(On Cable TV, July 2016) “Slightly less dull than I expected” isn’t exactly the kind of blurb that’s reprinted on DVD boxes, but that’s probably the nicest thing I have to say about Brooklyn. The story of an Irish girl who comes to America to find love and fortune, then returns home and is confronted with either staying or leaving, Brooklyn is thoroughly familiar material, albeit executed with some degree of competence. There’s a decent amount of wistfulness to the protagonist’s final realization that she has grown up, and the production values of the film are high enough to convincingly plunge us into 1950s New York and Ireland. Saoirse Ronan is very good as the protagonist, with Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson playing romantic foils. What Brooklyn doesn’t have (nor may need) is energy, originality or even sustained wit: it seems perfectly content playing things safe, with polished but forgettable dialogue, scenes and emotional stakes. It does aspire to be the kind of movie that your grandmother will find “nice”, so I suppose that there’s no real reason to begrudge its success if it manages exactly that. At another time in cinema’s history, Brooklyn would have been a significant studio release, a star vehicle, a popular film and a critical hit. In today’s blockbuster driven environment, it’s merely a good solid independent film that got some critical attention. No shame, no shame. Plus, it is indeed slightly less dull than I expected.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) Many recent science-fiction movies are probing the uncomfortable notion of humans being replaced by their creations, but few have the nerve to do so as deviously as Ex Machina does. At first, it seems like a familiar kind of film: A young man is brought in to a remote location to administer a Turing Test to a freshly-developed Artificial Intelligence. What could go wrong? Oh, we know the answer to that question. But Ex Machina goes there through unexpected paths: It stacks the deck against its lovelorn examiners by featuring a robot optimized for sex-appeal, bypassing higher cognitive functions by going straight for base instincts. (Much as I loathe to admit any robosexual fetishes to the world at large, Alicia Vikander is here far more attractive as a visibly artificial character than when she dons a dress and wig to pass as human.) Oscar Isaac turns in another terrific performance as a mad genius combining technical skills with in-your-face arrogance. (The dance sequence alone is instantly memorable) Domhnall Gleeson is just as effective as the audience stand-in, a young man who doesn’t even realise the extent to which he’s being manipulated. But the mastermind here is writer/director Alex Garland, who direct a great first film from his own tight and mean script. There’s a deceptive simplicity to Ex Machina’s surface that hides a lot of philosophical allusions, well-explored ideas and contemporary fears. The result maximizes its secluded location and small cast to present a great science-fiction film, unnerving from beginning to end and very successful in what it manages to achieve. It’s a surprisingly raw treatment for a cerebral subject, and it’s a sure-footed modern classic about a well-worn SF trope.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) On one hand, this is a terrible science-fiction film. On the other hand, this is an excellent science-fiction film. Those aren’t necessarily contradictions, if you accept that SF is at its best when it aims to illuminate facets of humanity and if you accept that genre SF has evolved to be as self-consistent as possible. Written and directed by Richard Curtis, a talented artist with no background in genre SF, About Time firmly belongs to the naïve school of SF that believes that the worst logical flaws are irrelevant as long as viewers are moved by the emotional consequences of the science-fictional device. And on that point, About Time is quite successful: While its time-traveling device isn’t much more that fuzzy wish-fulfilment (go in a closet, close your fists and wish really hard) with no consistent set of rules save for those that can be ignored by dramatic impact, the film does manage to poke at some of life’s biggest emotional dilemmas in a way that feels relatively fresh. It helps, of course, that it’s part of the gentle British rom-com tradition: Domhnall Gleeson makes for an affable romantic hero, whereas Bill Nighy steals every scene as an amiable man who has figured out much of his life. The film is a bit of a slow burn, starting in firmly comic territory before going into heavier themes. Sure, it’s frustrating that the rules of the premise don’t seem to hold together, or that lies seem built-in most of the protagonist’s relationships. But the film itself is pure charm, and such likability goes a long way in leaving viewers with a big smile and a bit of a heartache.