Reviews on two new films from the art house:
Writer Alex Garland's directorial debut, the near-future science fiction "Ex Machina" stars Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman, creator of Bluebook, "the world's largest search engine" (portending a short run for Google); Domhnall Gleeson (whose presence has become synonymous with a bad movie) as Caleb Smith, a brilliant Bluebook coder who just happens to win a staff lottery with the grand prize of a week's paid vacation with Nathan at his vast, accessible-only-by-helicopter estate (shot in Norway); and an actress and former ballerina named Alicia Vikander as "Ava," the artificially intelligent being Nathan's been busy programming while holed up in the snow (the first woman always gets some variant of "Eve"). Nathan wants Caleb to administer a "Turing test" to Ava, to interact with her and determine whether he believes her to be sentient.
The first half of "Ex Machina" contains some intriguing ideas. The lure of artificial intelligence has proven irresistible to filmmakers better and worse than Garland, though none has matched the brilliant vision and balance between heart and mind of Steven Spielberg's "A.I." Isaac (who would be really sexy here if he 86'd the facial hair) and Vikander give creditable performances, the latter using infinitesimal balletic movements to embody the enigmatic Ava; as for Gleeson, he is not good, but the movie would fail even if he were. The set-up - which I didn't buy for a minute, though some in my group did - comes crashing to the ground in a second half of gratuitous and poorly staged violence, flesh-tearing scenes of unintentional humor and baffling motivations, with a mean-spirited "surprise twist" ending that smacks of a script meeting. And in a year that's given us a lot of bad movie music, Geoff Barrow's and Ben Salisbury's auditory assault may be the most maddening yet.
Another thumbs down for "Manos Sucias," director Josef Kubota Wladyka's film of two young Colombian men (overplayed by newcomers Cristian James Abvincula and Jarlin Javier Martinez) hired to sail a log-shaped "narcotorpedo" containing a huge payload of cocaine up the country's Pacific coast. I always welcome a fresh look into a world underexplored on the big screen, which Wladyka provides, but the storyline is a compendium of clichés. There's the familiar scene in which the kingpin says he only needs one and the other will have to die, then breaks up laughing - his idea of an ice-breaker. Then one of the guys inevitably says this is his last run: "One more job and then I'm out of Buenaventura." Later, drug enforcement agents board their small powerboat, but never look into the water at the spot where the guys keep diverting their eyes. We also get the famous last words, "Everything will be good after tomorrow," the classic love-hate relationship between the two guys, and the scene where they fall asleep and lose track of the log, then retrace their steps and somehow - in the vastness of the ocean - find it again with only a handheld sonar detector. Give me a break.