Neil LaBute likes to think about the games people play. In Double or Nothing, one of two short films he had at last year’s festival, Adam Brody humiliated a homeless man as an elaborate way of getting his girlfriend to break up with him. LaBute’s film career has been in decline recently – The Wicker Man is beneath parody, and his remake of Death at a funeral was utterly superfluous – so his latest feature-length effort Some Velvet Morning represents a return to form. Stanley Tucci stars as Fred, a lawyer who surprises Velvet (Alice Eve) at her row-house with luggage in tow. She does not expect him, and they have a disturbing history. Over the next seventy-five minutes, Fred and Velvet push each other buttons, oscillating between outright flirting and grizzled hate.
Some Velvet Morning is unabashedly theatrical. Within the confines of a home, the two actors spar in real-time. The dialogue is LaBute at his clipped best: Fred and Velvet speak in terse shorthand, as if they’re afraid of what ugliness might unfold if they said what they really mean. Sometimes the language gets nasty. Tucci is blunt about his sexual advances, and Venus knows how to bruise his already damaged ego. It’s an electric back and forth, with both actors abandoning their vanity in favor of the demanding story. This is LaBute we’re talking about here, so nothing is exactly what it seems. The climax stands on the razor’s edge between black comedy and misogyny, and no matter the interpretation, LaBute forces his audience to rethink the role performance has in our lives, particularly when it comes to the opposite sex. We pretend way more than we think we do, and LaBute is one of the few filmmakers out there who wants to figure out why.
The Machine begins as a dystopia, but it soon narrows its scope toward sleek, intelligent science fiction. It’s the future, and the West is in a Cold War with China, only the focus is on artificial intelligence instead of nuclear bombs. Vincent (Toby Stephens) is a brilliant scientist who’s on the verge of a purely intelligent machine. He enlists the help of Ava (Caity Lotz), a beautiful young prodigy, and together they make substantial progress. Ava dies at the hands of a Chinese spy, so Vincent creates a robot with her likeness. The machine advances at a staggering rate, and while Vincent tries to argue it’s alive, his employers want to weaponize it immediately.
Under the direction of Caradog W. James, The Machine never looks like it has a modest budget. Its hallways are grimy and atmospheric, and the simple special effects are effective (the robot’s eyes radiate in an unnerving way). His plot leads toward a counter-intuitive conclusion: so many science fiction films are about the perils of robotics, and this one turns the premise on its head. We come to care about Ava/the machine because of what befalls it, and how its innocence transitions into hardened anger. James waffles in his middle act, however, when he dwells on an obvious sub-plot and the ambiguity over whether Vincent’s employer is pure evil (he is). But once the lines are drawn, the body count rises along with the thrills. The Machine ends on a curious note. Vincent finds some measure of piece, even if it means that the human race is probably doomed as a result.
Wadjda is earning a lot of buzz for its unlikely pedigree. It’s the first feature-length film from the patriarchal Saudi Arabia, and it’s directed by a woman. On those terms alone, the film is quite an achievement, but it also happens to be funny and moving, too. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is about ten or eleven, and she’s too damn smart to always confirm to what society demands of her. She wears Converse All Stars when her classmates stick to simpler shoes, and she wants nothing more than to earn a bicycle even though that’s not proper for a young girl. A bike appears in a local shop, and since she cannot afford it, Wadjda decides to enroll in her school’s Koran competition for the reward.
The most remarkable thing about Wadjda is how it criticizes Saudi Arabian culture while preserving some of its traditions. There is a scene where Wadjda and her mother (Reem Abdullah) walk through a clothing store, admiring Western dresses while they completely cover their bodies in black (her mother tries on a dress in the bathroom, and she looks gorgeous). These restrictions and rules are matter-of-fact for Saudi women, and writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour shows us how women work around them in a practical way. All of the characters accept this system, basically, so what differs is the severity to which they apply the rules. The mother is more lenient, while Wadjda’s principal is so strict that she wanders into hypocrisy. Al-Mansour empathizes with all the characters, including the principal, so her film is apolitical even while she sees a need to practical reforms.
Speaking of practical, Al-Mansour struggled more than most filmmakers during her shoot. In a post-screening discussion, the director explained how she was not allowed to be outside during the shoot, so instead she would watch/instruct the actors while watching from a monitor in a nearby van. Despite these challenges, Wadjda is an excellent low-key drama, one with satisfying sub-plots and thoughtful character moments. Abdullah is terrific as Wadjda’s mother, a traditional woman who’s not without sympathy for her daughter. All the child actors do a terrific job, but Mohammed stands out as the titular character. She’s plucky and funny, constantly scheming, and there are ample laughs whenever she tricks an adult. It’s hard to tell what the future holds for girls like Wadjda, but given Al-Mansour’s optimism about her homeland, there’s reason to hope yet.