Film reviews: Ex Machina | A Most Violent Year

Sonoya Mizuno and Alicia Vikander star in a parable of feminism and female emancipation. Picture: Contributed
Sonoya Mizuno and Alicia Vikander star in a parable of feminism and female emancipation. Picture: Contributed
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Siobhan Synnot finds it’s beta the devil you know in Alex Garland’s debut, Ex Machina starring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac.

Ex Machina (15)

Director: Alex Garland

Running time: 108 minutes

Rating: * * * *

A COMPUTER that yearns to be human. A man who falls for a robot. Something may already be sparking up in your recognition chips – been there, downloaded that – but writer Alex Garland has encoded more complex circuitry into his directorial debut, Ex Machina.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer at Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine, who wins a competition to meet the company’s creative force at his retreat in Alaska. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a billionaire who designed Bluebook when he was 13. This draws admiring comparisons to Mozart. Actually, he’s more like a cross between Steve Jobs and a WWF fighter, a stocky, shaven-headed alpha male to Caleb’s more diffident beta.

Nathan lives alone, apart from a non-English-speaking maid (Sonoya Mizuno) in a sprawling complex that is part Frank Lloyd Wright, built into the mountains with spectacular views, and part windowless nuclear bunker, designed by Murano. Despite its hi-tech spec, however, the building occasionally experiences power cuts which put the whole place into lockdown so that 
no-one can get in. Or out.

The competition turns out to be a ruse: Nathan is keen to beta-test his latest project, a robot called Ava, who has realistic hands, feet and a face (Alicia Vikander). The rest of her comprises wires, metal and twinkly lights, plus a plastinated bust and bottom, and also (Nathan garrulously confirms) a fully operational synthetic vagina. But it’s her mind he wants Caleb to test, in a series of interviews that seek to identify whether she could pass as human.

Ava’s brain is made up from data drawn from all of Bluebook’s searches, which should make her an expert on porn and funny animal videos. But Caleb finds her eerily close to real too. She reads his micro-expressions, gets his jokes and calls him on logic gaps, and because she’s always learning, she’s always curious. She seems to think, and she seems to care. During the power cuts, however, which take out Nathan’s CCTV, Ava confides she is also wary of her inventor.

What follows is a three-way battle of wits that could turn into a horror story, a sermon or psychological thriller. The film touches on the fear of being superseded by technology, something that bothers Stephen Hawking, the way our internet lives can be soaked up by corporations, and of course the Alan Turing test of what counts as consciousness, but gradually the film reveals itself as a parable about feminism and female emancipation – a possible revenge of the Stepford Wives. Nathan views his robot’s sexuality as a bolt-on bit of fun. In the course of a series of one-to-one conversations, however, Caleb seems to fall in iLove. The fembot’s view is more veiled: and as Nathan points out, she is programmed to be capable of deception.

Some may regard Ex Machina as a movie cousin of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian future Black Mirror series, but Garland’s film has a mood and a mind of its own, as well as a funny, creepy, synchronised dancefloor number that Brooker might purloin if he ever makes Black Mirrorball. In any case, I loved Ex Machina as a smart, accomplished piece of work that presses all the right buttons.

General release from Friday

A Most Violent Year (15)

Rating: * * * *

WRITER-director JC Chandor makes absorbing films about people who have it all – and then start to lose it. Margin Call in 2008 circled high-flying masters of the universe on the night of the crash, Robert Redford was a seasoned and successful yachtsman In 2012’s All Is Lost, until he found his boat was fatefully holed. In A Most Violent Year, Abel (Oscar Isaac, right) is also on the brink: an ambitious businessman, he has just pulled together a go-for-broke property deal that could make him a player in the heating oil business.

However, 1981 was the most violent year in New York’s history and ripples from this crime wave threaten to beach Abel’s plans. Someone is hijacking his delivery trucks and badly beats up a driver. Abel’s house is broken into, and his brassy wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) starts to wonder if her husband is able to protect their family. Then the bank bows out of the deal, leaving Abel to scramble for a new financier, just as his lawyer (Albert Brooks) discovers Abel’s company is going to face a fraud indictment led by the District Attorney (David Oyelowo).

Shot in bitter chocolate tones, it’s all a bit Godfather, down to the softly spoken, camel-coated Abel who, like Michael Corleone in Godfather II, wants to ditch his underworld connections and be a good guy, rather than a goodfella. A Most Violent Year may lack originality but there are fine performances throughout, especially from Isaac. With two great movies this week alone, and Star Wars ahead, he seems set for a most satisfying year.

General release from Friday

The Gambler (15)

Rating: * * *

Mark Wahlberg stars in Rupert Wyatt’s slick remake about an academic up to his ears in debt to dangerous people. There’s no jackpot here: Wahlberg is horribly miscast as a novelist who lectures his students about their lack of real regard for Shakespeare by day, and compulsively gambles at night. You might believe Wahlberg as the kind of man unable to cash in and walk away when he hits a winning streak at the blackjack table, but Wahlberg teaching university students and writing seminal novels is up there with Miley Cyrus playing the head of the UN. More fundamentally, the movie has the sheen but lacks the sweat of James Toback’s original riff on Dostoevsky’s autobiographical story. Also co-stars – and wastes – Brie Larson as one of Wahlberg’s students, who looks on decoratively and tries not to roll her eyes too much.

General release from Friday

The Green Prince (15)

Rating: * * *

As the son of one of the founding members of Hamas, Mosab Hassan Yousef seemed set to inherit a leading role in the Palestinian terrorist organisation. Instead, he turned his back on his family and became a spy for the Israelis. Nadav Schirman shapes a gripping documentary, not just about Yousef’s divided loyalties, but also the close relationship that he developed with his Shin Bet handler. “We don’t talk about the fact he is a traitor,” he states baldly, when asked about their friendship. Be warned though: in 95 minutes not all your questions get answers.

Edinburgh Filmhouse, 24 and 25 January

Paper Souls (12A)

Rating: * * *

A writer of funeral eulogies gets a nudge into embracing life when a young widow asks him to write a remembrance of her husband in this French comedy. Julie Gayet and Stephane Guillon star.

Glasgow Film Theatre, until Thursday