Two Movies Talkin’ About Freedom

This year started a bit sluggishly for me moviewise, but I’ve been picking up the pace. The final weekend in May was a busy one. Two movies in two states. The movies couldn’t have been more different, one a somber sci-fi thriller, the other an anarchistic romp. But at their cores was a common theme that has been part of the human experience for millennia. The Rascals summed it up very nicely oh so many years ago when they sang, “All the world over, so easy to see/People everywhere just wanna be free.”

Ex Machina, one of five movies listed on the Ambler Theater's marquee.
Ex Machina, one of five movies listed on the Ambler Theater’s marquee.

That Saturday evening in Ambler, Pennsylvania, my wife and I caught the very well-wrought sci-fier, Ex Machina, at the Ambler Theater, an art house cinema. This movie has broken into the multiplexes a bit, and I think it might grow there yet. Its edginess, as I see it, makes it a match for adults young to old. For now, though, it mostly is confined to theaters like the Ambler, where the under 30 crowd doesn’t tend to congregate. We grabbed two seats in the first row, no better seats available. For the next two hours, our heads craned back, we risked developing stiff necks. Our necks survived just fine. The movie too was fine. It’s an unsettling creation.

Ex Machina’s Nathan Bateman (played by Oscar Isaac) is a techno genius who has made billions from the world’s most popular Web search engine, Bluebook. Nathan is pretty much a recluse, hidden away in an almost inaccessible mountain retreat which serves as his ultramodern home-cum-laboratory. For years there, Nathan has devoted himself to developing the perfect Artificial Intelligence robot, one so humanlike that, well, it would pass for human. And possibly surpass the average Joe or Jane. He has dubbed his newest robotic pride and joy Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava’s mental abilities are exemplary, her personality coy and inquisitive. Brilliant as he is, though, Nathan wants confirmation of Ava’s wondrousness. Ergo, he flies in one of his Bluebook employees, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), to vet the robot’s capacities. Nathan, Caleb and Ava, for the next week, engage one another in mind games and seductions. Honesty sometimes comes to the fore. More often, deceptions dominate.

The three leads couldn’t be better. Isaac’s Nathan is a most unlikeable fellow, his nasty and vain streaks miles wide. Nathan doesn’t get along well with fellow humans. Or robots. Odd then that his life’s passion is to build human replicas? I think that the challenge is too much for him to resist. Baby-faced Gleeson finds the right balance for Caleb’s young guy innocence and bright guy brains. And Vikander is a stunner. Her Ava is dewy eyed and flirtatious and, as noted, smart as a whip. She knows that there’s a big world out there beyond Nathan’s claustrophobic digs, a world she has never seen. For Ava, a high IQ laboratory rat, freedom chez Nathan is not much more than a concept. But it is also a goal, though its attainment might be nothing more than a pipe dream.

The 100 Year Old Man's official poster.
The 100 Year Old Man’s official poster.

Freedom, something easy to take for granted. And something I should ponder more frequently. One day after seeing Ex Machina I drove to New Jersey, near Princeton, and met up with a long-time friend. We went to Montgomery Cinemas to watch a movie with one of the longest titles of all time. Namely, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, an absurdist black comedy that treats both life and death with a bouncy attitude. I thought it was a hoot, and looking hard for meaning in its looniness I realized that, as with Ex Machina, the quest for freedom is part of its inner workings.

A globetrotting and subtitled film embracing numerous languages, including English, The 100 Year Old Man follows Allan Karlsson (the excellent Robert Gustafsson) from birth to his 100th year. Born in Sweden, Allan at film’s end is still going strong, contentedly savoring life with a gang of recently-made Swedish pals, and an elephant to boot, on a beach in Bali. How did he get there? Let’s just say that Allan is one of the blessed beings. Serendipity has smiled upon him at most junctures of his life.

An explosives enthusiast since early childhood, at age 99 Allan lives alone in the Swedish countryside with his best friend, a cat. One day a fox kills the feline, so outraging Allan that he lures the killer to a lunch of dynamite-encased food treats. The ensuing boom boom boom that promptly dispatches the fox doesn’t go over well with Swedish authorities, who relocate Allan to a heavily supervised retirement home. A life of incredible adventures behind him, Allan follows his gut instincts on the afternoon of his 100th birthday. Out the window of his retirement home bedroom he goes, and fairly nimbly too. Wild and crazy events ensue, quickly multiplying in consequences. Unfazed through it all, Allan more than survives. He goes for the gusto like few centenarians are able. He loves the freedom that allows him to motor on.

Freedom can be stifled, people can be subjugated. But the desire and need for freedom are built into mankind’s genetic code. For many of us in the world, fortunately, freedom allows life to blossom. Allan Karlsson, on the road and at the beach at age 100, seems almost to skip through his days with joy. Ex Machina’s Ava isn’t remotely in Allan’s circumstances. She is a freedom neophyte. But Nathan Bateman has programmed her in a fully human way. Ava feels freedom’s call. Watch out.

Uncanny Valley, A New Play Performed In A Small Theater (I Like Small Theaters)

An early moment in Uncanny Valley (photo by InterAct Theatre Company)
An early moment in Uncanny Valley (photo by InterAct Theatre Company)

This past weekend my wife and I went with friends to see a new play, Uncanny Valley, at Philadelphia’s Adrienne Theatre. The Adrienne contains four small performance spaces within its floors. I felt right at home in the ground floor theater where Uncanny Valley was staged, because I like small theaters.

Thomas Gibbons wrote Uncanny Valley. He is playwright-in-residence for InterAct Theatre Company, one of the groups using the Adrienne’s rooms. Gibbons is a talented writer. Some of his plays, such as Permanent Collection and Bee-luther-hatchee, have examined America’s race relations in sharply-focused scenarios. Uncanny Valley finds Gibbons exploring what for him is new subject matter. The play revolves around the high tech lab creation, in the not-too-distant future, of an Artificial Intelligence humanoid who, through training and electronic wizardry, comes to appear, emote and think like actual flesh and blood.

I have a talent for missing points and for not fully grasping situations. I’ve no doubt that this might be true for my understanding of Uncanny Valley. Rightly or wrongly, what I mainly came away with by the end of the play are two notions. First, that devising an AI creature is risky, as unexpected consequences may occur down the line. And second, that some humans don’t want to analyze their emotional shortcomings. I can’t say that any of this broke new ground for me.

Still, I enjoyed Uncanny Valley quite a lot. The actors in this two character play, Frank X as the AI gent and Sally Mercer as an AI programmer, work their roles well. The story unfolds intriguingly and at a well-controlled pace. Gibbons’ dialogue is crisp and usually rings true.

I doubt, though, if I’d have had as good an experience if I had seen the play in a larger theater. InterAct’s theater at the Adrienne seats around 100. Its intimacy can’t but help allow the audience to be drawn in. At the start of the play, Frank X’s character, Julian, seems to be nothing more than a head poking out of a table. Julian’s other body parts haven’t been attached yet. Facing him sits Claire, the programmer. Claire is teaching rudimentary facial movements to Julian, whose training at this point obviously is in its infancy. I sat a mere 20 feet from the stage, a fascinated witness to these early proceedings. From 75 or more feet away, I wouldn’t have felt as involved.

Is a smaller theater always better than a bigger? Generally I’d say yes, especially for dramas and comedies. No question that I tend to opt for the small, where I almost always have a decent or better-than-decent time, despite any deficiencies in acting or script. Being close to the action makes up a good bit for those drawbacks.

At larger places, the experience, at least for me, is more hit or miss. A few years ago I loved the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot at Philadelphia’s very roomy Academy of Music. It seats 2,900. I was at least 100 feet from the actors. So much was happening on stage with a dizzying parade of characters, though, that distance from the stage allowed visual perspective. Plus, the theater crew had the sound balanced well, always a good thing.

Not the case, unfortunately, for In The Heights, a musical my wife and I took in a year or two ago. We saw it at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, which claims the title of America’s oldest theater (it began in 1809). The Walnut seats 1,000. We were in the mezzanine, hardly a mile from the stage, but not close enough. That wouldn’t have mattered as much if the sound quality had been good. It wasn’t. The dialogue was hard to make out, despite the actors being mic-ed. The musical numbers were a sonic mess, lyrics usually lost in a high decibel onslaught of instruments. This wasn’t a case of a boomer’s bad hearing. A few people seated near us, and a good bit younger than us, grumbled about the audio too.