ex-machina-ExMachina_Payoff_hires2_rgbAs that other sci-fi movie featuring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac looms (ahem, Star Wars VII), there’s a small sci-fi suspense film pitting the two actors together over a robotic femme fatal (Alicia Vikander) coming out in wide release this Friday. Ex Machina, the first film directed by Alex Garland, the writer behind such “re-inventive” sci-fi/suspense films as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is a compellingly entertaining film featuring a handful of characters stuck together inside a big house in the woods. But it’s also a little more than that.

In a wordless prologue, we watch Gleeson’s character, Caleb, from behind a computer screen, celebrating after he wins some major prize via email. There’s sharing via text, social media and almost instantaneous responses of “congratulations!” and “take me!!” Meanwhile, people gather around his cubicle, as the news of his win spreads. The delay of the “real world” over the virtual world makes for a funny dig at the relevance of one above the other. But it is also an important set-up in establishing an encounter with the virtual as substitute for the real thing, for this film is all about a man’s idea of harnessing feminine sexuality in an ideal, constructed surrogate for the real thing … and paying the price for it.


It turns out Caleb has been invited by his boss (Isaac) to his mansion in the woods for a week-long stay where he will meet Nathan’s latest high-tech invention: a sexy-looking robot called Ava. Caleb is a skinny, awkward nebbish, simply geeking over the fact that he gets to meet the reclusive founder/inventor of a computer system called Bluebook for which Caleb works as an office drone. After a two hour-plus helicopter ride over his boss’ property, he is dropped off in a clearing and told to follow a river, which will lead him to the house. It’s a nice surreal and ominous touch with echoes of no escape. After letting himself in with an automatic ID card maker, Caleb finds Nathan hitting a punching bag shirtless. Nathan explains he is detoxing a hangover. Nathan’s all smiles and “bros” over Caleb, trying to bring him down to earth from his celebrity fixation over their meeting. It’s as if an Apple “genius” had a chance to live with Steve Jobs for a week.

Of course, no meeting like this ever leads to anything idyllic. Nathan is soon revealed as a mad scientist frustrated by his work in perfecting the ideal robot who happens to have the body of a young woman. Nathan takes to drink every night and reveals a cynical sense of humor that covers up a misanthropic personality on the verge on giving up on himself. Caleb is almost the opposite. Not only can’t he understand Nathan’s sense of humor, but he’s too excited by the honor of the invitation to notice Nathan’s unstable character. Nathan — and soon even Ava — manipulate this poor milquetoast throughout the movie. Though Caleb thinks he is rather smart about AI, mistakenly believing he’s figured out his role as a collaborator with Nathan to apply the Turing Test to Ava, he’s actually always one step behind. After all, Nathan hand-selected Caleb based on his profile culled from his Internet searches, including his online “porn profile” to interact with Ava — another revelation Caleb comes to a bit too late.


There’s a desperation to both of these men, who are both human and therefore terribly flawed, blinded by an arrogance that never allows them to know just how deep in shit they are getting into. Caleb is a geeky, lonely male who tries to keep his cool by spewing his highfalutin knowledge of theory. At Nathan’s prodding for how he “feels” about Ava, he drops the fancy talk to tell him, “I feel that she’s fucking amazing.”

Nathan is a bit more interesting, corrupted by wealth, his God complex and his libido. Sexually, his creation becomes his downfall, as he mistakenly thinks he has ownership of its being. There’s a terrific reveal that alludes to one of the greatest misogynists in literature: Bluebeard. Yet, Nathan still garners the viewer’s sympathy, which is a feat for a film villain, and Isaac walks that line supremely. Though he has a dryly humorous dance scene with one his robots, there is also pathos in it. He’s a sad drunk who echoes Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhagavad Gita: “The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”


It’s his fate that is the most interesting at the end. Too bad, Garland cannot handle the climactic finale as well as it deserves. Some may confuse it for humor or even justice. Resolution has always been a problem for Garland’s scripts, and Ex Machina does not fix this. But the concept of Ex Machina remains interesting. The notion of AI follows the clichés we know from similar films. Ava does arrive at that existential conundrum of computers that have become self-aware: “Don’t dismantle me!” But that’s not what this film is about (for truly mystical concerns of AI, check out Computer Chess [Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber]). Ex Machina is about man projecting ideals in the worst kind of way. Ava has curves but nothing organic below the surface save for obscure gears and glowing wires. She’s a pretty face with a stilted control of English. There’s an element of clear dehumanization that requires someone like Caleb and Nathan to project an ideal on. When she does act out, as teased in the trailer below, there is no sense of empathy. The notion of sexuality is but a tool for Ava to harness in order to gain an upper-hand over the men. To anthropomorphize this thing would be a mistake. Ex Machina is ultimately the most weirdly feminist film by a man, focusing on the shortcoming of man’s perception of women, and for that, Garland deserves kudos.

Hans Morgenstern

Ex Machina runs 110 minutes and is rated R (Violence, cussing and naked lady parts). It opens this Friday in most every theater in the U.S. A24 hosted a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A Royal Affar - poster artToo often, period films are often dismissed as “costume drama.” This reductive perspective does a disservice to a genre of cinema that, in the right hands, can offer history that illuminates the present as much as recreate the past. Recently, independent movie studios have brought some amazing period films focused on the late 18th century to U.S. art houses.  Mozart’s Sister re-imagined the sister of the child prodigy as an ahead-of-her-time go-getter (review). Farewell My Queen focused on the skittish malaise of Marie Antoinette as the ruling class hoarded their riches while peasants starved, a prescient drama considering all the talk of the increasing divide of the financial classes in today’s age (I could not help but review it in tandem with the documentary the Queen of Versailles). Though the stories of these films take place during the end of the Age of Enlightenment, they also seem to have a knack for illuminating society in today’s current time.

Now comes the Danish film A Royal Affair, recently announced as a Best Foreign Language contender for the Oscar® (it lost to Amour during for the Golden Globes in the same category [my review for Amour comes next week]). Let the title not misinform you, this film explores much more than a queen cheating on her king with one of his subjects. The drama may be between the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the queen of Denmark, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and her man-child king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) for whom the doctor was hired to tend to, but this triangle only offers the human backdrop for the larger story. Director Nikolaj Arcel uses humor and sexual tension peppered with the conflict of ideas of the Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason) versus the church to create a dynamic film that maintains a brisk pace, despite its two-hour-15-minute runtime.

Beyond the tension of the triangle there are those hovering in the corners of the drama. These are people more interested in maintaining power than new ideas of human rights, one of the accepted wisdoms of Rousseau, a writer Struensee and Caroline both enjoy reading. Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander in A ROYAL AFFAIR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Christian’s mother Juliane Marie (Trine Dyrholm) constantly plots her control over her son and manipulates one God-fearing handmaiden who tends to the Queen to onerous effect. Meanwhile, the lawmakers and money grubbers on the council use Christian for his disinterest in what seems mere bureaucracy to their own advantage.

The control of the court over free thought was so strong that when Caroline, the daughter of the Prince of Wales, arrives at the palace set to marry Christian, some of her books are confiscated, as they are censored by Danish law. It is a tragic moment considering she is first established as an educated young woman, who learns fluent Danish before the arranged marriage. She also seems excited about marrying a king, until she meets the man who introduces himself by playing peekaboo from behind a tree. His attitude brings to mind Tom Hulce playing Mozart in Amadeus. Christian has no manners even in his gait and enjoys hopping around with his dog above talking with his new wife (Følsgaard won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at last year’s Berlin Film Festival).

When Christian leaves for a long tour of Europe and does not come back, Struensee, a well-known doctor who works in the town, is hired to cure Christian of his madness. In a series of witty scenes, Struensee will show the power of a dog whisperer to coax Christian to show some responsibility. 492023_largeThough Christian remains a sort of wild creature of Id, he ends up admiring his doctor so much that he even mimics Struensee’s movements when they both stretch after a run. Praise for Mikkelsen should not be underplayed, as he embodies Struensee with both noble restraint and a comfortable frankness in ease that carries a refreshing air. I last saw him playing the mute, one-eyed savage in Valhalla Rising, a profoundly different creature.

There are many dense, loaded scenes throughout a Royal Affair that never linger too long and push the action along while illuminating enlightened thinking and its repercussion on human behavior. When people are repressed, there’s often a tension ready to explode. One of the more dramatic moments occurs before Struensee arrives, when Caroline gives birth to Frederick VI. As she screams while pushing during delivery, the king’s tutor tells her, “A true queen delivers in silence and with dignity.” She responds by yelling louder in the direction of the tutor, as she continues to push. It’s a sly symbolic and visceral moment of the old vision versus the enlightened spirit, repressed in Caroline at this point in the film.

As Struensee makes progress with Christian, the king asks him to see to his wife’s growing depression. Like any good doctor, Struensee, who also seems to show a grasp of psychology, uses a different approach for the intellectual Caroline. Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in ‘A Royal Affair.’ Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.They share thoughts on Rousseau, and he lends her the books he has brought to the palace. But it’s not all chit-chat. He also prescribes that she ride horseback. She dismisses it as a “clumsy” exercise. He replies with a twinkle in his eye, “Because you ride side-saddle.” With the next brisk cut, Caroline is running a horse like no tomorrow, bliss— and maybe some sexuality— all over her grinning face.

A Royal Affair does much to maintain pace and balance while keeping things interesting on both a dramatic and intellectual level. As Struensee and the queen exchange thoughts you cannot help but wonder where enlightenment and reason has gone in today’s time. Lines like, “Who is more disturbed? The king or someone who believes the earth was made in six days?” have an obvious purpose to rile up such thoughts.

The film’s drama lies in such disparate ways of thinking and how it affects society. Enlightened thinkers like Rousseau and Struensee called for a humanitarianism that should, in the end, benefit everyone. Struensee’s advice to the king encourages him to find an interest in ruling. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard and Mads Mikkelsen in A ROYAL AFFAIR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.It becomes something more than hoarding riches while squeezing every last drop out of the citizenry. But along with it comes a naiveté, as the movie so gradually reveals. As the trio grows blissfully close on social reforms, Struensee and the queen grow soulfully close. Those on the king’s court more interested in power will learn how adapt and take advantage of the system and undermine it.

The tragic unraveling happens at as brisk a pace as it is all set up. Though the film is long, it remains efficient throughout and never dialogue-heavy and meandering. Scenes on average last maybe a minute and the dialogue always has an illuminating character while also pushing the action along.

Of course as a “costume drama,” one must consider how Arcel captures the era, and he does so with exquisite detail. The lighting always seems natural, from scenes in sun-drenched rooms to those in candlelight. The cinematography is often sensitive and intimate. Alicia Vikander in ‘A Royal Affair.’ Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.The shallow focus never calls too much attention to itself, but rather illuminates the atmosphere. The art direction is always much more than superficial. There are dark, unlit rooms for dark times. In early scenes, the brilliant colors of the carriages contrasted with the rat-infested grime of the street, reminds the viewer of the class tension of the era.

From acting to art direction and story that transcends melodrama, A Royal Affair is a smart, well-paced movie with ideas and a sense of drama. On an all-encompassing level, the film deserves the recognition it has garnered. As luscious as it is, its only fault may be that it is all too perfect and precisely executed. However, it captures the tension between ideas of the Enlightenment and religion while maintaining a human sense of drama like no other period film I have ever seen.

Hans Morgenstern


A Royal Affair is Rated R (expect sex and period brutality of torture and be-headings), runs 137 min. and is in Danish and French with English subtitles. Magnolia Pictures provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens in South Florida at the following theaters on Friday, Jan. 18:

Tower Theater, Miami
O Cinema, Miami Shores
Bill Cosford Cinema, Coral Gables
South Beach 18, Miami Beach
Gateway 4, Fort Lauderdale
Living Room Cinema, Boca Raton
Movies of Delray 5, Delray Beach
Movies at Lake Worth, Lake Worth
Lake Worth Playhouse, Lake Worth
Update: A Royal Affair will screen for two nights, 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Jan. 29 and 31.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)