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Movie reviews: Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year and The Gambler

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A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year

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A Most Violent Year

Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year and The Gambler all get the George Byrne treatment this weekend

EX MACHINA

Sci-Fi: Starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno. Directed by Alex Garland. Cert 15A

Life-long fans of science fiction know only too well that their beloved genre can sometimes get a very bad rap from those who feel it’s solely about aliens, ray guns and flying saucers. Lazy stereotyping frequently overlooks the fact that sci-fi is the perfect medium for expressing concerns and anxieties which are only too prevalent in the present day and, as such, Ex Machina is an ideal film for our times.

As a novelist Alex Garland gave us the intriguing The Beach, while in his role as a screenwriter he’s brought us 28 Days Later, Sunshine and the adaptation of Never Let Me Go. Here, on his directorial debut, it’s that last film which bears closest relation thematically to Ex Machina.

Garland’s take on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel was set in a near-future that looked very like the present day and featured children brought to adulthood in seclusion in order that their organs could be harvested by an elite class. Here we’re in a similar time setting, with the focus on the development of artificial intelligence.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a coder at a software company who’s overjoyed when he wins a competition to spend a week at the vast estate of billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the computer genius founder of the Google-like enterprise.

Whisked off to the forests of Alaska, Caleb is initially overawed to meet his employer/idol and is more than delighted to be asked to take part in what’s known as “the Turing test”, to ascertain whether an artificially-created being can truly achieve independent thought.

The being in question happens to be a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), a fibreglass creation with a beautiful female face whose very existence seems too good to be true. Her sessions with Caleb become a quirky and tangled web, with the young man gradually developing feelings for the AI creature at the same time as his suspicions grow as to Nathan’s real purpose for having him in his house, the only other occupant being oriental servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).

There are hints of last year’s fascinating Her and the classic play/movie Sleuth in Garland’s screenplay, with the viewer constantly lured into all sorts of blind alleys wondering just who’s playing who and what everyone’s motives are.

Shot relatively quickly for $10m, Ex Machina looks fabulous (take a bow, production designer Mark Digby) and moves along so deftly you’d never guess this was Garland’s first time in a director’s chair. He is helped enormously by three excellent actors giving their all in the lead roles. A thought-provoking and superbly self-contained sci-fi thriller and thoroughly recommended. ****

 

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

Drama: Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, John Procaccino, Elyes Gabe. Directed by JC Chandor. Cert 15A

Just as the wonderful Whiplash wrings terrific drama and tension from the unlikely world of jazz drumming, you’d be hard-pressed to make a pitch for a thrilling movie to be made about the cut-throat world of the domestic heating oil business, but JC Chandor has done just that with his third feature.

His 2011 debut, Margin Call, was a gripping, dialogue-heavy account of an unscrupulous financial company on the eve of the 2008 crash, and he followed that in 2013 with the equally taut All is Lost, which featured Robert Redford alone on a sinking yacht in the Pacific and had no dialogue to, ahem, speak of. Clearly, Chandor is no one-trick pony, and he proves that here with a superb morality tale that entertains and leaves the viewer with plenty to think about.

The year referred to in the title is 1981, when New York was about to go under, being practically broke and with crime at unprecedented levels. This is not the city so brilliantly eulogised by Woody Allen in Manhattan, but a dirty, dysfunctional and practically dystopian urban wasteland that any sane person would do their level best to leave ASAP. Not so Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, again), a self-made immigrant who has chosen this volatile time to expand his heating oil business.

Having hauled himself up by his bootstraps, Morales is determined to do things by the book – not exactly an easy task when corruption is endemic at every stratum of society and his rivals aren’t exactly averse to using underhand tactics to see him off. From his Brooklyn base – Manhattan itself frequently looms in the distance almost as a fabled land to be reached some day – our central character plans a major move to acquire a river-based terminal that will see him gain a big advantage over his competitors, and has set himself 30 days to finance the deal. However, when his bankers leave him dangling in the breeze, his trucks continue to be hijacked and his salespeople assaulted, it looks as if the American Dream is over for Abel.

Now, that wouldn’t make for good drama, and Morales isn’t a quitter – certainly not with his steely wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a Brooklyn crime family, by his side. The dilemma, of course, is whether he can continue to conduct business on the up-and-up and hope to win out, or does he dabble in the dark side, his wife referring on several occasions to calling on her connections to have things “dealt with”.

All of this plays out against a period-perfect backdrop, Chandor choosing to give the film a muted, almost murky look with browns and greys prominent in the colour palette. Oscar Isaac makes for a mesmerising leading man here, giving a great portrayal of a guy determined not to lose what he’s fought so hard for, while Jessica Chastain isn’t quite the Lady Macbeth character it would have been all too easy to slip in to. You definitely get the impression that her husband wouldn’t have got this far without her having his back.

There’s definitely more than a touch of the young Al Pacino about Isaac here, to the extent that at times Morales so resembled Michael Corleone in the second half of The Godfather that I began to wonder if I’d stumbled into a tribute movie. That minor quibble aside, A Most Violent Year is a confident and exceptionally intelligent film that firmly establishes JC Chandor among the higher echelons of American film-makers.

****

THE GAMBLER

Drama: Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K Williams, George Kennedy, Jessica Lange. Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Cert 15A

There may have been good reasons to remake the 1974 film starring James Caan as a literature professor with a self-destructive gambling addiction, but whatever noble intentions may have been there at the birth of this project haven’t made it to the screen.

The original had a gritty, downbeat whiff of sleaze and corruption about it, but substituting 1970s New York for present day Los Angeles removes that element at a stroke while, for all his undoubted charisma given the right roles, Mark Wahlberg simply doesn’t convince as an expert in English literature, never mind one who’s more than $250,000 in hock to various gangsters.

That said, there are some bright spots here, most notably among the supporting players, with Michael K Williams and John Goodman excellent as the gangsters Wahlberg owes and Jessica Lange giving a brief but dazzling cameo as his wealthy and exasperated mother.

Heavy-handed musical clues don’t help matters, and it’s rather odd that director Rupert Wyatt got more nuanced performances from the chimps in Rise of the Planet of the Apes than he does from his leading man here.

**


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