Domhnall Gleason

Ex Machina

06/03/17

There’s always the one that got away, isn’t there? I somehow managed to miss Ex Machina’s all-too-brief appearance on the big screen and I’ve been trying to catch up with it ever since, largely because I’d heard such good things about it. Discovering that it’s now available on Netflix was therefore great news.

Alex Garland’s 2014 movie, is a deceptively simple affair, pretty much a four-hander, laid out with cool clear linearity. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he has won the opportunity of a lifetime – to travel to the remote hi-tech hideaway of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) the CEO of the world’s biggest internet company and to spend a week with him, getting a sneak preview of his latest creation. This turns out to be Ava (Alicia Vikander) an AI, and one so convincing that Nathan challenges Caleb to apply the Turing Test to her – designed to examine a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Is she good enough to pass?

Caleb goes to work and soon establishes a powerful rapport with Ava – but, as he constantly asks himself, is she genuinely interested in him, or simply using him as a way of staying alive? Because, as Nathan makes all too clear, if she fails the test then she is destined to be replaced by a newer, better model. Nathan, meanwhile, is prone to drinking himself half to death and dancing around the apartment with his live-in housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). As the story develops it becomes apparent that nothing in this  state-of-the-art home is quite what it appears to be… and soon even Caleb is questioning his own existence.

The beauty of Ex Machina is the way in which it expertly unfolds its intriguing story, constantly pulling the rug out from under the viewer, until you don’t really know what to expect next. Vikander offers a fascinating performance in the central role, and Gleeson, Isaac and Mizono are all totally believable. If like me, you missed this film first time around, here’s your chance to catch up. It’s really rather good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Revenant

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14/01/16

This time last year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu dazzled the cinema-going public with his quirky comedy, Birdman. Now he dazzles us again, with something entirely different – a bleak, gruelling historical drama, based on a real life story, a film that pulses with bone-jarring violence offset by eerily beautiful location photography.  The Revenant looks set to dominate this year’s Oscars and it’s clearly a hard-won victory. At times, the actors look as though they’re going through as gruelling an experience as their screen counterparts. Here is the life of an 1820s fur trapper in all its grimy glory. It doesn’t look an appealing way to make a living.

The story concerns an expedition into the American wilderness in the depths of winter. Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) is the team’s scout and he’s accompanied by his mixed-race son, Hawk (Forest Goodluck). Barely ten minutes into the action, the men are attacked by Arikara warriors and only a handful of them escape with their lives. Matters aren’t helped when, shortly afterwards, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear (a prolonged scene of almost unwatchable savagery) and is left close to death. The team leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleason) decides to strike out for their home base and leaves Glass in the care of seasoned trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and callow youth Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Henry instructs Fitzgerald to give Glass a decent burial when ‘his time comes.’ But Fitzgerald is a survivalist. He murders Hawk and leaves Glass for dead, throwing him into a half dug grave and abandoning him to a slow and painful death. But Glass’s hunger for revenge somehow keeps him alive…

This is the second time the story has inspired a film. In 1971, Man In The Wilderness starring Richard Harris, used the basis of it but changed Glass’s name to Zachary Bass. Inaritu’s film actually sticks closer to the real tale and has the added advantage of Emmanuel Lubezski’s stunning cinematography, his fluid camerawork soaring and sweeping throughout the action to create an almost immersive experience. Often you’ll find yourself closer to the action than is strictly comfortable. In one scene, Glass’s breathing actually fogs the camera lens – in another, blood spatters the screen. And then there are sequences featuring Glass’s fever dreams, strange, hypnotic, almost hallucinatory. It all makes for grim but compelling viewing. Many will be repelled by the extreme violence and a scene where Glass takes refuge from the cold inside a freshly killed horse – yes, you read that right – isn’t going to sit well with any vegetarians in the audience. (Strangely, this isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem. It was an old buffalo hunter’s trick to keep warm inside the gutted carcass of a freshly killed bison. Like a fleshy electric blanket).

The Revenant is an extraordinary slice of cinema, an epic story of survival, of man against nature. If Di Caprio ends up lifting the best actor Oscar (despite speaking only a handful of lines in the entire film) I for one won’t begrudge it to him. I’d say he’s earned it, if only in the scene where he’s required to devour a live fish.

Unmissable.

5 stars

Philip Caveney