Blu Tuesday: Ex Machina, It Follows and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Ex Machina”

WHAT: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at an Internet search engine, thinks that he’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. But Nathan has other plans for him – 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.

WHY: Screenwriter Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre, 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 excels at putting a fresh spin on familiar material, and he doesn’t disappoint with “Ex Machina,” which draws inspiration from other genre classics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Frankenstein.” Garland’s film is intelligent science fiction operating at a very high level. The movie hits on some pretty big concepts without ever alienating the audience, and the sci-fi elements feel authentic despite being years away from creating such technology. The visual effects are also quite impressive, but they never overshadow the story by drawing too much attention to Ava’s beautiful but simplistic design. Though the film moves at a fairly slow pace, meandering towards its crackerjack ending via Caleb’s sessions with Ava and his post-meeting debriefings with Nathan, it’s never boring, and that’s to the immense credit of Garland’s clever script and some excellent performances. Anyone who’s seen Garland’s previous movies knows he can write, but with “Ex Machina,” he announces himself as a talented director who can not only spin a good yarn on the page, but on the screen as well.

EXTRAS: There’s a five-part making-of featurette, as well as eight additional behind-the-scenes vignettes and a Q&A with the cast and crew from SXSW.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“It Follows”

WHAT: Teenage suburbanite Jay (Maika Monroe) has just learned she’s been infected with a curse where the victim is ruthlessly stalked by a slow-walking entity that can assume the form of anyone. Nobody else can see it, but if it catches you, it’ll kill you, and the only way to get rid of it is by having sex with someone else and passing it on – at least until it kills that person and works its way back down the chain. Trapped in a constant state of fear, Jay must rely on the help of her friends to stop the monster from claiming any more lives.

WHY: Considering the role that sex has played in the horror genre throughout the years, it’s surprising that the supernatural STD angle hasn’t been done before, because it’s a really clever idea. Though the “sex equals death” rule isn’t as prominent in modern horror movies that defy those decades-old tropes, “It Follows” is very much a retro homage to ‘70s and ‘80s genre classics, from the “Halloween”-esque synth score, to the striking similarities to “Nightmare on Elm Street,” both in Jay’s perpetual helplessness and the film’s dreamlike atmosphere. But while “It Follows” has its merits as an innovative piece of filmmaking, the movie isn’t without its problems, beginning with writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s complete disinterest in digging any further into the mythology and logistics of the curse. Additionally, the acting is amateurish and the pacing could be a lot tighter. The characters spend too much time just sitting around waiting for something to happen, and although it’s initially effective in creating an ominous mood, it gets to the point where you wish they’d be a bit more proactive. The same goes for the movie itself, because despite its terrifying premise, “It Follows” is much scarier in concept than execution.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with film critics Eric D. Snider, Britt Hayes, Samuel D. Zimmerman, Alison Nastasi and Eric Vespe that’s hosted by Scott Weinberg, as well as an interview with film composer Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to April

april

As we edge closer to summer season, you’d think that the quality of films would increase, but one look at the April movie slate suggests the complete opposite. Not only are there a surprising lack of new releases this month, but only a few of them show any sort of promise, like the latest installment in the “Fast and Furious” franchise and the directorial debut from Alex Garland, which still doesn’t make up for the fact that a “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” sequel actually exists.

“Furious 7”

Who: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster, Kurt Russell and Lucas Black
What: Criminal mercenary Deckard Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his “family” for the death of his younger brother.
When: April 3rd
Why: The “Fast and Furious” movies have always been about fast cars, beautiful women and ridiculous stunts, but the upcoming seventh installment in the long-running series has a weight on its shoulders unlike any sequel/prequel before it. The unexpected death of Paul Walker not only effected the film’s production, but the manner in which he died has cast a morbid shadow over the project. As a fan, it’s great that they found a way to honor Walker and still complete the movie, but it’ll be interesting to see how the red-hot franchise continues going forward. If “Furious 7” does end up being the checkered flag at the end of an incredible Hollywood story, at least it’s going out in style with new additions like Jason Statham and Kurt Russell, and what looks to be some of the craziest set pieces to date.

“Ex Machina”

Who: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno
What: A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.
When: April 10th
Why: Writer Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre, so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut occupies a similar space. The debate on artificial intelligence may not exactly be a novel premise, but Garland has proven with films like “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” that he’s capable of bringing a fresh spin to familiar material. And while are certain aspects of “Ex Machina” that we’ve definitely seen before, the trailers hint at something much more intriguing, beginning with the stunning design of Alicia Vikander’s A.I character. The movie also garnered rave reviews following its premiere at SXSW, and between Garland’s reputation for thought-provoking sci-fi and the brilliant casting, “Ex Machina” is shaping up to be something special indeed.

“Child 44”

Who: Tom Hardy, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke
What: A disgraced member of the military police investigates a series of nasty child murders during the Stalin-era Soviet Union.
When: April 17th
Why: Based on Tom Rob Smith’s bestselling novel of the same name, “Child 44” isn’t the type of movie you’d normally expect to see released during this time of year. The material seems more appropriate for awards season, which suggests that the film didn’t live up to the studio’s expectations and was dumped instead, because there’s nothing about April that screams Russian period drama. Though it’s hard to believe the movie isn’t any good with such an impressive cast, director Daniel Espinosa has yet to convince me that he deserves to be working with top talent like Denzel Washington (“Safe House”), Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman. It probably doesn’t help that the trailer is a complete bore, because it only highlights the potential issue plaguing the film.

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