Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review: "White God"

Director: Kornel Mundruczo
Runtime: 121 minutes

Dogs may be man's best friend, but that doesn't mean they're without limits. Push our canine comrades too far, and you may just incite a revolution. That's the case with Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo lays out in this gritty, R-rated fable of abuse and righteous animal fury. Though at times hindered by an unshapely middle, Mundruczo's latest (which has been pulling in the accolades since last year's Cannes) still packs the technical skill and storytelling urgency required to help his premise click.

After the eerie opening, in which Lili (Zsofia Psotta) rides through a deserted Budapest, White God rewinds to trace the acts that led to such a ghostly transformation. When Lili is left with her stern father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter), she clashes with him about third, furry member of the household: Lili's mutt Hagen. Lili's bond with Hagen is strong, so it's time for the world to put a strain on it. After one too many mishaps involving the mutt, Daniel abandons the dog by a river bank. What follows is a quest for reunion, but if you're expecting a European take on Homeward Bound, you'll want to brace yourself. By the time the film returns to the opening shots, you might find yourself wishing that the deserted city was going up in flames.

Working with animals is rarely easy. Working with over 100 of them is probably a nightmare. Yet what Mundruczo pulls off with White God is frequently astounding. The camera often jumps down to Hagen's eye line, and long stretches pass with barely any human languages heard at all. Hagen (and the dogs he meets during his journey) are a solid bunch of performers, often outdoing their human counterparts. Thanks to sharp editing, White God is able to string together images that, with only a few barks and tilts of the head, convey entire conversations among a canine cast that often fills the frame by the dozen.

Hagen's Homeric journey is so gripping on its own, that there's often a tinge of disappointment any time the film returns to Lili and Daniel. Though Zsoter is solid as the domineering (but not unreasonable) father, Psotta doesn't bring much dimensionality to Lili. Nearly every scene is played at the same level, so whether Lili is acting up in school or crying out for her dog, Psotta's performance never shows variation. Mundruczo keeps the tone of the film cool-headed, but the human angle of the story still comes off as a missed opportunity to really deepen the film's impact on multiple levels.

In jumping between Hagen and Lili, White God does get a little padded in the middle. Mundruczo's execution of Hagen's trials hits hard, whether you're a dog lover or not. Some scenes are squirm-worthy (a "training" sequence involving a seedy new owner), while others are downright brutal). Hagen's scenes have enough storytelling momentum on their own, and the frequent jumps to the humans, though never bad, simply feel like wheel-spinning. 

Yet everything falls back into place just as White God gallops towards its finale. The collision of the human and animal worlds, without the aid of any special effects, is a stunner. With all of the build-up finished, Mundruczo finally lets loose, and he delivers quite a show without betraying his work's intentions and themes. And even though White God never really evolves past its indictment of animal cruelty, the film never grows redundant, even when the pacing falters. Though not quite as lean as its canine hero, White God is an exciting, vibrant work that gives an unlikely group of disaffected subjects some long-overdue cinematic justice.

Grade: B+

Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: "Ex Machina"

Director: Alex Garland
Runtime: 110 minutes

Though more successful as an acting showcase and atmospheric exercise than as a thought-provoking drama, Ex Machina nonetheless represents a promising directorial debut for screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine). Though Garland's efforts as a writer have previously been met with criticism for their finales, Ex Machina suffers instead from a mid-section in need of further development. Even so, this sci-fi drama is never less than engaging, thanks to a trio of strong performances and a polished aesthetic. 

Young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds his modest life turned upside-down when he learns that he's won a contest at his company, an internet search engine that has apparently toppled Google (this is your first clue that you're watching science fiction). He'll get to leave his sleek Manhattan office and cramped apartment for a week to visit the estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the company's brilliant and reclusive founder. Upon arriving at the rural estate (shot in Norway, though in the story it's never clear), Caleb finally learns the purpose of the trip. He has been chosen to perform the Turing Test on Nathan's android, to determine whether the machine possesses actual AI. That machine is named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and from "her" first appearance Caleb is entranced. At this point, he likely doubles for the audience.

Garland structures the film by interjecting title cards (Session 1, Session 2, etc...) not only to track the passage of time, but to slowly turn Caleb's journey from one of awe to one of queasy uncertainty. Though Caleb and Ava's first sessions are routine (well, as routine as groundbreaking human/robot interactions are...), a power outage changes everything. With the closed-circuit cameras down (and the facility on lockdown), Ava informs Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted. Then the lights and cameras go back up and the two carry on as if nothing has happened. 

Where Ex Machina stops short of truly reaching for greatness is that Garland doesn't nurture Ava's revelation to create something more complex. There are hints of malice and deception, but a more urgent sense of conflict never arrives. Caught between making a straightforward mystery and a richer, thornier character piece, Garland choses the former path. So it's a good thing that the relative lack of adventure in the writing is handled well on all fronts. Even when Ex Machina reveals that it's not committing to going the extra mile with its premise, it remains a satisfying piece of sci-fi drama. 

This is largely due to the wide range of strong work from Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander. All three roles are wildly different, and the script knows how to play them all off of each other. Isaac is the most enjoyable of the lot, creating a tech genius who's part Steve Jobs, and part frat-boy jackass. With his true intentions shrouded in ambiguity, Isaac has the juiciest role, and he makes it count (he also gets a hilarious dance sequence that I desperately wish could have been longer). Gleeson is ideally cast as well, making for a solid everyman finally getting a taste of what it's like to participate in something meaningful. Vikander, who had a much different relationship with Mr. Gleeson in Anna Karenina, is every bit as good as her male co-stars, working quiet wonders with a role that could have been stifling.

As mentioned above, technical aspects are strong across the board. Rob Hardy's photography richly captures the contrasting sides of the settings (half ultra-sleek modern, half woodsy forrest retreat), seamlessly blending actual locations and sets together to create a cohesive setting. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's electronic score is an essential part of drawing one into the scenario, sometimes relying on nothing more than a single repeated note to signal a shift in mood. And despite the lack of larger-than-life science fiction elements in Ex Machina, the sound team deserves significant praise for the subtle work put into everything from Nathan's house to the little whirrs and blips that emit from Ava's internal machinery. Even in small-scale sci-fi, it's the technical details that can make or break one's investment in a narrative, and Mr. Garland's collaborators have done a marvelous job without distracting from the story.

Ex Machina's short-comings explain why it doesn't deserve to be ranked among the best of the sci-fi genre, but they're also unobtrusive. There's little that disrupts one's engagement with the plot and with these characters. Ex Machina doesn't make major mistakes with its storytelling, but rather with the nature of its substance. To call Garland's film a noble failure is too harsh a judgement. It's not that Garland fails with his debut, but that from early on he makes the decision to opt for palatable ideas and themes rather than truly challenging ones. 

Grade: B