In his novels The Beach and The Tesseract, in his screenplays Sunshine and 28 Days Later… and even his adaptations of other people's work, like Never Let Me Go and Dredd, Alex Garland wrestles with similarly knotty themes: The corruption of utopian ideals, the intersection where science and human behavior collide, the possibility that technology can go wrong, go rogue.
In his directing debut, the riveting sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, Garland bundles those concepts together to explore how consciousness and free will factor into the equation. A billionaire tech titan has developed a sentient machine and invites one of his brainy programmers to spend a week testing her – her name is Ava – to see if she represents true artificial intelligence, a thinking, feeling entity. Oscar Issac stars as the search engine era Dr. Frankenstein, Domhnall Gleeson is the young techie and Alicia Vikander, part Swedish actress, part prosthetics, part visual effects, is the robot creature.
“When Ava first appears, she’s very unambiguously a machine,” says Garland, who dropped into Philadelphia recently to talk up his film. “She’s got missing sections of her body, and a metal skeleton structure underneath, which precludes a possibility that she might be a girl wearing a suit…. But she has this mesh that sits over the metal structure that follows the contours of a female form. And every now and then the light captures that mesh and you get a glimpse of a female form. So even as soon as the machine is presented, something is pulling you away from that sense of a machine, which is the sense of a girl — at least the external silhouette, shape, of a girl.”
The Tribeca Film Festival, which kicked off Wednesday and runs through April 26, has always been a New York-centric affair. The fest was born in the rubble of the 9/11 attacks, founded by Robert De Niro and company in 2002 to affirm lower Manhattan’s place as an industry hub, as a vibrant neighborhood of filmmakers and film lovers.
But the festival’s reach has always been global, showcasing work from all corners, including the corner 90 miles to New York City’s south. This year’s TFF lineup includes six films either shot in Philadelphia or made by, or about, Philly natives. A quick look:
As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM
(4/17, 4/18, 4/22, 4/25)
If you missed Haifaa al-Mansour’s beguiling girl-and-her-bike story Wadjda when it was in theaters in late 2013, SPOKE magazine is co-presenting a screening of the ground-breaking and rightly praised Saudi Arabian film on Friday, April 10. Part of the “Tour de Film” festivities at The Glass Factory in Brewerytown, Wadjda stars Waad Mohammed in the title role, an entrepreneurial 10-year-old who wheels and deals her way around Riyadh and longs desperately for the shiny olive-green bicycle on sale at a neighborhood store -- then she can really wheel and deal. But girls aren’t supposed to ride bicycles; it's considered undignified, inappropriate, in conservative Islamic culture, which is the culture all around her. Wadjda, then, is both a children’s film and a film for adults that considers issues of religion, gender and personal freedom. The first Saudi feature to be directed by a woman, Wadjda celebrates the liberating power of riding a bike – on so many levels.
Also on the “Tour de Film” program is “Jitensha” (the Japanese word for bicycle), Dean Yamada’s charmingly moody 2009 short about a misfit office worker who gets in a fight, quits his job and then finds the pieces of his bicycle slowly going missing -- first the saddle, then a wheel, handlebars, until soon all he’s left with is the bell. Despondent and decidedly puzzled, he wanders around, retrieving the missing components thanks to a list mysteriously left for him. The final shot of Yugo Saso, the star, pedaling down a busy city street, speaks volumes.
SPOKE, a new quarterly print mag devoted to all-things-cycling in Philly, and cineSPEAK, the non-profit group dedicated to alternative, independent, repertory and foreign language programming, are co-presenting Tour de Film – with bike parking and beer on tap. Friday, April 10, 6:30pm to 10pm, The Glass Factory, 1517 N. Bailey Street. Tickets $8 in advance, $10 at the door.
In an epic test of endurance and sanity, the AMC and Regal chains have announced they'll be running the “Ultimate Marvel Marathon” beginning at 6p.m. on April 29 -- showing all 11 Marvel movies starring the respective and collective Avengers, plus that gang from Guardians of the Galaxy, back-to-back-to-back-to-back and so on. And on.That’s right, 29 straight hours of Black Widow and Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man, Thor and that guy with the bow and arrow – plus those Guardians dudes, with Bradley Cooper, as the voice of Rocket the Raccoon, quipping “It’s not Bugs Bunny in the middle of The Avengers” – all of them trading wisecracks and punches with supervillains of every stripe. To cap the Marvel mayhem, Avengers: Age of Ultron, reteaming Robert Downey Jr. Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlet Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo, will debut. Those in the audience who are still conscious may recognize James Spader rumbling with villainy as the voice of the metal-alloyed megavillain, Ultron. Joss Whedon directs the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Here’s the schedule:
- 6 p.m. IRON MAN
- 8:25 p.m. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
- 10:35 p.m. IRON MAN 2
- 1 a.m. THOR
- 3:10 a.m. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
- 5:30 a.m. THE AVENGERS
- 8:48 a.m. IRON MAN 3
- 11:15 a.m. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
- 1:45 p.m. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
- 4:20 p.m. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
- 7 p.m. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
And here are the area theaters committed to this folly: AMC Deptford, AMC Loews Cherry Hill, AMC Marple and UA King of Prussia.
Steven Spielberg, who first went to the movies when he was a kid living in Haddon Township, has been stacking up the projects lately, like a flight controller working thr tower at JFK. He’s finished shooting Bridge of Spies, a Cold War thriller based on the story of James Donovan, a lawyer brought in to negotiate the release of an American U2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers, shot down in Soviet airspace. Tom Hanks is starring as Donovan, and he's joined by Alan Alda, Mark Rylance and Amy Ryan. The film is slated for October release. It’s Hanks’ fourth team-up with Spielberg, after Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal.
This week it was announced that the director has signed Jennifer Lawrence for It's What I Do, based on the just-published memoir by Pulitizer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario. Addario has covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Congo, Darfur, Haiti and Iraq for the New York Times, National Geographic and other outlets. In 2011 she was one of four journalists taken prisoner by the Libyan Army. (Right now, Lawrence is playing another real-life figure, Joy Mangano, the millionaire entrepreneur and inventor of the Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangers, in Joy, from her American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell.) The full title of Addario’s book: It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.
On top of that, Spielberg is making The BFG, adaptating the children’s book by Roald Dahl. And the director has long been attached to Robopocalypse, based on Daniel H. Wilson’s 2011 futuristic cyborg novel of the same name. Spielberg has also been holding onto the rights to use Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches for a planned biopic of the Civil Rights leader. That’s the reason Ava DuVernay had to write “new” speeches for King to deliver in her Oscar-nominated Selma.
Who says Philadelphians aren’t animated? (Probably nobody, but why pass up the chance at a cheap lead?) On Saturday evening, Feb. 28, the Philadelphia Independents II Animation Festival presents itself at the Plastic Club, the historic Center City institution dedicated to the visual arts. More than a dozen area artists are scheduled to show and discuss their work, including animators from the faculty at the University of the Arts, Drexel and Moore. In addition to the likes of Ross Bollinger, collaborators Lowell Boston and Liz Goldberg, Geoff Beatty (head of Germantown Studios) and the animation collectives Motion Heads and Juggling Wolf, the program’s roster includes Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, the groundbreaking duo behind the 2009 feature adaptation of J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Fierlinger, of Drawn From Memory fame, is a legend in animation circles, starting his career in Czechoslovakia in the late 1950s.
The Plastic Club, located on tiny Camac Street in the Wash West section of town, is one of those hidden Philly gems. Philadelphia Independent II Animation Festival promises to have a few gems of its own. The Plastic Club, 247 S. Camac St., 215-545-9324. www.plasticclub.org Things begin at 6:30pm. The event is free, but seating is limited.
While the hype and hoo-ha of the Oscar campaigns have kept the various nominees busy these past months, it hasn’t stopped the stars, and the filmmakers, from moving ahead with new projects. And who knows, maybe some of the work will land them back in the Oscar race next year? Here’s what a few of the top contenders in Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony are up to:
Alejandro G. Inarritu, nominated for best director, best screenplay (co-writing credit) and best film (co-producing) for Birdman, has been busy in the Canadian Rockies with The Revenant, a frontier thriller about real-life 19th century fur-trapper Hugh Glass. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Glass, who was attacked by a bear and then robbed and left for dead by his companions (Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter).
Richard Linklater, up for best director, screenplay (co-writer) and picture (co-producer) for Boyhood, has been batting around That’s What I’m Talking About, set in the world of college baseball. Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman and Tyler Hoechlin star.
The presumptive front-runner in the best documentary feature race in the 2015 Academy Awards, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour offers a gripping, you-are-there account of security contractor Edward Snowden’s fateful decision to share top secret intelligence files with the media and the world at large. A whistleblower, or a traitor, depending on who you’re talking to, Snowden’s story is the stuff of a gripping international thriller. And now Oliver Stone, the director with a string of controversial takes on recent American history -- JFK, Nixon, W., World Trade Center – plans to bring the Snowden story to the big screen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been cast as Snowden, the intelligence and security contractor who holes up in a Hong Kong hotel while Poitras films him angsting over the release of top secret documents, as investigative reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill look on.
Joining Gordon-Levitt in Stone’s dramatization, adapted from the books Time of the Octopus by Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, and The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding, are Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills; Melissa Leo as filmmaker Poitras; , Zachary Quinto (Spock in the Star Trek reboots) as Greenwald, and Tom Wilkinson as the British journalist MacAskill. Expect a 2016 release.