Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Novelist and screenwriter Garland makes his directorial debut with this smart, chilly science fiction film about a reclusive tech magnate (Oscar Isaac) who flies up an employee (Domhnall Gleeson), supposedly selected at random, to help him test out some remarkable new artificial intelligence he’s created. Complicating the test subjects reactions is the little detail that the A.I. has been loaded into an android with a notably lovely female form and visage (Alicia Vikander). Garland builds his script with almost malicious psychological cunning, fomenting uncertainty as to whether the genius inventor is a simmering madman or a master manipulator, which creates a dynamic between the two male leads that sometimes makes it feel — a little unfairly, I’ll admit — that Gleeson is simply repeating his performance from last year’s Frank. Overall, the film is strong and intriguing, demonstrating that Garland has a fine sense for visual construction and pacing. The ending lingers like an echo that mysteriously won’t die down, but until that point, it’s a sterling debut.
Rush (Ron Howard, 2013). Howard reunites with Frost/Nixon playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan for this docudrama about a Formula One racing rivalry, primarily as it plays out across the 1976 season. By most accounts, Morgan is fairly faithful to the truth, mainly goosing the drama only to heighten the conflict between the two principals. Howard is the one pushing for something a little different, enlisting Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, to give the film a stylish, almost dreamy look, miles away from the director’s usual plainspoken visuals. It’s more intriguing than transformational, especially since Howard sometimes seems a little flummoxed by the task of coming up with a satisfying variety of ways to shoot the redundancy of cars roaring in laps. Chris Hemsworth is well cast as golden boy racer James Hunt, maybe too much so, making him come across as Thor in a jumpsuit. Daniel Brühl fares better, thanks to relative unfamiliarity with his acting, but also because his character, Niki Lauda, has a fascinating edge that never dulls.
Get On Up (Tate Taylor, 2014). This biopic of legendary performer James Brown benefits from a sensational lead performance by Chadwick Boseman, one-upping his own fine work playing Jackie Robinson in 42. The role obviously lends itself to the sort of mercurial shifts that any actor would relish, while also placing him on stage to replicate the boisterous showmanship of the Godfather of Soul. It can sometimes make it seem like Boseman is completing an especially exhausting acting obstacle course rather than building a fully rounded performance, but he does it with so much vigor and style that it’s applause-worthy anyway. The film itself is an exuberant mess, with Taylor lingering on the musical performances very nearly to the film’s breaking point and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth trying so fervently to avoid lapsing into tired biographical rhythms that they wind up with an ungainly snarl of ping-ponging chronology and intermittent breaking of the fourth wall. It might not work, but it’s bizarrely fascinating when it doesn’t.
The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973). Written by the unlikely team of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, the film reportedly came about when producer-director Herbert Ross encouraged the duo to dramatize one of the elaborate scavenger hunt style games they concocted for their famous friends. It naturally became a murder mystery in the elaborate style of Agatha Christie, with a bevy of Hollywood folks invited for a weeklong cruise on the yacht of producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn), a devotee of games and puzzles who’s still smarting from the hit and run death of his wife (Yvonne Romain) about a year earlier. The plot deals with secrets, retribution, and the instinct for malice that pumps through everyone, with the constantly doubling back to reveal hidden truths reaching dizzying intensity by the last reel. It’s often ingenious and staged nicely by Ross throughout. There’s also a fantastic supporting performance by Dyan Cannon, playing a chatterbox, self-involved talent agent.
The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). The second solo outing for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) on the big screen draws loose inspiration from the character’s landmark 1982 limited series, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller, which sends the snarliest X-Man to Japan to deal with Yakuza and samurai and family honor and all sorts of other tired nonsense overvalued by Westerners when they craft stories around the island nation. The film is almost relentlessly dour, enthralled by its own supposed edgy coolness. It buys into the grim and gritty aesthetic so thoroughly that even the sequences of the sort of high lunacy that could only work in a movie drawn from superhero comics — a protracted fight atop a moving bullet train, a character performing open heart surgery on himself to remove a mysterious spidery gizmo from inside his chest — wind up intensely serious instead of bounding with the spirit of happy abandon that could have made them work.