Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Of Men, Machines, Girls & the Devil


The potential dangers to humanity presented by technological progress and artificial intelligence (AI) have been regularly depicted by cinema since practically the medium's birth, at least since 1927's Metropolis. My personal favorite in the genre is Steven Spielberg's aptly-titled A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), which is somewhat unique for its more compassionate approach to the subject. If anything, human beings are the villain in it.

AI may not be vilified but proves nevertheless cause for concern in the current sleeper hit Ex Machina. Smartly written and directed by Alex Garland (who previously wrote the screenplays for such bold if nihilistic thrillers as Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and 28 Days Later) the film is initially centered on a battle of wits between two men: robotics designer Nathan (Oscar Isaac, the long-respected actor who is set to break out big time commercially this next year between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the title villain in X-Men: Apocalypse) and a hapless computer coder in his employ, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson. recognizable as Bill Weasley from the Harry Potter series).

Caleb is lured to Nathan's isolated, state-of-the-art retreat/research facility, where he is introduced to Ava. A revolutionary development in AI portrayed by the remarkable relative newcomer Alicia Vikander, Ava quickly seduces Caleb with her curiosity and deceptive innocence. He begins to plot how to liberate her from the manipulative, possibly alcoholic Nathan but, as the audience learns, things among this love triangle's players aren't exactly as they seem.

While I predicted Ex Machina's denouement, there is still plenty along the way to keep viewers guessing, intensely but enjoyably so. The small cast is excellent, with the often scantily-clad Isaac also busting some impressive dance moves in one sequence. Impressive too is Mark Digby's production design, a blend of natural (or at least natural-looking) elements and clinical-feeling futurism. Well-respected scientists including Stephen Hawking warn about the risks posed by AI, but Ex Machina is a speculative trip worth taking.

International City Theatre (ICT) of Long Beach, meanwhile, is currently offering a unique speculative journey in the opposite historical direction. Abigail/1702, now having its West Coast premiere through May 24th, re-introduces us to the chief witch-accuser of Arthur Miller's classic The Crucible. Set ten years after the hysteria that swept through Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and resulted in the hangings of 20 innocent people, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's play presents Abigail Williams, who has moved to the Boston area and re-named herself Ruth Meadows, as something of a healer desperate for forgiveness of her past sins.

She is living a guilt-ridden, solitary life when a smallpox-afflicted sailor shows up at her doorstep and asks for her help. His tenuous recovery provides the dramatic opportunity for Ruth/Abigail to reflect on her past. As she does so, however, she unwittingly reveals her true identity to her patient. It then isn't long before the Devil, with whom young Abigail consorted in the woods outside Salem, appears to collect the soul she promised him ten years earlier.

Although a prior knowledge of The Crucible isn't critical to appreciating the play, it helps. This is especially true when Abigail makes a penitential visit to Elizabeth Proctor, widow of the man with whom Abigail had an affair as a teenager and eventually betrayed as a witch. It is the play's strongest scene, beautifully performed by Jennifer Cannon as Ruth/Abigail and Michelle Holmes, and is even more resonant for those who have previously seen Miller's work performed (I especially recommend the 1996 film version starring an Oscar-nominated Joan Allen as Elizabeth).

Unfortunately, Abigail/1702's climactic showdown between its title character and Kevin Bailey's cocky Satan lacks punch. Whether this is the fault of the playwright or the director, ICT's usually reliable caryn desai, is hard to determine but more build-up or perhaps some stronger special effects might help. Still, the production makes for a potent night at the theatre overall.

Making a complete, 180-degree turn in both tone and medium, I must recommend the hilarious new DVD/VOD release First Period. This spoof of 1980's teen movies like those written and directed by the late John Hughes stars Brandon Alexander III (who also wrote the screenplay) and Dudley Beene, both in drag and great as high school rejects out to conquer the annual talent show. Funny cameos are provided by Judy Tenuta, Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson and Jack Plotnick, while the James Spader-ish Leigh Wakeford and Michael Turchin (a.k.a. Mr. Lance Bass) have fun as closet-case villains. Don't miss it if you are, like me, a gay child of the 80's.

Reverend's Ratings:
Ex Machina: B+
Abigail/1702: B
First Period: B+

First Period is now available on DVD and Instant Streaming:

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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