Thursday, February 18, 2016

New(ish) Releases (2015): Ex Machina; Dope; Straight Outta Compton

Ex Machina (2015)

Director: Alex Garland

A brilliant piece of original speculative fiction.

Ex Machina begins with Caleb, a young computer programmer in a large company, winning a competition to spend a week with his company's eccentric, reclusive, and brilliant founder, Nathan. Caleb is taken to Nathan's home in a beautiful, isolated area, where he is told that he will take part in a ground-breaking experiment. Nathan has been building robots with cutting-edge artificial intelligence, the long-time dream and goal of computer programmers whereby a machine actually possesses all the deepest and most complex intellectual capacities of human beings. Caleb's job will be to interview Nathan's latest creation, Ava, a robot given the form of a beautiful young woman. Nathan is told to apply his knowledge as a programmer to assess whether Ava could pass as a human.

Within the first few days of his stay at Nathan's beautifully sleek but confined home, Caleb senses something amiss. His host drinks himself into a total stupor every night. Several parts of the house are firmly locked by Nathan's state-of-the-art smart home security measures. Caleb is charmed by Ava when they first meet, but she soon tells him that Nathan torments her, out of the sight of others. Eventually, Caleb is mentally scrambling to determine whether he is part of some twisted experiment, or whether he is being manipulated by one or both of the hyper-intelligent beings in the house with him.

It is rare to get a science fiction film that is confident enough to keep its pace measured and its aesthetic simple and clean, but this is what Ex Machina does. The result is a striking work with a ton of intellectual and emotional power. The character of troubled genius Nathan is fascinating to attempt to analyze, though such an exercise is difficult for much of the film. Caleb, the far more sympathetic character, evokes the kind of feeling which we reserve for the good-hearted and vulnerable. The three-way psychological war is subtle enough that it never relies on cheap thrills or obvious melodrama. There is tension, but it is cerebral in nature, and it builds wonderfully to a shocking finish.

When taken with other films penned by Alex Garland, such as Sunshine and Dredd, Ex Machina means that I now have a smart, modern science-fiction movie writer who I am glad to follow to the theater.

Dope (2015)

Director: Rick Famuyiwa

A phenomenally creative update to the "coming up in the 'hood" movies of the late '80s and early '90s.

Dope chronicles several very tense and sometimes funny weeks in the life of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school senior growing up in 2014 in Inglewood, California, an area notorious for its poverty and danger. Malcolm is an unusual kid for his time and place - he's a young black man with a passion for learning at school, science fiction, punk music, and 1990s hip-hop and rap music and clothing styles. Basically, he's a geek. He and his two misfit friends, Jib and Diggy, spend far too much time trying to avoid the various perils rife in his neighborhood, tellingly nicknamed "The Bottoms."

One night at a club which Malcolm and his friends have nervously wormed their way into, a gunfight breaks out over a raid on a drug deal. After the chaos abates and the trio flee to safety, they discover that an entire brick of uncut cocaine has been stuffed into Malcolm's backpack, which had been placed behind the bar for safekeeping. This puts Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy in the difficult position of deciding what to do with it. Various social pressures and personal desires assert themselves, understandably, as these three nerds in the 'hood try to cope with a situation which could land one or all of them in prison.

Following such a description, you may be surprised to learn that Dope is an incredibly funny movie. Malcom, Job, and Diggy are such awkward fish out of water, despite being natives to The Bottoms, that their simplest, everyday interactions are often comedy gold. This is enhanced by some great direction by Rick Famuyiwa. For sections of the movie, Malcolm is almost a Ulysses-type character. He needs every bit of his considerable smarts to survive an array of dangerous and bizarre characters and situations. Almost every stage in his mini-epic journey has a distinctive sense of place, and it makes a viewer eager to see just what awaits Malcolm and his comrades around the next corner.

Dope is a wonderfully clever update to films from the late 1980s and the 1990s like Juice or Boyz In The Hood. It shines a light on a part of the United States that is far too often overlooked, and it does it with style and respect. A larger message is there, but it is not what you might expect, and it is nowhere near as heavy-handed as those earlier groundbreaking movies.

The original members. Unlike many of the "gangsta" rappers
who followed in their footsteps, these guys came by their
anger and perspectives honestly, as the movie shows.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Director: F. Gary Gray

Slick and compelling dramatization of the formation and dissolution of one of the iconic music groups of the late 20th century.

While the above-reviewed film Dope is a brilliant fictional tale of modern life in a rough section of Los Angeles, Straight Outta Compton is the dramatized tale of the very real hardcore rap group N.W.A. in the late 1980s and early 1990s in neighborhoods not far from the Inglewood in Dope. Those of us over age 35 are bound to have strong recollections of the waves that this group made at that time, and this movie does the members' stories justice.

Blessedly, the movie doesn't bother going back too far into the lives of the group's members. Rather, it picks up just before they come together and start performing. Director F. Gary Gray made the savvy move to quickly establish the social ills that Andre Young, O'Shea Jackson, and Eric Wright (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E, as they were better known) and fellow N.W.A. members lived every day. The movie then jumps into just how they channeled their frustrations, anger, and musical talents into a form of rap music that became wildly popular while scaring the pants off of the conservative white establishment. The focus on how the music reflected and was influenced by incidents such as the Rodney King beating and other institutional racial injustices is what propels this movie beyond a mere music biopic.

Eazy E's business partnership with manager Jerry Heller is
at the crux of much of the drama. Actors Jason Mitchell
and Paul Giamatti add plenty of power to their dynamic.
The movie is not flawless. A bit of research can tell one how certain details are glossed over or completely ignored (Dr. Dre's abuse of women, for one) or how certain events in the film either did not happen or were manipulated by the writers for more narrative punch. It also comes as no surprise that the movie's executive producers - Ice Cube and Dr. Dre - are painted in the most positive light. The movie also slows a bit when it comes to Eazy E's HIV diagnosis. Still, the lion's share of violent and unhinged incidents depicted can be confirmed with a bit of research, so one should fight the urge to dismiss the wilder elements as pure fiction. Pure truth or somewhat embellished, the movie is extremely well-paced, well-acted, and it remains interesting for nearly all of its 140-plus minutes. This is true even for someone like my wife, who knew very little about the group or its members but enjoyed the film.

Obviously, anyone with a severe distaste for gangsta rap will have difficulty with this film, as it does feature a considerable amount of the music of the era. That aside, and if one can handle the very authentic blue language and hedonism on full display in the movie, then they should give this one a go.