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Show him the way to go home

"Subterranean Blues"
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

I recently rewatched the Coen brothers’ 2013 film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and realized that I like this film quite a bit. I think it may be the Coen’s most powerful drama. The story of a struggling folk singer during the coffeehouse ’60s, “Inside Llewyn Davis” uses New York’s East Village as the backdrop to a chorus of the Greek tragedy blues. Their showbiz story doesn’t trace the rise of a star; it’s a small dirge about a working stiff with a bit of talent, less money, and an ego driven by tireless desperation. How his hubris meets its demise bidding “bon voyage” to his dreams in the winter slush of a Chicago audition is an American Aristotelian awakening. Llewyn’s tragedy is The Great One: He’s a hipster Willie Loman. The deepest cut of all in the land of opportunity and midnight cafe is the failed dream — the swing-and-a-miss at success. An anti-hero of Brooklyn, Davis isn’t particularly likeable. He has chutzbah for bravery and desperation for daring, and is pretty much tossed by the tempest of himself during his odyssey to retrieve a cat named “Ulysses.” Llewyn, frankly, is a bit of a bastard, but the magnitude of his fall – he gets hit hard, real hard – sees the redemption of his character: He’s broken but made sane again – a chance Willie Loman never got. Fans can expect the Cohen’s delightful humor, but the film’s real reward is it powerful transitioning from absurdist picaresque to American tragedy, portrayed through deft writing by the Coens worthy of Miller himself. “Inside Llewyn Davis” reaches deep, quietly revealing what has been tormenting Llewyn, and why he needed so desperately to succeed at his art.


Directed by Alex Garland

There was a time when the future looked quite bright from behind the black shades of ‘sixties Ray Bans. Trips to the moon were actually taking place instead of being debunked by fake news on the internet. In the sci-fi classic “The Tenth Victim” Ursula Andress, writhing in a miniskirt to the abstract jazz of Piero Piccioni, was a languid promise that even sex in the future might be better — at least much more interesting. Then suddenly along came HAL9000 — the archly wheedling, we-hope-you-enjoy-your-trip steward of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — and dark-minded Stanley Kubrick prophesied that maybe trekking in all those gleaming spaceships we adored might just prove as dull as a cross-country Greyhound excursion, and that those data-spewing Univacs may not have in mind handing over the Meaning of Life, but delivering the final blow to ours.

Maybe that’s when we should have started pulling the plugs.

But we continued to fall hopeless and inextricably in love with technology. We caress our new phones like a child. We talk to them and they talk back. Siri's prim voice comforts and commands us like a sexy school teacher. Yet despite the warnings of somewhat tech-savvy folk like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk of the near-presence of the Singularity — the moment when machines finally step up to the plate as the next-big thing — we brush that aside with whispers of a new iPhone arrival. Who knows? Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe the Singularity will be cool. Awesome, even, rather than the rapid devaluation of organic life.Maybe there will be wonders like virtual worlds to explore and, even better, virtual girls.

Or maybe it's time for another HAL moment in sci-fi films.

So I was anxious to see “Ex Machina” as soon as the trailer made it’s appearance on the Web. It seemed a dark film. Foreboding. The stuff of heady sci-fi. Would it deliver the kind of punch to the groin that the great cautionary tales of the past like “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” “1984,” “Metropolis,” “The Andromeda Strain,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” mustered?

The answer, sadly, is no.

This is director Alex Garland’s first film and “Ex Machina” suffers from his inexperience behind the camera. There’s a large body of film making that borrows from television advertising and is littered with visual and aural cliches. There’s a generic backdrop of lightly plucked acoustic music, and dreamily edited, bokeh-laden photography that screams hip. Garland indulges in this style so much that, stylistically, it feels like a thousand other bits of commercial celluloid out there in the last five years.

At odds with these hipster trappings is the rather brutal material Garland has penned. And that’s my main problem with “Ex Machina” – its over-fascination with the psycho-sexual subtext of the story. For a film that promises a glimpse of the future, it’s more concerned with the same old failings that man (and women) are err to as hapless slaves to sex.

There’s always been a kind of thoughtfulness and restraint that accompanies classic science fiction. It’s both clinical as a white lab coat and stodgily respectable as a tweed-fitted professor – asking that you listen intently to the theories being sermonized. I’ll admit I was anxious to sign up for the lecture “Ex Machina” promised, as it dangled the fascinating subject of AI: the stuff of Golden Age dreams and wonder.

But, alas, as the film rolled, the podium stood empty. In place of learned professor someone had rolled up a TV monitor and tired Betamax machine, apparently supplied with the wrong cassette, paper bagged and quietly pulled from beneath a counter. As “Ex Machina” played on, my heart sank as I realized the tale was to be less Asimov and more servo-driven de Sade. Despite occasional snippets of debate on what it means to be human, “Ex Machina’s” story is little more than damsel-with-pneumatic-limbs in distress melodrama. It’s more akin to a creaky gothic horror story than a glimpse into the future. The transcendence of artificial intelligence and it’s implications are hardly touched upon, instead “Ex Machina” focuses on a story as hoary as a Victorian bodice ripper.

A slightly mad (and hungover) genius programmer with a Net tycoon’s ten-figure-bank account (Oscar Isaac reprising his tough-kid-from-Brooklyn persona from “Inside Llewyn Davis“) has secluded himself on an impossibly large piece of real estate and a surprisingly claustrophobic piece of architecture: despite a presumed love of the great outdoors. In his private bunker, Isaac has created a Bluebeard’s boudoir of female automatons that he keeps closeted while he pursues, presumably, the perfect artificial companion. The young visitor who knocks innocently at the imposing door of his castle like a naive traveler from a Poe tale, (Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, mimicking the boyish lilt of Matthew Modine) finds himself inexplicably drawn to Ava, an eerie, yet comely young automaton (Icelandic waif Alicia Vikander), who may or may not be Isaac’s victim. The lord of the castle tasks this young traveler with determining if his creation is a success, worthy of being labeled human, while secretly manipulating him to fall in love with her – in a way, it’s almost like the set up to a dirty joke. And there is a certain tawdriness that permeates this story of a sweet-faced android held prisoner by her Google-age Frankenstein.

Gleeson’s and Vikander’s behind-glass-walls relationship – the centerpiece of the film – is half-Times Square peep show, half speed dating. For a young programmer with an interest in logic, Gleeson soon abandons his, going instantly gaga for The Bride. Charged with administering a test of intelligence, Gleeson fails his own miserably. Even with the knowledge that she’s more Linux than Ligeia, he lets her charms fool him into thinking what she needs is a white knight and not a hard restart. Instead of probing the workings of Vicander’s mind, he spends the time talking to her like they’re in their first slow dance at the high school prom. And speaking of dancing, one of the film’s most remarked-on scenes is an impromptu, perfectly synched disco number between Isaacs and a lithe Asian android he’s put on mute. While undeniably fun, that fact that it’s about the only scene to raise”Ex Machina” out of its numbness, portends badly of the film having a pulse less real than its heroine. And as to the threat of the Singularity, I’m still not certain it ever occurs. Vikander never shows more than hamster smarts in her single-tasked existence to escape, and in some ways it’s more Isaac’s brutishness than Vikander’s intelligence that spurs her hapless hero into action. Like a Albee’s would-be lothario ensnared by the unhappy couple, George and Martha, they’ve both worked-over his emotions for their game. Has machine triumphed over man? Or was everyone just grinding gears?

Garland’s locked-in-a-dungeon script, coupled with a plentiful tableaux of supple artificial flesh, eventually feels less and less like a exploration of the new millenium’s scariest possibility than a peek into a folder of inappropriate Victoriana. That’s why as a science fiction purist, I felt myself increasingly pulling away from “Ex Machina.” The mad doctor’s growing sadism toward his dolls makes the film feel increasingly like “Fifty Shades of Grey”written for the IT department.

The actors are all fine (especially Vikander, whose performance carries the film) but despite being a tale of the evolution of consciousness, they’re not given much of transcendence to work with as real beings. Gleeson’s direction often seem to runaway from him. Temper’s flair out of proportion over spilled wine and nuanced emotions run too high. Actually, one of the scariest parts of the movie is Gleeson’s cowering, nice American-boy performance. While robot intelligence may be on the rise, Gleeson perfectly captures the testosterone stultified young male, and his transformation into a gender-neutral life form. Good thing the mad scientist didn’t create a kitty; Gleeson would have lost it five minutes into the film.

So will “Ex Machina” be the film that challenges a generation over the error of its ways in so blindly falling for technology? Unfortunately not. No one is going to be leaving the theater desperately texting: “Hey, dude, turn off your freaking computer now!”

Which is a shame, because that’s the stuff of great sci-fi.