Post Date Apr 25

Ex Machina

Ex Machina Movie ReviewA24 Films
Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violences.
Running time: 108 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

“Ex Machina” is the best movie I’ve seen all year.

Granted, it’s April. At the beginning of the year — especially the months of January and February — it’s notoriously dumping-ground time. But “Ex Machina” is far and away superior to everything else that’s out there right now, and it’s expanding nationwide this weekend — hopefully to a theater near you — so now is your chance to catch it.

But here’s the trouble: I can’t really tell you much about it beyond urging you to go see it. It’s full of twists and turns that build slowly and suspensefully — they are supported and earned, not gratuitously shocking — and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them for you. Just trust me on this.

“Ex Machina” marks the directing debut of British writer Alex Garland, who wrote the Danny Boyle films “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” and — at age 26 — wrote the novel that was the basis of Boyle’s film “The Beach.” He is clearly fascinated by the complicated and sometimes cruel ways in which people interact. Here, he adds artificial intelligence to the equation in a claustrophobic situation, and the result is gripping. Garland’s film is beautiful and precise but also chilly and detached in a manner reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, with a similar taste for injecting quick bursts of intensity to startling effect.

The mesmerizing score (from Portishead co-founder Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury), the cool cinematography, the minimalist production design and meticulous visual effects all work exquisitely in concert to create an inescapable mood, a vivid sense of place. It’ll all stay with you and keep you thinking long after it’s over.

You’ll notice I haven’t gotten to the characters, or the premise, or the plot. This is tricky, but here goes.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a bright, young programmer for a Google-like behemoth called Blue Book. (Gleeson, son of the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, further reveals his likable, versatile presence as our Everyman conduit, and he does an impeccable American accent.) One day at work, Caleb learns he’s won a contest to spend a week at the remote compound of the company’s creator, the brilliant billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). He has no idea what he’s going to do there, but it certainly sounds like an exciting opportunity.

Nathan’s home is a thing of wonder: a sleek and spare combination of concrete, glass and steel built into the side of a mountain and filled with modern furniture and art. Accessible only by helicopter, it features sprawling grounds and dazzling views as far as the eye can see. It is a lair worthy of a James Bond super villain, and I pretty much want to move there tomorrow.

When Caleb first meets Nathan, the boss is going through his rigorous, morning workout — part of a routine which will become significant as the film goes on. Bearded and burly, Nathan tries to buddy up to Caleb with copious droppings of “dude” and “bro” and non-stop beer and wine. But this persona seems slightly awkward on him, which makes him untrustworthy from the start. Speaking of versatile, the charismatic Isaac continues to prove he can do anything, and has been on a terrific roll the past couple of years between this, the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” and last year’s powerful “A Most Violent Year.”

Nathan soon explains to Caleb what his purpose will be over the next week: He will take part in a Turing test, meaning he will help determine whether the A.I. being Nathan has built can convince him it’s human and believably think for itself. Or rather, herself: Her name is Ava, and in the hands of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, she’s an elegant and beguiling creature. Vikander trained for a long time as a ballerina and it shows in the fluidity of her movements, the delicacy of just the slightest tilt of the head. She also happens to be beautiful and gifted with a melodic, feminine voice.

From Day One, Caleb is hooked — and the days mark off segments in the film like chapters, each more ominous than the last. Man and machine feel each other out over a series of meetings, separated by glass. He is polite and inquisitive but also interested in challenging her; she is needy and eager to please in a way that’s almost childlike, but she’s also quick on her feet. And there is the small matter that Ava is a robot — and Nathan’s creation — so we realize that we probably shouldn’t trust her, either, even as Caleb’s feelings toward her get a little blurry.

And … that’s all I’ve got. Just trust me on this. You don’t want me ruin the suspense that Garland builds gradually through the use of expert pacing and evolving performances. This is just an extremely cool movie.

But, mercifully, Garland also finds ways to break up that tension in strange and darkly humorous ways — a disco dance routine that comes out of nowhere, for example, or an unexpected pop-culture reference. “Ex Machina” is the rare film that truly keeps you guessing, even when you think you know where it’s going. And it’s a welcome opportunity to think and feel deeply as we’re about to entire the summer season of mindless schlock.

Post Date Apr 25

Five Great Gus Van Sant Movies

Tomorrow, I get to travel to Portland — a city I’ve never been to, strangely enough — for fewer than 24 hours for work. Getting ready for this trip got me thinking about Gus Van Sant, who has set so many of his movies in his adopted hometown in the Pacific Northwest.

So I went back and looked up a Five Most list I put together of Van Sant’s best films back in September 2011. As you’ll see, I fudged it a little and added a sixth title. Enjoy.

5 best Gus Van Sant films


LOS ANGELES  — Gus Van Sant has made an eclectic array of films over the past quarter-century, but throughout that time he’s repeatedly explored the restlessness of youth.

This week, the director is out with his latest — which happens to be titled “Restless” — about a couple of teenagers (Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska) who are fascinated with death. It’s not a career highlight for him — it never achieves the emotional resonance it seeks — but it provides us with a good opportunity to pick five of his best films. A quick note: I would have loved to have found room for “Paranoid Park,” but I only get to pick five. That’s why the game is fun:

_ “Good Will Hunting” (1997): Van Sant sometimes makes small, quiet films that challenge your attention span, and I admire him for such daring. But one of his most mainstream movies also happens to be one of his best. Nominated for nine Oscars (including best picture), it won two: for supporting-actor Robin Williams and for the original screenplay from co-stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Its uplifting story arc may be formulaic but the strength and honesty of the performances give it surprising emotional heft — especially from Damon as a troubled math genius in the role that marked his arrival as a major, serious actor. And the sense of place Van Sant evokes of working-class Boston is inescapable.

_ “Milk” (2008): On its surface, this could have been shamelessly mawkish. Instead, Van Sant presents the last eight years in the life of Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco politician and gay rights activist, with a mix of vivid details and nuanced heart. He’s also drawn from Sean Penn one of the most glorious performances ever in the actor’s long and varied career, one that duly earned Penn his second best-actor Oscar. “Milk” also won an Academy Award for Dustin Lance Black’s original screenplay. It hits all the important marks but never feels like a typical biopic, a superficial, greatest-hits collection. Jumping back and forth in time, “Milk” flows easily and comfortably; it makes us feel like we’re witnessing the natural, propulsive drive of a life that mattered.

_ “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989): An all-time classic drug movie, it realistically depicts the desperation that takes hold when you’re hooked. It’s also a great movie about criminals on the run, and how they create their own little universe while trying to avoid the real world. Matt Dillon alternates between cool charisma and manic superstition as the leader of a group of junkies (Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, Heather Graham) who rob pharmacies to feed their habit in 1971 Portland. In their own screwed-up way, they’re formed a community, and they look out for each other. Their lives are cheaply thrilling and deeply sad.

_ “To Die For” (1995): A pitch-black, razor-sharp satire about the desire for fame and the lengths to which people will go to acquire it. Nicole Kidman is both hilarious and frightening as a perky but driven small-town wife with dreams of becoming a big-name television personality. In an array of candy-colored get-ups and a perfect coif, she’s a Barbie doll with ice water in her veins. But her dark side reveals itself as she plots to kill her husband (Dillon, again) with the help of some misfit teenagers (including Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck). Working from a script from Buck Henry, himself a TV veteran, Van Sant never lets up on her, or on the characters who might have seemed innocent at the film’s start.

_ “My Own Private Idaho” (1991): It’s impossible to look back on one of River Phoenix’s films without feeling great sadness and wondering what might have been. Here, he plays a scruffy, narcoleptic hustler named Mike who’s woefully adrift and in need of some human tenderness. It’s a delicate performance in a dangerous world and watching it, you long to see him protected and safe. His only real friend is Scott, played with cool confidence by Keanu Reeves. He hustles not because he needs to — the son of Portland’s mayor, he has a large inheritance coming his way — but because it’s rebellious. Together they navigate a landscape that’s both absurd and dreamlike.

Post Date Apr 24 — Little Boy

Little Boy Movie ReviewThe World War II drama “Little Boy” is extremely earnest but it’s also extremely heavy-handed in its notions about the transformative power of faith. I’d avoid it if I were you. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Apr 22


Unfriended Movie ReviewUniversal Pictures
Rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug and alcohol use — all involving teens.
Running time: 82 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

If you’re reading this review on your laptop — which you probably are — then you also probably have a bunch of other windows open at the same time, allowing you to multitask. It’s OK — I don’t take it personally. You’re probably also shopping for clothes and chatting with friends and listening to music and checking your Facebook feed. You’re probably also making dinner for your kid or halfheartedly watching something on TV.

You’re busy. I get it.

It’s How We Live Now, if you’ll allow me to get all ponderous on you. But “Unfriended” takes the notion that we’re incapable of doing one thing at a time and uses it for darkly funny and ultimately startling effect. A horror flick that takes place entirely within a teenage girl’s laptop in real time, “Unfriended” is a gimmick, pure and simple. It’s a found-footage movie meets a cabin-in-the-woods movie meets a claustrophobic thriller. But in the hands of director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves, it’s a gimmick that works surprisingly well.

As it begins with the image of a laptop screen where someone is watching a YouTube video — then continues to stay on the screen for the next several minutes — you may find yourself wondering (as I did): Is this how the whole movie is going to be? How can they possibly make this last? But damned if they don’t pull it off. (It really couldn’t have gone on much longer than its brief running time, though.) “Birdman” — the best movie of last year, says me – might seem like an odd comparison, but “Unfriended” evokes the same sense of wonder as its central stunt keeps going and going.

There’s a lot that I don’t want to give away because this is a movie filled with twists and revelations as its main characters’ connections become clearer. But I’ll say this much: A beautiful high school student named Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) was the subject of a humiliating video that went viral. Soon afterward, she killed herself — the video of which also went viral. One year later, a half dozen of her classmates find themselves on the same Skype chat. But joining them is an unnamed, unseen visitor they can’t click away from or delete — and it’s using Laura’s account.

Seems Laura is pissed — and she wants revenge. And somewhere in purgatory, she picked up some formidable hacking skills. She can take over your Facebook page. She can play morbidly amusing songs from your Pandora collection. She can commandeer the microphone on your laptop. And — this is crucial — she can keep you from calling 911 on your cell phone when things start getting really gnarly.

Yes, this is a ridiculous premise. The makers of this movie have already thought of everything you’re going to think of — considered every answer, every option. And so if you can give yourself over to the idea of “Unfriended,” you’ll find it’s surprisingly engrossing and really quite clever.

Great care has been taken with both the big ideas and the small details. Part of what makes this movie work is the authenticity of the experience. You truly feel as if you’re watching our heroine — if you can call her that, since all of these characters turn out to be flawed in one way or another — as she moves through her tabs, makes decisions and responds to each new threat.

Among the other pages Blaire (Shelley Hennig) has open on this night are Jezebel and Forever 21. The Facebook ads and suggested videos on the right side of the YouTube page are for the same crap you always see: cute kittens, crazy engagement stories and the like. You watch Blaire stop and self-edit her instant messages and begin to understand her thought processes. And you wait anxiously when some new photo or video attachment pops up for fear of the damage it might cause. It’s like screaming at the screen during a traditional horror movie: “Don’t open that door!”

Also on the Skype call are Blaire’s horny boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm); his best friend, the wealthy Adam (Will Peltz); party girl Jess (Renee Olstead); bitchy queen bee Val (Courtney Halverson) and stoner clown Ken (Jacob Wysocki). If you’ve seen the trailer for this movie — or if you’ve seen any horror movie, period — then you know it’s not a spoiler to say that they get picked off, one by one, in gory and inspired ways.

Again, you have to just go with it. “Unfriended” is a lot of fun. But hopefully it’s not the start of a whole franchise. I’d hate to watch this movie all over again through someone’s iPhone.

Post Date Apr 17 — Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 Movie ReviewYou know how sometimes you walk into a movie with low expectations and it turns out not to be so bad after all? “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2″ is actually, actively worse than you think it will be. Please enjoy my zero-star review.

Read the review here