Movie Review: “Ex Machina”

Starring
Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
Director
Alex Garland

Screenwriter Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre (from “Sunshine,” to “Never Let Me Go,” to “Dredd”), so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut occupies a similar space, this time focusing on the decades-old debate of artificial intelligence. Making a movie about A.I. isn’t exactly a novel premise, but Garland has a really good track record when it comes to putting a fresh spin on familiar material (see: “28 Days Later”), and he doesn’t disappoint with “Ex Machina.” A smart and chilling piece of sci-fi that packs a punch, the movie is so self-assuredly efficient in the way that it utilizes its various parts that it doesn’t feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker at all.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a young programmer at Internet search engine Blue Book who’s just won an office-wide lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive but brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home/research facility in Alaska. Although Caleb is excited just to have the opportunity to meet and hang out with the tech genius, Nathan has other plans: namely, to enlist Caleb’s assistance in conducting a Turing test on his newest creation, an incredibly lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), in order to determine whether the artificial intelligence can pass as human. But when Caleb begins to develop feelings for Ava during the course of their conversations, he begins to question whether her sexuality has been programmed by Nathan or if her mutual attraction is real. As he digs deeper into Nathan’s research, Caleb discovers that there’s more to his work than he’s letting on.

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Movie Review: “A Most Violent Year”

Starring
Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel
Director
J.C. Chandor

Writer/director J.C. Chandor has quickly become one of the most promising American filmmakers working today, maturing as both a director and storyteller with each new project – from Wall Street potboiler “Margin Call,” to man vs. nature survival tale “All Is Lost,” to his latest movie about an ambitious immigrant’s rise to power. All three films are markedly different stories, but they share a common thread in that they’re about characters that have been thrown into the fire and forced to react. “A Most Violent Year” might just be the strongest example of this yet, with Chandor content to sit back and allow the story to develop organically rather than force the point through manufactured conflict. It takes incredible discipline to build tension that way, and though he risks losing his audience with such a slow-burn approach, “A Most Violent Year” holds your attention thanks to some fine performances and a surprisingly engaging narrative.

Set in New York City during 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history (hence the title), Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) finds his heating oil company embroiled in a turf war – with trucks hijacked and drivers beaten at an alarming rate – at the worst time possible. Abel has just gone into escrow on a waterfront fuel yard that could take his business to the next level, and he only has 30 days to close the deal with the bank or surrender the down payment. Meanwhile, a young district attorney (David Oyelowo) tasked with cleaning up the oil industry’s corruption launches an investigation into Abel’s company, despite the latter’s insistence that he runs a (mostly) clean and legal business. But when one of his drivers (Elyes Gabel) – having just returned to the job after being robbed at gunpoint weeks earlier – tries to protect himself from a pair of hijackers against Abel’s direct orders, everything that he’s worked so hard to create threatens to come tumbling down.

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Movie Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Starring
Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver
Director
Joel & Ethan Coen

There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. But although the movie is a fairly bittersweet portrait of personal failure (a running theme in the Coens’ repertoire), it’s not without their trademark wit and humor. The comedy may not be as pronounced as in the duo’s other films, but it’s yet another fine period drama that showcases a different side of the directors.

Set during the early 1960s in the middle of the New York folk scene, the movie stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, a struggling musician trying to make it as a solo artist after his former singing partner commits suicide. The music business is already difficult enough to break into, but even more so for the hard-to-market folk genre, despite Llewyn’s obvious talent. With no steady income or plans for the future, Llewyn spends his days wandering the city in search of his next gig and his nights crashing on friends’ couches, including musician couple Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), the former of whom Llewyn may or may not have gotten pregnant. Desperate to get out of town for a few days, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago to audition for legendary manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).

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