Machina On The Big Screen

Man’s obsession with the advancement of computers and the possibility or dread of machines becoming sentient, is something that has fascinated and been fodder for storytellers, writers and filmmakers even before Charles Babbage tipped the first metaphoric domino in the story of computing.
In film, the robot, cyborg or living computer has been evident as early as Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, through the 1951 version of The Day The Earth Stood Still, to modern classics such as James Cameron’s brilliant The Terminator.
With all that has gone before, 2015 brings the critically acclaimed Ex Machina. Written and directed by Alex Garland, it tells the story of a brilliant scientist who has created a female, artificially intelligent humanoid. To test her responses and gauge her level of humanity, he enlists the assistance of one of his employees to observe and interact with her for a week at his remote home compound. The experiment and interactions have fateful consequences.
A film unusual in that the lead character, Ava the humanoid, played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander, ably assisted by fabulous CGI, is not an obvious lead. Such is the strength of the other characters; Nathan, a warped genius, embodied by a superb Oscar Issac and Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who shows wonderful empathy as the real connection for the audience. This is a film that is more cerebral than visual. In fact it may have worked better as a book.
As a film, it brought to mind Caradog W James’ 2013 film, The Machine. James’ film covers a lot of the same ground that Ex Machina does, though not as well, lacking the subtlety and tension of Garland’s film. What The Machine has, that Ex Machina does not, is action. Ex Machina looks wonderful. Every shot beautifully framed, the remote, stark bunker-like home of Nathan, looking vast and modernist. But considering most of the film is about conversations – static ones – with us watching the interactions between Ava and Caleb as Nathan also does, it was difficult to appreciate it as a big screen film.
The performances are all top drawer, the actors working fantastically off of one another. The story also is clever and a little uncomfortable, asking questions of what it is to be human and what is the price of freedom. The tension created, mostly by Oscar Issac’s warped Nathan, works well, but is constant rather than building.
Ex Machina is a good film. A smart and well executed film, Garland can be happy with his directorial debut. I am not so sure it is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen.

That time of year.

With 2013 drawing to a close – my second short goes live 31/12/13 ‘WebSights’ – the time for reflection is upon most of us. With this being a film blog and that being the dream I am pursuing, I have been reflecting on my fledgling career as a would be filmmaker.
I don’t know if it was ignorance, lack of confidence or just that it never came to mind , but I never harboured any ambitions to direct. Strangely, it never occurred to me to, even with the ease of accessibility of technical equipment- video cameras, YouTube – to make a film. I was always about the script. I suppose, if I really think about it, there was always a sort of safety in writing, in the story not leaving the page. As long as it remains a script, the faults – over writing, flat scenes, pointless lines – can be hidden in the abstract prose that is a script.
When you make the thing and edit it, it becomes a very different beast. There is also a sense of responsibility to the other collaborators; camera, actors, friends, partner, they are all trusting you to fulfil a vision that does not make them feel as though they wasted a day of their lives!
Getting a little off topic here – reviewing the year. I made two films. My first and second film, both as DIY filmmaking school projects; just jumping in and doing it, with very little technical know, just hurtling forward with wide eyed enthusiasm. I had, somewhat ambitiously on reflection, wanted to make four short films this year, but I am happy that I got two under my belt. Not only did I get to see my own work come to life, but I also realised and learned that I like directing my own work. Whether I would feel that way on a bigger project is something for the future, but for now, everything I write, I direct.
I also learned a lot about editing and colouring! My second film was such a learning, challenging and rewarding experience. From the casting, shooting, recalling actors, brutal editing – a nine page script became a four minute film! – colouring, recolouring and recolouring, quick edit promos, it has been hard and frustrating at times, but ultimately I am happy with the results and the lessons learned. In fact I cannot wait to instigate my next project! As far as my ambition in film is concerned, 2013 was a pivotal year, showing me that it is something that I not only enjoy, but something I want to do. Now that I know I can get a film made, I can’t wait to attack 2014.

On the day of the shoot.

A few pics from the day of the shoot.

Enjoying a brew.

Setting up opening scene

Director and cameraman conflab

Leading lady, Holly Ashman. Leading man, Neil Simpson

The ladies, Holly Ashman and Anna Reeve Cook

Nigel Rogers, the most excellent cameraman

Directing one oh one

More DIY directing….

Need a bigger tripod…

Always know where the camera is.

Fingers and all available appendages crossed.

There is just over a week until my second foray into filmmaking and I cannot wait to get it done. I am a little more apprehensive about this film as, like anyone else who has been in the same position, I want it to be an improvement on the first. I want the pace to be better, the performances better directed, the story to punch more, I just want it better. Hence the apprehensiveness. Plus I have been reading Syd Fields and have recently finished reading Blake Snyder, so my brain is awash with story structure and plot and conflict and moving the story forward and…well you get what I mean. You can almost study too much. The sheer volume of opinion and ‘right’ way to do things can be overwhelming. There are a lot of people, writing a lot of stuff, doing seminars, sending ezines, all purporting to be telling you how to break into television, film, Hollywood or all of them.
The thing is – and this why the market is SO big for filmmaking guru-ism – they are all right. Pretty much all of what you read or hear in seminars, online, in documentary interview or whatever, is well intentioned worked-for-that-person, nuggets of wisdom. Of course there are necessary elements; story craft, framing, beginning, middle and end, the things which should always be present. At some point, you have to do the deed and, if you enjoy it, want to make a career, do it again and again until you get good – or maybe – even great, at it. My road to ‘good’ begins next Saturday.