Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Out of the Machine Comes a Thrilling Vision



        Ex Machina, the directorial debut of 28 Days Later and Sunshine writer Alex Garland, operates around a series of binaries. There’s the obvious man vs. machine, but also man vs. woman, the mind vs. the heart, nature vs. technology, the past vs. the future, reality vs. the imaginary. These aren’t exactly unusual themes for a story about artificial intelligence or for science fiction in general, but rather than ultimately picking a side as many are wont to do, this movie seeks to unify these seemingly incompatible concepts. Like the android at its center, Ex Machina is a synthesis of different, carefully selected parts fused to create an elegant, more-than-functional whole, and its sleek, familiar surface gradually peels back to reveal something much cooler and more slyly intelligent underneath.

        Where many sci-fi films aim for the (sometimes literal) stars, looking to paint a dazzling, explosive picture on as large a canvas as possible, Ex Machina opts for a small-scale approach, featuring only four main characters and keeping nearly all of the action confined to isolated, clearly delineated spaces. As Oscar Isaac’s Nathan concedes early on, his house isn’t cozy; it’s claustrophobic, a modernist, technological prison surrounded by an almost overwhelmingly expansive natural oasis that whispers of freedom, the unknown and – most importantly to the two men who anchor this narrative – the uncontrollable. After all, the desire to control, the promise of power and supremacy is what draws Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson in a nicely restrained yet taut performance) to Nathan’s home, a decidedly artificial world that they seek to rule not just as men or kings, but as gods. Strikingly shot by cinematographer Rob Hardy and brought to life by production designer Mark Digby, art directors Katrina Mackay and Denis Schnegg, and set decorator Michelle Day, the house is an architect’s wet dream, as tastefully sophisticated as it is cold and hollow, seeming to exist in a limbo somewhere between the real world and a fantasy. The abundance of glass is hardly an accident; as Caleb slowly discovers over the course of the film, the control it offers is an illusion, one easily shattered despite the fancy security system that Nathan has installed.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Conversation Comes to a Close


        I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something. Those two lines opened “Time Zones”, the first episode of the seventh and final season of AMC’s complex, game-changing Mad Men. They also, in a way, summed up the show as a whole.  Demanding the kind of constant, painfully close scrutiny from viewers that made it a boon to TV critics everywhere, Mad Men was a series of beginnings – blossoming relationships, unstable mergers, forever-shifting identities, history itself all hurtling toward a terrifying yet exciting unknown – but it realized what its characters tried so hard to deny: that every birth and rebirth must be accompanied by a death. In the season four finale, Dr. Faye Miller, the latest woman to be deserted by Jon Hamm’s womanizing Don Draper, told the ad man extraordinaire that he only likes the beginnings of things. That quote rang with such truth not because Don is selfish and noncommittal, though he’s undeniably a bit of both, but because he knows that facing the end means confronting his end, becoming face-to-face with his own mortality. He fears that inevitable moment of loss and the lack of control he has over it, just as he’s afraid of change, of moving on and getting left behind, so he runs away.

        Much will be written about Mad Men between now and when that final shot, whatever it is, fades from our TV screens. People will ruminate over what it means for prestige cable shows, antiheroes and the so-called Golden Age of Television, and the vast majority of it will likely be more thorough, more precise, more insightful than this piece. I don’t say that to be self-deprecating or (just) because I don’t have the highest self-esteem, but rather, because there’s been so much fantastic writing about this show scattered across the Internet, on sites like A.V. Club, Salon, Tom + Lorenzo and just about anywhere else you can find TV criticism, that I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t urge you to check these recaps and analyses out.

        I can’t say I’ve been watching Mad Men from the beginning. In fact, the first episode I ever saw was the season three premiere, “Out of Town”, and considering that I had only the vaguest awareness of who the characters were and what was happening plot-wise, this was unsurprisingly a bad idea. Though I’d heard and read nothing but endless praise for the show, a stately period drama about the world of advertising didn’t exactly sound like compelling entertainment to me at the time. I couldn’t imagine not finding it stiff, slow and overly dense, and my first uninformed attempt to dive in confirmed these initial expectations firmly enough that I didn’t give it another chance until around at least two years later. Seeing that the 17-month hiatus between seasons four and five would give me plenty of time to fully catch up, I started watching in the fall of 2011, which I remember because it was my first semester of college. This time, I got hooked instantly.

        Perfectly titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, the pilot exhibited many of the show’s best qualities from the beginning: the subtle wit and self-awareness of its writing; the prickly characters we would learn to both love and hate; the deliberate way it used its production design, cinematography and lighting to establish setting, mood and theme. While I obviously already knew that Don had a family when I finally watched that episode, the reveal of Betty and their children still worked as a means of telling audiences that not everything was as it appeared, that beneath the ad-glossy surface of class and glamour lay a universe of greed, deceit, ambiguity and dark secrets.