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.
Clearly Oscar Isaac is having a very good year at the moment, popping up all over the place. I have no objections to this, of course. In JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year he’s Abel Morales, a hard-working Brooklyn family man, running a heating oil supplier with the help of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). Abel is determined to keep his business on the straight and narrow, but that’s easier than it sounds in Brooklyn. Especially when someone – most likely one of his competitors – is hijacking his trucks and threatening to destroy his livelihood.
Chastain and Isaac make the perfect early 80s couple – all hair and labels (there are some seriously good coats here). Anna has grown up with the mob, the heating oil business once belonged to her gangster father and she has no problem running things the way he did. But Abel wants a clean sheet and although he’s surrounded by violence, he wants no part of it. Especially as New York DA (David Oyelowo, wonderful as always) is breathing down his neck. But this determination not to fight back leads him into even deeper trouble, not helped by the fact that his wife is packing more than lipstick in her handbag.
Isaac is superb as Abel, a man driven to succeed but struggling under his compunction to do the right thing. Especially when doing the wrong thing would be so much easier. The strain on his employees and family weighs heavy, and his determination to expand the business at any cost could be the powder keg that destroys everything.
Chandor is in control here, giving us impressive car chases and moments of truly gripping fear. There was a long stretch towards the end when I don’t think I took a breath. It looks great too, with some beautiful shots of the New York skyline glimpsed in the distance, reminding Abel what he’s chasing. With hints of The Godfather, The Yards and Goodfellas (some of my favourites) this one was always going to be a winner.
The Two Faces of January is Hossein Amini’s first as director, though he’s a successful screenwriter with Drive, no less, under his belt. He picked up the rights to Patricia Highsmith’s book 15 years ago, knowing it would make a great film, and kept hold of it in the hope that one day budget and stars would align. And align they have.
It’s 1962 and we’re in Athens where Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) have arrived on a tour of Europe. Also in Athens is Rydal (Oscar Isaac) a young American student working as a tour guide and running small time cons to bump up his tips. He’s on the lookout for easy targets to fleece, and what could be better than an obviously wealthy couple – especially if one of them reminds him of his recently deceased (and estranged) father and the other just happens to be extremely easy on the eye. You can probably guess which is which.
After some slightly unfortunate shenanigans, the three end up hiding out in Crete. Chester turns to drink to help deal with the fact that his beautiful wife and the handsome young tour guide are clearly hot for each other and Rydal is out of his depth in a situation he isn’t really mature enough to control. As for Colette – she married an older man for his money and he’s suddenly looking his age as well as revealing a slightly wonky moral compass. The three circle each other with fear, desire and mistrust: all chasing money but driven by their inner demons.
It’s the performances that really lift this: Mortensen is great as a man descending into paranoia and fear as he lurches from one disaster to the next, crumbling like the ruins he is touring. Isaac shows the calm depth of character that made Inside Llewyn Davis so wonderful and Dunst gives Colette enough bite to lift her out of eye candy territory.
Despite a third act that sags a wee bit, this is elegant and gripping stuff in the vein of The Talented Mr Ripley, so ideal for anyone who likes to see a rich man sweating in a Panama hat. And, of course, the scenery is beautiful.
Watching the trailer here for the first time reminded me just how much I loved Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s a real gem from Ethan and Joel Coen, easily up there with their best. I think it was my favourite at LFF this year, though it had some strong competition.
Llewyn Davis (a beautifully gentle performance from Oscar Isaac, rocking a corduroy jacket and beard in the sexiest way possible) is a folk singer in 60s New York. Newly solo after losing his singing partner, he’s flirting with a solo career, reluctant to give up the chance of success. This vague hope is all that he has – Davis has never really grown up. It’s as though he is expecting success to make him a man, and the lack of it has stunted his emotional development. He doesn’t have a home, relying on friends to put him up on their lumpy couches and helping himself from their larders. When he’s rude to one friend, he just moves onto the next, assuming that they’ll have forgotten how rude he was last time he outstayed his welcome. They usually have, there’s a charm in Davis that seems to carry him through. And which carries him a bit too far when impregnates one half of a folk duo (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, also rocking tremendous jumpers).
There’s a heavy sense of what might have been about Davis, he’s a man who can see off any glimmer of hope that appears, leaving a trail of self-pity in its wake. It’s as if he has failed so much in life that he expects nothing else, and soaks up each new blow with the stolidity of a boxer. You’re torn between wanting him to make a success of things, and thinking that he really doesn’t deserve to.
That all makes it sound a bit sombre, but fear not – the Coens have filled the darkness with plenty of their trademark humour as well as some memorable performances (John Goodman pops up as a frankly quite terrifying jazz musician). The songs are perfect and will make you want to listen to folk music, at least for a short while, when you leave the cinema. If you can sit through Hey Mr Kennedy without giggling and tapping your foot then you’re dead inside. There’s a great cat too, which for a while lets Davis show his caring side. Only for a while though.
Inside Llewyn Davis is nothing short of wonderful – I hope Oscars shower upon it.