FlixChatter Review: Ex Machina

ExMachinaPosterThere have been a plethora of films about man and machine or man vs machine in Hollywood. From cult classics like Blade Runner, Terminator to most recent ones like Robot & Frank, Chappie, etc., clearly not all are created equal. I’d say that this Alex Garland‘s original story has some striking similarities to the 2013 tiny-budgeted British indie The Machine, given that the creator and the machine are the main key players of the film. However, Ex Machina explored the eternally-fascinating topic of ‘what it means to be human’ in a much deeper and more immersive way.

The film started out with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) being dropped by a chopper into this secluded estate of a billionaire scientist in the side of a Norwegian mountain. He’s supposed to spend a week with the CEO of a large internet search engine company, but other than that Caleb has no idea what’s in store for him. As it turns out, he’s invited to participate in a breakthrough experiment in testing artificial intelligence. After meeting the mysterious tech baron Nathan (Oscar Isaac), things just seem to be even more cryptic. I love the initial interaction between the two actors and the unpredictability and suspense of it all. First time director Alex Garland infused the scenes with a sense of appropriate eeriness, as well as a dose of humor that prevents the film from being too heavy handed or frigid.

ExMachina_Still3It’s when we meet the subject of the Turing test, a luminous female A.I. named Eva (Alicia Vikander), that things starts to get REALLY interesting. Even though Eva’s robotic parts are visible, unlike some other films where the droid looks fully human on the outside, she is as fetching as ever. It sparks intriguing questions about why Nathan created her with sensuality, with the ability to flirt and emote. The unhurried pace allows for a lot of reflective moments, thanks to the sharp and focused script by Alex Garland himself.

“One day the AIs are gonna look back on us the same way we look at fossils and skeletons in the plains of Africa” Are the arrival of droids and drones mean we’re on the verge of extinction? That seems far-fetched perhaps, but the way Garland made this film, this scenario seems almost entirely plausible. His idea of the future is ‘ten minutes from now’ and companies like Google or Apple are certainly capable of creating the future we see in this film even today.

The spirituality aspect, whether intended or not, is one of most thought-provoking aspect I’ve seen in a sci-fi film in a long time. Humans may think they can replicate ourselves and build something with *consciousness,* but is a soul something we can create? What these sci-fi films prove is the always-present and increasing desire of humans to become God.

ExMachina_Still1I’ve been a fan of Garland’s work as a screenwriter (especially 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go), so we know he’s a master storyteller. But I think he has a gift behind the camera as well, and perhaps because of his writer background, he’s more concerned about letting the story flow and immerse people into a certain realms, instead of bludgeoning us with action, action, action. Plus he’s got an International cast formed by three accomplished young actors to tell his story.

Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac has been churning out one fantastic performance after another. He’s truly one of the most fascinating actors working today and it’s such a joy watching him mature even more as a performer. The best scene of the film, and one of my favorite scenes of the year, is the dance scene that’s both unsettling but hilarious. Isaac certainly has screen presence to match his acting chops.

ExMachina_DanceScene Irish Domhnall Gleeson is perfectly captures the naive curiosity of Caleb, as well as the young man’s intelligence and vulnerability. He’s effortlessly likable and you immediately projects yourself into his character as he navigates into this new environment he’s thrown into. Isaac and Gleeson have a good rapport together, and the human relationships are just as intriguing as that between man & machine. In the key role of Eva, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander couldn’t be more perfect in the role. There’s a certain innocence and fragility about her, but yet you know she’s far more sly than you think.

The film is appropriately R-rated for the graphic nudity. Now, I’d be the first to tell you that most of the time, nudity in movies is unnecessary and gratuitous. But I have to say that it’s not the case here, it feels integral to the plot. For the most part, Ex Machina is a quiet, reflective film. It did veers into mystery thriller territory towards the end but it’s a natural progression of the story instead of a forced divergence. It’s definitely a great film to see on the big screen and be fully immersed in the story and the characters’ journey.

Despite the relatively low budget (under $15 mil), the production values are fantastic. From Nathan’s state-of-the-art estate and his lab where he builds these machines, as well as the mountain scenery, it’s a good looking film. I also love how atmospheric the film is, thanks to the cool, ethereal-sounding soundtrack and resplendent cinematography. But the most striking of all is the robotic look of Eva, which is both mechanical as well as organic, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. We’re as drawn to her as Caleb was in the film.

ExMachina_Still2But as evident in films like Elysium, visual flair alone does NOT make a movie. Ultimately what you remember is the story and how it affects you as you watch it, and this film certainly offers plenty for the senses. There are so many scenes that linger long after the end credits role, such as one where one of the characters has a moment of doubts about himself as a human. It’s got such a haunting quality about it that adds another layer of intrigue on the human/machine exploration. It’s further proof that one doesn’t need an astronomical budget or big stars to tell a compelling and memorable story. Dazzling, provocative and haunting… everything you’d expect from a futuristic sci-fi film. An outstanding directorial debut from Alex Garland, I’m curious what he’d tackle next, both as a writer AND as a director.

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Have you seen Ex Machina? Well, what do you think?

Question of the Week: What’s your favorite film(s) on Man-Machine relationship?

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I saw The Machine back in April and while I didn’t think it was perfect, it’s a pretty darn good sci-fi that’s worth your while. I think the concept is intriguing, with fantastic acting [Toby Stephens, natch!] and compelling direction. I have been re-watching clips of this film recently, especially the scenes between the scientist Vincent (Stephens) and his robotic creation Ava (Caity Lotz). At the core of it, it’s the relationship of man and machine that makes the story memorable.

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One of my favorite scenes in the movie

Sci-fi classic Blade Runner, which The Machine undoubtedly paid homage to, explores that man-machine relationship brilliantly. I actually love the original title of Philip K. Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?‘ Now it doesn’t sound as cool but it’s effective as it immediately makes you think about the humanity [or lack thereof] aspect of man-made machines better than Blade Runner.

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All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain …

I love sci-fis, especially those that explore this topic, perhaps even more so than sci-fis involving aliens from outer space. So no doubt I love movies like Terminator, Iron Giant, The Matrix, A.I., Her and the Battlestar Galactica (BSG) TV series, which is a big space soap opera of Cylons (android race) and humans. I think there’s something about ‘men playing God’ aspect that captures my attention, as in some ways these androids are part of us humans who create them, in the same way that we’re created in the image of our Creator. But of course the fantastical aspect of seeing machines somehow developing consciousness is what I find fascinating AND entertaining.

Often the depictions of these androids actually remind us of what it means to be human, as the Blade Runner ‘tears in the rain’ scene so poignantly illustrates. In this scene in The Machine, Vincent [a scientist akin to Dr Frankenstein] asks his own robotic creation…

‘Just who are you really? How do I know that you’re alive and not just some clever imitation of life?’


Now even Vincent himself probably realizes he might never find the answer. Now another the burning question being asked time and time again is can man and machine co-exist? In the BSG series, the Cylons threaten human extinction, forcing the humans into deep space confined in a spaceship. The tagline of The Machine says ‘They Rise. We Fall.’ which suggest that the much-more advanced and powerful machines are more dominant and that the future seems uncertain for the humans.


So what are your thoughts on this topic? What’s YOUR favorite movies about man & machine?

An appreciation + belated birthday tribute to Toby Stephens

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Ok, here we go again. Some of you who follow me on Twitter might’ve already known about my new crush but I want to make it official here that I’ve been suffering from Toby-itis. This kind of *infection* happens once in a blue moon… the last time this happened was with Gregory Peck nearly three years ago. With Toby, it appears to be a slo-burn kind of crush as I’ve noticed him a while ago and have always liked him on and off… but ever since The Machine, this casual admiration has turned into a full-blown obsession. Well, since he just turned 45 a few days ago on April 21, this post doubles as a belated birthday tribute for my new crush.

Yes, it seems I have a type… like most of my crushes, the London-born Toby is drop dead gorgeous, massively talented, incredibly versatile yet sadly VERY underrated… plus he’s both an eye + ear candy… Toby’s smooth voice is absolutely to-die-for. He definitely would’ve made my top 10 actors with smoothest voice list. I LOVE this fan-made vid that highlights my sentiment perfectly:

Though he has a lot in common with my other crushes, there’s a lot of *firsts* with my crushing on Toby…

  • He’s the first red-head I’ve ever had a crush on… but with those glass-cut cheekbones, his freckles are downright adorable.TobyStephensHotRedHead
  • First actor whose mother I’m actually a huge fan of… Dame Maggie Smith, one of my three favorite British Dames. His dad is the late Sir Robert Stephens.
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    Toby with mum Maggie Smith backstage after a Coriolanus play
  • He’s also the first living actor I have a crush on who’s married with little kids. In fact he’s been married for 14 years which in this entertainment business is pretty impressive!

You know you’ve got it bad when you’ve practically watched every clip of him posted on youtube, scoured every tumblr on said actor, read every single interview you could find… and still you can’t get enough. Oh and my tumblr is on fire once again 😉 I don’t drink so this must be what being intoxicated feels like. I finally ordered three Toby dvds from Amazon today: Jane Eyre (2006), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996) and Cambridge Spies (2003). Can’t wait to watch ’em all!

I’ve always loved actors with theater background and Toby attended LAMDA and has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In fact, back in 1994, he won the Sir John Gielgud Prize for Best Actor and the Ian Charleson Award for playing Coriolanus at RSC. [per IMDb] I stumbled upon this clip of an RSC workshop where young Toby (who resembled Tom Hardy a bit then) did a reading with a bunch of famous actors, see how many of them you can spot in this video. It’s always fun to think about the career trajectory of these actors.

How do I love Toby? Let me count the ways …

Oh where do I start? Words fail me to describe how I feel about him right now. I’m having heart palpitations every time I watch him, whether he’s being goofy, intense, sad, angry … he’s always magnetic.

I think the word most apt to use here is awe. I’m in awe of Toby’s sheer screen presence and incredible versatility. Of course I say that about a lot of actors I like but some actors seem to suit a certain genre more than anything, but Toby seems comfortable playing ANY role, whether it’s comedy, drama, action adventure, he always fits right in effortlessly. I think even the most famous Hollywood actors of today aren’t remotely as versatile. Oh and he can master any accent too, as you can see in a couple of clips below, his American accent is quite flawless.

The more I watch his performances, the more I think ‘why isn’t he more famous??’ just like I always say about Richard Armitage. But at the same time, I admire him for being a working actor, an artist who cares about his craft rather than clamoring for the fame and fortune.

SmilingTobyHe tells the DailyMail: I’d like to keep it at the “I’ve seen you in something, not sure what” level. Having a life and being grounded is really important to me. In this business, especially for guys, you can become so obsessed with where you’re at and where you think you should be that you get angry and screwed-up, and forget to value what you have.’

Beautiful AND sensible. That is quite a rarity in this business.

This year alone, he’s juggling theater work in Noël Coward’s Private Lives with Anna Chancellor on London’s West End. Oh how I’d love to see this live, his comic timing is impeccable!

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That same year he also portrayed Captain Flint in STARZ’s series Black Sails, a role that combines tremendous physicality to do the action stunts as well as dramatic chops.

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My colleague was the first one who told me about this show and though it’s not really my cup of tea, I’ve been watching clips of the show. I’ve never seen him so battered, bruised and covered in blood, yet I can’t take my eyes off him. I love how the show’s lighting made his green eyes sparkle against his pale, freckled skin.

Highlighting some of my favorite Toby performances

 

It pains me that most people only know him as the Bond baddie Gustav Graves (he’s the youngest actor to play a Bond villain) in the worst possible Bond movie ever, Die Another Day. I mean, Gustav is supposedly a Korean who’s been genetically grafted into being a Caucasian. Say what?? Even Toby himself said how exceedingly silly that role was, and how he had to *disappear* from Hollywood for a few years as he’s only getting offered villain-y roles.

So in case you’ve never heard of him or only seen him in a couple of things, I’d like for you to acquaint yourself with Toby’s amazing body of work. Here are just a small sampling of his multifaceted career in both TV and movies:

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Jay Gatsby – The Great Gatsby (2000)

Ok so I’m not crazy about this adaptation but at least it didn’t put me to sleep like the 1974 version with Robert Redford. Toby certainly has dashing, refined but enigmatic charm, more swoon-worthy than Leo any day. I only wish they don’t have him grinning too much here. As much as I love his beautiful teeth, it just gets creepy after a while. Still, Toby is never NOT fun to watch and I enjoy listening to his flawless American accent. Paul Rudd is pretty decent too as Nick Caraway.

Mr. Rochester – Jane Eyre (2006)

My pal Becky is laughing at me as I used to have a very different opinion on his performance as Rochester in Jane Eyre, as I’m so partial to Dalton’s portrayal, but now I’ve fallen for his passionate and decidedly more sexual take of the character. I couldn’t decide which scene I should include here, there are way too many highlights, but I find Toby’s voice so intoxicating in this very scene where he explains the story of his Parisian mistress Céline Varens.

“You do not know how it feels to the very beat of someone’s heart within one’s breast …” The way he looks at Jane… and THAT voice… it’s a potent combination if there ever was one.

Prince John – Robin Hood (2009)

The only character who manages to avert my eyes away from Richard Armitage’s Guy of Gisborne. Now, if you know me at all, that is quite something. It’s funny but I’d be watching the exact same Robin Hood clips but this time I couldn’t take my eyes off the deliciously hammy, caddish Prince John. Toby at his naughtiest best.

Frank Arlington – Strike Back (2010)

It’s amusing to see Toby and Andrew Lincoln are now stars of American cable shows. I sure hope Black Sails will have as huge following as The Walking Dead and that it will bring him more opportunities in Hollywood. Toby’s talent needs to be seen, people!! Erm, in any case, Toby’s sporting American accent once again, as a CIA agent no less.

Detective Jack Armstrong – Vexed (BBC Two – 2010-2012)

I LOVE LOVE his goofball performance as the lazy, immature and irreverent cop. The show itself reminds me of Moonlighting with all the bantering between him and his clearly-superior female partner. It’s too bad there are only two seasons, I could watch this all day! Lucy Punch is great in the first season, too bad she didn’t stay on for the second. But Toby is a hoot, he’s really the only reason to watch the show for me.

… and finally, here’s a clip from The Machine (2013) that I’ve already reviewed here. First time I saw him in a sci-fi but again he fits the role of a mad-but-compassionate scientist perfectly. Once again he plays another tortured soul like Gatsby and Rochester, which is definitely his specialty.

I could go on and on… as right now all I want to watch and talk about is Toby. Thanks for letting me indulge on my new crush. I better just stop here … I can always blog about him again in the future 😀


So, what do you think of Toby Stephens? What movie/TV series did you like him in?

Weekend Roundup: The Machine (2013) Review

Happy Monday everyone! I’m slacking off a bit here, I was hoping to get my Breathe-In review this weekend but just couldn’t find the time to do it. But I was supposed to catch the Brendan Gleeson/Taylor Kitsch comedy The Grand Seduction on Friday but I made a snafu that I didn’t order an extra ticket for my hubby so I have to go to the Sunday night screening instead. So I’ll post my review of Breathe-In together with that one as soon as I get around to it 😀

Well, this weekend I got to see a pretty cool sci-fi indie The Machine: TheMachinePoster

This British dystopian sci-fi has obvious nods to Blade Runner. In fact, it says right on the synopsis and the marketing itself. As a fan of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, I was naturally intrigued. Instead of a story of a cop hunting down replicants aka robots, The Machine‘s protagonists are two artificial intelligence (AI) engineers who are working together in a futuristic era where a world is in an economic crisis and a cold war with China is brewing. Their boss is the Ministry of Defense Thomson (Denis Lawson) who’s hellbent on winning the arms race by creating a robotic soldier. The main scientist, Vincent (Toby Stephens) is morally conflicted about his job, but he does it because it’s the only way he could have technological access to help his ailing daughter.

The meat of the story takes place after Vincent’s new science partner Ava (Caity Lotz) is brutally murdered and he then created a cyborg in her likeness. Soon Thomson’s real motive is quickly revealed and Vincent’s life is endangered as he becomes a potential victim of his own creation.

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Despite the low-budget production (less than $2 mil), I think writer/director Caradog W. James‘ did a nice job in creating a thought-provoking film that’s also visually arresting. The homage to Blade Runner is evident in his stylish visual style with the bleak futuristic setting and use of neon lights, as well as its use of synthesizer music that evokes Vangelis’ theme. I like sci-fi films that’s more atmospheric and even a little bit moody, instead of an all-action extravaganza like Elysium, and that’s partly why I enjoyed The Machine. There’s a lot of heart in the relationship between Vincent and his daughter, as well as with Ava even in robotic form. The developing relationship between a human being and an AI is nothing groundbreaking and foreseeable, but when done well, it’s still fascinating to watch. The love story is also not overblown which adds to its realism.

Both Stephens and Lotz did a nice job in their respective roles. Stephens’ got that brooding, tortured soul thing down pat which works well for this role, and Lotz whom I’ve never seen before is especially impressive. Her transformation from a curious scientist to an AI with childlike vulnerability but deadly power is quite convincing, and I find her struggle with the loss of her humanity pretty moving. She obviously looks more robotic than any of the replicants in Blade Runner, and Lotz gets the mechanical mannerism perfectly. Action fans would certainly appreciate her dance-like but lethal kickboxing moves. The film is rated R for some brutal and bloody action sequences from start to finish.

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The story is not perfect though, it gets predictable as the film progresses and some things are not explained too well. The side effect of the sensor-restoring brain implants on the fatally-wounded war veterans *recycled* for the project is that they render them mute as they become cyborgs. For some reason they can still speak in intelligible robotic voice to each other, though later they regained their speech ability and it’s never fully explained why. Despite that, it’s pretty darn entertaining and I highly recommend it if you’re into this genre. The intimate feel of the story gives a nice lingering effect after I watched it, and the ending is perfectly eerie as we imagine what a plausible future shared with an AI could be. The Machine proofs that you can still make an engaging film even on a shoestring budget, I’m curious to see what James would do with more resources at his disposal.

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Has anyone seen this film? Curious to hear what you think.