Ex Machina

Ex Machina

I’ve seen Ex Machina four times now and each time I’ve had a different response, which is the mark of a good, complex movie.

The first time I was disappointed because it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know. But that was more about me than the film and as such a poor judgment.

For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a three-way chamber piece about a tech billionaire, the artificial intelligence he’s invented and shaped in the form of an attractive woman, and the naive young man invited into their world to see if the AI passes the Turing Test and is to all intents and purposes a functional human.

The AI, played by Alicia Vikander, connects with the new guy as any young heterosexual couple would, playing on the subtle connections of attraction, the eye contact, the body language, the shared moments.

It becomes a thousand times more terrifying when you imagine the AI as a lawnmower, which is what it essentially is. A cold, impersonal machine that is very good at understanding what it takes to lure lovelorn, desperate humans.

Prescient. And right now, perfectly summing up the world we’re entering where all the rules are changed and you can no longer trust your own eyes.

But this time I saw it less about technology and more about simple human relationships. None of us can tell the true nature of the people we’re interacting with. If they’re good at putting on masks, understanding our psychology, pulling our strings, we are all potentially someone’s plaything. If they’re worming their way into our emotional lives for their own ends, we may end up defenceless.

Human beings can often be as terrifying as impersonal computer intelligence.

Good film.


Blonde has been described in some quarters as a horror story. It’s not, not remotely. It is, though, the saddest film ever laid before an audience, a sadness that is so wide and deep and endless it’s possible to drown in it.

The Netflix film belongs wholly to Ana de Armas who blazes with such intense light in every scene, almost every shot, with an intensity that makes it impossible to look away.

Her performance as the receptacle of that sadness captures heart-breaking layers and I would think an Oscar nomination has already been inked in.

But here’s the thing: despite what the publicity material says, it’s not a film about Marilyn Monroe. It’s a story about a symbol that just happens to resemble Norma Jean and her life. It’s there in the personality free title, in writer/director Andrew Dominik’s stylistic tics and flourishes which distance the work from real life and announce that we are not watching human beings here. And it’s in de Armas’ performance, where she plays the symbol that people have come to recognise when they hear the name Marilyn.

The script makes no attempt to capture the essence of the real-life Norma Jean, the humour, the sharp intellect, the kindness. Because The Blonde has a bigger story to tell, a mythological one.

Like every streaming film, I expect Blonde to have disappeared off the radar in a matter of months, never to be discussed again. But for now, if you can bear the emotional weight of sadness and suffering, it’s an interesting oddity and for de Armas it will undoubtedly be career-changing.

Rosemary’s Baby Redux

This is a film I come back to every year, usually at this time, as the season turns. Some old movies are very difficult to watch with current mores. Rosemary’s Baby is one that has grown to meet the times.

It’s a horror story about the patriarchy.

A suffocating, intense portrayal of a gaslit woman battling against dismissive doctors and one of the most loathsome husbands on film, played with rage-inducing slipperiness and manipulation by the excellent John Cassavetes.

Mia Farrow, who has lived this role, is so powerful as a woman besieged by the strictures of a society designed to constrain and depower her.

She fights and fights, but even when it’s hopeless there are sometimes ways to achieve transcendence if you stay true to yourself.

The paranoia in the final half is almost unbearable. There’s no blood, no monsters, only the mundane. And that’s where the real horror lies.

Boom time For The UK Film Industry

Off the radar, the production centre of the global film and TV industry has moved across the Atlantic to the UK.

Within two years, there will be more studio space and facilities than Los Angeles, attracting the biggest movies and TV shows. Wicked, Wonder Woman 3 and Amazon’s billion dollar Lord of the Rings series are already in production.

The industry has been pulled in by top level tax credits of 25%, world-beating visual effects houses, highly trained crews, state of the art studios and that there’s diverse environments for location shooting in a relatively small space – cities, mountains, seascapes, moors, rolling countryside.

The boom has been spread across most of the nation (Scotland hasn’t decided to join in for some reason) with new studios in Manchester, Belfast, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Birmingham, Derby, Dagenham and Oxford and vastly expanded facilities at Elstree, Pinewood and Bray.

There’s now a massive demand for new people to train for the range of crew – from cameras and sound to make-up and set design.

The next step is to start boosting home-grown productions that offer opportunities for creatives.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

My favourite film of the year. My favourite film of many years.

Completely original, constantly surprising, endlessly inventive with a massive heart. It’s so rare these days to see a film that has no antecedents, but this one manages to be cut free from past film reality. The writer and director have produced an instant classic.

I’m not saying anything about the plot – the less you know, the better it is. But every time you think you’ve got a handle on it, you really haven’t.

Michelle Yeoh is fantastic, so is Stephanie Hsu.

A film that is embedded in culture yet is also universal.

Netflix To Let Viewers Pick How Movies End

One of the things you quickly learn as a writer is that viewers and readers never really want what they think they want. They desire what they could never have predicted. That’s why you never listen to ‘fans’ when you’re putting something together for a general audience.

I love Netflix. They’re great disruptors, and they’re driving the modern age of TV and film viewing. Now they’re planning to let viewers choose endings to movies and TV episodes, like a choose-your-own-adventure game.

I think this is a misunderstanding of both human psychology, and how storytelling works.

I’ve had meetings where I’ve been briefed on many new ways of telling visual tales, from VR, to AR, to this. One thing’s for sure – everything is going to change.

But the principles remain the same.

Sucker Punch Review

I have a different take on this from many others. I…enjoyed certainly isn’t the right word…but I *appreciated* the film. I have to use a completely different set of standards to judge Sucker Punch because the director, Zack Snyder, eschews the traditional way of telling a cinematic story to get his point/theme/subtext across. By any storytelling yardstick it looks a mess at first glance – strange logic, cardboard characters, frankly baffling narrative lines. But I found when I stepped back from that and looked at it from a different perspective I thought it was very, very good indeed.

As background, I’m always hooked by films, TV shows and books where the viewer/reader has an important part to play in deciphering the story. Muholland Drive (or any Lynch film, really), Inception, The Prisoner, House of Leaves. Cracking the code gives me as much of a thrill as what’s playing out before my eyes.

Sucker Punch has a lot going on in its warped Wonderland. There are very few touchstones where you can connect with the real world. And that’s part of the director’s theme. (SPOILERS AHEAD) One reading is that *nothing* in the film is real – it opens under the proscenium arch with the curtain drawn back on what is clearly a stage. I can understand how that would turn a lot of people off.

The movie connects with a zeitgeisty theme that runs from BSG, Lost, Ashes to Ashes, Inception, through Sucker Punch and, possibly, into Source Code. One suggestion is that the whole film is a view of hell or purgatory (many critics would agree!) ruled by a devil and many demons from which one girl is trying to escape – the final scenes suggest this to be true. The characters are cardboard in the way that Alice in Wonderland’s characters are cardboard – what it is saying is more important.

Part of the problem for the reception must be laid at Warners’ door. The trailers missold the film to an epic level. Most of the scenes in these trailers come from four sequences amounting to…what…20 minutes? of the film and are the least interesting parts. They’re all symbolic. Sucker Punch is truly a grim film, dealing with the brutalisation of women in a male-dominated society. It’s not empowering as such, more a comment, which does make for a difficult watch. The only escape comes through death. No wonder Warners had trouble selling it.

Nor is it exploitative – one thing several critics have picked up on. I have no idea how they can say that having seen the film. The women may wear fetishistic clothing, but the grimness of their experience strips away any titillation. Their sexualisation becomes truly sad in the end.

I can understand how Sucker Punch won’t appeal to a broad audience. But I’m sure we all have films we love that everyone else hates (I will defend Southland Tales to the death). For me this is a singular if flawed vision that I will revisit many times.