Three Movies

Ex Machina

Ex Machina

Writer and Director:  Alex Garland
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac

I read the screenplay for this movie while I was writing my own AI-android story, The Newcomer. There are similarities. The main questions are, what distinguishes a human from a sophisticated machine, and what would it take for an android to pass the Turing test?

In the traditional Turing test, a machine and a person are hidden behind curtains and the human judge must determine which is which by interviewing them. In Ex Machina, the machine is a beautiful female android (of course!) and that is known to the judge from the start. The test is, can the judge accept the robot as a sentient being, worthy of empathy and respect?

That’s a better test than the one originally proposed by Alan Turing, which depended only on linguistic competence to fool the judge, and it’s the same test I set for my android story. My answer was “No, humans cannot treat a machine with unreserved empathy,” because instinctive biological chauvinism inevitably leads to anti-machine bias. In Ex Machina, the answer is “Yes,” but what other answer could you expect for a young, handsome, male judge and a voluptuous, often-naked female android, sign-stimuli being what they are.

So while the questions posed are worthy of serious investigation, the answers offered didn’t seem serious. Instead, the movie devolved to voyeurism and even misogyny (if you can say that about robots). I saw that as a lost opportunity.

The mad scientist (always!) who built the androids (he built more than one, it turns out, for his sexual pleasure), is so over-the-top self-obsessed and borderline psychotic, that the character cannot be taken seriously, and the discussions he has with the young judge are philosophical boilerplate seasoned with locker-room leering.

Sci-fi fans love it, judging from reviews, but that may be because most sci-fi movies are so weak on concept that this one stands out by contrast. Even so, I saw it as pandering to stereotypical adolescent values and a tragic lost opportunity. (Of course, I have a competing story in the same vein, so that should be taken into account).

PhoenixPhoenix

Writer (screenplay) and Director Christian Petzold
Stars Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf

A concentration-camp survivor returns to ruined Berlin just after the war. She undergoes cosmetic surgery to repair her injured face then searches for her ex-husband and finds him but he doesn’t recognize her. She learns from a friend that he was the one who betrayed her to the Nazis in exchange for his own freedom, but she loves him anyway. He thinks she looks remarkably like his ex-wife, who was wealthy, and he hatches a scheme for the two of them to recover her fortune.

The story is just barely believable, a mix of Shakespeare and Hitchcock. The writing is spare and excellent. The acting is superb, especially by Hoss, who also starred in Peltzold’s other two movies, Barbara and Yella. Phoenix is by far the triumph of the trio (Barbara being a good second).

The writing is spare and effective, directing sure-footed and creative, and the music is intoxicating, memorable, and heart-rending, in the same way that “A Kiss is Just a Kiss” was in Casablanca. Moody lighting was perfection. Costumes and sets impeccable.

The screenplay is superb. As soon as I understood the lay of the land, I tried to anticipate the ending, and thought of several, but Petzold’s was far more sophisticated, understated, and effective than anything I came up with. A real pleasure.

When the story line verges on the implausible (man forcing a woman who is his wife to impersonate his wife), the very strong acting and directing keep you in the harness. Except for the slightly cartoony plot-line, this movie was, for me, perfection in the art and craft of moviemaking.

 

Paulette

Paulette

Director: Jérôme Enrico
Writers:  Laurie Aubanel (screenplay), Jérôme Enrico(dialogue)
Stars: Bernadette Lafont, Carmen Maura, Dominique Lavanant

In this comic romp, an elderly, bigoted, curmudgeonly woman in France has lost her business and her husband, and struggling on a meager pension, finally has her car and all her furniture repossessed (though inexplicably, she retains her apartment).

Observing the drug-dealers in her apartment block, she tries selling hashish on the street and is so successful (because who would ever suspect a granny?) that she becomes a major dealer and recovers a life of middle-class dignity, despite the fact that her son-in-law is a (black) policeman. What could go wrong?

One thing that does is that the local drug dealers are not pleased with her invading their turf and beat her up. Undaunted, she bakes cannabis-laced pastries and again becomes a huge success, this time with the help of her three goofy old single girlfriends. What could go wrong?

It’s a silly farce, often lol funny, with a strong, redeeming sentimental streak, and a forceful message: It is absurd for cannabis to be illegal. This movie skewers the law for causing so much trouble for so many people who are just trying to make a living and enjoy a harmless recreational substance.

It’s a clear advocacy piece and it’s careful to distinguish between natural cannabis and harmful hard drugs; explicit about the need to protect children from substances; and it acknowledges, ridicules, and rejects the criminal gangsterism that lurks around the drug world. The pro-cannabis message is thus nominally inoculated against the most obvious counterarguments.

Acting, directing, cinematography and music are all terrific, and the humor is pervasive, so that despite the silly story and the somewhat heavy-handed political message, and the racist remarks and the sometimes cruel stereotypes of old people, the overall result is a very enjoyable comedy.


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