“Ex Machina” casts a spell on its viewers—a chilly, creepy, unsettling spell. Gen X computer nerd Domhnall Gleeson toils at his desk for a computer conglomerate much like Google. One day he learns he has been selected to spend a week with the company founder who lives in seclusion on a vast chilly estate where he unveils Ava—a beautiful female robot programmed with state of the art artificial intelligence. Gleeson must determine the extent of her intelligence and any human qualities she possesses. Alicia Vikander gives Ava an unforgettable quality of innocence of guile. She flirts with Gleeson and wins him and us. Meanwhile billionaire Oscar Issac who dreamed up the project adds menace to the triangle. Part mystery mostly science fiction with a touch of horror “Ex Machina” will stay with you on the ride home and probably in your dreams as well. Sure it recalls “Blade Runner” and “Frankenstein” and “A.I.” and “2001 A Space Odyssey” but that puts it in good company. Does it deliver what it promises? Sexy sci fi thriller. Is it entertaining? Holds your attention. Is it worth the price of admission? A keeper.
James Franco and Jonah Hill play it serious in “True Story.” Jonah Hill inhabits disgraced NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER Michael Finkel. Franco plays true life child killer Christian Longo. The story begins with Hill getting fired from the TIMES for blurring facts and creating a composite character. Lying low in self-imposed isolation Finkel learns Longo has fled the country using Finkel’s name as an identity. Once arrested Finkel contacts Longo in hopes of finding a project that will reignite his career. Franco portrays Longo as a master manipulator who uses Finkel for his own purposes. Felicity Jones adds to the stellar cast as Finkel’s girlfriend. Even though Longo is in jail, scenes and an invasive phone call make us fear for her. Rupert Goold directs and really captures a sense of menace in the encounters between the two men. “True Story” has moments that remind me of the best parts of “Silence of the Lambs.” Hill and Franco have great chemistry together. I left the screening thinking more of them and their work. Does it deliver what it promises? Tense crime psychological drama. Is it entertaining? Kept my attention the entire time. Is it worth the price of admission? Worth it.
“Unfriended” uses the internet to kill off the usual group of six teens–who begin this story in a computer chat between boyfriend and girlfriend that enlarges to a circle of friends. It turns out all of them played a part in the suicide of a fellow teen. The now dead victim finds a way to return via the internet for revenge. For a little more than an hour we watch the teens click paste view facetime unfriend and all manner of cyber stuff. I think the idea is quite creative but not quite slick enough to mask the usual “Friday the 13th” plot. While watching I wondered what this might look like as a “Twilight Zone” episode cut down to a half hour. Watching a computer screen for eighty minutes is a bit of a chore. Does it deliver what it promises? Cyber horror thriller. Is it entertaining? Creative and a lesson in how to produce a movie incredibly cheaply. Is it worth the price of admission? For those who need a scare.
Over the years — especially on Valentine’s Day — I’ve been asked to come up with a list of romantic movies. I always include Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook” and that selection always receives a long approving sigh. Sparks combined two love stories — young lovers played by Rachael McAdams and Ryan Gosling kept apart by class differences — and an elderly couple played by James Garner who visits Gena Rowlands daily in the nursing home where she receives memory care. Garner reads from a notebook with the story of the young lovers. And of course we know those young lovers are the now elderly couple keep apart by memory loss. Nicholas Sparks and the movies found a formula in “The Notebook” and traces of that formula make the latest Sparks movie “The Longest Ride” enjoyable or at least watchable. Sorority girl Britt Robertson meets cowboy hunk Scott Eastwood, a professional rodeo bull rider in danger of hurting or even paralyzing himself in the perilous sport. One night on a date they spot an old man in a wrecked car and pull him and a box of letters out in the nick of time. Visiting the man they have saved, played by Alan Alda, they hear the story of his young love for a Jewish immigrant who makes out of Vienna before World War Two. These lovers are played in flashback by Jack Huston (whom I remember from “Boardwalk Empire” as the sniper who returns from World War One with his face blown off) and Oona Chaplin. The couple wait for Huston to return from World War Two and face a new set of problems on his return. Britt studies art history and loves Alda’s stories of the art collection the couple build over years. Part of the charm of “The Longest Ride” comes as we connect Scott Eastwood as Clint’s son, and Jack Huston as Anjelica’s nephew and Oona Chaplin as Charlie’s granddaughter. There’s nothing wrong with a little stunt casting every now and then and remember “The Notebook” set Rachael McAdams and Ryan Gosling on the road to stardom. Alan Alda makes a great storyteller. However, the mix of bull riding and modern art and nostalgia gets more than a little much and leads to a laugh out loud ending. “The Longest Ride” is soap opera but sometimes that’s OK. If you go don’t expect another “Notebook.” Do expect “Notebook” light — or even “Notebook” slight. Does it deliver what it promises? Nicholas Sparks formula romance. Is it entertaining? Interesting cast. Is it worth the price of admission? For Sparks fans.
“While We’re Young” begins in the style of the great 1970′s Woody Allen comedies. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts get a jolt when their best friends invite them over to meet their baby. But a baby seems so grown up to these hipsters working in the documentary film world and stuck in various projects as well as almost all aspects of their lives. At home that night Watts reveals she’s had several miscarriages and fertility treatment and no longer wants children. “I like our lives” adds Stiller. But they don’t and that makes them vulnerable to a pair of new much younger friends played by Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver. Soon the foursome share the passions of the twenty somethings even as they don’t quite fit the forty somethings. A nice plot twist tees up echos of “All About Eve” involving Driver and Naomi Watt’s revered filmmaker father played by Charles Grodin. “While We’re Young” touches more than a few nerves and delivers many laugh out loud moments. Ben Stiller continues to reward fans but Adam Driver steals this show–the same way he steals every project he’s in. I can’t wait to see what Driver does next. Does it deliver what it promises? Mid life crisis comedy. Is it entertaining? Laugh out loud funny. Is it worth the price of admission? One of the most memorable of the year so far.
Kenneth Branagh gives the well know story of “Cinderella” the “Downton Abby” treatment with grand results in the new live action Disney movie. Lily James–already likeable as Lady Rose on “Downton Abbey” makes a fine Cinderalla. We begin with her carefree childhood turning dark with the death of her loving mother who on her deathbed tells her daughter to “have courage and be kind.” She needs it when her father married the wickedly beautiful Cate Blanchett who takes the mean stepmother role to a new level. “Downton Abbey” fans will also enjoy Sophie McShera–who plays Daisy on PBS–as one of the comic ugly step sisters. Cinderella’s father dies and her step mother turns her into a servant. But Helena Bonham Carter saves the day as Cinderella’s fairy Godmother. The segment turning mice into stallions and a pumpkin into a golden coach looks dazzling. The entire movie enchants with beautiful visuals and nice touches. I went expecting another Disney money grab. Instead I got an evening of enchantment and even a message for us men in the audience: be true to yourself and marry for love not money. Does it deliver what it promises? Great fun. Is it entertaining? Looks beautiful although it runs a tad long. Is it worth the price of admission? “Cinderella” has a ready-made audience and will probably do huge business. Those who go will receive a surprisingly great movie.
Liam Neeson continues his run of tough guy movies in “Run All Night.” This time he begins the movie as a washed up former hit man working odd jobs for crime boss Ed Harris. He takes quite a bit of guff from Harris’ son played by Boyd Holbrook. The plot starts cooking when the son brings in a drug lord who wants to use Harris’ shipping interests to import hard drugs. The father turns the drug lords down immediately putting his son in danger. A shoot out follows coincidentally witnesses by Neeson’s son played by Joel Kinnaman. To save his son, Neeson kills Harris’ son and the grudge match begins. The rest of “Run All Night” boils down to a long chase with violent shoot outs including bad cops and the always interesting Vincent D’Onofrio. The audience roared when Nick Nolte popped in for a cameo I think because at least he was unexpected. Everything else in “Run all Night” comes out of the usual playbook. Does it deliver what it promises? Crime drama with lots of violence. Is it entertaining? Nothing new. Is it worth the price of admission? Nah.
Fans of the original will find plenty to like in “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The sequel delivers new adventures for the pack of British retirees who move to India to retire. Originally they come to “The Exotic Marigold Hotel” and turn a dump into a going concern. Maggie Smith sets the tone as a voice of reason now working as the hotel manager. She continues to tutor Dev Patel—the likeable kid who runs the place. In the sequel Dev and Maggie travel to California to sell a chain on the idea of their expansion. Back we go to India where Dev has pre-marriage jitters and problems with his plans to expand his business. The cast of veterans looks like they just wandered off the set of “Downton Abby” and that’s a good thing. They include all-stars Judi Dench and Bill Nighy who can’t quite manage to get together even as we in the audience want them to. I really like the actress Penelope Wilton who plays Mrs. Crawley on “Downton Abby.” She’s testier and meaner here and that’s fun to see. Richard Gere turns up as a hotel mystery shopper and looks a little out-of-place but he really is so that’s ok. “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” keeps a slow steady pace and wraps up its many plot lines in a satisfying manner. Not a great movie but rather a lovely one. Does it deliver what it promises? Grown up movie. Is it entertaining? Delightful. Is it worth the price of admission? Yes and even more so with an AARP discount.
Will Smith and Margo Robbie look fabulous together in the crime caper comedy “Focus”. She begins the movie trying to scam him only to learn he’s wise to her. Soon the older scam artist takes the younger student under his wing and into his bed. Act one brings Smith and Robbie to New Orleans for the Superbowl as part of a team of small time crooks, pick pockets, and thieves. The big game leads to a great scene as Smith loses one bet after another doubling up to seven figures and a hilarious pay off. The story breaks and brings the characters together a few years later for a race car scam in South America. Robbie made a deep impression as the street smart wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” She’s very beautiful in “Focus” and has great chemistry with Will Smith. The mid-point of the movie almost fools the viewer but by the time “Focus” gets going good we know we’re being conned. I doubt anyone will believe any of this for a moment. Does it deliver what it promises? Comedy crime caper. Is it entertaining? Fun but not convincing. Is it worth the price of admission? Maybe for a so so not bad mindless time.
Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass play a couple of doctors working on a serum to bring back to life patients who die on the operating table. They do it to a dog. It works. Olivia has an accident, so he does it to her. But somehow she’s different. “The Lazarus Effect” follows the cheap horror formula–one set with a couple of exteriors. Lots of dark hallways and a few bad dreams. Needles and knives–the better to impale you. Plus a small cast. Does it deliver what it promises? Same old same old. Is it entertaining? Reminds me of “The Re-Animator” just not nearly as good. Is it worth the price of admission? Skip it unless you are desperate to see Olivia Wilde in anything.