When this film premiered at South by Southwest, it won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards for a Narrative Feature. For her leading role, Brie Larson won Best Actress awards from several film critics associations and other groups, as well as a Golden Globe nomination. That she was not even nominated for an Oscar is proof positive that not enough people at the Academy watched the film; maybe they will make it up to her for Room.
Larson plays Grace, a young woman working as a supervisor in a group home for troubled teenagers who do not have another safe place to live. She lives with her boyfriend Mason, played by John Gallagher, Jr., who is also her coworker. Among the teens we meet are Marcus, who is upset about the fact that he will soon turn 18 and be forced to leave the facility; Sammy, who is troubled by his younger sister’s death; and new arrival Jayden, who has a history of cutting herself.
Grace deals with the teenagers’ problems sensitively and effectively, but she has demons of her own that she must confront after learning that her father is about to be released from prison. It’s best not to reveal anything more of the plot.
Short Term 12 was developed from a 2009 short film of the same name, also written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. The short version gives a glimpse of life in the facility but does not feature Grace or have a real plot. It does explain the details of what happened to Sammy’s sister, but you really don’t want to know.
Short Term 12’s opening and ending scenes match perfectly, like two bookends. It is as perfect as a film can be.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Rating: 10 stars (out of 10)
Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a programmer for a major Google-type company whose browser, we’re told, is now used by almost everyone. He is told that he has won a contest and will get to spend a week as the guest of the company’s reclusive owner Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The scene shifts abruptly and Caleb is a passenger in a helicopter, flying over a vast wilderness. He is dropped off in a field and told that the helicopter isn’t allowed to go any closer to the residence, but he just needs to follow the river. Which he does, eventually finding a building. A computer voice and an automated procedure at the door creates a key card with his picture on it, and he goes inside. Only after wandering around a bit does he find Nathan, who is exercising outdoors.
By now the viewer feels that things are not quite normal, that something strange is going on. That feeling only grows when a power failure temporarily results in Caleb’s being locked in his room, and when Nathan asks him to sign a nondisclosure agreement in order to learn the nature of the work he is doing.
That work, it turns out, is in the field of artificial intelligence. Nathan has created an AI in the form of a robot with a female body, and he would like Caleb to determine whether she (it?) has true artificial intelligence, whatever that means. And so, Caleb begins a series of interview sessions with the robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander). When a power outage occurs during one of the interviews, presumably disabling any cameras that Nathan may be using to watch them, Ava takes the opportunity to warn Caleb not to trust Nathan. Caleb’s sense of uneasiness, as well as the viewer’s, continues to build.
Ex Machina is a brilliant psychological, science-fiction drama in which the viewer identifies with Caleb and tries to figure out, as Caleb does, what Nathan and Ava are really thinking. Does Nathan have a hidden agenda? When Ava asks Caleb whether he finds her attractive, does she have an ulterior motive? That this film is by a first-time director is incredible.
The three main cast members are all fast-rising stars with many important roles in recent and upcoming films. The most striking performance is by Vikander, a Swedish actress with several English-language movies in 2015, starting with Testament of Youth and ending with The Danish Girl. How does one go about playing a robot who is trying to act like a human? She pulls it off, in good part because of the controlled way she uses her naturally soft voice. Incidentally, Vikander’s command of English is so good that she does interviews with either an American or British accent at will, depending on who the interviewer is.
Directed by Alex Garland
Rating: 10 stars (out of 10)
Strong performances by three actresses of nearly three different generations highlight this slow-moving, dialogue-heavy, but ultimately fascinating film. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a famous actress, is traveling by train with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to an awards presentation in Zurich, when word comes that the intended recipient of the award has died suddenly. That recipient, a playwright named William Melchior, was the author of the play, Maloja Snake, that had first propelled Maria to stardom more than 20 years earlier. The play’s title refers to an unusual cloud formation that under certain weather conditions resembles a snake as it rolls into a particular Alpine valley.
In that play, 18-year-old Maria had played Sigrid, a young woman in a stormy sexual relationship with an older woman named Helena, whom Sigrid eventually drives to suicide. It develops that a producer is interested in reviving the play and wants Maria in it, this time in the role of the older Helena. Maria is reluctant but finally agrees, after which she and Valentine spend time staying at the late playwright’s home in the Alps to prepare. As Maria and Valentine rehearse lines in some of the film's most intriguing scenes, they often argue about how the characters should be interpreted. We begin to wonder whether Maria will go through with the play.
Enter Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), an American teenage superstar with a very bad reputation for behavior (the opposite of the real Chloë Grace Moretz) but a very good reputation when it comes to her acting ability (the same as the real Chloë Grace Moretz). The producer wants her to play Sigrid on stage opposite Maria's Helena. Maria is out of touch with current pop culture and knows nothing about Jo-Ann’s history of scandals, whereas Valentine knows all about the young actress. Maria and Valentine go to see one of Jo-Ann’s movies, a major sci-fi action film that Maria cannot relate to, and later meet Jo-Ann in person shortly before she becomes embroiled in a new scandal that furthers the action.
Kristen Stewart won a César award for best supporting actress, becoming the first American actress ever to win a César. This should surprise no one who has followed her career, including fine work in such indie films as Into the Wild, The Cake Eaters, The Yellow Handkerchief, Welcome to the Rileys, The Runaways, and On the Road. Binoche and Moretz also give their usual wonderful performances.
Directed by Oliver Assayas
Rating: 7 stars (out of 10)
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