BEST FILM OF 2015: EX MACHINA

Below is a review I did a few months ago of Ex Machina, which turned out to be my choice for best film of 2015.

 

11190916_oriLet me say this right up front: Alex Garland’s dazzling film Ex Machina is, in its own way, as mind-blowing as Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I insert the qualification “in its own way” because Kubrick’s tableau was the enormity of the universe and all of human history, while Garland has chosen a far more claustrophobic and time-limiting setting.

It opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a tech geek for a Silicon Valley search engine giant, winning an in-company contest in which the grand prize is a week one-on-one with Nathan, his reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mountain home. Nathan is one of the world’s smartest people, yet he goes out of his way to be a regular guy, welcoming Caleb to his high-tech palace. He’s all T-shirts and swilling beer, constantly calling Caleb “Dude”, but after Caleb gets settled in, reality begins to unfold.

Nathan has been working on a supersecret artificial intelligence and had in fact pre-selected Caleb to “win” the contest so he could put Caleb to the Turing Test, an exercise in which a person must determine if a machine can exhibit human speech and behavior to the point where a human cannot tell if he is talking to a machine or to another human. Caleb is skeptical, but agrees to take the test, so he is introduced to Ava.

Ava (Alicia Vikander in a properly spooky performance) is Nathan’s AI creation and Caleb meets with her every day. They speak through a glass partition and are constantly monitored by Nathan’s cameras. Apart from the wiring visible in her stomach, Ava seems human enough and Caleb gradually gets comfortable with her. But eventually, it all comes down to ulterior motives, and you find yourself asking exactly who is manipulating who.

That’s not the only dilemma this film poses, however. Not by a long shot. It asks the same type of big, big questions Kubrick asked in 2001. No answers are offered, but your mind gets pried open whether you want it or not, and the questions haunt you long after the final credits have rolled. At one point, Caleb and Nathan are discussing the Turing Test and a chess computer is mentioned. Caleb asks, “Does the computer know it’s playing chess?” rather than merely reacting to the human’s moves on the board. He then says, “Does it even know what chess is?” The application of this broader concept to Ava, along with its consequences, are shattering.

Garland, who also wrote the incisive screenplay, does not back down from any of this. Nor does he settle for a Hollywood ending. In addition, he wisely defuses the script from the potential quicksand of indecipherable tech talk by explaining the science in breezily accessible terminology, keeping viewers’ attention riveted to the screen and their brains in high gear.

You don’t see a film like Ex Machina come along too often. In this case, once in 47 years, since the opening of 2001. I didn’t know anything about it when I went to see it, and so it revealed itself to me exactly as Garland had intended.

Recommendation: Drop everything and go see it. This is easily the most intelligent film in decades and so far the best film of 2015. Alex Garland has fashioned a masterpiece.

HAPPY NEW YEAR 2016

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year and may 2016 be the best year yet!

Happy New Year

HAPPY THANKSGIVING 2015

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HAPPY 4th OF JULY

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REVIEW: “THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES”

THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYESDoak Miller’s done his twenty-five years with the NYPD. Pensioned off, he wants a quieter life, so he moves to Gallatin County, hidden away in the big bend of Florida. He gets his private investigator’s license, hoping to pick up a little off-the-books work on the side. It’s been three years now, time enough to have developed a working relationship with Gallatin Sheriff Bill Radburn. The Sheriff has a little job for him. Shouldn’t be any problem. No problem at all. And so begins Lawrence Block’s new novel, The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes (Hard Case Crime, TitanBooks, 2015).

Well, wait a minute. It begins there, but it flashes back almost immediately to his arrival in Florida and his purchase of a house. Before you can say “James M Cain”, Miller is in bed with the realtor — Barb, “like a fishhook” — and is performing vividly-described sex acts upon her. This scene is jarring — occurring so close to the beginning — but the reader soon learns how well it fits Miller’s persona.

Block smoothly segues back into the present, where Miller is meeting with Sheriff Radburn. Seems the Sheriff has received a tip that a local woman wants someone to kill her wealthy husband so she can grab his vast fortune. Miller, not as well-known around town as Radburn’s deputies, is the ideal candidate to pose as a hitman applying for the job.

Complications ensue and Miller eventually reveals himself as a true noir character, incapable of keeping his head above water or making the right choices at vital forks in the road. He keeps seeing Double Indemnity and other film noir classics play endlessly through his mind, and a fatalistic tone slowly envelops the entire novel. His secrets and dark desires — and don’t we all have them? — gnaw away at his psyche right up to his final ironic choice.

In crafting Miller’s character, Block allows the reader to experience Miller’s downward spiral in real time; that is, by the time you realize things are going south, it’s already way too late. This is the best way to read noir fiction — total immersion in the life of a well-drawn central character. The atmospheric, small-town setting adds to the proceedings, since everyone knows everyone and you have to be very careful if you step out of line. Someone is likely to notice.

Hard Case Crime has served up yet another worthy addition to their crime/noir catalog with yet another knockout cover. This one features an image by artist Glenn Orbik. It turned out to be his final work before he passed away very recently. The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes is scheduled for publication in September, 2015.

Recommendation: Pre-order it from Amazon. The story draws you in like the aroma of bacon frying, and doesn’t let go. Block shows he hasn’t lost a step after all these years. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.

 

MEMORIAL DAY 2015

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REVIEW: “EX_MACHINA”

11190916_ori

Let me say this right up front: Alex Garland’s dazzling film EX_MACHINA is, in its own way, as mind-blowing as Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I insert the qualification “in its own way” because Kubrick’s tableau was the enormity of the universe and all of human history, while Garland has chosen a far more claustrophobic and time-limiting setting.

It opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a tech geek for a Silicon Valley search engine giant, winning an in-company contest in which the grand prize is a week one-on-one with Nathan, his reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mountain home. Nathan is one of the world’s smartest people, yet he goes out of his way to be a regular guy, welcoming Caleb to his high-tech palace. He’s all T-shirts and swilling beer, constantly calling Caleb “Dude”, but after Caleb gets settled in, reality begins to unfold.

Nathan has been working on a supersecret artificial intelligence and had in fact pre-selected Caleb to “win” the contest so he could put Caleb to the Turing Test, an exercise in which a person must determine if a machine can exhibit human speech and behavior to the point where a human cannot tell if he is talking to a machine or to another human. Caleb is skeptical, but agrees to take the test, so he is introduced to Ava.

Ava (Alicia Vikander in a properly spooky performance) is Nathan’s AI creation and Caleb meets with her every day. They speak through a glass partition and are constantly monitored by Nathan’s cameras. Apart from the wiring visible in her stomach, Ava seems human enough and Caleb gradually gets comfortable with her. But eventually, it all comes down to ulterior motives, and you find yourself asking exactly who is manipulating who.

That’s not the only dilemma this film poses, however. Not by a long shot. It asks the same type of big, big questions Kubrick asked in 2001. No answers are offered, but your mind gets pried open whether you want it or not, and the questions haunt you long after the final credits have rolled. At one point, Caleb and Nathan are discussing the Turing Test and a chess computer is mentioned. Caleb asks, “Does the computer know it’s playing chess?” rather than merely reacting to the human’s moves on the board. He then says, “Does it even know what chess is?” The application of this broader concept to Ava, along with its consequences, are shattering.

Garland, who also wrote the incisive screenplay, does not back down from any of this. Nor does he settle for a Hollywood ending. In addition, he wisely defuses the script from the potential quicksand of indecipherable tech talk by explaining the science in breezily accessible terminology, keeping viewers’ attention riveted to the screen and their brains in high gear.

You don’t see a film like EX_MACHINA come along too often. In this case, once in 47 years, since the opening of 2001. I didn’t know anything about it when I went to see it, and so it revealed itself to me exactly as Garland had intended.

Recommendation: Drop everything and go see it. This is easily the most intelligent film in decades and the best film of 2015. Alex Garland has fashioned a masterpiece.

FELIZ CINCO DE MAYO!

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REVIEW FROM THE PAST: “STREET 8”

Street 8

I got to thinking it’s time to revisit this five-year-old review of an outstanding example of noir fiction. So here it is one more time!

STREET 8 by Douglas Fairbairn 

Review by Mike Dennis, 2010

“Nobody wants to come downtown anymore. They tell you it’s like coming to a foreign country.”

That’s the sentiment expressed by a Miami native in Street 8, a hot-blooded 1977 noir novel by Douglas Fairbairn.

The title street, an English translation of Calle Ocho, the main drag of Miami’s Little Havana, is the site of Bobby Mead’s used car lot. Out of habit, Bobby still calls it by its original name, Southwest 8th Street, and from the office window of his lot, he’s seen Miami transformed from a sleepy, one-season tourist town into a vibrant Latin city.

The Cubans are everywhere. They’re even buying cars from him, so for the first time, he hires a Cuban salesman, Oscar Pérez, to accommodate them. Oscar, however, soon becomes embroiled in the hornets’ nest of exile politics, and the trouble begins.

The problem with Miami’s exile community in 1977 is that, while they’re committed to eliminating Fidel Castro, they also want to wipe out his sympathizers and spies who have infiltrated their organizations. But exactly who is who?

Told entirely from Bobby Mead’s point of view, Street 8 allows him no letup. His world is contracting around him, threatening to choke him, and not even his ratty South Beach hotel room offers him any sanctuary. He has a teenage daughter, but his incredibly twisted relationship with her only serves to further cut him off from the city he once loved.

Fairbairn deftly ushers the reader through the dark fringes of the byzantine world of Miami Cubans.  These were the pre-cocaine-cowboy and pre-Miami-Vice days, and we eventually learn that some of them are more interested in acquiring power in Miami itself than they are in retaking their homeland to the south.

Fairbairn’s literary output was small, but well worth looking into. He routinely turns up on Florida crime fiction authors’ “most influential” lists.

Recommendation: Hunt it down and buy it. This little-known novel is an excellent noir tale, highly recommended, as it offers an uncompromising look at one man caught up in a city’s convulsive transition.

HAPPY EASTER, 2015!

Doxies & Easter Bunny