Ex Machina

 

The best film I’ve seen this year is Ex Machina, which ranks near Bladerunner in its story of artificial intelligence creatures and their interactions with humans.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a 26-year-old coder for a large search engine. He wins a company-wide lottery and is chosen to spend a week with the company’s founder, the just slightly older Nathan (Oscar Issac) at Nathan’s remote mountain hideaway.

After a copter ride over miles of wilderness, Caleb makes his way to Nathan’s crib and meets the quirky genius. Nathan tells Caleb about Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot Nathan has created that Caleb will evaluate over the next few days.

Caleb never gets comfortable. His room, and much of the building, has no windows. There are occasional power shutdowns. Nathan counters his drinking binges with extreme workouts. Nathan speaks to his female Japanese housemaid (Sonoya Mizuno) abusively.

Caleb has daily sessions with Ava where they converse but are separated by glass. Following the sessions, Nathan debriefs Caleb.

As the week progresses, Caleb’s curiosity about Ava and her capabilities grows. As with Deckard and Rachael in Bladerunner, Caleb and Ava appear to be developing genuine affection for one another, which helps set up the story’s climax.

Rookie director Alex Garland makes a smashing debut in a film that is understated. This movie depends more on a thoughtful script (Garland wrote it) than on effects and tricks. The focus on conversations makes Ex Machina a film that, with a few accommodations, could be presented as a stage play.

With a small group of actors carrying the film, casting and performances are crucial. Issac and Gleeson, in their portrayals of these brainy nerds, are fun to watch in their interactions. Vikander brings appropriate restraint to her role as the gorgeous robot Ava. Bravo to all three!

One reviewer quoted in the above trailer called Ex Machina “an instant classic.” For any fan of great movies, I recommend it. For any fan of great sci-fi, Ex Machina is a must-see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Water Diviner

 

Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner is a gem. The story, characters and settings blend the sweetness of family love with the in-your-face violence of war.

Connor (Crowe) is a rural Aussie widower who goes to Turkey to find his three missing sons who fought in the century ago Battle of Gallipoli. (Remember the 1981 film Gallipoli?) Upon arrival in Turkey he meets the beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) whose husband is among the Turkish war dead. She hesitates to admit it because she would then be obliged to marry her husband’s brother (who she does not want to marry).

Occupational forces try to stop Connor from searching battlegrounds but he is determined. When he finds remains that indicate a son was killed execution style, Connor threatens the vanquished Turkish officer Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan). After cooling off, and learning that one of the three sons may be alive, he and Hasan become allies. As Connor continues on his quest, he actually has an opportunity to save Hasan’s life.

Connor is one of Crowe’s most likable characters ever. Though grieving the death of his wife and sons, Connor has some light moments with Ayshe’s son Ohran (Dylan Georgiades) and some flirtatious moments with Ayshe.

As a director, Crowe is solid, focusing of advancing the narrative with many gorgeous images and a handful of directorial flourishes (such as dissolving from a whirling dervish to a spinning windmill). Some of the war scenes are a bit more grisly than might’ve been expected.

Crowe’s acting talent has been a given since he first appeared on U.S. screens. Whether The Water Diviner is a one-off shot at directing or the start to the next chapter in his career, TWD is an impressive effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

True Story

Brilliant opening shot: A teddy bear falls slowly, landing softly next to a little girl who is, inexplicably, curled up in a suitcase. It is quickly revealed why.

Meanwhile, Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), a New York Times reporter, goes to Africa for a story that makes the cover of the Times Sunday magazine. The story is written while Finkel plays poker with colleagues in the newsroom. He wins the hand but it turns out his story is not quite accurate. He is fired.

Finkel goes to his cabin in Montana with his lady Jill (Felicity Jones) and pitches freelance writing pieces. A call comes from a reporter in Oregon (Ethan Suplee), informing Finkel that accused murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) claimed he (Longo) was Finkel when he was arrested in Mexico.

When Finkel goes to Oregon to visit Longo, the fun begins. In a series of jailhouse one-to-ones, Franco and Hill each show off their acting talents. Finkel is flattered when Longo mentions how much he likes Finkel’s writing. Longo sends Finkel a lengthy handwritten letter and Finkel offers to use its content to co-write a book, once the case is cleared.

Jill has doubts about the whole scenario, but Finkel is totally seduced by Longo’s apparent intelligence and his cool demeanor (despite being charged with four murders).

After this enticing setup, the film bogs down. But… here comes another memorable sequence: Director Rupert Goold juxtaposes Jill’s piano playing with Finkel’s writing on his laptop. Keyboard on keyboard action. Nice.

True Story has a bit of suspense: What is the true story? Did Longo kill his family? What will happen at trial? Will Finkel and Longo co-author a book? Will Finkel be redeemed after his journalistic faux pas?

But the payoff is weak. Oh, there’s resolution, but it doesn’t quite deliver what the first few chapters of the film indicated might lay ahead.

Nonetheless, Franco and Hill are a delight to watch. Someone told me when she heard those two were in a movie together, she presumed it was a comedy. Nope. True Story is serious stuff. It takes a shot, but ultimately misses out on greatness.

Unfriended

 

When an entire movie takes place on a high school student’s computer screen, it’s easy to expect the film to be dumb or cheesy. Actually, the presentation of Unfriended is rather clever.

For those of us who spend hours each day in front of a computer screen, with pings and bells alerting us to new emails, Facebook notifications and other updates, Unfriended takes place in a familiar, generally comfortable setting.

Unfriended is a short movie. Runtime from the first Universal logo to the first end credit is 77 minutes. A longer telling of this story could’ve easily become bloated and tedious.

Unfriended’s tale plays out during a Skype video chat among six friends, plus one mystery participant. The stranger who butts in seems to be a student who killed herself after being shamed in a Youtube video.

Blaire Lily’s (Shelley Hennig) Apple computer screen reveals the Youtube videos depicting the shaming of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) and her suicide. The screen also displays Blaire’s outside-the-chat messaging with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) where suspicions of something weird first arise.

Facebook plays a big role as Laura (or someone who has hacked her account) keeps messaging Blaire, even after Blaire unfriends her.

When this mystery online intruder begins a cruel game and threatens to kill chat participants, tension mounts and secrets are revealed.

Director Levan Gabriadze makes the film look seamless, as if it were completely shot in real time. The other main cast members (Renee Olstead, Courtney Halverson, Jacob Wysocki and Will Peltz) interact believably with Hennig and Storm. (As is usual with movies depicting high school students, most of the actors are in their mid to late 20’s.)

It’s weird enough to get Facebook friend requests from deceased individuals. (I’ve had that happen.) My hope is that any laptop grief I experience today will be the result of glitches, not due to meddling with my accounts from beyond the grave.

 

 

 

 

The Longest Ride

 

Sweet, sappy romance. With challenges and complications and maybe some peril. Probably some tears. Oh, and generally happy endings. That’s what we’ve come to expect from Nicholas Sparks movies and The Longest Ride follows that well-worn path. And, as has happened in previous Sparks movies, his home state of North Carolina provides scenic settings.

Sophia (Britt Robertson) is a senior art major at Wake Forest University. A sorority sister invites her to a rodeo. Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son) is a bull rider who spots her at the event and, later, flirts with her at a bar. Their first date is a picnic at an impossibly gorgeous, dusky lakeside setting.

On their way back, they rescue an older gentleman (Alan Alda) who has driven his car off the road and hit a tree. Luke pulls the man from the burning vehicle and Sophia gathers his wicker basket from the front seat. At the hospital, Sophia checks the basket and finds it filled with love letters the man, Ira, wrote to his late wife, Ruth.

As things heat up between Luke and Sophia, she becomes chummy with Ira and through his letters and conversations she learns the story of their courtship and marriage, including a complication that challenged their pursuit of happiness together. In flashbacks, the younger Ira (Jack Huston) indulges Ruth (Oona Chaplin) and her love of art, just as Luke is making a modest effort to do the same with Sophia.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (actually in Luke’s cozy barn residence), Sophia and Luke have a hookup that’s appropriately sexy without being overly steamy. But, since these are two very attractive stars, their tryst should be enough to stir up romantic desires for moviegoers.

But here comes a complication or two: Luke, who’s already had a bad injury thanks to a bull named Rango, wants to complete his comeback with more perilous rides. And Sophia has an internship waiting at an art gallery in New York. How can things possibly work out for these two?

With a script by Craig Bolotin from Sparks’ novel, director George Tillman Jr. (whose prior work has included urban and action films) has made a film that looks good and maintains great pacing. The bull rides and the flashbacks to Ira and Ruth keep things moving beyond Sophia and Luke’s romance.

The Longest Ride is true to the Sparks brand. The film accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. And delivers exactly what audiences expect from a Nicholas Sparks story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Furious 7

Furious 7 brings exhilarating vehicle chases, violent hand-to-hand combat, fiery explosions, a really bad bad guy, a tribute to a fallen star and… Kurt Russell!

Not to mention skydiving cars and trucks, a visit to the glossy Abu Dhabi, a major cat fight and computer snooping worse than anything the NSA has come up with.

But Furious 7 is not just about the spectacle of reckless actions in and out of cars. It’s also about the camaraderie of the ensemble. They are courageous (mostly) and cool to be sure, but they also have a bit of fun and some tender moments, too.

The poster for Furious 7 has a double meaning. It’s the 7th film in the series and the 7 people shown are the key characters. Dom (Vin Diesel), Brian (Paul Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Hobbs (Dwayne [The Rock] Johnson), Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) are the team that takes on the Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) and terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou).

Shaw, a former British black ops killer, is bent on avenging the death of his brother (from Furious 6) and Jakande wants to grab the God’s Eye computer program. Meanwhile, the Furious crew is recruited by Mr. Noboby (Kurt Russell) to fetch the programmer who can help prevent God’s Eye from getting into the wrong hands. She’s the gorgeous Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel).

Not that you should be concerned with the plot. Just enjoy the chases, the crashes, the close calls, the mayhem and the energy Furious 7 delivers to the screen. Director James Wan doesn’t let the respites from action last very long.

What about Paul Walker? He died 16 months ago when he crashed his Porsche, but his character Brian is a vital part of the film. Over half of the scenes were shot before he died. His brothers worked as stand-ins and CGI can do amazing things. There’s a nice sequence at the end of the movie that remembers Paul Walker.

Furious 7 is a review-proof movie. It will be huge. Last year’s Captain America: Winter Soldier set the April record with a $95 million open. Expect Dom, Brian and crew to zoom past that mark.

Get Hard

 

Get Hard is a crude, rude equal opportunity offender: Blacks, Whites, Gays, Latinos, etc. Not for the thin-skinned.

Get Hard is a funny movie that gives Kevin Hart almost as high a profile as Will Ferrell. Obviously, the film’s producers are trying to hit the urban market as well as the general market and I’m guessing they’ll have some success.

James King (Ferrell) is an L.A. money trader who is beaucoup rich. He’s engaged to his boss’s smokin’ hot daughter (Alison Brie). Darnell (Kevin Hart) is the hard-working owner of a luxury carwash whose customers include James.

When James is busted for fraud and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, he hires Darnell to get him hard enough to survive his time behind bars. James has mistakenly presumed that Darnell has been in jail. Since he offers Darnell money he needs, Darnell lets James believe what he wants.

Darnell turns James’s mansion into a fake prison. The tennis court becomes the prison yard, the setting for a memorable scene in which Hart portrays black, Latino and gay prison types. Bravo, Kevin!

This cross-culture journey takes James and Darnell to a gay restaurant, a “crib” in the ‘hood and a white power motorcycle club’s hangout. There are moments that are uncomfortable for James, Darnell or both, as well as for the audience. But, again, there are laughs to be had.

Ferrell’s character is a Harvard grad who knows his way around the world of investments. Still, he is buffoonish in a Burgundyesque sort of way—enough so that he’s the goofy Ferrell we know and love.

As big star Sandra Bullock did with the lesser-known Melissa McCarthy in 2013’s The Heat, so does big star Ferrell allow Hart plenty of room to showcase his strong talents in Get Hard.

If you can handle the offensive nature of much of the Get Hard’s script, you’ll find some funny stuff here.

Also in the cast is Craig T. Nelson and singer John Mayer. This film was directed by Etan Cohen, not to be confused with Ethan Cohen of the Cohen brothers directing team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home

 

If aliens do ever invade earth, I hope they resemble the Boovs who occupy our planet in the new film Home. The Boovs, represented in the film mainly by the enthusiastic and lovable Oh (Jim Parsons) and the bumbling leader Captain Smeg (Steve Martin), are cute and purple—or red, blue and even green, depending on what they’re feeling.

The Boovs first move upon arriving on our planet is to relocate all the humans to Happy Humanstown, allowing the Boovs free access to all the good stuff left behind. (I thought immediately of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, but I’d guess most members of the film’s target demo will not make that connection.)

The Boovs manage to transport folks by turning off gravity and, as humans rise skyward, grabbing them to go for a little ride. But one human manages to avoid the Boov move. She’s young Tip, voiced by Rihanna wih her Barbadian accent. Of course, she and Oh meet up and take off in her car.

As Oh and Tip (and Tip’s cute cat called Pig) travel the world looking for Tip’s mom (voiced by Jennifer Lopez), they come to form a solid friendship.

While Home doesn’t approach the level of a Pixar film or other Dreamworks animation efforts like the Shrek, Madagascar and Dragon movies, it’s a decent effort that should satisfy kids and parents looking for harmless animated fun. Not a must-see, but not bad.

Maybe the best thing I can say about Home is that it kept a theater full of kids attentive to what was onscreen. Often, at Saturday morning preview screenings, the young ones get restless and chatty at some point during the movie. Not that they were laughing all the way through, but the crowd checking out Home appeared to be absorbed in the film. That’s a good thing.

 

 

Insurgent

 

Insurgent, as the 2nd film of a quadrilogy, is like a middle child in a family. The eldest and the baby get more attention and certain perks, so the middle children have to work hard to be noticed.

The main task of the second film of a series is to set up the final films. At the same time, there must be a few hooks to give the film an identity of its own. Insurgent manages to hit its marks on both counts.

Insurgent offers cool dream sequences (apparently inspired by Inception) and the addition of Naomi Watts (as a brunette!) to the cast. Not to mention… the two main characters act on their mutual attraction.

To refresh, civilization in this dystopian version of Chicago is based on all people being selected for one of five factions, according to personality testing. Those who crossover into multiple categories are referred to as Divergent. In the 2014 film, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), after being pegged as Divergent, chooses the Dauntless faction, where she meets and falls in love with Four (Theo James).

As we pick up the action in the new film, Tris and Four are living on the run, away from the city, where political turmoil is wreaking havoc. Erudite faction leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is now in charge. Upon their return to the bombed out landscape of Chi-town, the pair meet up with Evelyn (Watts) who leads the factionless brigade. She is also revealed to be Four’s mother, though their relationship is far from warm.

The film’s highlights include trials conducted by Candor faction leader Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim) with heavy doses of truth serum injected before testimony. Later, the sequences that occur after Tris turns herself into Jeanine for more faction testing are fun to watch as Tris’ mind goes through weird dreams. They are even trippier than the effects that present the opening production logos.

Woodley, Winslet and Watts are the acting stars among a large cast that also includes Miles Teller, Ashley Judd and Octavia Spencer.

As a fan of dystopian future settings, I like this one. (Although it seems odd that most of the bombed-out building shells are still standing 200 years after the destructive war.) The POV flight through the dried-up Chicago River bed isn’t quite as thrilling as the zipline ride from the top of the Hancock building in Divergent, but it does present a creative vision.

While Divergent focused on introducing the characters and the scenario, Insurgent seems more concerned with advancing the storyline. The film, which is violent throughout, ends with a bang as a new political coalition stands by to be fully realized in Allegiant—Part 1. That film will comes to theaters in March 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does what a sequel is supposed to do. It advances the storylines set in the first film, offers a couple of new tweaks and doesn’t try to reimagine the scenario the earlier movie delivered.

Plus, Second does not contain the high volume of old, corny jokes that were littered throughout the first Marigold.

Why do a Second? Well, 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel grossed over $136 million worldwide (about a third of that in the U.S.). And there are not that many films that are targeted to older moviegoers.

In Second, the crew from the first (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle) are back at the hotel. After being lured from Britain to India by visions of a paradise and finding a dump in the first film, they stayed and reset their lives. The message of both films is that older people have lives, loves, dreams and libidos.

Meanwhile, hotel manager Sonny (Dev Patel) has visions of adding a new hotel to his portfolio while getting ready to marry Sunaina (Tina Desai). When new guest Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) arrives for a stay at the hotel (and to provide eye candy for female moviegoers), Sonny does all he can to impress him (presuming Guy can help him fulfill his real estate ambitions).

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a bit too long. Director John Madden diagrammed several dance scenes on his telestrator and, while they add some sizzle and color, they add to the fatigue factor that sets in about three-quarters of the way through the two hour film.

I think the best reasons to see this film are Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. These two 80-year-olds (Dench is 3 weeks older) and their characters are just fun to watch. We should appreciate them while they are still alive and gracing movie screens.

Another reason: TSBEMH is a perfect film for the 70-something, 80-something or 90-something in your family. Take ’em!