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MONKEY KINGDOM

Producer:  Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill
Director:  Mark Linfield and Alistair Fothergill
Writer:  Mark Linfield
Stars: Tina Fey
Studio: Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios 

B

Once upon a time in the Magic Kingdom, Disney made scads of nature documentaries. Some were released to theatres in the fifties, while others showed up on television as episodes of the “Wonderful World of Disney” series. The tradition went into decline with the cancellation of that show, however, and it was less than a decade ago that it was revived with Disneynature, which has annually released a theatrical film, ordinarily in connection with Earth Day. The latest is this one from writer-director Mark Linfield, which offers a tale about a clan of macaque monkeys living in the forest of Sri Lanka, near some ancient ruins.

As usual, this is not a simple documentary. It employs magnificent footage of the monkeys taken on site, but fashions it—and obviously staged scenes—into a typically anthropomorphic narrative storyline. The plot centers on Maya, a solitary female at the lowest end of the class system among the animals, who has a child by a newcomer called Kumar before he’s exiled from the group. After a time during which Maya must struggle to raise little Kip on her own, Kumar returns and is accepted by the clan’s alpha male. All finally seems happy on the outcropping of rock the monkeys call home, along with some bears, peacocks and a mongoose.

But a rival clan drives them off the rock, forcing them to flee further into the forest. At this point Maya becomes a leader, since her lowly condition had led her to forage for food much further in the past, and she helps the others avoid predators like snakes and lizards before conducting them to a human village, where they adeptly steal eggs, cakes, vegetables and other delicacies before going back to their home and, under Kumar’s leadership, retaking their rocky home. As the film ends, Maya, Kip and Kumar have won newly exalted status in the clan and all is well.

The plot centered on Maya has clearly been superimposed on footage that was collected and, in some cases (as the town sequence, or others pitting the monkeys against predators like a large lizard), carefully arranged, though even there spontaneity must have been the general rule. And much of the narrative—like the class structure in the clan—is told not so much through action as via narration delivered with deadpan panache by Tina Fey. But Maya’s character, along with those of Kumar and Kip, is fashioned adeptly by the filmmakers, and it must be said that with her mop of unruly hair, she strikes a likable, slightly mournful figure the audience can readily identify with. The story generates some suspense, but not so much as to disturb younger viewers, and even the sequences of imminent danger are handled with a light touch to avoid becoming too scary for toddlers. Of course most of the footage is devoted to monkeys acting in simian ways that will delight children, who will recognize themselves in some of the critters’ horseplay (though the moments when Kip is slapped by the elder ladies of the clan could upset some).

One might doubt the wisdom of anthropomorphizing creatures of the wild as extravagantly as “Monkey Kingdom” does, especially when the process is linked to a narrative that essentially boils down to the oppressed but courageous lower class, forced to eat mere scraps, boldly taking power from an effete, over-privileged upper crust that hogs resources for themselves. (Some conservative parents could actually be offended by the perceived political message.) One might also question whether some of the musical choices are too cutesy to have been advisable—particularly the use of the theme song from the old “Monkees” TV series to introduce things. (It increases one’s irritation that what’s played isn’t the actual theme sung by the original members of the group, but a modern effort to replicate it, none too successfully.)

Still, the lead monkeys are such an engaging trio, and the filmmakers are so successful in capturing them in vibrant images, that family audiences are will probably be charmed, if not enthralled, and are unlikely to complain overmuch over such extraneous considerations. The film may be awfully insistent in castigating the privileged position of this kingdom’s royalty, who treat their underlings with an air of utter entitlement, but it plays to what people might like to believe about how eventually innate talent and courage will inevitably rectify social injustices. In that respect “Monkey Kingdom” might be thought as much a fairy tale as most Disney animated features are.

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.