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EX MACHINA

Producer: Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich 
Director: Alex Garland 
Writer:  Alex Garland
Stars:  Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mitzuno, Claire Selby, Symara Templeman, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Tiffany Pisani and Lina Alminas
Studio: A24 Films

B

Thomas Berger’s final novel, “Adventures of the Artificial Woman” (2004), might serve as the basis for a sequel to writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” a coolly cerebral sci-fi tale that really isn’t all that inventive but nonetheless casts quite a spell. While Berger related in crisply humorous tones how his titular being fared in the outside world, bypassing her origin pretty quickly, Garland’s focus is precisely on her creation and the intellectual and practical ramifications that the emergence of artificial intelligence necessarily involves.

The audience surrogate—after a fashion—in Garland’s script is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at Bluebook, described as the world’s largest Internet search engine (happily not called Bloogle here). He’s announced as the winner of a contest to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive company head who invented Bluebook’s code while still a teen, at the boss’ huge Alaskan estate. When Caleb arrives at the isolated retreat, however, he’s told by Nathan—a heavy-drinking, bearded fellow who’s alternately friendly and brusque—that he’s been chosen for a specific purpose: to conduct a “Turing test” on Nathan’s greatest project—Ava (Alicia Vikander)—to determine whether she (or it) is demonstrably the world’s first android capable of both learning and feeling—of behavior, in other words, that would be considered indistinguishable from that of a human being.

In the hands of the CGI artists supervised by Andrew Whitehurst, Ava is truly a visual marvel—with a face covered with a wonderfully expressive skin-like substance but otherwise (except for feet and hands) a glistening robot with flashing lights within a metallic skeleton. Caleb’s job is to enter into conversation with her, separated by a glass wall, and through the discussions appraise the success of Nathan’s godlike experiment. The script is divided into his seven “sessions” with Ava, conducted as Nathan watches through his ever-present monitoring system.

But there’s an anomaly in the procedure—periodic interruptions of power at the facility that even Nathan can’t explain. Ava takes advantage of them to whisper warnings to Caleb about Nathan’s trustworthiness, and concerns about her own fate if she fails the test: she plants seeds of doubt in Caleb, exacerbated by Nathan’s increasingly volatile and unpredictable mood swings. The poor fellow even questions which of them is actually being tested, leading him to take a razor blade to his own arm to prove that he’s not a machine, and to explore the off-limits areas of the place to find out what Nathan is hiding. The only other resident, Nathan’s mute Japanese companion Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), with whom—as one startling sequence demonstrates—he can spontaneously boogie with abandon, becomes part of the puzzle as well, particularly in the narrative’s concluding twist.

Truth to tell, while Garland, production designer Mark Digby, cinematographer Rob Hardy, editor Mark Day and set decorator Michelle Day work skillfully together to create a world of stark futuristic sterility and an atmosphere of understated tension, “Ex Machina” isn’t doing anything terribly new. Basically it’s a modernized version of the Frankenstein story, with a mad scientist creating a living entity he can’t ultimately control, accompanied by questions regarding robotics and artificial intelligence that have been raised repeatedly in movies from “Metropolis” to “Demon Seed” to “Blade Runner” to “A.I.” to “I, Robot” to “Her” to “Lucy.” Of course each link in this chain can add technological advancements the earlier ones lacked to the narrative, and “Ex Machina” does so; but those are basically cosmetic alterations to what a fairly preordained plot.

The film is, however, made more than watchable (if not truly thought-provoking) not only by its look but by its cast, especially Isaac and Vikander. As Nathan, the chameleon actor resembles a cross between Zachary Quinto and Mark Ruffalo, a bearded, bearlike man far different from the stereotype of the geeky tech genius that Jesse Eisenberg, for example, captured so crisply in “The Social Network.” But he projects the supreme arrogance and confidence of such a Silicon Valley master of the universe, an air of cocky omnipotence characteristic of a man who believes himself totally in control. He provides the spark that the wordy script (made no less verbose by Garland’s very deliberate pacing) desperately needs. Vikander has far less opportunity for flamboyance, but her precise work is physically impressive, and she certainly proves an alluring presence even when mostly obscured by CGI overlapping. Though Gleeson has the thankless responsibility of playing a slightly dense fellow at a loss about whom to believe, he captures Caleb’s desperate desire to do the right thing with an appropriately awkward mien.
Mizuno makes a strong impression as well, positively oozing mystery.

“Ex Machina” could have used more of the humor that Berger found in his tale of an artificial woman—except for some welcome moments when Nathan cuts loose, it takes itself very seriously indeed. But its eerily subdued approach works sufficiently to make it, if not a sci-fi classic, a more than respectable addition to a fairly crowded genre.

TRUE STORY

Producer: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Anthony Katagas 
Director:  Rupert Goold
Writer:  Rupert Goold and David Kajganich
Stars:  Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol and Ethan Suplee
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures 

B-

Two damaged men forge an unlikely—and for at least one clearly unhealthy—relationship in “True Story,” a fact-based but slow-paced legal thriller notable more for its cast than its narrative momentum. This first feature film from noted British theatre director Rupert Goold develops a somberly creepy mood while showcasing performances from James Franco and Jonah Hill that are remarkable for their restraint, but the tale of a disgraced journalist and an accused murderer carries little of the emotional wallop of the similar tale told by Bennett Miller in “Capote.” It’s intriguing rather than shattering.

Hill plays Mike Finkel, an ambitious young writer for the New York Times who’s fired in 2001 after his bosses discover that he’d created a composite character for a Sunday magazine article on the African slave trade. Professionally disgraced, he retreats to the remote Montana home he shares with wife Jill (Felicity Jones), a rare book librarian. Unable to interest anyone in his story ideas, he becomes depressed until a caller asks for his reaction to the fact that Christian Longo, an Oregon man accused of killing his wife and three children, had been using his name while on the lam in Mexico.

Smelling a possible irresistible story as well as a way to redeem himself, Mike approaches the incarcerated Longo for a talk that quickly morphs into a deal: Longo will give him an exclusive if he’ll agree to withhold publication until after the trial—and help him improve his own writing. Before long Finkel’s made a deal for a book that, he expects, will prove the innocence of a man universally reviled for killing his family.

Although the outcome of Longo’s trial is a matter of public record, the movie—adapted by Goold and David Kajganich from Finkel’s memoir—teases viewers with doubts about his guilt, putting them into the same position Finkel was in as he was talking to the man. Much of the running-time is devoted to one-on-one dialogues between the two, which might have had a deadening effect were the choices that he, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and editors Christopher Tellefsen and Nicolas de Toth not so canny and the performances by Franco and Hill not so quietly telling. To be sure, the periodic insertion of flashbacks to Longo’s family life and the killings is merely intrusive rather than unsettling, and the concentration on Finkel and Longo throws all other characters into the shadow. (Jones, for example, is given a few thankless scenes earlier on and one confrontation with Longo toward the close, but Jill is a fairly thin role for a recent Oscar nominee.)

The other major problem with “True Story” is, of course, that while it’s the story of two damaged men, the level of their alleged wrongdoing is vastly different. A journalistic crime like fudging the facts in a story for narrative effect is a significant lapse, but it’s hardly on a par with murdering four people. And while his memoir was a blatant attempt to reclaim some of his professional status—in effect, an apologia—the film needn’t have gone quite so far in that same direction. Finkel suffers so much here—and not just from the asthmatic attacks that crop up with predictable regularity—that his struggles take on an almost operatic air. You have to wonder whether Finkel is worthy of such treatment.

Happily, Hill’s understatement in the role lessens the heavy-handedness, and Franco’s equal degree of restraint keeps Longo from degenerating into a smarmy manipulator until the story demands it. (He could have played to the rafters in the scene in which he testifies on his own behalf, but wisely holds back, even though the “tells” in what he says are a mite obvious as written.) It’s refreshing to learn that both men, whose turns in comedies have throw the slightest hint of subtlety to the winds, still retain the facility to act.

“True Story” also benefits from the locations—the wind-swept Oregon coasts, the snow-packed Montana wilderness—that Takayanagi lingers on lovingly—and from Jeremy Hindle’s elegantly-appointed production design, Deborah Jensen’s attractive art direction, and David Schlesinger’s spot-on set decoration. Marco Beltrami’s atmospheric score—a far cry from the bombast he’s served up so often in the past—is another plus.

One of the truths about “True Story” is that, on screen as well as the page, it can come across as too much special pleading on behalf of Finkel, a man who will still strike many as a man sorrier for getting caught than for what he did. Just as it doesn’t match “Capote” in terms of the relationship that develops between accused and reporter, it fails to equal “Shattered Glass” in terms of its treatment of journalistic malfeasance. But on a less exalted level, it remains a two-hander that raises interesting questions about truth, guilt and redemption, even if it doesn’t handle them as incisively as it might have done.