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StevePulaski

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4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Fizzles when it should pop, 2 May 2015
6/10

The "Avengers" films, and the films of Marvel in general, play less like films and more like large-scale business investments that need to churn an unfathomable amount of money (think north of $1.5 billion) to even be considered a success. When film becomes that expensive and driven by finances, to me, it's no longer an act of entertainment but an act of business and a potentially crippling investment. The Marvel brand, in general, while showing no signs of letting up at the box office, has made me weary over the last two years, as I've been straining to find a great deal of satisfaction in most of the two to three superhero films released every year. To call this genre much of a muchness is still shortchanging in how its repetition hurts the individual impact of each of these films for me.

Joss Whedon's "Avengers: Age of Ultron," I thought, would be the exception; after disillusionment with "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," and "Iron Man 3," I was hoping I'd emerge from the sequel gleaming with joy as I did with the first film. However, "Age of Ultron" doesn't escape the same kind of issues the former films had; familiarity continues to breed contempt, repetitive quips and attempt at humor distract from core character relations, and candy-colored action that undermines the talent at hand.

The film concerns the same Avengers team as last time: Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all assemble once more to make up the beloved superhero team. However, this time, the team needs to find a way to assemble and be strong enough to take down Ultron (James Spader), an artificially intelligent villain who is created through technology to try and erase human extinction. Even with six of them, however, the Avengers find themselves still underpowered in the face of Ultron's immense technological presence. The film concerns their efforts to take down the villain, whilst coming to realize just what their lives and existence means for the face of humanity.

The original "Avengers" packed in some terrific character relations; it was fascinating to see how all these superheros would interact with one another, constantly trying to one up their peers and stand tall in the face of everything. "Guardians of the Galaxy" worked to expand this feature in a sillier way, but still worked on the level of helping us relate to these larger than life figures. One scene in this film, I recall, has these characters interacting at leisure, and it takes place in a lavish penthouse after a party with all of the Avengers attempting to lift Thor's hammer. Whedon goes for the kill with this film, infusing a great deal of action sequences rather than focusing on the graceful character presence that made the first "Avengers" so fun. In both that film and "Guardians," we felt like we were hanging out with these heroes; now, we're back to passively observing them at work.

With that, it's amazing to see Whedon, who kept the humor in the first "Avengers" to a minimum, only pulling it out on certain occasions, usually to great effect, rely so heavily on quips here. It seems nearly every scene has to end with some kind of forced jab or one-liner, especially a desperately unfunny recurring joke made by Captain America in the opening scene about the use of bad language. These kinds of things only distract from what Whedon does well, particularly here, where those things are masked by other, lesser features.

For one, Whedon continues to prove, from both a screen writing and directorial standpoint, that he can juggle chaos. Whedon can habdle about five or six things going on in terms of tying them together when the time comes and capturing such chaos as it's unfolding before us. Sometimes, one needs to just sit back in pure awe at the camaraderie occurring before us and marvel at its visual coherency thanks to Whedon's careful hand. In addition, "The Avengers" addresses the weaknesses of the team, despite having six superheros working together. The invincibility element of Marvel superheros has continuously been a distracting element for me, with each passing Marvel film, in that I rarely feel a sense of danger for these characters because it seems as if nothing can stop them.

In "Age of Ultron," we actually see the Avengers struggle to adequately assemble to take down Ultron, even going as far as to vacationing to a resort in order to further strengthen and develop. This element of questioning just how strong these six heroes are is something that this extended universe needed.

"Avengers: Age of Ultron," especially for possibly setting forth new standards for blockbusters in terms of budget, gross, and scope, is still an underwhelming experience. For a film so grand in its vision and limitless with its roster, it feels so grounded in routine, Marvel formula, so much so that the end battle treads dangerously close to not only being boring but riddled with the same kind of "Transformers"-esque excess that, again, could set a dangerous precedent. Whedon must be admired here, mainly for his craft at handling a great deal of things going on in unison along with his efforts to question the Avengers' invincibility, but considering this is time when the series should take off in the way of "The Empire Strikes Back," the fact that it wobbles and fizzles in impact is a tad frightening.

Fingered (1986)
Kern's short masterpiece, 30 April 2015
9/10

Fingered, from what I've seen so far, is Richard Kern's masterpiece, ranking alongside The Sewing Circle and You Killed Me First. No matter how you slice it, the short is a wickedly devilish representation of punk-rock pornography and has gone on to be a much loved piece of work by the cult director John Waters. We open by focusing on a phone sex operator (played by the gorgeous Lydia Lunch), who, we see, leads a life of tending to the perversions and fetishes of her callers, one in particular loving the idea of mother/son incest. Upon engaging in one successful call with another depraved soul, Lunch's character finds herself taken under the wing of another punk-rocker (Marty Nation) and the two engage in rough sex and an ill-behaved road trip, acting as if they're Bonnie and Clyde.

Lunch and Nation form a hilarious dynamic, as the two try to one up each other in their depravities, and Lunch's repeated acts to break free of Nation's violence also had a recurring element of fright to the picture. The no-budget aesthetic of Kern's, mixing very grainy black and white with a thrash metal soundtrack, assists in making this film look as visually grimy as possible, as if the events in the film weren't dirty and perverse enough. Finally, the sex in the film transcends eroticism into pure horror and rough unpredictability, as if Kern, who has already made very arousing shorts like The Bitches, is now trying to subvert sex into a more horrific sight than a pleasant one.

Fingered is messy and vile, but it's those traits that make it so watchable and so intoxicating as a short. Like most works of Kern, it contains visuals you can't unsee and material that you would've never believed to exist, if you were strange enough to ever even think of it in the first place.

Starring: Lydia Lunch and Marty Nation. Directed by: Richard Kern.

Horoscope (1991)
Nothing can predict what you're about to see, 30 April 2015
6/10

The same thing can be said about Richard Kern's Horoscope that was said with X is Y in that this particular short is respectable on the principles of being an anarchic product of the No Wave cinematic movement but not so much on the merit of being a successful short film. The short's plot is entirely vapid, showing three people (Holly Adams, Bob Drywall, and Squeak Wilnetz) dancing around almost entirely naked set to Kern's scuzzy videography. Thankfully, whenever Kern makes these small little shorts he seemingly believes are different and revolutionary, he keeps them short and doesn't turn a two or three minute idea into twenty minutes of redundant activity. He saves the real ideas for longer shorts and exercises these kinds of momentary pieces of amusement as nothing more than that.

Starring: Holly Adams, Bob Drywall, and Squeak Wilnetz. Directed by: Richard Kern.

X Is Y (1990)
Experimentation over substance, 30 April 2015
6/10

Richard Kern's X is Y is a slight exercise in all things anarchic and attributable to No Wave, an underground cinematic movement in Lower East Side New York. It's a visual kaleidoscope and an auditory cacophony, as it shows a young woman (Tomoyo) showing off her automatic fire arms set to a soundtrack of thrash metal and repetitive busy-signals from somebody who keeps trying to call the phone number 666-6666. Combine this with Kern's predictably grimy visual style, filled with scuzzy production values and heavy grain, but ostensibly lacking an extractable idea (does this concern female empowerment? The power of guns?) and you have a short that, again, works more on an experimental basis than the basis of being a short film.

Starring: Tomoyo. Directed by: Richard Kern.

How far will they go?, 30 April 2015
9/10

Richard Kern's The Sewing Circle is a brash and deviant little devil of a film, concerning a young woman (played by Kimbra Pfahler, boasting a "Young Republicans" shirt for added humor and irony) who decides to have the lips of her labia sewn together by a punk-rock woman (Lisa Resurrection), whilst her other girlfriend holds her hand for support. It's an immensely cringe-worthy film, as can be expected, due to its content, but the whole time, I must admit, I was unable to turn away.

Kern's films are so experimental and so different from what is socially acceptable that you must look at them through a lens of subversion and cinematic anarchy. One must respect all of what Kern goes for in his shorts: a punk-rock soundtrack, a gritty look to each short's videography, ribald acting, ridiculous costumes and characters, and added grossout elements are just some of what he manages to pack into each one of his shorts and, for the most part, achieves greatness time and time again.

The Sewing Circle is a frightening little film; Kern states it was made during a time when he was struggling with self-identification and body harm and mutilation was something that was going on around him quite pervasively. He, in turn, created a short film that takes the act to incredible extremes and shows what we do in the name of acceptance and beauty. He shows the sewing process in extreme detail, which made me realize that when other directors would decide to look away, Kern, an uncommonly brave soul, decides to zoom in and show process.

Starring: Kimbra Pfahler, Lisa Resurrection, and Carrie. Directed by: Richard Kern.

The equivalent of cinematic fishing - once you're hooked, the film isn't letting you go, 29 April 2015
8/10

Lost in Translation details the kind of wayward search for human connection many of us go through in life, sometimes young, sometimes old, or following a traumatic event. It's the time in our lives when we feel the most lost, and truthfully, many of us don't want answers as to how to better our situation, but just want somebody to go along for the ride. We'd like to find someone to empathize with, embrace on a frequent basis, and know that somebody cares about us and our wayward ways and to reciprocate such feelings.

With this, Sofia Coppola writes and directs a film about that search for human connection and what it can exactly amount to. We are immediately introduced to Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an older American movie star who travels to Tokyo to film an advertisement for Suntory whiskey. Bob has found himself in the mix of a souring marriage and no real close friends, and it is in Tokyo where Bob sinks deeper and deeper into a midlife crisis. Meanwhile, we also meet Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a college graduate whose husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) is starting to lose interest in her in favor of all the models he works with.

Later on, Bob and Charlotte finally meet and immediately recognize each others unfortunate situation. They spend sporadic amounts of time together, often not talking and simply speaking in fragmented sentences and lying next to one another. They aren't very concerned with long conversation; they simply let their lethargy in their current situations carry their relationship along.

Over time, sexual tension between the two builds, though both of them are still caught in relationships, regardless of how mediocre they are. In addition, neither of them are quite sure how to conjure intimacy with one another. The two are much more in tune with being static beings and platonic. This is one of the few dramas I can recall that allows the presence of the characters to take over rather than their actions. Coppola sits back and watches with a keen eye and a sense of mannered restraint how Bob and Charlotte get close over the course of their visit in Tokyo.

Coppola's interest lies in Bob and Charlotte's situation moreso than the progression of their relationship, which is a difficult thing to pull off in film without working with more of an impressionistic style. The brushstrokes Coppola paints this story in are more or less minimal, but they craft just enough out of a little so that we can recognize these characters, their feelings, and their current state. They have transcended living life into simply existing within it, rarely getting excited and scarcely finding any kind of mutual contentment.

Again, in these situations, all you need is another soul who feels the same way you do, and in this case, that's bottled up angst and complete and total uncertainty. The title represents a lot of things and the cultural gap Bob and Charlotte experience is only a small part of it; these two souls are lost within the translation of life. Life has keep going and two formerly active people who could keep up with the bustle have let it all pass by, letting sadness dominate their lives and fogginess encapsulate the remnants of the future. The translation lost is within the characters here, and that's sometimes scarier than not speaking the same language of the community.

The only issue that arises from this is that we get the impression that Coppola either doesn't understand Japanese culture or simply doesn't want to, what with the abundance of cheap stereotypes and archetypal Japanese characters played for nothing but laughs here. Coppola opens by ostensibly getting most out of her way, thankfully, however, through the use of subtle humor, but sporadically doubles back to throw in another jab or two, which can briefly throw the film out of whack. It reminds me of when a really artsy film wants to try and pander and connect with the audience when it thinks it has lot them, and, as shown here amidst others, the action has the opposite effect.

However, Murray and Johansson craft wonderful, low-key chemistry here. Murray's subtle sarcasm and overall cynicism are downplayed but in force here, as he employs facial expressions that speak louder than words could. He fully shows how he can be a hilarious comic presence and a fascinating, real dramatic presence and merge the two in one project, proving nothing but great range and ability on his behalf. Johansson, who was only eighteen during the time this was being filmed, bears mannerisms and a self-assured aura that would be more expected from someone ten years older than her. Such lofty material is presented and she handles the task of not being too theatrical or obvious very well, and it's a performance that requires both actors to place a reliance on their body language and facial expressions. This was by no means an easy role for Johansson, yet she breaks out with it and becomes a force all her own.

Lost in Translation details a difficult time in a person's life and, in the process, doesn't sugarcoat it. The lack of human connection and the feelings of hopelessness, regardless of short-term or long-term, are debilitating to a person, and this film goes on to show to reiterate my idea about life: if we didn't have at least one of these things - a passion, a good relationship with family, or close friends and people to connect with - we would jump out a window.

Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanna Ribisi, and Anna Faris. Directed by: Sofia Coppola.

All things sensational have context, 28 April 2015
8/10

Every viral video or sensational clip that receives airplay or notoriety has a backstory, and Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer is a documentary that works to add context to one of the most famous suicides ever captured on video. On January 22, 1987, Pennsylvania Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, after being found guilty of accepting bribes from a Californian accounting firm, called a press conference before numerous officials and journalists. He was presumably going to announce his resignation, as his sentencing was scheduled to take place the next day. Following a four minute speech about his wife, kids, his innocence, and his legacy as Treasurer, Dwyer pulled a .357 revolver from a manila envelope, pointed it in his mouth, and shot himself, dropping dead instantly having broadcast his suicide to numerous Television stations.

One of the most tragic things about Dwyer's case is that what he did, or allegedly did, while in office, is something that is more-or-less legal in state and federal government today. Accepting bribes, or "political donations," isn't uncommon and since the dawn of Citizens United, is something that special interest groups and lobbyists have been doing in excess. Honest Man works to tell Dwyer's side of the story, which has been shortchanged to the extreme act itself.

Dwyer's wife, children, and colleagues all appear in the documentary and recount his life and the case that eventually engulfed his life. Dwyer studied political science and accounting in college, eventually running for the general assembly when he graduated. Roy Wilt, a colleague and a legislator, comments how politics was who Budd was and how it took over his life as soon as he began running for the assembly. He goes on to say how Budd would never look at the donators who graciously gave money to his campaign, nor could he ever bring himself to ask for money. While intelligent and crafty, he was extraordinarily humble, especially for a politician.

Controversy began to plague his career once he became Pennsylvania's state Treasurer. When Dwyer wouldn't approve of state Governor Dick Thornburgh's wife's plane ticket as a business expenditure, he saw himself on the oust with the Governor. Right then and there, from the perspective of some, Dwyer seemed stubborn as a mule and somebody who was willing to fight over the smallest circumstances. Following this, Pennsylvania discovered that its state workers had grossly overpaid in their federal taxes because of the state withholding funds. This, in turn, led to dozens of accounting firms vying for a multimillion-dollar settlement contract in order to compensate each employee for the amount they overpaid. In 1986, Dwyer allegedly received a bribe from a California accounting firm that was trying to obtain the lofty contract, to which he plead not guilty to, wouldn't agree to a plea bargain, and stood trial in the case.

The main witness to Dwyer's act of taking the bribe, William Smith, even admits to lying under oath in the documentary, saying Dwyer took the bribe during a false testimony. Smith admits here that he is, as a result, responsible for Dwyer's subsequent suicide.

Dwyer's charisma and almost blue-collar, everyman charm is seen through each piece of archival footage shown in the documentary. He was a man of many commonalities, who in and of himself, didn't seem to have any interest in unethical dealings. During his famous final press conference, it was almost as if Dwyer couldn't believe he was in this situation; he seemed shocked, almost like a deer in headlights, as if he had no idea how he found himself in this situation and was more-or-less forced into it.

The death of Dwyer is one of the most bizarre but saddening political tragedies I have yet to read of, and Honest Man does a solid job at detailing it. It's a case that found itself captured in a whirlwind of hearsay and miscalculation that led to the death of an arguably innocent man. Dwyer's surviving children explain in the film not only their reactions to their father's suicide at the time, but how, despite the suicide video's ubiquitous presence online, this kind of thing could happen again. Dwyer's widow, Joanne Dwyer, who died a year before the release of this film, nicely states how we live in a society obsessed with violence, and in this case, violence without much regard to context or history. Both her and her children state how the impact of Dwyer as a political figure and his legacy have, as a result, taken a backseat to the sensationalism and act of his suicide. They're not wrong, and it's depressing to see a story where a sympathetic, and quite possibly innocent, politician has fallen on deaf ears in present time.

Directed by: James Dirschberger.

The film and I share a similar disconnect, 27 April 2015
4/10

Reviewing a film like Barney's Great Adventure is especially difficult because while you're trying to consider the target audience, you don't want to undermine your own opinions as well. I'm firmly aware I'm outside of this particular film's target demographic by about fifteen years, but that doesn't mean I don't see some nostalgic merit in Barney's first, and thus far only, theatrical feature. However, nostalgia doesn't always equate to on-screen success, and Barney's Great Adventure struggles with some tonal problems that are apparent from the very beginning, along with a general frugality to the production despite a medium-sized budget for this kind of project.

More on that later. The film concerns three young kids, the stubborn Cody (Trevor Morgan), his instigating sister Abby (Diana Rice), and their friend Marcella (Kyla Pratt), all of whom are headed to Cody and Abby's grandparents' farm. Abby and Marcella are playing with a stuffed Barney doll, who they believe will come to life if they use their imagination and believe hard enough. Cody, on the other hand, is cynical to this idea, even after Barney does indeed come to life, bring his cheeriness and infectious personality to the natural world.

Frustrated and bored out of his mind, Cody wishes for a spectacular summer adventure one night, and the next morning, he's greeted with a large colorful egg. The egg turns out to be a dream maker, but finds itself in harms way when it's dropped on a truck. Now, it's up to Barney and the three youngsters to obtain the egg, occasionally seeking the help of their friends B.J. and Baby Bop in their adventure.

To begin with, Barney's Great Adventure is captured in a relatively ugly way in terms of its photography. It's a film that bears a look to it that would more fall in line with a horror film or an incredibly micro-budget TV movie; not a film about a lively, cuddly Television character meant for ages five and younger. The entire look to the picture feels off; the color palette is so unmoving in its drab, grayness that it seemingly does everything in its power not to immerse you in the environment. Furthermore, the film is never as adventurous as it could be, especially given the title. Most of the time, we get petty moralizing amongst the characters, which is fine if that wants to be the climax or the concluding scene, but Barney's constant interference that involves some kind of wraparound, larger-than-life idea wears on the audience to the point where one feels they're being sermonized to and not entertained.

Barney's Great Adventure has a chance to amuse the young, but not as much as your average episode of Barney & Friends, in my opinion. The scenery is too drab, the action too routine, and the kind of situational humor in the film alludes the kind in the show, as it's much milder and less engaging. There is a disconnect evident here, as if those who worked on the show weren't committed or allowed to be involved with the film adaptation, and thus, executives took over with the notion that they thought they knew what kids wanted rather than actually knowing. It's disconnects like these that make me sad, especially when a product with a great deal of potential was sacrificed.

Starring: Trevor Morgan, Diana Rice, Kyla Pratt, George Hearn, and Shirley Douglas. Directed by: Steve Gomer.

Once it finds its footing, it becomes engaging and encouraging, 26 April 2015
8/10

Pay 2 Play: Democracy's High Stakes opens with director John Wellington Ennis recalling Monopoly, the board-game most of us grew up playing, learning the rules to, and embracing as a cultural icon of sorts. He reflects on the rules and how we were trained at a young age to understand the interworkings of capitalism, commanding a large slice of the pie, weeding out potential competitors, and garnering the most cash that would send our opponents into foreclosure and bankruptcy. Looking back on my own childhood, I played that game with my mother and grandmother and never did I really see how sinister my intentions were whilst playing the game; I don't think my mother or grandmother did either, as frightening as that is.

The fact that we open on a note that shows how America has been socialized to see such a cutthroat practice as a byproduct of generational acceptance is eerie but nonetheless thought-provoking, and for the next eighty-nine minutes, Pay 2 Play delivers a great deal of the same kind of information. Ennis explores a plethora of different ideas, with one of his most profound and engaging subjects, investigative journalist John Nichols, setting the tone right by saying the American political system has become "bought and sold," transitioning from a "one person, one vote" concept to a "one dollar, one vote" concept. In a nutshell, we, as a country, have been adhering to the principles of Plutocracy or an Oligarchy rather than the cherished idea of democracy we've liked to believe we've forged for ourselves and our children.

Ennis shows us numerous examples of how this "bought and sold" system has shifted potentially revolutionary voices and moral candidates for Congress and American government to the background, while candidates who have accepted donations and campaign PACS have found themselves etched in the foreground of the discussion. We focus on people like Paul Hackett, an Iraq veteran who returned home to run for Congress, dismantling President George W. Bush's encouragement and persistent justifications for the Iraq War through the use of "chicken hawking" or blind patriotism. Unfortunately, despite generous media coverage and resonating ideas, Hackett failed to make a splash. Another soul was an Indian man named Subodh Chandra, a lawyer who decided to run on pro-people principles only to be ignored by his own Democratic Party, who backed an alternate candidate, saying somebody with a name like his would never get elected.

A similar case occurred with a man named Surya Yalamanchili, a Democratic candidate who ran as an Ohio representative, challenging incumbent Republican Jean Schmidt. Surya ran on arguably the most ethical platform I have yet to see, personally signing all of his endorsement letters and fan donations, refusing to accept PAC donations of any kind, and running on not only pro-people ideology but staying true to that with every move he made. Despite controversy in the primaries with an offensive, shortchanging remark made by his challenger, David Krikorian, Surya still found ways to sneak by and enter in the final election. In the end, however, he didn't even come close to winning and was left to reflect with considerable disappointment.

Following these examples, Ennis shows us things we've come to either accept but not know the true history of or provide us with background to understand our system more. He gives us a rundown on the history of Monopoly, how its original purpose and message was ironically stolen and sold to make monopolistic acquisitions and capitalistic principles more understood and accepted, before diving into one of the most controversial and widely vocalized topics in American politics - Citizens United and its effects on voting, the legislative process, and politics in general.

One major fascination of Ennis's many fascinations concerns New York street artists, who he profiles with respect to their privacy but also with a sense of general documentarian interest. Street artists are a particularly unique breed because their work, which is generally plastered all over the city, doesn't ask anything of its viewers. In fact, it provides them with something they didn't originally have - a thought, an idea, or a philosophy that may have gone unsung in their heads up until they saw a piece of artwork. Ennis profiles these individuals with a keen sense of optimism, as if the next revolution will be kickstarted by the works of these brave souls.

Pay 2 Play: Democracy's High Stakes, as suggested, is fairly scattershot for a documentary. It takes about a solid half hour for the documentary to find its footing, ostensibly throwing a great deal of subjects and political events into a pot, stirring, and hope they settle and form something rewarding. However, a method to Ennis's madness forms during the second and third acts, and following a powerful closing statement from Nichols, we realize that this is no longer a documentary in search of a thesis, but whose thesis is a call to insight action rather than passivity. Any political documentary that can make me shed my apathetic, cynical skin and make me think a bit more introspectively, and on a grander scale, deserves some solid praise, and Ennis does so in a way that originally seemed to be a voice in search of a proper outlet.

Directed by: John Wellington Ennis.

Ex Machina (2015)
5 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Too thoughtful to adhere to the ordinary, American principles of science-fiction, 26 April 2015
9/10

"Ex Machina" is powerful because of how low-key and meditative it is. It's the first science-fiction film in recent memory that doesn't do one of the following things: ask impossibly big questions, deliver amazing visuals but skimp out on character development and the exploration of such visuals, or decorate itself in glamor whilst ignoring its proposed, fundamental ideas. This is a science-fiction film that I found myself being able to follow as a story and not as a collection of larger-than-life ideas that you're really supposed to go along with and never precisely grasp or pinpoint (also known as "Interstellar").

The story revolves around Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer for a search engine company known as Bluebook, who receives an invitation from the company's CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), to visit him in his secluded estate in the mountains. Upon arrival by helicopter, Caleb takes note of how immense and intoxicating Nathan's home is, surrounded by lush landscapes, waterfalls, and elaborate forestry that all hides an enormous research facility inside of it.

Here, Nathan tells Caleb he's partaking in a Turing test on an artificially intelligent humanoid named "Ava" (Alicia Vikander). Ava is incredibly advanced, looking like the offspring of a human and a robot, with lifelike skin covering some of her body (enough to form a basic human face) and other parts of her (particularly her abdomen and arms) still showing her intricate wiring and robotic composure. Caleb and Ava spend a lot of time conversing, so Caleb can get the feel for how advanced Ava is. She's so advanced, she operates like a human lie detector at times and a deeply compassionate soul at others. Ava eventually warns Caleb of Nathan's deception, which Caleb comes to see for himself through Nathan's heavy drinking, cloudy motives, and vague planning methods for the future.

The film is always commanded by three of the same actors for much of its runtime. Gleeson plays lost but not clueless very well here, never becoming the kind of character we lose interest in due to his incompetence nor alienated by because of his intellect. His Caleb character is ordinary, and Nathan recognizes it, with Gleeson assuming the traits quite nicely. Then there's Vikander, who is so close to being shortchanged in and of herself here, but thanks to writer/director Alex Garland, whenever she's on-screen, her Ava character is given a purpose. Whether that purpose is to show how advanced she is for someone who is artificially intelligent or for her to exhibit human traits of self-awareness, empathy, and compassion is entirely up to Garland, and he doesn't skimp on allowing Ava to be a character. Vikander handles the simple and simultaneous complex role very well.

Finally, there's Oscar Isaac, who has hit a trifecta of fabulous, even Oscar-worthy performances. In three films, he has played depressed ("Inside Llewyn Davis"), conflicted ("A Most Violent Year"), and now, standoffish and brash in ways that turn such overused traits into breathing characters. Isaac's take on a scientist as someone more along the lines of that cocky soul at a party who believes he knows all by employing the Socratic Method or talking around his points is a brilliantly subversive tactic. Isaac delivers the character in a way that, much like Gleeson, has the ability to be offputting but, instead, is riveting.

Finally, there's more to "Ex Machina" than artificial intelligence, which, as I began to realize following the credits, wasn't what the film seems to really be about. The film illustrates an idea of female empowerment in a boldly subtle way. It shows how a woman, who has been caged and manipulated her entire life, at one time solely by a manipulative egotist, and now, by a "white knight" or nice guy, for lack of a better term, struggles to find an identity and loses her opportunity to explore the outside (or, to her, the unknown). Science-fiction is known to dabble into themes exploring our world and the problems we face, but even with that known fact, it's surprising for a film like this, that already operates on a middling-budget in comparison to other science-fiction pieces, to explore ideas of women in patriarchal societies. Such concepts only seem too real and close-to-home for our world, but "Ex Machina," again, isn't the traditional, American science-fiction film.

This film is a different breed of science-fiction that may allude the usual science-fiction moviegoers who gravitate towards sound and light shows or constant, existentialist ideas. It's far too thoughtful to get caught up in those surface concepts. Through beautiful cinematography, accentuating mood through its use of lighting and haunting music, exquisite acting on all fronts, and a probable idea to tie it together, it succeeds on being a terrific piece of entertainment and commentary. The same feeling people had about director Neill Blomkamp following his directorial debut "District 9," I think I now have about Garland.


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