Another outing for Oscar Isaac here, so again no complaints from me on that score. Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina takes us to some unspecified time in the none-too-distant future where Nathan (Isaac), a rich software genius, lives a reclusive life in a pretty spectacular home. He’s invited a lucky random employee to visit, which turns out to be Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a lonely geek who can’t believe his luck – especially when Nathan tells him he’s there to evaluate a special project: Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a robot, the sort of robot only a man would invent – stunningly beautiful, great tits etc etc. To be fair, if I was going to invent a robot I’d probably make him look like ER-era George Clooney complete with built-in nespresso machine, so fair dos really. Ava does that thing that all robots do, and longs to be free from her robotty constraints, and who better to help her than poor gullible Caleb who has not surprisingly developed a bit of a thing for her.
The plot isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, though it all chugs along nicely, building up suspicion and mistrust between Caleb and Nathan. The three leads do well with this slightly clichéd material: Isaac is genuinely menacing behind a veneer of combative mateyness and Gleeson rolls out his confused young chap act as well as ever. And though she’s essentially just wank material, Vikander gives Ava enough intelligence to set her up nicely as a catalyst between ego and wannabe.
There are a lot of big ideas here, but no emotional touchstones, it left me a bit unmoved really. Apart from Isaac’s disco dancing – that is worth the price of admission alone.
Before Whiplash stole its thunder this was the talk of the festival circuit: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo doing the acting in Bennett Miller’s follow up to Moneyball. On the face of it, that’s a promising line-up, although to be honest I found Moneyball a bit tedious so that’s not a big draw for me.
Foxcatcher is a true story – take my advice, if you don’t know it, don’t google until you’ve seen the film, it’s worth not knowing. Mark Schultz (Tatum) and his brother Dave (Ruffalo) are Olympic wrestlers. Dave is at the end of his career and turning to coaching, but Mark still has another gold medal in his sights. When eccentric millionaire John Du Pont (Carell) offers to coach him at his luxury ranch, Mark is fastening his seatbelt on Du Pont’s private plane before you can say chinlock; he doesn’t have anything to leave behind, except a diet of supernoodles and his tv. Dave isn’t interested in joining him despite a big bucks offer – he’s married (to Sienna Miller) with kids, and has no desire to uproot. It all starts off well for Mark, but before long the temptations and pressures from the increasingly bonkers Du Pont are too much and everything goes a bit pear-shaped. Well, a hell of a lot pear-shaped actually. But as I said, don’t google it.
Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent, playing against type and uglying up – all wearing tshirts that say OSCAR BAIT under their wrestling vests. Well, Tatum uglies up as much as he can, his Mark Schulz is an archetypal neanderthal wrestler, lonely and looking for a father figure. He’s a sad case, the gold medal is the only thing he has in life and he clings onto it like a life raft. Ruffalo probably has the least to do out of the three, playing the good big brother and stepping in when Mark’s life starts to spiral out of control. But Carell is almost unrecognisable as Du Pont, a man so rich he doesn’t have to answer to anyone except his mother (a totally underused Vanessa Redgrave). He wears a prosthetic nose so large that at times you can see him struggle to act around it. It’s actually quite amazing he can hold his head upright.
But what should be a slick film about ambition, loneliness and repression turns out to be a rather dull and overlong plod through a story that doesn’t really have enough meat on the bone. You can have the best acting in the world, but if the audience aren’t gripped by what’s going on, it’s a bit of a waste. There’s a lot missing here, parts of the story feel a bit disjointed, we don’t really learn much about Mark Schultz or John Du Point other than that one is desperate to be his big brother and the other is a spoiled rich kid afraid to acknowledge his sexuality. Everyone’s a stereotype.
Ultimately disappointing, Foxcatcher is three great performances in search of a story.
Carol Morley is without doubt an extremely talented director. I loved Dreams of a Life, it’s one of those films that really stayed with me, so I was looking forward to seeing what she’d do with this story of hysterical fainters in a 1960s girls’ school. Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) is Lydia, a teenager with a troubled home life and a randy brother. Playing the straight girl to her glamorous and sexually active best friend Abbie (Florence Pugh) has its emotional drawbacks and when tragedy strikes, Lydia becomes the catalyst for a rapidly spreading outbreak of swooning among her schoolfriends.
The Falling is stylishly done, calling on influences from both Picnic at Hanging Rock and Heavenly Creatures to create a world of adolescent female angst and nascent sexuality. There’s an other-worldly vibe here that works well and Morley has assembled an impressive cast including Maxine Peake, wearing a beehive like a protective helmet, and a near-unrecognisable Greta Scacchi, as well as newcomer Florence Pugh, who I suspect we’ll see more of.
Despite its potential, there’s a lot about The Falling that just didn’t work for me. A clumsy soundtrack by Tracy Thorn seemed to blurt out too often and spoil the mood, like a drunk in a library, and the film’s climax relies too much on over-the-top amateur dramatics, especially during some of the fainting episodes. It’s a bit like watching a torturous school play at times. I think this is why when there’s a particularly dark revelation towards the end, there was more than a trickle of laughter from the audience: something just didn’t gel. And for god’s sake, you’ve got Maxine Peake on board, give her something to do other than wield a can of Elnett at regular intervals.
There’s talent here though, and a likeable director who isn’t afraid to take chances. So whatever Morley does next will be worth looking out for.