Ex Machina is our pick of the week…

Oh you silly, silly man…

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That was the week in which…

A man who modelled himself on The Wolf Of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort was convicted of fraud. Which offers a timely reminder: outside of superheroes, Star Wars and the occasional inspirational true-life tale, being overly influenced by a movie character is a pretty dumb idea.

If, like me, you were out the back having a wiz when God was dishing out an inherent sense of style, it’s tempting to steal a persona from the world of fiction. Yet being yourself and not being cool is a step above aping someone else’s style, still not being cool and totally missing the point and/or irony of the story that they’re taken from.

But beyond that, memorable film characters have to be depicted as being stuck in a purgatory between good and evil simply to be interesting. No conflict inevitably leads to limited narrative possibilities. These anti-heroes are intended to be at least partially sympathetic, to draw you into the often-cautionary story of their existence; much like a psychopath will reel you with shallow charm shortly before The Bad Stuff happens.

Experiencing Belfort’s hedonistic ride would be pretty damn thrilling but, being a trenchant buffoon, a role model he was not. Similarly, Fight Club’s Tyler Durden shouldn’t encourage you to bash a stranger. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is not a basically sound guy. American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman can be your style icon if you want to look like a corporate bell-end, but beating women and listening to Huey Lewis is not cool. And the central message of Buddhism is not: “Every man for himself.”

Thankfully, very few people are stupid or suggestive enough to do such a thing and the idea of effectively wanting to be someone else usually ends before childhood does. For your regular movie-goer, this offers an obvious reminder: many films imply more than they immediately demonstrate. Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

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The Big Film: Ex Machina

Having spent many years as a successful author and screenwriter, Alex Garland moves behind the camera for his directorial debut Ex Machina.

Forthcoming Star Wars castmates Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac star in a story about young coder Caleb (Gleeson), who is invited to the luxurious estate of his reclusive boss, tech billionaire Nathan (Isaac). Once there, he finds out he is being asked to assess Nathan’s new project – a lifelike artificial life form named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Enchanted by both the project and Ava herself, Caleb’s dream turns into a nightmare once Nathan’s true intentions begin to make themselves known. 

Garland brings us in to an environment as unreal as Ava herself, with a film that overloads your senses both visually and aurally. Once the “ooh”s and “aah”s have subsided, however, the film turns into a claustrophobic, psychological thriller exploring that most human characteristic: survival.

As deftly executed as this is, it means the story doesn’t delve that deeply into some of the questions that it raises, becoming less of the meditation on technology than perhaps many were expecting. However, when the story is this involving, it doesn’t seem to matter as much.

With a big beard and fondness for pumping iron, Isaac may look a lot different from his other role this week in A Most Violent Year, but he is no less intense and intriguing. He slowly and brilliantly turns from eccentric billionaire to dark antagonist, while Gleeson’s overwhelmed lead struggles to piece together the truth. Swedish actress Vikander is remarkable as Ava, a combination of a well-judged performance and stunning special effects.

While maybe not as complex or intelligent as you would’ve hoped, Ex Machina is nonetheless an accomplished and often gripping film, which underlines the potential of both its cast and director. Words: James Luxford

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Also Out: A Most Violent Year

Forgive the misnomer of a title: yes, there’s plenty of brutality on display but the majority of the violence in this fading American Dream is sourced from political and industrial corruption in a drained New York City.

Recalling Al Pacino from days of yonder, Oscar Isaac heads the cast as Abel Morales, the owner of a company dealing with heating oil. He’s struggling to take his business to the next level without falling into the world of organised crime. Such considerations don’t really impact upon the thinking of his wife (Jessica Chastain), who’s so sufficiently hardened by the economic realities of the city that putting a moose out of its misery with a bullet comes as second nature.

From its pacing to its colour scheme to the business which underpins the plot, A Most Violent Year is a muted experience which delivers slow-burning rewards rather than searing energy. It’s an approach that entirely complements the majority of Morales’ attempts to overcome the deviousness to which he’s subjected. If he can play it straight he will, but the tension in the axis of morality versus immorality can only tighten before it eventually snaps.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor has created what almost feels like an old-fashioned film: one in which the blend of characters and circumstance contorts expectations of sub-genre. Whether it picks on elements of family conflict, retro gangland drama or slow-mo thriller, it’s exquisitely shot and expertly played.

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Also Out: The Gambler

Mark Wahlberg as a compulsive gambler makes sense, but can you really see him as a professor of literature who’s gripped by a crippling sense of ennui? It’s just one of a number of problems which plague this remake of the 1974 James Caan vehicle.

Quite why Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) gambles so recklessly is barely explained: Addiction? Nihilistic self-destruction? Either way, over some dramatically inert scenes in which money is easy come, easy go, his debt becomes so great that loan sharks provide his only means of escape – with suitably punchy consequences.

Narrative detours are a mixed bag. Brie Larson, so excellent in Short Term 12, is wasted as Bennett’s love interest in a sub-plot that’s both underdeveloped and entirely unnecessary, although an excursion into match-fixing in the world of college basketball at least injects some much-needed energy into proceedings. John Goodman and Jessica Lange also add undeniable charisma to the supporting cast.

The accompanying soundtrack is occasionally intrusive (let’s face it, the words of Rodriguez are more compelling than the film’s dialogue) and sometimes blunderingly obvious (Bennett’s loan shark is inevitably listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ when he demands his), which only adds to The Gambler’s woes. It’s watchable if uninspiring entertainment, but in such a strong month for films it’s a bad hand.

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Russia’s current trend for incredibly dubious political decisions has now extended to the world of film. Culture minister Vladimir Medinsky has obtained the power to reschedule Hollywood films in order to minimise competition for domestic releases. It sounds like state censorship disguised as the promotional of national culture.

“We won't fight for every [Russian] film, though. We will set financial, political or ideological priorities,” he said, in words that reflect his recent criticism of the Oscar-nominated Leviathan: “However much the authors made the characters swear and swig litres of vodka, they are not Russians. I did not recognise myself, my colleagues, friends or even friends of friends in Leviathan’s characters.” 

American Sniper (pictured) proved be the silent assassin of last weekend’s UK box office as it went straight in at #2, just behind latest madcap adventures of the Taken series. Whiplash (review) swung into a groove at #7 on the back of enough positivity to inspire a million Life Hack websites, followed by Wild at #9 which also gained broadly good reviews despite everyone telling me that it wasn’t much cop. Testament Of Youth entered two places lower.

Finally, Daniel Wolfe is the man behind The Shoes’ video for ‘Time To Dance’, which depicts Jake Gyllenhaal in the midst of a hipster killing spree. His debut film Catch Me Daddy, written with his brother Matthew, is an early contender for the most intense Brit indie film of the year. Here’s the trailer:

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Words: Ben Hopkins, except where indicated

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