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Films I Neglected To Review: Insert Crass Fembot Joke Here
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Dior & I," "Ex Machina" and "True Story."

"Dior and I" is the latest in a string of documentaries focussing on the fashion industry to hit theaters in the last few years. This one focuses on Raf Simons, a one-time designer of minimalist menswear who caused a stir in 2012 when he was unexpectedly appointed creative director of the legendary Christian Dior label and follows his efforts to create and launch his first line of haute couture for the company in the face of only a limited knowledge of the French language, a timeframe of just over two months and the entire Dior legacy looming over his every move. Though the film hardly breaks any new ground, director Frederic Tcheng has nevertheless managed to create an interesting work that stresses the pleasures and pains of the creative process--both of Simons and those working under him--over gossipy sniping and he also offers viewers a glimpse into what it is about the rich history of Dior that has made it one of the leading names in the industry for so long. Although it will no doubt play well on television as a sort of serious-minded version of "Project Runway," fashionista and those intrigued by the notion of getting a privileged glimpse at an artist at work will want to check this one out.

In the opening scenes of the twisty new sci-fi mind-bender "Ex Machina," amiably nerdy computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a workplace contest to spend a week at the remote home/lab of his boss, incredibly rich tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac). As it turns out, there is more to the prize that immediately meets the eye. It seems that Nathan has been mucking around in the areas of artificial intelligence and has come up with a breakthrough AI system housed in the form of a beautiful female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and wants Caleb to perform a week-long Turing test on her to see if she can actually demonstrate convincing evidence of human-like behavior despite her awareness that she is a machine. Suffice it to say, things are not quite as they seem and before long, it is difficult to tell who is being tested and who is doing the testing.

Films about robots possessing of human-like qualities have been around for a long time and have provided the science-fiction genre with some of its most provocative titles--"Metropolis," "2001," "Blade Runner" and "A.I." to name a few (and the first person to say "Small Wonder" is going to get such a pinch)--and while "Ex Machina" may not quite reach their rarified levels, it isn't for lack of trying. Writer and debuting director Alex Garland (whose past genre efforts have included "28 Days Later," "Sunshine," the adaptation of "Never Let Me Go" and, okay, that grisly "Dredd" reboot) has taken a familiar conceit and fleshed it out in intriguing ways through a screenplay that relies more on intellectual concepts than on flashy special effects and which is further bolstered by an appealingly sleek and spare stylistic approach and strong and effective performances from the three leads--Vikander is especially impressive in the subtle yet undeniably effective ways that she is able to make Ava come across like a real person even though we are constantly reminded of her artificial nature thanks to her half-human/half-robot physical makeup. Admittedly, the film falters somewhat in the final scenes--Garland has the right ideas of how to wrap things up but is not quite as sure in regards to properly executing them--but even with a slightly muffed finale, "Ex Machina" is still a strong, smart and even sometimes sexy work that will satisfy not just genre fanatics but anyone who appreciates a compelling story that has been told with a lot of style and intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

The conceit behind "True Story"--based, as you can probably guess, on a true story--is so potentially fascinating that it only serves to make the resulting film even more frustrating in the way that it so thoroughly whiffs such seemingly strong material. As it begins, "New York Times" reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) has just seen his promising career go up in flames when he is busted for a story on African child slavery that proves to be a little too good to be true. While licking his wounds in Montana with his long-suffering wife (Felicity Jones), he learns of the curious case of Christian Longo (James Franco), a man in jail awaiting trial for brutally murdering his wife and three young children and who appropriated Finkel's name and resume as his own while trying to evade capture in Mexico. Sensing a chance at redemption--or at least a hefty book deal--Finkel goes to meet Longo and agrees to give him tips of how to be a good journalist in exchange for the real story of what Longo may or may not have done. However, the truth proves to be as slippery and elusive as ever and Finkel must grapple with whether he is connecting with another misunderstood soul or if he is just being used again.

The notion of recounting a real-life story through the eyes of two decidedly unreliable narrators is certainly intriguing but the central problem with "True Story" is that there is not a single moment during its entire running time that comes close to feeling authentic. Director and co-write Rupert Goold doesn't really seem to have a strong grasp on the material or a compelling idea that he is trying to communicate--too many scenes just drift off into the ether and play havoc with the inherent tension of the narrative and an invented scene in which Finkel's wife inexplicably goes to visit Longo in prison rings so palpably false right from the start that it all but derails the entire enterprise. Likewise, Franco and Hill, both of whom have shown their considerable acting chops in other, worthier enterprises, likewise fail to create convincing characters--both approach the material like acting class partners trying to bluff their way through an assignment for which they have not properly rehearsed. There is a smart and powerful film to be made from the Finkel-Longo affair but sadly, "True Story" is not it.

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originally posted: 04/27/15 06:12:57
last updated: 04/27/15 06:46:11
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