hooper is too traumatized to do so. Resigned his high voice proclaims “the IRA bastards killed my Dad; they are going to kill us all.” War in this child’s eyes is a game of division,the good is divided from the bad.

The music of Darren Holmes is its own dialogue in a film that has little. His strumming beat of anticipation never leaves us. The tension and fury of The Flats, the IRA stronghold is head-splitting with protesters banging trash can lids. Music is in riot overload, and it pushes out of control. As one character calls it: “David Bowie is for girls.” Women often try to subdue the men’s warrior passions in this film. They seem to breathe grief.

What viewers get in this directorial debut of Yann De Mange are opportunities to live the war in Belfast,Ireland. I can’t remember a film where I felt so in the midst of pushing, spitting and brick throwing riots. The hand-held camera makes the jostling visceral. When gun shots, flames and bombs surround our protagonist, we have inhabited the scene. This is unlike the war films “Unbroken” and “American Sniper” where we are watchers. Here we are made to feel like we are limping through hazy alleyways searching for a safe place to catch our breath.

The sepia dream-like sequence is especially backlit beautifully. Accolades from film festivals in Berlin, Toronto, and New York attest to this immediacy of event. The Sundance Festival noted its pacifist promise. No matter where your allegiance, the fog of street war looks untenable, undisciplined and crazy. This film says no more than that, but it says it memorably.