Alex Garland’s Ex Machina currently has a Critics Round Up rating of 81/100—a pretty solid score, based on thirteen hand-picked reviews worth taking seriously. Once we’ve admired the craftsmanship—most reviewers praise the production design, and I’d give a shoutout to the sound design as well—questions linger as to what to make of the mad scientist’s creation. “Beautiful and smart, sleek and stacked, Ava is at once decidedly unsettling and safely under lock and key, which makes her an ideal posthuman female,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Ex Machina belongs to Ava, whose depths of meaning enrich the movie and then engulf it. Ava has antecedents in Pygmalion, Metropolis and elsewhere. Yet even as she transcends the human-machine divide, she defies categorization because of the radical autonomy she shares with the weird sisters inhabited by Scarlett Johansson in Her, Under the Skin and Lucy, and Tatiana Maslany’s clones in the TV show Orphan Black.”
For Grantland‘s Wesley Morris, “90 minutes of male fantasy and 10 of alleged feminism are bad math. Ex Machina feels like the work of someone who felt the best way to make Frankenstein was to watch a lot of porn.” Mary Shelley’s early 19th century novel, the robot Maria in Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis (1927), the female replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the bodiless AI/OS in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and the sisterhood of the traveling clones in Orphan Black are all up for discussion in an episode of The New Yorker Out Loud with Jill Lepore, “Are Females Human? Women in Science Fiction,” and Marysia Jonsson and Aro Velmet‘s essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Feminus Ex Machina.”
In short, Lepore clearly agrees with Morris, while Jonsson and Velmet are less interested in approval or disapproval: “Is Ava a girl locked up by a controlling man, or is she an Iron Maiden in a chamber of horrors?” Leaving that question unanswered, Jonsson and Velmet are more concerned with the origins of the fantasy: “Today, rather than an omnipotent HAL to guide our spaceships and resolve our political differences, we want tactile gadgets that adapt to our emotional needs and remember our preferences: a pocket Stepford wife, voiced by Siri…. Smartphones, search engines, and social networks may claim to make our lives more rational, but we know that they exist primarily to better respond to our visceral desires.”
A bit of related listening (27’06”). Edgar Wright talks with Garland for HitFix.
Sticking with fantasy women a moment or two longer, we return to Jill Lepore, who’s gone to see Avengers: Age of Ultron “with a bunch of ten-year-old boys, and then read the comic book with two of them…. Maybe it’s not possible to create reasonable female comic-book superheroes, since their origins are so tangled up with magazines for men. True, they’re not much more ridiculous than male superheroes. But they’re all ridiculous in the same way. Dazzler, Miss Elusive, the Enchantress, She-Wolf, Medusa, She-Hulk. Their power is their allure, which, looked at another way, is the absence of power. Even their bodies are not their own. They are without force.”
At Movie Mezzanine, James Rocchi tackles this one: “If these movies are the biggest thing in American pop culture, what does that say—openly, obliquely, or accidentally—about American culture itself?”
Olivier Assayas’s “interest in the punk ideal of self-expression—where the derivation from conventionality is everything—as well as surface appearances holding implicit meaning, extends to his casting; particularly his female leads.” Mark Lukenbill in the Notebook:
Throughout his filmography he’s continually drawn to performers like Chloë Sevigny, Asia Argento, Kim Gordon, and, most recently, Kristen Stewart—all women who have been construed by press and public as being aloof and reserved, “awkward” and rebellious for not conforming to the familiar archetype of the pleasantly conventional starlet. They’re all cast in roles of agency and mystique and typically dressed in monochromatic pantsuits and oversized sunglasses. They possess a steely, cool androgyny—exercising full control while still being undoubtedly stylish. All of these performances operate on some degree of self-referentiality. There’s a subtle assumption that the viewer is familiar with these performers and their public image, in much the same way that Godard used the celebrity of Jane Fonda and Molly Ringwald as canvases for subversion.
In this context, Assayas’s work with his ex-wife Maggie Cheung serves as his thesis.
In his 1916 short Behind the Screen, “Chaplin’s notion of mocking Hollywood tropes from the studios’ own vantage point would take a while to catch on. Meanwhile, movie comedies about movies evolved as the industry itself evolved.” A brisk history from Stephen Winer, writing for Criterion.
“Ruggles of Red Gap is an odd duck,” writes David Kalat at Movie Morlocks. “It is a crucial turning point into the formative genre of screwball comedy, but it isn’t easily recognizable as a romantic comedy nor is it especially female driven. It was Charles Laughton’s favorite screen role, but he’s not known for comedy, and his performance here consists substantially of standing still and trying to suppress an awkward smile. It’s a 1930s Hollywood comedy for the Downton Abbey set, whose most famous scene involves a British valet reciting the Gettysburg Address to a bar full of Wild West toughs. In other words, it’s a movie that calls for some unpacking.”
Emily at Femina Ridens: “The culture of fetishism around nitrate film can occasionally feel like a distillation of the most unattractive aspects of cinephilia: an obsession with an obscurantist material purity accessible only to a privileged few, and wielded to imply that people who haven’t seen nitrate haven’t really experienced film. Accordingly, when I set off to the Nitrate Picture Show as one of the nitrate-uninitiate, it was with huge excitement but also some apprehension: what if this was an emperor’s-new-clothes situation? And if I didn’t have a nitrate conversion experience involving swooning or speaking in tongues the second the curtain rose, would that mean I didn’t love film enough, or in the right way? But, readers: nitrate really is that beautiful, really is that important.”
“I don’t know how to explain this, but as surreal as Twin Peaks could be, and as particular as it could be, as it was, it felt more like real life to me than the average hour-long television show.” That’s Sopranos creator David Chase, talking to Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture.
Chances are, you’ll have heard that Wes Anderson has “been applying his storybook design aesthetic to Bar Luce, the adjoining café inside the newly minted Fondazione Prada, the fashion house’s new art and culture complex,” which has just opened in Milan. Margaret Rhodes reports for Wired.
IN OTHER NEWS
Cannes will present a Palme d’honneur, an honorary Palme d’Or to Agnès Varda. “Previously, only Woody Allen, in 2002, Clint Eastwood, in 2009, and Bernardo Bertolucci, in 2011, have been granted this supreme distinction by the Board of Directors of the Festival de Cannes. The award is given to renowned directors whose works have achieved a global impact but who have nevertheless never won the Palme d’or. Agnès Varda is the first female director to garner the prestigious trophy. With her legendary humor, she notes: ‘And yet my films have never sold as much as theirs!'”
“One of India’s living cinema icons, Shashi Kapoor, has been honored with the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the country’s most prestigious film prize awarded by the government.” Nyay Bhushan has more in the Hollywood Reporter.
Meantime, “Salman Khan, the Bollywood superstar sentenced to five years in jail for killing a homeless man with his car after a night out drinking 13 years ago, has avoided prison for the moment after the judgment was suspended pending an appeal.” Jason Burke reports for the Guardian.
“Leopardi by Mario Martone has been named Film of the Year 2015 by Italian film journalists.” Camillo De Marco reports for Cineuropa.
Los Angeles. Quite the weekend at Cinefamily: Al Pacino: Theater & Film — An Actor’s Vision is on through tomorrow. And yes, he’s there, introducing screenings and taking part in Q&As.
IN THE WORKS
“Producer Joseph Infantolino has acquired the film rights to Josh Karp’s Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Gregg Kilday has the first few details we know about as yet.
“Paul Greengrass is set to go ahead with a biopic about Jimi Hendrix after the project’s producers, Legendary Pictures, made a deal with Hendrix’s rights-holders, Experience Hendrix, to use original recordings,” reports the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver. A “new script has been commissioned from Scott Silver, the writer of The Fighter and 8 Mile, to replace the Max Borenstein screenplay from the project’s first incarnation. Greengrass is expected to direct the film after completing work on the fifth Bourne film, currently in production with Matt Damon in the lead role.”
Jeff Nichols will direct Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Loving, reports Anne Thompson. “Inspired by Nancy Buirski’s The Loving Story, the film centers on Mildred and Richard Loving, the biracial couple behind the seminal 1967 civil rights case, Loving vs. Virginia.”
Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman “will star and produce” Big Little Lies, a “darkly comic drama centering on three mothers of kindergartners whose apparently perfect lives unravel to the point of murder,” reports Cynthia Littleton for Variety. David E. Kelley “is adapting the series from the 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty.”
“Natalie Portman is set to play Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex, with Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) in negotiations to direct.” Ali Jaafar reports for Deadline.