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"EX MACHINA" - **** (108 minutes)

Thursday May 21, 2015
Finally!  An intelligent sci-fi flick to sink one's teeth and mind into.  British screenwriter Alex Garland (responsible for scripting Danny Boyle's excellent sci-fi films 2003's 28 Days Later and 2007's Sunshine) does double duty for the first time while also directing this indie masterpiece.  
The movie begins with computer programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) starring at an Email informing him that he won an in-house contest run by CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), creator of the world's largest and most successful Google-like company, Blue Book.  The prize:  a week-long stay hanging-out with Bateman at his secluded compound.  Upon his arrival, Smith learns that he was selected to lead a "Turing Test" to determine if Garland's newly created robot exhibits intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human.  As Smith soon finds out, matching wits with the sensual AI leads to a surprising outcome that neither he nor his boss could have ever imagined.
Ava is the animatronic invention under scrutiny, and, as superbly played by Danish actress Alicia Vikander (who was classically trained in ballet), she brings an immense grace and sexuality that equally matches her comprehension. Vikander's portrayal is crucial to the tale and is one of the joys this parable brings forth.  Splendid seamless CGI makes her presence totally believable and utterly logical that she is capable of casting a spell over both her creator and assessor.
The ever competent Oscar Isaac, (The Coen Brothers' 2013 Inside Llewyn Davis), sports a shaved head and full beard and is terrific as he constantly wavers back and forth from benevolent boss to bully in his interactions with his naïve employee. 
Finally, a special mention goes out to the incredible original orchestration composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow which underscores and beautifully compliments the increasingly ominous plot.
Ex Machina (based on the Greek deus ex machina, which means, according to Merriam-Webster, "a character or thing that suddenly enters the story in a novel, play, movie, etc., and solves a problem that had previously seemed impossible to solve") is a thriller that is short on action but huge on intellect and suspense that will likely stay with you long after you leave the theater.  And Garland's stylish and unsettling narrative and direction clearly makes him a major talent to watch in the future.
The film was released nationwide on April 24 but is still playing nearly two months later in the Baltimore-DC area.  So far it is the best film I've screened this year and, if possible, should not be missed on the big screen.

UPCOMING:  Coverage of  the 13th edition of the AFI DOCS documentary film festival held in Silver Spring MD and Washington DC that runs from Wednesday June 17-Sunday June 21
         Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac)(r), shows Caleb Smith
                     (Domhnall Gleeson) his laboratory

 Eva (Alicia Vikander) happens upon the faces of future robots

"ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL" - *1/2 (104 minutes)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl movie poster
Wednesday May 20, 2015
As a longtime champion of independent cinema (as my attendance at Sundance for seven years can attest) it was with great anticipation when I sat down for a preview of this years Dramatic Grand Jury and Audience Award winner at Robert Redford's festival last January.  Unfortunately, anticipation melded into utter perplexity.  For me, "Me and Earl and The Dying Girl" is this years "Juno".  You can count me in the minority of critics who gave thumbs down on that 2007 Jason Reitman directed Indie that incredibly made its way to the Academy's Best Picture list. 
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directed the coming-of-age cliché-ridden script by newcomer Jesse Andrews that focuses on teenager Greg (Thomas Mann), whose annoying narration explaining his thoughts and actions throughout had me cringing nearly the entire length of this disappointing film.  We follow Greg, a self-professed self-indulged loner and geek, who is persuaded by mom (Connie Britton) to pay a visit to Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who happens to be dying of cancer -  a classmate he has never met.  When he shows up, he is greeted at the door by Rachel's boozed-up mom (ex-Saturday Night Live veteran, Molly Shannon) whose character can best be described as creepy as she fawns over the teenager at her door - and throughout the film .  
Greg and Rachel's meeting is naturally awkward -  especially when Greg reveals he is only visiting as a charity request by his parent.  Of course, this leads to a inspirational platonic relationship where Rachel "teaches" Greg to be a more caring grown-up human being. 
Introduced into the story is Greg's African-American friend since childhood,  Earl (RJ Cyler) whom he refers to as his "co-worker".  It seems both have interpreted the world through old film classics and went about creating satirical videos (e.g. The 400 Bros, The Sockwork Orange, and 2:48 p.m. Cowboy).  Their humorous work is scattered throughout, and are the highlights of the movie. 
It is ironic that the word "honest" is mentioned during the film to describe the principals.  However, for me, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl is chock full of  characters that are not fully drawn and was, ultimately, a letdown. 

You can accurately predict where the narrative is leading and, in the end, I could have cared less - other than when it would all end. 
The movie opened nationwide on June 12.

UPCOMING:  The Indie AI Sci-Fi  "Ex Machina"
Rachel (Olivia Cooke), Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl
(CJ Cyler)