Sunday, August 2, 2015

MIFF Session #2: Arabian Nights Vol. 1 The RESTLESS ONE

Portugal in hard times. We begin in the Viana shipyards, empty but for former workers  hanging around like ghosts as diembodied voices of the retrenched talk about their working lives, what their labour made and how little that seems to matter. A brief interlude in which the writer/director, Migueal Gomes, sits on a cold cafe table realising that the twin themes of the shipyard closure and the industrially proportioned local wasp plague don't quite gel. He flees with his crew in chase.

This is expectable from his previous feature Tabu which had much to say on his native Portugal's history as a coloniser and said it with great stylistic charm. But we are not here to smirk at quirk. Gomes wants the stories of the disaffected and disenfranchised to be heard, one after the other. Well, Godard already did that so the way to do it now is to place it against a kind of retelling of the Arabian Nights, a series of tales told by a woman to keep herself alive with the clever idea of leaving them unfinished to keep her potential despatcher at bay.

And that is what we get here. Anecdote after anecdote of productive lives weakened by economics and government austerity. The folk tales promised by the title do appear but it is in a kind of weave that forms frames for the more contemporary accounts. This blend of the fantastical and grim day-by-day doesn't always divert but the intention of giving the stories air and light is never less than sincere.

The problem is that almost all of these are told as tableaux, the focus is kept medium to wide, so that we are enduring rather than joining these folk in their hardship. I waited in my seat for the film to burst into the kind of cheeky panache Gomes showed in Tabu but each time it did, it fell back like a wave and tossed us into the surf again.

I struggled to maintain interest in this demanding show, falling into hypnogogic riffing every few minutes (not helped by the sonorous buzz coming from the guy in the row in front). Leaving the cinema, I was encased in a freezing rain which woke me up in seconds and, splashing my way home, I realised I had to rethink the resentment I had just been feeling while in front of this. I clung to the moments of flash, vowed to sympathise with the testimony of economic victims and frowned on planning to change my schedule, leaving the final two chapters for someone else. But, no, now I can't wait to see them. As droney as it got there yet was wonder.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

MIFF Session #1: THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY

A young woman rides her bicycle through lush European countryside. She arrives at an impressively ancient manse and rings the bell. After a brief pause an older woman answers and says: "you're late." She leads her visitor into the study and forbids her to sit, commanding her instead to clean. Later, the maid presents herself in front of her mistress who is busily typing but pauses to tell her that she hasn't finished everything, there is still her underwear to wash by hand. This sequence ends in a way that disspells all notion of employment agreements and soon proves a ritual. The body of this film examines that ritual, the agreement at its centre and the effects upon it and the women of change and stress.

Writer/director Peter Strickland who gave us the extraordinary Berberian Sound Studio and (for the explorers among us) Katalin Varga now presents us with something we think we are going to comfortably predict. His devotion to the transgressive cinema or Europe's 1970s is delivered to us like a creamy Brandy Alexander in a vintage glass; as we clear the enigmatic lingering tableau and the unctuous Rome 72 song whispers and gleams we are treated to a series of beautiful motion into freeze frame and collage images that hint at what is to come. Even the font used for this credit sequence makes us feel warm and loved.

But Strickland is not a Tarrantino. His retrospective eye is less attracted to the cuteness of the past than its continued powerful utility. The look and feel of 70s Eurosploitation is strong and flavoursome but it also calls attention to what we are seeing without more distraction than this comfort will allow. Even the fact that the whole town seems populated by intense female entomologists, suggests a heightened level of control (it's also intentionally funny). Neither the lesbianism nor the bondage and discipline are offered to titilate or alienate. We are here to watch what happens in a closed system in much the same way that its characters observe their insects on slides and in display cases.

But if that were the sole point of this piece it would rapidly lose its puff. There is far more here being said about intimacy and boundary. This aligns it far more strongly with the severity of Persona, the spookiness of Three Women or the hard verbal pugilism of Butley than the playful confrontation of Vampyros Lesbos or Lizard in a Woman's Skin. We follow these women because their story compels us, even as it seems to be composed almost entirely of a single routine. At the final shot you will already feel the resonance and it will follow you home.

Katalin Varga gave us a revenge film that focused on the act's quandries rather than acknowledged them by regulation. Berberian Sound Studio invited us in to a man's complete absorption into something that disgusted him. The Duke of Burgundy shows a filmmaker whose strengths transcend his aesthetic festishes to allow him to make such things that both give succour and unsettle. Strickland's retro stylings aren't like Tarrantinos. Where QT comes on like a tribute band, Strickland is more like someone who loves old Merseybeat bands but floods it in electronica because it feels better that way. Strickland, the musician, has commissioned a beautiful score that while eclectic also feels bespoke. I'll be Googling Cat's Eyes after I sign off on this review. Yum!

Next, please, Mr S.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: THE FALLING

Abbie and Lydia have a bond deep and strong. It withstands the worst bickering that adolescent power can muster. It withstands Abbie's treacherous deflowering in the back of a car and her subsequent pregnancy. And then it withstands her death as Lydia plunges into an emotional chaos as she makes her unguided way through grief. As Abbie's last days were broken by increasingly serious fainting spells, Lydia is beset by her own. Soon this spreads throughout the school as the other girls begin falling, culminating in a mass faint at assembly. Is it hysteria, a neurological plague, a weird protest? This film's strength and weakness lies in its evasion of the answer.

It's a strength because it allows the film to explore by posing questions. Why is that happening? Is it related to this? Is there something significant about the relationship? We are invited to draw our conclusions from a mass of information supported by strong performances and a characterful aesthetic. Plot is kept necessarily slight to facilitate this and you will find yourself continuing to make connections after the credits have rolled.

It's a weakness because all that depends too much on how much empathy you want to shell out to the characters. The lead performances are strong but the best played shallow sketches will only clarify the lack of depth. Do we need better developed characters if the piece is so thematically driven? Well, we do when it declares itself to be about bonding, empathy, various forms of violation and repression and their effects. As with the quirk of films like A Fistful of Flies or What's Eating Gilbert Grape or anything by Wes Anderson the difficulty connecting between the people on screen and the ones watching them makes what might be an engaging flow into a clod-hop over a scrapbook.

And you want quirk? Lydia has a twitching eyelid. When I first noticed it I thought it was a sign of her exerting control over the other girls. But it's really kind of nothing. Her brother has moments when his eyes look a little splayed but again nothing. Nothing substantial, at any rate though it's not that hard to impute meaning to those traits they come across as spontaneous inspirations of indulged actors. The brother introduces himself as Kenneth-not-Ken. He is pollinating wildly, roaming the ward of fainting victims spreading charm spoors. He recognises the boundary drawn at his sister but that barrier doesn't seem to bother either of them. Their mother, working from home as the neighbourhood hairstylist, hasn't left the house in years though she dresses and makes up as though she's never at home. You got quirk.

So did I like it at all? Well, Masie Williams provides a solid centre as Lydia, making the writing she has to work with less grating through her obvious and effortless conviction. Greta Scacchi's knotty oak Mrs Mantel allows a warmth to the dessicated bitterness by which her character might have otherwise been wholly composed. Director Morley has a fondness for near subliminal shock cuts but skill enough to use them to inform rather than distract. She plays fair, also, by keeping the initial restlessness of the narrative style under control, making it clear that we shouldn't be expecting too much plot. There is a pleasing ambiguity to the depiction of the falling itself whereby it looks genuine in this case but completely contrived in that one. The score is a pleasing mix of folky freshness and electronica which didn't let the film down once (that's not faint praise; listen to the next blockbuster you go to).

But then there are so many threads that are allowed to bend beyond recognition and either wobble unevenly or more simply fade from view. Forced moments like the older teachers' private loosening chat or the atrocity straight out of a Greek Tragedy primer in the final act jar rather than deepen and too often being taken out of the picture this way results in exposure of the void between the patches and fragments that make it up. These pieces are chosen with scholarship and taste (If, The Devils, Picnic at Hanging Rock etc.) and placed with great intention but, I fear, too little consequence.

I did continue making connections on the walk home from the cinema and quite happily found many that I hadn't consciously made while watching. This is a pleasant effect and I have no objection to a film that manipulates me into it. However, this comes at a cost of the thought developing an apologetic rather than participatory tone. I don't wish to damn any film for being different and so boldly itself but in this case my praise can only be ... faint.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: AMY: Selfies in the Maelstrom



The millennials' very own 27 Clubber, Amy Winehouse soared to fame like an F-18 and then crashed like a 747 but this time in slow motion. In that short time she pushed a timeless jazz through filters of her own history and templates cut from everything she didn't like about contemporary music into the 2000s to create an untouchable style. She also made cataclysmic life decisions which saw her go from a plucky teenager to a desiccated husk. This stuff we know. And we assume that because it was so public in this time where the line between public and private is so shaky that that is all we need know of this case. Amy is dead and buried, sang well but, boy, was she good for a joke. It's that bit that this film addresses.

It opens on two teenage girls as they sing Happy Birthday to the one holding the camera. Trumping her friends with a huge, gleaming grin, the cherubic Amy, cigarette in fingers, trills the song like Monroe and everything we know about her life hits us between the eyes. The voices of those friends (often stilted by sorrow) will keep surfacing through the media blitzkreig like rescue signals. That's necessary because for the next two hours we are immersed in a life story, a few years short of three decades of intense withering.

That this film is neither dirge nor freak show is testament to director Asif Kapadia and his team. I didn't see his highly lauded Senna as I couldn't bring myself to watch anything about motorsport (I know, if the film is good enough that shouldn't matter) but now I think I must. Winehouse's fame coincided with the dawn and rise of social media and if I say that Kapadia succeeds here because of a deep understanding of Amy Winehouse it's less from any personal insights than his skill with the ocean of content she generated.

Home video, phone video, selfies, talk shows, holidays, performances and paparazzi all contribute to the motion jigsaw we see. The new content is supplied by interviews done for the film and the massive editing job. Those interviews are audio-only; taking the talking head out of a biographical documentary removes the safety buffer for the audience so that there is nothing but editing between us and the sounds and images of the life on the screen. There is a delightfully clear path to Winehouse with her friends teasing and laughing as the cam silently records as a now natural element in a social situation. But there is also no protection offered from the video selfie of the later Amy, emaciated and self-aware, recording her wasted physique in the dark with a slight, unsettling smile.

Because the first video is so arresting it's a doddle to settle in to this format of content tsunami with only spare commentary (and that varying and unshamedly  personal), however difficult it can be to watch some of it. The balance Kapadia strikes, given how much raw source he would have begun with and how tempting it would have been to have editorialised rather than edited, is exemplary. But the balance would only rate for worthiness if it weren't also for the unflagging sense of journey that testifies to Kapadia's guidance: he knows we know the story but he wants us to know all of it so that by the time we see the montage of comedians, presenters and talk show hosts taking cheap shots with howitzers we recall our own and shrink from the memory: the film is not judging us, it happily invites us to do it ourselves.

Meanwhile we see Amy, the songwriter who slogged it out in tracky daks at home with a Strat and a writing pad, who showed astute judgement of her own performance in the studio as she perfected lines, take after take. We see a bona fide star struck dumb as she watches one of her idols present her with a Grammy, her gaping awe draining all self awareness. We see a friend in high London sass, clinking glasses with her lifelong friends. And we see a girl in plaits with a huge grin as we are told of the difficulty of an unguided childhood in a house she dreamed of escaping from the age of nine. And if we see her plummet into raving insensibility with the clubland alpha whom she worshipped, married and then accompanied on a slide down to the kind of Hell it took Jean Paul Sartre to imagine, we take it with the rest. There's a lot of drugging and boozing and clubbing here but the line between reporting and leering is never crossed. We are being informed not invited to salivate, and by the time we watch her mutely wander the stage at the infamous Belgrade concert we can no longer tut-tut or smirk at the psycho drugs and pills lady living up to all her jokes: we're lucky if we don't well up.

Eventually, there are as many scenes of Winehouse trying to make her way through the masses of pappazzi constantly on duty outside her Camden house. Even sober, she must have felt transported to another dimension where the breeze sounded like metal on metal and the sunlight came in blinding flashes. But we are compelled to remember as we watch her walk numb through the ratcheting storm of camera shutters, the insensitive eyes in her skeletal face violated by constant speedlights, that this was once a cheeky girl who just wanted to sing. And when we see her last procession through the cameras, on a covered trolley pushed by paramedics we need to remember.

The Daily Mail muckreported that Amy Winehouse died watching Youtube clips of herself. If we read something like that at the time it was without surprise. As this quilt of electronic evidence suggests, though, we should step back from that and remember that any of us might well go a similar way, gasping our last as Gaz the Raz yet again does the streak at our graduation ceremony on whatever forehead implant Youtube shall have become. If Winehouse were able to see this her horror would not be from the images of herself flailing through a drug haze but the breathtaking invasion of the images themselves. The stretch between their intimacy and the alienating effect of their edited presentation creates a dizzying eeriness. As this documentary is made entirely of digital source material it might very accurately be called The Amy Winehouse Files. But the confidence of the edit and the craft in the construction prevents this from the tabloid sneer that a title like that suggests.

If you had fun in your twenties you knew an Amy Winehouse. Actually, you more than likely knew a few. Those boys and girls who sped themselves up to cope with the velocity of their own brains and boozed back down to be with the rest of us, who landed in Emergency at three in the morning, who were famished for sex and noise, who found their bedmates in gutters and agar dishes, who constantly craved neural relief, who clung to the walls in quieter moments, barely able to make it down the hall, whose laughter thrilled and terrified us, whose phone calls could drain or energise us, who were as silly as death and as grave as a good joke: we knew all those ones who gave our times their signature and colour, and we either went to their funerals young or watched as they settled into awkward mediocrity and judged them worse than those who died.

The difference was that Amy Winehouse, like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, was famous. The difference between that and this film is that the mass of the kind of material it's made of doesn't look all that different from what we upload ourselves. When Facebook a few years back offered the dinky Gallery of Your Life app we clicked and let the algorithm give us a pack of Vanity filter tips. Kapadia has protected us from seeing the result of Amy Winehouse clicking on what the whole internet would return and instead given us something to celebrate and learn from. Any Amys in the audience won't stop being Amys, it's not their nervous systems up on the screen so they're not bound to admit any kinship, but if the rest of us should learn to extend a little care to them then this story's work is done.

Friday, July 10, 2015

MIFF 2015!


Ok folks, it's on again. As the choirs and crowd chatter rises and drifts from the Gertrude St Projection Festival outside (just went and shot some video of it) I am at the end of a very long hungover day spent mainly getting these thirteen titles chosen from the hundreds in the MIFF guide and putting them all on my mini pass. Long, slow, cold day.

So, now as I take some hospital grade haberdasherin for the pain, visions come forth of the Dr Seuss exterior of the Forum, getting acquainted with the Comedy Theatre (very fond memories of the Princess as MIFF venue in the mid 2000s), the very fondly recalled Treasury Theatre and the Festival Club at the Forum downstairs.

So, here are the initial 13 on my mini pass:

The Duke of Burgundy
To kick off, the new one form the lad who gave us the strong Katalin Varga and the brilliant Berberian Sound Studio. A mix of Persona and Bunuel with Peter Strickland at the helm sounds good to me.





Arabian Nights
A triology from Miguel Gomes who made the extraordinary Tabu, a favourite of 2012 brings an epic of classic storytelling filtered through the state of post-GFC Portugal.






Lambert and Stamp
I dig rock docs and this one about a duo of managers who were as interesting as their charges, the Who caught my eye.






99 Homes
Interesting premise. Michael Shannon.









Battles Without Honour and Humanity
Classic Yakuza from the 70s by the man who brought us Battle Royale.







Two Shots Fired
Just had to read the synopsis.







Tehran Taxi
Intrigued.








Hill of Freedom
Loved the same director's Our Sunhi last year for its quiet but powerful comedy of manners. Looking forward to this one.





Angels of Revolution
Stalin's Russia. An atrocity. Always like to get a Russian film in if I can.







The Witch
Noticed this title on a few best-horror-movies-you've-never-seen lists and now here it is.







The Forbidden Room
Guy Maddin. Nuff said. Alright. I've been fascinated with Maddin's rich and strange blend of early cinema with indy smarts. His films might look a little like Nosferatu with tints but they never feel like anything but the mind of Guy Maddin.




As usual, I'll probably add to this once the fest has started so feel free to suggest a session. Hope to see some o' you out 'n' about among the scarves and the projector beams. Roll on, August!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Rock on Film #18: Love and Mercy

In a darkened studio a young Brian Wilson, almost a silhouette, tells us in a whisper of the music to come. He can't keep up with the thoughts forming inside his mind and begins to sound incoherent. With a red flash in a corner of the screen the scene is extinguished.

Darkness. Sounds well up from the silence and drift across the audio field like sea creatures. Cooing harmonies, garbled speech, machines. And we shift in our seats as it's still dark and it looks like the projection has broken down. But then as the cacophony swells a patch of lightness grows in the lower screen, brightening with the rise in sound. And then it bursts into colour and movement as the Beach Boys rise to fame in a montage of press conferences, concerts and goofing around in the studio. Everything looks like moving cover art. And BAM! We're in.

Brian in the 80s buys a Cadillac but it's the strangest sale the beautiful saleswoman has ever made. His odd fragmentary speech broken by absent silence at first puts her on edge but she relaxes and lets things happen as she thinks of the location of the ejector seat button. But he exudes a kind of charm despite himself and when the mini circus of his minders, led by the ogreish Dr Landy enter to bundle him off, she is intrigued. Suddenly we're twenty years before and Brian, young and mop topped twists himself into a panic on a plane, shouting and flailing as his bandmates (who are mostly his brothers) pin him to the floor. Welcome to the world of Brian Wilson.

Then we are swung back and forth between these two episodes of Wilson's life: his slide down into mental illness when young and his rescue from its nadir in middle age. Through this we are shown the fragility of a man crippled by a blend of genius and naivete. This Kurt Vonnegut time pendulum has some scenes seemingly respond to others decades apart and it can get tight. Between the constant personal oppression by father or by psychiatric slave driver there's a real danger of claustrophobic despair. It is to this film's credit that that does not happen.

First, there's the perspective shift. When 60s Brian lies on a car bonnet and hears the music of the universe we are in his head. We see the older Brian through the eyes of Melinda from the Cadillac dealership whose pity and curiosity grow into love enough to attempt the demolition of his psychiatric wall. We are neither condemned to a tv-movie pageant of great scenes from history nor
led into a autohagiography. The central problem in each of the two periods has the same root but presents different symptoms and this by itself offers a kind of navigable texture.

Second, there's casting and performance. Brian Past and Brian Future (as they are named in the credits) are played by two different actors, neither of whom especially resemble Wilson but who both use acting to provide the prosthetics.

Paul Dano, already in danger of being the speed dial nutbag de jour, gives us what might be the peak of all his crazies. His Brian walks through the blinding California sunshine, hearing the music of the spheres and fails to convince anyone else of its beauty. He's so in love with what's in his head that the constant rejection of his attempts to communicate it work their way into him like a malignant growth. The smiling brightness he begins with, the sweeping gestures and leaping physicality in the early scenes shrink around him, pressing him into silence and stillness until he is rendered a formless mass on an elaborate bed. Dano works the room taking us there, meting out the craziness in irregular doses so he's hard to predict and judge. By the time he's drifting under the surface of his pool, eyes as wide as a drowning victim's, we feel the hopelessness he does that he'll ever say anything again that anyone else will listen.

John Cusack is the later, broken Brian. He is absent and lost but also incessantly curious. His enthusiasm is a feat of self restraint as he keeps his hands still in awkward positions and seems to drift in and out of awareness. His intellect is clearly visible through its incautious restlessness. It can be hard to watch him through the sheer anxiety his presence engenders. At the same time, we want to care for him, keep him safe and warm. This is the most striking performance by Cusack since the great Being John Malkovich also took him out of his overgrown teenager schtick. He has clearly observed the real Wilson but his physicality is not a cover version nor a splendid acting class exercise: it is an embodiment of character, just like Dano's.

This is what separates this film from lesser rock biopics like The Doors which played Oliver Stone director solos about Navajo mythology and the presence of the great Death between tv movie moments. Val Kilmer was fine in that one but he was the leader of a tribute band rather than a character in a movie. By contrast, Ian Hart in Backbeat plays a character called John Lennon who we're allowed to forget became JOHN LENNON because we want to see what this angry teenager would do next. Cusack and Dano do not waste the good writing handed to them to fill these roles and we are grateful to follow the strange tale despite its historicity.

There are tv-movie moments, though, and they do threaten to let the whole thing down. Mike Love is a dick at band meetings, endlessly ranting about keeping to the formula instead of all this progressive malarky. Characters supply timeline details as they comment that Pet Sounds didn't sell or toasting Good Vibrations, Brian's pocket symphony to God and the biggest selling single the Beach Boys ever had (that's a real line from the movie), session bassist extraordinaire Carol Kaye is puzzled that Brian scored her part in D but the double bassist in A (and then shares a knowing smile when it all works out). Also, do we at the morning tea of the age of Google really need end titles to tell us what happened to the key players? How many true life movies have come to a three point landing only to have the tourist brochure read out before we can leave? Unnecessary. If you really need that stuff put it in the movie. Except you don't need it.

The marks I'll take off aren't all for the midday movie moments in time, though. Paul Giamatti's Landy is written like a panto villain with added psychobabble. Giamatti rises just high enough above it with a performance that understands the kind of round the clock manipulation Landy exercised and the security that allowed view of its ugliness through. He makes his cartoon character repulsive to the touch and worryingly tactile. Still, I kept expecting him to come upon an act of defiance and bellow out a roaring: "Ah HAAAAA!"

If you can look past all that you 'll see some solid cinema. The studio recreations have the closeness of a Maysles documentary (or Godard's One Plus One done with the Stones) and some of the moments of musical cohesion are brought to heart pumping life. There's also some of the best judged handheld camera I've seen in a long time. One walking track through a couple of rooms in an apartment fills us with dread. The camera as adrift as its subject in the scene where Brian is testing the studio for the right vibrations as a small orchestra waits mute makes us feel seasick and crushed at his state. There is a montage that suggests a kind of reconciliation of past and present that clearly evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey but without archness or the ghost of a wink. Melinda has a few scenes where a conversation is from immediately before or after a shot of her thinking hard on a balcony or looking tired in a cafe. Elizabeth Banks' performance as Melinda is worth a mark for showing us why such a drop of Californian sun as she could believably fall for Brian in high fuckup mode. She carries a sadness that recognises his. We need this. Hers is the human warmth that gives us a lifeline through the ugliness of the later episode. Well cast. Well played.

Did I mention sound? That beginning audio collage wasn't just a fancy way of starting. Not only do we get an electronic score but riches. Constructed from raw studio takes, speech, singing and playing the music of this film is a series of mounting waves of sound, sometimes heavenly as when Brian is listening to his own imaginings with his eyes closed on the bonnet of a car, ugly and threatening, as when his lunch guests cutlery sounds like a quarries of hell. There are even timeline quotes from the original source like Murry Wilson, the father whose methods of music instruction cost Brian his hearing in one ear, saying, "I'm a genius too, ya know." See, that's how you'd put a historical soundbite into a film without the cheese.

Ok, I've said too much already. Just see the damn thing. If you miss it at the cinema then at least see it at home with good sound. Wilson had a hell of a life. The hell part seems to be over now (he did finally finish, record and tour the failed Smile project)  and his children were raised you know they suddenly rise they started slow long ago head to toe healthy wealthy and wise....

Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: EX MACHINA: Design by design

Geeky Caleb wins the chance to spend time with dot com genius and overlord stopped-counting-ionaire Nathan. The helicopter that delivers Caleb to Nathan's personal glacier almost presses Caleb to the ground with the force of its rotors as it takes off. We'll see that reprised in a few different ways in the next ninety minutes.

Nathan lives in a high security bunker. His bushy beard with suedehead crop is not hipster: he lives like no one's looking. Hungover at their first meeting he is asked about the greatness of the party that put him in the state of pain. "What party?" he says without a smile.

After being teased into signing a fearsome non-disclosure, Caleb is told that he will for the next seven days be testing Nathan's robot for self awareness. Caleb will be part of the greatest moment in the history of man. Caleb, awestruck, corrects this to the history of gods. It won't be long before we hear Nathan's streamlining of that thought.

In the next seven sections (partitioned with title cards) we see the progress Caleb makes with Ava the android, understanding or failing to understand the mind of his host and wondering about the origin of his own intelligence. It's a multi-layered game of cat and mouse between the Kurtz-like Nathan, the pixie-like Caleb who has wandered in from the forest and the born-adult Ava whose test-nailing attribute might well be guile. And that is what keeps the well-worn theme of the meaning of humanity when faced with a superior machine version of itself: humanity is over; how smooth and warm shall we make our death beds?

That isn't a spoiler. This is a film of fulfilled foreshadowing and surprising plot developments but neither of those devices is delivered as a twist. Rather we witness stations of progress in characters' awareness of the situation and their varying capacity to propel beyond them. This takes some fleet footed writing which then must be borne in exacting performances. These things we get.

Irish actor Domnhall Gleason's Caleb holds a weight of intellect and melancholy but keeps these beneath a light and airy glow. He is someone who has come to know his place in life, is saddened and kept lonely by it but has developed a kind of comfortable ache to cope with it. He lights up at the challenges in Nathan's bunker, animated at the gift of purpose.

Oscar Isaac dominates without visible effort. As Llewyn Davis, he was uptight and middle American. In A Most Violent Year he was all svelte self-made elegance. Here he plays a kind of real life Zeus, pummeling a punching bag like a Neanderthal but soaring through concepts like a beam of light. My first comparison was that of many who have reviewed this film: Kurtz. But Kurtz, highly civilised European brought the darkness that old Europe never shook free upon the unspoiled primeval world he found at the end point of empire. Nathan might well feel the self-loathing that plagues Kurtz (and drinks like a fish to prove it) but the sole power left to him that does not engender this points toward a more rarefied than Kurtz would have comprehended: he is not saddened by the discovery of his own nadir but by his apex; his own personal Turing test result is his awareness that he has created his own annihilation and that, in his view, it is just.

The performance that rivets us, though, is that of Alicia Vikander as Ava. Most of her body is mesh over transparent plastic which, like all difficult thinking, shows her workings. She is left with human-like hands and a Scandinavianly perfect face. Her near-human movements (accompanied by the slightest of mechanical whirs) and gaze must keep us watching and guessing as we sit with Caleb on the other side of the glass wall that divides them and look for signs. Given the technology that we witness in the build to her first appearance we will not be satisfied with a monophonic wind up toy but will demand awe at the sight of a machine whose thoughts, like our own, have travelled beyond initial programming to pursue that all driving remnant, desire. Vikander brings a classically trained dancer's control to keep shy of full human fluidity yet stop us with the possibilities of her development. This also goes for her vocal performance. We wonder if we are in uncanny valley and about to feel alienated or viewing it from a distance, fooled by own our best wishes.

The immersion of the world of this film must be celebrated here too for it strikes me as designed rather than art directed. What I mean by that is not just the expensive noiseless hush of the beige walls and the glass surfaces that give us a constant reminder of the notion of the copy; I mean the hot and cold electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's own Geoff Barrow which pours like cream and razor blades into the soft light; I mean the opportunity to savour the technology the way we did with 2001, The Andromeda Strain, and the opening sequence of Colossus; I mean the contrasting chaos and bed temper of the expensive Jackson Pollock on the wall which creates its own expansive dialogue; I mean the silver society lady in the Klimt portrait who seems at once armless and crucified; and I mean the restless unsettling questioning set before us, our own as well as the characters' that keeps us guessing throughout the digestibly brief running time. Alex Garland who penned the screenplays of the draggy 28 Days Later and the soggy Never Let Me Go has saved up his best for his directorial debut. He gives us a test. Take it. See how you do.