Ex Machina (5/5):
In science fiction films the future is beyond damned. Our evolution as creators, where we fashion imagination and ingenuity like weapons, is inevitably our downfall. Either our creations destroy us or we choke on our own hubris, only living long enough to see our mistakes materialize into a destructive force. At least that’s the lesson science fiction films force upon us, positing we invent our troubles. The emergence of a threatening artificial intelligence or the rise of an uncontrollable megalomaniac often spell doom in cinematic futures, leaving us with films believing they’re operating in the future when they’re stuck in the past. Ex Machina lovingly adopts these tropes, forcibly using their expectations against the audience. Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina finds programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as an unwitting participant in his boss’ experiment. Caleb’s boss, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), is a reclusive individual dedicated to protecting his intellectual assets, so he welcomes Caleb into his home/lab with great hesitation. Caleb’s assignment: run a Turing test on a robot boasting artificial intelligence. Nathan’s mechanical creation is a female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), a marvel we would easily call human if not for her lack of skin.
Caleb is tasked with conversing with Ava over the course of a week, using his interaction with her as a barometer of how successful Nathan was at creating real, indiscernible artificial intelligence. The isolation Caleb faces is suffocating. Nathan’s compound, a building burrowed into the ground, is claustrophobic. The singular setting is an oppressive reminder of Caleb’s duties, which mutates from playful curiosity to a desperate investigation. Eventually, the script calls for Caleb to make a decision: trust the machine that thinks it’s human or trust the man who think he’s a God. Garland’s script uses both cliché themes against one another, leaving the viewer left with tangled emotions and expectations. Each successive day Caleb resides in Nathan’s petri dish, he becomes more and more unhinged. Especially when confronted with random power outages and secrets that refuse to stay silent. Garland’s script is further elevated by fascinating performances. Gleeson’s grounded performance is the perfect entry point for us, while Isaac’s performance is deliciously frightening and entertaining. Vikander’s performance as Ava is beautifully muted, lending an undeniable credibility to her character and the story at large. Through great acting, efficient direction, and a smart script, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina weaves a taut, sexy, and woeful sci-fi tale about man’s greatest weakness…himself.
Black Mass (3.5/5):
When was the last time Johnny Depp gave a great performance? I’d argue his last great performance was back in 2003 when he played Captain Jack Sparrow, a fresh dissection of the swashbuckling, rum guzzling pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean. Although, he was good in Sweeney Todd, too. Regardless, it’s been a while since Johnny Depp ventured away from Tim Burton’s computer generated acid trips of nothingness and into material of note. Depp’s sincere performances about weird men living in the margins were always refreshing, if not invigorating experiences. But he’s been on autopilot for too long. Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s investigation into Whitey Bulger, is a welcome change of pace for Depp and his fans. Covering a handful of decades, Black Mass charts the rise of Whitey Bulger in South Boston, as his small racketeering gigs evolved into a criminal empire amassed through merciless murders and FBI protection. Bulger parlayed his influence and knowledge of the criminal world into a virtual “Get Out of Jail Free Card,” funneling information to FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Whitey dilutes himself into thinking he isn’t a snitch but a man sitting on a mountain of informational assets. Connolly is just as foolish by convincing the FBI that Whitey was low hanging fruit they should tolerate and use to eradicate larger syndicates.
As the lies and bodies pile up, the façade simply can’t keep up with reality. Director Scott Cooper doesn’t shy away from Bulger’s body count, often forcing us to shake our heads in disappointment as the FBI aggressively jams its own thumb up its ass. But there’s also a dark and depressing humor underlying it all that suggests Bulger’s success was as much a creation of the FBI’s stupidity as it was Bulger’s business acumen and tenacious behavior. The relationship between Bulger and FBI is interesting and engaging, but there are large gaps where Black Mass underwhelms. Specifically, the relationship between Bulger and Connolly lacks exploration. It relies too heavily on hometown idolism as a driving force. Bulger himself is thinly drawn. Here is a threatening man who has evaded capture for decades, and we’re given fragments of his psyche. Now, don’t get me wrong, when the screenplay provides a level of introspection into Bulger, it’s fascinating and frightening. It just doesn’t cut deep. Depp, devoured in makeup and anchored by chilly blue eye contacts, is magnetic. He has never been this raw in a film, as he does his best impersonation of a monster on the loose. There’s also a sense of honor Depp bestows upon the criminal, giving the character an interesting level of decorum. But for as good as Depp is, he can’t keep Black Mass from feeling like an imitation of a better gangster film.