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xxx as Ava

Alicia Vikander as Ava

“EX MACHINA” My rating: B+ (Opens on April 24)

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The computer or robot that turns on its human creators is one of science fiction’s more popular tropes, sparking films as diverse as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Terminator.”

“Ex Machina” offers one of the more disquieting takes on that idea, delivering a compact four-character pressure-cooker drama that leaves audiences convinced that the creation of artificial intelligence inevitably will lead to humanity’s destruction.

The directing debut of Alex Garland (the screenwriter behind “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine”), unfolds on the remote estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a Jobs-ian genius and multi-billionaire thanks to the Internet search engine he created at age 13.

We meet Nathan through Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), a lowly computer programer who has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with his boss. This is a very big deal, since Nathan has not made a public appearance in years and lives alone in a high-tech home/laboratory built into a mountainside near the Arctic Circle.

Caleb is what you expect from a computer programmer — smart and dweeby. Nathan, on the other hand, is a force of nature, a sort of scientific Paul

Domnail Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs

Domnail Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs

Bunyan with shaved head and Mennonite beard who, when he’s not playing mad scientist, is furiously lifting weights.

Early on Nathan — who works overtime to give the impression that he’s just one a normal dude — confides that Caleb is here to help him test his newest creation. It’s an android he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants the programmer to perform a series of “Turing tests” — conversations with Ava from which Caleb will deduce whether she’s just a smartly programmed machine or a genuine individual capable of original thought and emotion.

Caleb is wowed by his first encounter with Ava, whose body consists of a mesh exoskeleton through which he can see her metal “bones” and the blinking lights of various hard drives. Her movements are accompanied by the hum of her internal hydraulics. Only her face, hands and feet have been covered with a material that approximates human flesh.

Over several days Caleb befriends Ava, who evolves from a sort of quiet diffidence to eager participant.

“Are you attracted to me?” she asks, remarking on “the way your eyes focus on my eyes and lips.”

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article19228641.html

Russell Crowe in "The Water Diviner"...the war goes on

Russell Crowe in “The Water Diviner”…the war goes on

“THE WATER DIVINER” My rating: C (Opens wide on April 24)

 111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Russell Crowe’s acting is marked by fierce physicality and an equally intense  intelligence.

The Australian icon once again embraces those qualities in his feature directing debut, “The Water Diviner.” But the results are at best desultory.

Maybe Crowe bit off more than he could chew in tackling this  convoluted World War I yarn with epic ambitions.

He certainly should have been more discerning when it came to the muddled screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, which throws together big themes, cheesy romance and an approach heavy on flashbacks.

The film begins with the 1915 attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey by British and Australian forces.  After months of savage fighting and thousands of casualties, the invaders are repelled and retreat across the sea.

Cut to Australia several years later where farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) battles drought by using dowsing rods to detect underground water. He appears to have a real talent — possible psychic — for knowing where to dig.

Joshua and his emotionally devastated wife (Jacqueline McKenzie) lost their three sons in one day of fighting on Gallipoli. With the death of his spouse, Joshua decides to honor her last wish — that her boys’ bodies be recovered and buried beside her.

It’s a tall order. It means traveling to Turkey, navigating (or defying) the red tape of the British occupation, getting to the battlefield (from which civilians are banned because of the live ordinance still littering the landscape) and somehow finding three skeletons among the thousands buried in mass graves.

If you think Joshua’s dowsing abilities will come in handy, you’re right.

But there’s a lot more to this overly-busy yarn.

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Brian Wilson leads the Wrecking Crew in recording instrumental tracks for the "Pet " album.

Brian Wilson leads the Wrecking Crew in recording instrumental tracks for the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds ” album.

“THE WRECKING CREW” My rating: B- (Opens April 24 at the Tivoli)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP. The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Virtually anything by the Monkees.

The instrumental backing for these classic recordings was provided not by the groups whose names were on the record label but by anonymous studio musicians who earned millions creating the hooks, beats and arrangements that translated into monster record sales.

These L.A.-based players — there were perhaps two dozen of them — came to be known as the Wrecking Crew. They were given that nickname by old-time record producers who in the early ’60s viewed these blue-jeaned, T-shirted newcomers as a threat that would wreck the recording industry.

Didn’t work out that way.

Denny Tedesco’s long-in-limbo documentary “The Wrecking Crew” — it made the festival rounds in 2008 but its commercial release was delayed by years of negotiations over the music rights — is the filmmaker’s tribute to his late father (legendary session guitarist Tommy Tedesco, who died in 1997) and to a generation of brilliant musicians.

The Crew wasn’t an organized group.  The musicians individually contracted to play at recording sessions (sometimes several in one day), and as the best of the best they kept bumping into one another. Friendships and musical relationships were formed.

Following on the heels of other recent docs taking us back to the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll — “20 Feet from Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals” — this piece provides talking-head conversations (with the likes of Dick Clark, Lou Adler, Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson), archival footage and photos, and a treasure trove of great tunes.

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Young Melanie Griffin and playful friend

Young Melanie Griffin and “playful” friend

“ROAR” My rating: C+ (Opens April 24 at the Alamo Drafthouse)

102 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

There’s a lot of blood in “Roar.” Much of it appears to be  real.

This oddity from 1981 — recently revived by the folks at the Alamo Drafthouse — isn’t a particularly good movie, but as a cinematic oddity with a bizarro backstory it’s unique.

“Roar” was made by Hitchcock star Tippi Hedren (“The Birds,” “Marnie”) and her husband, Noel Marshall. Both animal activists, they founded the Shambala Preserve for African cats in California. They star in the film (Marshall, who died a few years back, also writes and directs), along with their offspring (among them a young Melanie Griffith) and more than 100 untamed big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, cheetahs.

The threadbare plot centers on the African animal preserve maintained by Hank (Marshall).  Shortly after he’s called away to tend to some animal business elsewhere,  his estranged wife (Hedren) and kids arrive for a visit, unaware that they’re walking into an environment controlled by huge, hungry cats.

You could think of this as a zombie movie with voracious felines in the role of the undead. The rustic lodge in which Mom and the kids take shelter is besieged by the animals, which smash down doors and take out windows in an effort to get at the human smorgasbord inside.

The advertising for “Roar” assures us that no animals were injured during the filming, but that human casualties were extensive.

No kidding. Over the decade it took to make this movie, Hedren had a leg broken and her scalp raked by talons. Marshall was bitten and clawed repeatedly and at one point was hospitalized for gangrene.  Griffith, a young teen at the time, endured 100 stitches and reconstructive surgery (her mauling is part of the finished film).

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Michael Douglas...hunting big game

Michael Douglas…hunting big game

“BEYOND THE REACH” My rating: B- (At the Cinetopia)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Our worst suspicions about the One Percent are realized in “Beyond the Reach,” an outdoor thriller with Michael Douglas doing a murderous variation on his Oscar-winning Gordon Gekko character from “Wall Street.”

Douglas plays John Madec, a ridiculously wealthy and probably sociopathic master of industry who shows up in a small burg on the edge of the Mojave Desert  looking for a hunting guide. After 10 years Madec has finally gotten a rare government license to bag a Bighorn sheep, the one animal whose head is missing from his trophy wall.

beyond-the-reach-official-trailer-0The local sheriff (Ronny Cox) suggests he hire Ben (Jeremy Irvine), barely out of his teens but an expert guide and tracker thanks to the outdoor education provided by his late parents.  Ben is immediately put off by Madec’s crude cockiness, but he can’t turn down the $1,000-a-day pay.

Once in the vast barren landscape of blistered flatlands and sweeping mesas (the film was shot in the Four Corners area), things quickly go wrong. Madec gets his kill…only it isn’t a sheep.

Ion the midst of a huge business deal conducted over a satellite phone, Madec cannot afford the bad publicity the incident will surely generate (though didn’t Dick Cheney survive a similar mishap?)  His scheme is to blackmail Ben for the death — and to make sure there are no loose ends he forces his young companion to disrobe and start walking across the desert.

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seymour“SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION” My rating: B 

81 minutes |MPAA rating

Seymour Bernstein is not part of any religious order, but it’s difficult not to think of him as some sort of holy man.

For 50 years he has lived in a monk’s cell of a Manhattan studio apartment, sharing the tiny space with his beloved grand piano. He is celibate…possibly asexual.

And in a sense he prays daily for the salvation of mankind, except that he addresses his devotions not to the Almighty but to the muses of music, fingering not rosary beads but the keys of his piano.

Beginning in the early 1950s Bernstein, who is now 87, had a spectacular career as a concert pianist.  But he gave it all up at age 50, having concluded that the business side of his profession — and his innate fear of performing before an audience — was sapping his love of music.

So he turned to teaching piano, both at a university and in the privacy of his apartment.

A few years ago he met actor Ethan Hawke at a party. At the time Hawke was going through his own crisis involving fame and art, and Bernstein provided a sounding board, offering his own life experiences as and example of how to find balance.

Hawke was so impressed that he made the documentary “Seymour: An Introduction.”

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James Franco

James Franco

“TRUE STORY” My rating: C+

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Every big-city newspaper has a reporter like Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill).  A hotshot writer with an unlimited expense account, Finkel keeps his own schedule, visiting the office only a few times each year to smile condescendingly at his envious colleagues and bathe in their bitter admiration.

Early in writer/director Rupert Goold’s “True Story,” Finkel pays one such rare visit to the newsroom of The New York Times, which has just published his latest Sunday magazine cover story, this one about contemporary slavery in Africa.

Except that this time around Finkel doesn’t have his facts straight. He apparently has combined several individuals into one semi-fictional character (moreover, in the opening scene we saw him pay a source for information…a no-no in the world of legit journalism).

Suddenly this perfect master of newsprint is out on his keister. Plus, once word of the scandal gets out, no other paper will hire him.

“True Story” is based on what happened to the real-life Michael Finkel in the wake of his firing.  He learned that Christian Longo, an Oregon man facing charges of having murdered his wife and three young children, had stolen Finkel’s identity in order to survive on the run.

Having spent way too much time in disgrace, Finkel decides to visit Longo (James Franco) in his jail cell.  Hey, Finkel needs a fan, even if the guy’s a multiple murderer.

He encounters a hooded-eyed sociopath who can seem friendly and perfectly rational, but who refuses to address his own guilt or innocence.  The desperate Finkel,  smelling a best-selling book, cultivates Longo, even coaching him in wordsmithing once the accused man reveals that he’s always wanted to be a writer.

But who’s playing whom?

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Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller

Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller

“WHILE WE’RE YOUNG”  My rating: C+

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There may have been a time when we aged — if not gracefully — at least appropriately.

But in a society where youth is worshipped and Botox is a household word, how does one come to terms with getting older?

That question is at the heart of “While We’re Young,” writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy — albeit a dour comedy that could have used a lot more more laughs.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia, 40-something New Yorkers out of sync not just with youth but with their own peers. While their friends are now fully invested in parenthood and career paths, Josh and Cornelia have managed to avoid most of the trappings of middle age.

Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

He’s a documentary filmmaker who has spent the last decade futzing around with a project about a grizzled philosopher (Peter Yarrow of folk music fame) that he’ll probably never finish and that nobody will want to see. She’s the producer for her father, a legendary grand old man of documentaries.

They’ve no children, no car, no mortgage.

But their biological clocks are accelerating — he’s got arthritis and she’s conflicted over her inability to have a baby. Mortality is rearing its ugly head.

Enter Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple auditing Josh’s documentary film class at a New York City university. Jamie endears himself to the filmmaker by claiming his life was changed by Josh’s early (and only successful) documentary.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR‘s WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article17831633.html

Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds

Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds

“WOMAN IN GOLD” My rating: B- 

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Despite a tendency to dilute its message with easily digestible Hollywood moments, “Woman in Gold” provides the formidable Helen Mirren with yet another juicy role while raising some thought-provoking questions about art, ownership, and societal upheaval.

The subject is the real-life pursuit of California transplant Maria Altmann (Mirren) to reclaim several paintings stolen from her Jewish family in Vienna by the Nazis. The most  important piece is Gustav Klimt’s “Lady in Gold,” also known as “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (Adele was Maria Altmann’s aunt). It and several additional Klimt paintings were looted by the Germans and after the war became the property of the Austrian state.

This film from director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”)  follows parallel narratives  separated by six decades.

In the modern day  — roughly 1998 to 2006 — we follow the efforts of the octogenarian Altmann, operator of a high-end  Los Angeles fashion shop, to reclaim her family’s artwork. In this she is assisted by struggling lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), whose own family history is rooted in Austria — he is the grandson of classical composer Arnold Schoenberg.

They make for an odd couple legal team. Maria is a friend of Randol’s mother and hopes that he will “help me out on the side…like a hobby.” She’s opinionated, sometimes brusque and in your face.

Randol, on the other hand, is not terribly successful and struggling to make ends meet. He only fully gets involved when he realizes that the paintings Maria hopes to recover are worth upwards of $150 million.

Problem is, the Austrian government sees them as priceless, as part of that nation’s psyche, with “Lady in Gold” often compared to the “Mona Lisa.”  Maria’s initial efforts are rebuffed, and it is only after she sues the Austrian government through the American legal system — a case that will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — that her efforts gain any traction.

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"Furious 7"...the usual suspects

“Furious 7″…the usual suspects

“FURIOUS 7″ My rating: B-

135 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Subtlety is not the reason the “Fast and Furious” franchise became a box office juggernaut.

Rather, it’s all about roaring engines, outlandish stunts, bikinied babes, music-video pacing, racially diverse (if one-dimensional) characters and a playful sense of camaraderie — elements that appeal to audiences all over the world.

“Furious 7” doesn’t mess with the formula, though this latest entry can’t help coming off as bittersweet, what with the 2013 car-crash death of leading man Paul Walker as filming neared completion.

If the action is spectacular, giving us violent ballets of speed and destruction, the film’s attempts at emotion are simplistic and sappy. But the lingering sense of loss over Walker’s demise gives the material a dramatic underpinning it doesn’t really deserve.

“7” concludes with flashbacks of Walker from the previous films, and even sneerers may reach for the Kleenex.

Mostly though, Chris Morgan’s screenplay and James Wan’s direction keep things moving. Like a second-grader with ADD, the film is impossibly restless (is there one shot that lasts more than 10 seconds?). The dialogue is often stunningly (intentionally?) bad, filled with cliches from the action movie playbook.

This time around the blended team of crooks and lawmen — the alpha dog Dominic (Vin Diesel), Brian (Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris) and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) — are being stalked by an implacable and seemingly unbeatable enemy.

Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), brother of the criminal mastermind the crew took down in the last film, wants revenge and methodically goes after our guys.

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***...misbehaving

Taika Waititi…misbehaving

“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS”  My rating: B-

86 minutes | No MPAA rating 

After several lifetime’s worth of experiences, you’d think vampires would get it right.

But, no, the bloodsuckers starring in the faux documentary “What We Do in the Shadows” are a singularly inept bunch whose existence argues against the notion that with age comes wisdom.

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement (half of the comedy/musical duo Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, “What We Do…” purports to be footage shot by a New Zealand  documentary crew that’s been granted permission to film the nightly activities of a group of vampires living together in a creaky old house.

Usually front and center is Viago (Waititi), an affable and childlike fellow in the Andy Kauffman mold who still wears the Byronic fashions of his human life and looks upon the film crew as an opportunity to dispel many of the misconceptions about  his vampire brethren.  (“We get a really bad rap.”)

Vladislav (Clement) has a taste for torture that reflects his flesh-and-blood life in the late Middle Ages. Think Vlad the Impaler.

Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is basically a frat boy.  A former Nazi, he now is a dedicated slacker and is often criticized by his housemates for not pulling his weight: “You have not done the dishes for five years.”

Finally there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in the cellar and is a dead ringer for the bald, rat-clawed vampire in the classic silent film “Nosferatu.”  Petyr is the “father” of the others, but at age 8,000 he doesn’t exert any more energy than is absolutely necessary.

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american-sniper-trailer-bradley-cooper
“AMERICAN SNIPER” My rating: B+

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In more than 40 years of directing, Clint Eastwood has become a master storyteller.

That is overwhelming evident in the first half-hour of “American Sniper,” Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall’s adaptation of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s memoir about his experiences as the most deadly sniper (160 confirmed kills) in U.S. military history.

They waste no time in plunging us into the action: A street in Iraq. American soldiers searching door-to-door.  Watching from above is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), new to the war and positioned on a rooftop.

Suddenly Chris spots movement — an Iraqi mother and her young son are approaching. The mother produces a rocket-propelled grenade from her clothing and gives it to her son, who rushes toward the Americans.

In seconds Chris must decide if his first kill will be a child.

From that hair-raising intro, the film sends jerks us back to Chris’ childhood: reared as a hunter (and possible proto-survivalist) by his father, a misspent youth as a rodeo rider, the decision to enlist in the best military unit in the world, the SEALs.

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