Review of “The Green Knight”

The King’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) lives a life of excess and debauchery, spending most of his nights sleeping at the brothel with his favorite sex worker Essel (Alicia Vikander) and drinking. His mother (Sarita Choudhury) wants more for her son and hatches a plan. On Christmas Day, Gawain is enjoying the feast at the King’s celebration while his mother and three other women cast a spell to conjure a challenge to her son’s bravery. Bursting through the doors of the yuletide feast, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) rides into the hall and offers up a game: Whoever can land a blow against him will be given the Green Knight’s mighty axe to use for a year. But next Christmas, the challenger will meet him at the green chapel and receive an equal blow in return. At first there is silence, then Gawain agrees to accept the challenge. Asking for a sword, the King (Sean Harris) provides his. The Green Knight stands still, confusing Gawain. Gawain then attacks, cutting off the Green Knight’s head. Thinking that is the end of it, Gawain and all in attendance are shocked when the topless body stands and retrieves the still living head. The Green Knight reminds Gawain to meet him in one year at the green chapel and rides off laughing. Dreading his likely approaching doom, Gawain continues his aimless life until a week before he is to meet the Green Knight. He then begins a perilous journey over the countryside, encountering bandits, spirits, giants, a friendly fox, and a strange couple living in a castle in the middle of nowhere, as he prepares to face his fate at the green chapel.

I was really looking forward to “The Green Knight.” It had a terrific trailer featuring a floating crown lowering onto Dev Patel’s head, then he bursts into flame. The design of the Green Knight looked amazing. The booming baritone of Ralph Ineson is a plus in every movie. The cinematography of the barren, cold Irish landscape appeared to be as much of a character as anyone in the film. I’d been aware of the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” since high school but remembered little of it. So, this movie had been at the top of my want to see list since the first trailer back in earlier 2020. Naturally, with COVID shutting down most film releases, the world had to wait until now to get a peak at this epic Arthurian legend on the big screen. Despite all my eagerness to see the film, I walked out wondering what I’d watched.

“The Green Knight” is a glorious looking film. The landscapes of Ireland where most of the exteriors were shot, is gorgeous. Filters were likely used to darken the surroundings, giving the film an ominous look, suggesting doom would pop up at any moment. Enormous care was taken to recreate the medieval period during which King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were supposed to live. The interiors of castles, homes, brothels and inns is appropriately dark and dank. The buildings are composed of either stone or wood with very little metal visible. No one looks especially healthy with even Gawain often appearing on the verge of collapse and the King frequently wheezing when he expends even the slightest effort. You can almost smell the B.O. from the population’s unwashed bodies as you follow Gawain walking down the damp streets or sitting down to enjoy an ale in the local pub or brothel.

The Green Knight is a glorious villain (if that’s what he really is) with a body appearing to be composed entirely of carved wood. He creaks and cracks as he walks and with the voice of Ralph Ineson, he sounds appropriately menacing. We only get two scenes featuring the Green Knight and I wanted more of him. To me he was the most interesting person in the film.

While many fascinating things happen in “The Green Knight,” they pose questions that are rarely answered. In the opening scene, we see a gate leading into a walled city. The thatch roof of a building is on fire, a woman gets on a horse and a man pulls a sword from the horse’s saddle preparing to defend against an enemy. We then pull back to see that’s the view from Gawain’s bed in the brothel and a completely different scene plays out with no explanation of what happened to the man and woman, and why that building was on fire. Did the couple start the fire? Is it a diversion so they can escape from her abusive husband and be a couple? Did they just kill rob and kill someone and set the fire to hide their crime? In the end, it doesn’t matter as we never see that couple again. While this is the most non sequitur scene in the film, it certainly isn’t the only one.

It makes me wonder if the film’s narrative is merely a parable within a parable. Gawain’s journey is the story of a man waiting to be provided with meaning and purpose for his life when he’s the one responsible for providing that meaning. Perhaps writer/director David Lowery is telling the audience we are meant to find our own meaning in the film and not depend on it being spelled out for us. Normally, I’d be on board for that interpretation, but I can’t find enough clues or enough depth to work out what I’m supposed to learn as a viewer.

“The Green Knight” is rated R for violence, some sexuality and graphic nudity. There is the beheading that starts the adventure. It is somewhat bloody. We see some animals killed in various hunts. A skeleton is shown hanging from a suspended cage. There are scenes of post-battle fields filled with dead bodies. There are some sex scenes that are brief and contain little nudity. An odd scene appears to involve sex as the evidence is shown on Gawain’s hands at the end. A group of naked giants are shown walking with brief views are bare breasts and buttocks. A scene late in the film shows a head falling off a body. A ghost’s head is shown rolling on the floor and speaking. There is a scene of vomit. A scene of a woman giving birth and that baby being taken away from the mother may cause some distress.

I wanted to love “The Green Knight,” I really did. It has a great cast, is based on a thrilling tale of knights and sorcery and romance and adventure and looks like a well-crafted fantasy. Despite all that’s going for it, I wondered what the point was as the credits rolled (and there is a brief scene late in the credits if you’re interested, but it didn’t help the film make sense) and I considered what I’d seen. While most of the real critics love the movie and it is a beautiful looking piece of work, I just don’t get it. It’s above my head. I lack the depth to fully grasp its meaning and I never have to see it again.

“The Green Knight” gets two stars out of five.

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Review of “Tomb Raider”

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is trying to make her own way in the world. She delivers food via bicycle for a service and studies mixed martial arts at a neighborhood gym; however she is falling behind on her bills and an effort to win a bicycle race against the other delivery people at her job lands her in trouble with the police. Lara is the heir to a massive fortune since her father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) disappeared seven years earlier but she refuses to sign the papers that would declare him legally dead. While in police custody Lara’s former guardian Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to bail her out and encourages her to sign the papers as she also works at Lara’s father’s company. Showing up at her father’s offices the next day Lara is about to sign the papers when she is given a Japanese puzzle box. Distracted, Lara plays with the box and solves it causing a secret compartment to pop open. Inside is a photo of a young Lara with her father and a note wrapped around a key. Lara realizes the note is a clue to what the key fits and leaves the offices without signing the papers. She goes to the Croft estate and enters the family tomb where Lara unlocks a secret door that leads to an office. Inside she finds lots of artifacts and boxes of her father’s notes along with a camcorder. The tape in the camera is a message for Lara telling her to destroy all his notes involving Himiko and warning her of an organization called Trinity. Going against her father’s wishes Lara studies the maps and figures out the location of an island that was her father’s final destination: An island off the coast of Japan that doesn’t appear on any map. Lara approaches Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) a ship captain whose father took Lord Croft on his final voyage and also disappeared. When they get close to the island a storm destroys their ship and both are captured by a group of men led by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins). Vogel is looking for something on the island and can’t leave until he finds it. Lara has the information to take Vogel to the very thing Lord Croft didn’t want discovered.

The history of video game-based movies is littered with horrendous efforts to cash in on a popular title. The granddaddy of these stinkers is “Super Mario Bros.” from 1993. No one involved in the production has very good memories of it. According to co-director Rocky Morton the script they agreed to direct was vastly changed when shooting began, turning it into a production nightmare. Clearly nothing like that happened in the creation and production of “Tomb Raider” as it is a very workman-like creation with the requisite number of action scenes, emotional moments and stunning realizations. It’s perfectly fine but not terribly special.

Alicia Vikander makes a very good Lara Croft. She is able to carry off the attitude and the swagger we expect from our favorite tomb raider. While there were some fanboys whining on the internet about Vikander lacking certain physical attributes (specifically large enough breasts) to make her a believable Croft those complaints are mainly from those that judge women on an impossible scale of physical beauty. I hope since she doesn’t live up to their standards that they stay home and don’t subject themselves to having to look at her. I for one think she is perfectly fine to look at. Vikander’s performance has to be somewhat tempered since she isn’t the Lara Croft that we were introduced to when Angelina Jolie took on the role in 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” That Lara had been going on adventures for some time prior to the start of the movie so she was in full explorer mode from the get go. Vikander’s Lara is just learning about all the adventures and danger so she makes mistakes and takes a while to figure out the puzzles that stand between her and for what she’s searching. From the standpoint of introducing the character of Lara Croft, “Tomb Raider” does a pretty good job.

The villain and the quest are what let the movie down. Early on we hear about an ancient Japanese queen that made blood run in the streets and her tomb is what is being looked for. While Lara’s father sounds the alarm about finding the tomb the whole notion of this as the goal of an international conspiracy seems a bit silly. Of course all quests in video games are silly on their face and become more so when transferred to a movie screen; however it is the job of a screenwriter to come up with a story idea that makes sense in the modern world. The supernatural mumbo jumbo espoused in the first half of “Tomb Raider” is delivered with neither intensity nor conviction. It undermines everything that happens once the action moves to the island.

When I say the villain lets down the movie I don’t mean Walton Goggins. Goggins is a great actor with a long resume of great performances as a bad guy and he does the best he can with an underwritten and rudderless part. Goggins’ Vogel is never truly let off the leash to show what a murderous maniac he is. Efforts are made to make Vogel a sympathetic villain with a couple of references to his wanting to get off the island and see his kids. It doesn’t work as it makes Vogel seem more whiny than determined to succeed and go home to his family. The script has Vogel commit the required heartless murders of a tyrant as he forces his slave labor to work with little rest or food but Goggins seems to be just hitting the beats and doing the minimum. While his performance starts with some quiet menace as he talks with Lara right after her capture it quickly runs out of steam. While I have no pity for Vogel I do feel sorry for Goggins as he is clearly trapped in a poorly thought out character.

What follows is what I like to call me thinking too much about minor stuff in a movie. A couple of characters sustain fairly serious injuries during the course of the film as one might expect with lots of jumping and falling and shooting and such. Lara gets a branch impaled in her side and Lu Ren is shot in the shoulder. While Lara’s injury gets some attention it is largely ignored after that. Lu Ren’s shoulder is never mentioned after we are shown him holding the injury just after being shot. I know it is a well-worn trope that main characters receive injuries that would put anyone else in the hospital for a couple of days but they manage to live with and even thrive despite the damage. Having two characters suffer such injuries makes this tired bit of story mechanics stick out all the more. End of rant.

“Tomb Raider” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and some language. There are numerous shootings and fist fights throughout the film. Lara is mugged and chased by her muggers after she gets her bag back then threatened with a knife. There are other chases as well. There are a couple of scenes where characters are affected by a disease that appears to cause them great pain. Foul language is scattered and mild.

“Tomb Raider” will remind gamers of the 2013 game of the same name. It too finds a nascent Lara Croft on a journey to an island with a bunch of bad guys she has to defeat and an ancient evil that must be stopped. While the movie and the game share characters with the same names the story is vastly different. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. While the game takes a more fantastical angle borrowing some of those elements might have made the movie more entertaining. As it is, its fine but it could have been more.

“Tomb Raider” gets three stars out of five.

This week sees five new films heading to your local multiplex. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Midnight Sun—

Pacific Rim: Uprising—

Paul, Apostle of Christ—

Sherlock Gnomes—


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Review of “Jason Bourne”

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is living an inconspicuous but brutal life as an underground fighter in Greece. He makes part of the money that is bet on him. Former CIA analyst Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is now part of a Wikileaks-style organization that’s trying to expose covert operations. She hacks into the CIA and downloads files on 10 black ops programs including Treadstone, the operation of which Bourne was a part. The hack attracts the attention current Cyber Ops Division head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) who is able to place tracking software inside the files so, if they are accessed, they can be traced. CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is informed of the breach and becomes concerned when he is told it involves Parsons, a known associate of Jason Bourne, and contacts a CIA assassin known only as the Asset (Vincent Cassel). The Asset has a special grudge against Bourne and is looking to settle an old score. Also becoming aware of the security breach is software developer Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) who created a Facebook-like social media platform called Deep Dream that made him a billionaire. Kalloor got his start-up money from the CIA in exchange for backdoor access into his software. Kalloor is supposed to be giving the same ability to spy on everyone that uses his system with the next update but he wants to end that deal, afraid the breach will expose his previous involvement with unlimited intelligence gathering. Parsons finds Bourne in Greece and gives him the flash drive containing the files including information that Bourne’s father Richard Webb (Gregg Henry) was deeply involved in the creation and operation of Project Treadstone. Parsons, tracked by the CIA and spotted with Bourne, is killed by the Asset, sending Bourne on a worldwide journey to find out the truth about his father and to try and get out from under the constant threat of death from the CIA.

You can’t help but feel sorry for the character of Jason Bourne. All he wants is to be left alone and live his life. He doesn’t want to be a killer. He doesn’t want to be a target. He is just looking for peace and quiet. Sadly for the character, peace and quiet does not a good movie make so once again he is thrown into a worldwide conspiracy against him in “Jason Bourne.”

Matt Damon’s character has always been a man of few words but never fewer than in “Jason Bourne.” According to the Internet his character only speaks about 25 lines of dialog. Bourne usually lets his fists, his aim and his driving do the talking while allowing all the other characters to fill in any information we might need. That’s the thing about the “Bourne” movies…it’s the supporting characters that put most of the action in motion leaving poor Jason to defend himself from their efforts to kill him. Bourne is merely the puppet at the end of the strings, only able to go where he is dragged against his will. Bourne could be looked at as a metaphor for the way life drags all of us around against our will. We are constantly moving from one crisis to another, frequently created by others, and having to put forth the risk and effort to clean up the mess. While the stakes we face aren’t anywhere near as high as what Bourne must deal with there are still stakes just the same.

The cast of “Jason Bourne” is excellent with Damon leading the way. His portrayal of the damaged Bourne is particularly heartbreaking in this installment. Bourne looks tired. He’s fighting for his life, figuratively and literally, just trying to stay off the CIA’s radar. Damon plays the world weary Bourne as low key, keeping his head down, unable to get a full night’s sleep and haunted by his past. Flashbacks of his Treadstone training wake him with a start. He is like a trapped animal looking for a way out. Damon’s quiet performance embodies a man near the end of his rope looking for peace and only finding more reasons he must fight.

Alicia Vikander’s Heather Lee is probably the most dangerous person in the film. Her Cyber Ops Division job gives her tools and information on everything going on in the world and she’s ambitious. You are never quite sure whether Lee is trying to catch and kill Bourne or looking to help him get away. It’s a question that isn’t answered until the very end of the film. Her performance is also rather quiet and restrained, even when facing something akin to the good ol’ boy network at Langley. What makes Lee dangerous is you cannot see her plotting and devising schemes to aid in her rise. She wants power and that’s probably the most dangerous thing of all.

Tommy Lee Jones plays CIA Director Dewey as a man in charge. He doesn’t suffer fools lightly and can be quietly threatening. That veneer of calm and collectedness is hiding a volcano of anger that comes close to the surface if he feels threatened or questioned, as is the case with Lee as she questions his decisions in front of the Director of National Intelligence. Jones has played this kind of character before but his especially craggy face adds to the façade of a calm country boy and makes him that much more of a snake in the grass waiting for an unsuspecting victim to come by. As the movie moves on it becomes easy to dislike Dewey.

The “Bourne” series has never skimped on the car chases and violence. While always maintaining a PG-13 rating throughout the series, the film’s close combat fights always feel far more brutal and bloody than they show on screen. “Jason Bourne” is no exception to this with a spectacular car chase on the strip in Las Vegas and what may be the most vicious fight of the entire series. It comes near the end of the film and much of what occurs before it leads to a battle that is filled with rage and revenge on both sides. I found myself squirming in my seat as the throw down in a drainage tunnel under Las Vegas is shot in darkness with only scattered, reflected light giving the scene a personal and private feel that implies the audience really shouldn’t be watching what’s happening. While I have my issues with the series’ use of tight close ups and jittery handheld cameras, on further reflection that technique makes the audience feel as if they are a third participant in this specific fight. We are in the middle of a life-and-death struggle and it is uncomfortable. In that regard and for this particular fight, the technique is effective.

“Jason Bourne” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language. There are a couple of the underground fight scenes. One shows Bourne being beaten pretty badly. There are other fights and shootings. None are terribly bloody but, as stated earlier, the last fight is brutal. There are also car chases where several crashes occur. We don’t see any injuries (other than to Bourne)or deaths from these crashes. Foul language is scattered.

“Jason Bourne” is the fifth film in the series based on a character created by author Robert Ludlum. It is the fourth movie starring Matt Damon as the title character and the third film directed by Paul Greengrass. Publicly, Damon is open to making more Bourne films and that isn’t the worst thing in the world. They are certainly exciting and ask some painful questions about what price our society must be willing to pay in order to have safety; however, it might be nice to actually have Bourne faced with a threat from somewhere other than within the American intelligence community. Have him drawn in to a plot by outside forces to damage American interests and he is forced to join with the CIA to combat it. If Bourne is always fighting against his former bosses, that risks the franchise becoming a predictable and repetitive imitation of itself. That’s something Jason Bourne wouldn’t stand for.

“Jason Bourne” gets four guitars out of five.

This week, there are bad guys forced to do good and a bad dad turned into a cat. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Suicide Squad—

Nine Lives—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to

Review of “The Man from UNCLE”

If there’s a saying that sums up the thinking of movie executives it must be “Everything old is new again.” So far this year we’ve had reboots or sequels to “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Mad Max,” “Fantastic Four,” “Jurassic Park,” “Ted,” “Magic Mike,” “Terminator,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Entourage,” “Pitch Perfect,” “Despicable Me,” “The Woman in Black,” “Taken,” “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Cinderella,” “Divergent,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Avengers,” “Poltergeist” and “Insidious.” And that’s just through the middle of August. The rest of the year has more ranging from another visit to the animated “Hotel Transylvania” as well as a galaxy far, far away for another episode of “Star Wars.” Many of these are or were greatly anticipated while others caused either a collective groan or disinterested shrug. Probably falling into the disinterested category is the big screen interpretation of a 50 year old TV show about Cold War spies from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain that work together to keep the world safe. While I was aware of “The Man from UNCLE” TV show and may have seen an episode or two, I can’t say the idea of a movie version ever crossed my mind. It apparently crossed the minds of movie executives who approached director Guy Ritchie to bring his unique visual style to this reimagining. While it certainly has style and very pretty people playing the roles, “The Man from UNCLE” doesn’t feel at all substantial.

Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) was a notorious thief in Europe until his capture by a task force of elite law enforcement. His prison sentence was suspended in exchange for using his special talents to help the CIA. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a KGB agent with anger issues due in part to his treatment after his father was caught skimming funds from the Communist Party and sent to a gulag. It’s the early 1960’s and the Cold War is at its zenith. Solo is sent into East Berlin to help Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape to the West. Her father was a German nuclear scientist helping the Nazis in World War II try to make an atomic bomb. He has developed a way to quickly and easily enrich uranium and has recently disappeared. The CIA thinks Gaby can lead them to her father. In trying to escape, Solo and Gaby are followed by Kuryakin and a chase ensues. Solo and Gaby are able to escape. The next day, Solo’s boss Saunders (Jared Harris) reintroduces Solo and Kuryakin and, along with Illya’s KGB boss, informs the pair that they will be working together to find Gaby’s father as it is in the best interest of both sides that her father’s work not fall into the wrong hands. Gaby’s Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) works for Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki), the owners of a shipping company in Rome. His late father started the company and was a fascist that supported Mussolini. The company may have ties to Nazi sympathizers. Despite their utter dislike and distrust of one another, Solo and Kuryakin must work together to find Gaby’s father and keep the world safe from Nazis with nukes.

It’s hard not to like “The Man from UNCLE.” From the far flung international locales to the witty banter, the film is designed to be interesting to both the eye and ear. Director Guy Ritchie pulled a few pages from films of the past to embed the notion that this is a 1960’s film that just happens to have 21st century actors in it. The action scenes are tight with little wasted space and the story zips along almost faster than the audience can keep up. It has all the makings of a giant money maker that should launch a franchise. Then why did I feel like I’d just walked through a sprinkler when I intended to jump into the deep end of the pool? I should have been soaked head to toe in nostalgia and international intrigue but instead I feel practically bone dry.

Perhaps the fault lies in setting the story in the early 1960’s: Kennedy is president, the Soviets are perceived to be the biggest threat to freedom and the scourge of Nazism isn’t that far in the rearview mirror. While I certainly remember the old USSR and the fear that the world would fall under totalitarian rule, it isn’t something I look back on with fondness or warm feelings. “The Man from UNCLE” seems to long for the day when our enemies were much easier to identify and target. Moving the story into modern times would have been easy as the U.S. and Russia don’t get along much better now than they did back then. Preventing a terrorist group from getting their hands on a nuclear device would seem to be an easy enough translation from the 1960’s to now since that’s one of the intelligence community’s biggest fears. Drop the Nazis and put in ISIL and you have a modern story that could throw in a few digs at NSA eavesdropping on all our calls and emails. It could have felt more relevant while also being a globetrotting romp.

Maybe it is due to the heroes having only a small amount of trouble in dealing with the bad guys. In the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie, Ethan Hunt gets put through the ringer a couple of times. He actually seems to be in some peril. Neither Napoleon Solo nor Illya Kuryakin is in any real trouble during the course of the story. They do get in a few tight spots but get out practically unscathed. When the heroes of a story appear to be able to cruise through any danger it makes the whole thing seem unimportant.

Despite the setting and lightness of tone, “The Man from UNCLE” still manages to be entertaining. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer make a winning team of likable secret agents that have a begrudging respect for each other. Cavill’s Solo is the more James Bond-like with a command of several languages, a love of fine wines and a winning way with the ladies. A nice counterpart to that is Hammer’s Kuyrakin. The stereotypical ice-cold Soviet agent that has a warm spot buried deep in the Siberia of his soul, Kuryakin has knowledge of fashion as well as a number of ways he can kill someone with his bare hands. Both agents possess skills complimentary to the other. Throwing Alicia Vikander into the mix as the master mechanic Gaby Teller and you have a team that can handle just about any situation that is thrown their way.

Director Guy Ritchie keeps the action moving from scene to scene with very little wasted time. Ritchie’s style is quite recognizable with the occasional odd camera angle, the uniqueness of the soundtrack and the use of quick flashbacks that show what happened in scenes just a few minutes earlier. Ritchie keeps the eye moving along with the story and that helps to keep the momentum at a fast pace.

“The Man from UNCLE” is rated PG-13 for action/violence, some suggestive content and partial nudity. There are several fist fights with one resulting in the death of a character from a stab wound. There is a scene of torture using an electric chair. Several nameless henchmen are shot. One character is shot at point blank range. There is very little blood shown. There are some sexually suggestive sounds heard over a radio. We see a topless woman in silhouette and get a brief glance of side breast. Foul language is widely scattered and mild.

“The Man from UNCLE” is a stylish and witty spy romp that puts to full use the fashion and look of the 1960’s. It is about as substantial as cotton candy and may leave the viewer with a feeling of “that was nice” but that’s about all. Apparently audiences want more than “nice” since it was left in the dust by “Straight Outta Compton” and came in third at the box office behind “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” which is in its third week. I enjoyed the film and think it is worth seeing but I can’t say it’s great.

“The Man from UNCLE” gets four stars out of five.

Three new flicks this week and at least one of them will get a once over by yours truly.

American Ultra—

Hitman: Agent 47—

Sinister 2—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to

Review of “Ex Machina”

Several luminaries, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, have recently warned against the development of artificial intelligence. Hawking even going so far as to warn it could begin the end of the human race. Despite these dire predictions, researchers continue to explore the frontier of creating a machine that can think or, as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it: a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers. In science fiction films, the definition of artificial intelligence, or AI as it’s commonly referred to, is expanded to include the notion that the machine is in fact alive, self-aware and capable of all human behaviors including evil. Adding the evil element is crucial to use AI as the main driving force of a story. In “Ex Machina,” the AI is incased in a synthetic brain and housed in an android that could be considered very attractive, even sexy; but as the old saying reminds us, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) writes code at Bluebook, the top search engine in the world. Bluebook’s billionaire creator and owner Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) is conducting a lottery amongst his employees with the winner getting to spend a week with Bateman at his secret compound. Caleb wins and soon finds himself in a helicopter flying to his eccentric boss’ home. Inaccessible by any other means, Caleb is left by the chopper and must walk along a river to a sleek home that can only be accessed by a security key card which is made for him at the entrance. Walking in, Caleb finds Bateman working out with a heavy bag. The two exchange small talk but it is stilted and uncomfortable. Bateman encourages Caleb to relax and consider this as two buddies hanging out at a really cool house for the week. Bateman tells Caleb the reason he’s there is to perform a Turing test on a new artificial intelligence program Bateman has created. The Turing test is designed to determine if a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. The next morning, Caleb is surprised when an Asian woman walks into his room and delivers his breakfast. Bateman says her name is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and that she doesn’t understand any English. It’s a way to maintain security as Bateman’s home is also a research facility. Other than Kyoko, they are alone. Caleb is put in a room with a glass wall that looks into a larger suite of rooms. Soon Ava (Alicia Vikander) walks into view, sees Caleb and approaches. Ava is an android housing Bateman’s artificial intelligence. Her face is the only part of Ava that has skin. The rest of her body appears to be a metal case and transparent areas where you can see her inner workings. Ava is curious about this new person, only the second she’s ever met. Caleb is amazed at her grasp of language and her ability to learn. Caleb and Bateman discuss his impressions of Ava and Bateman shows a propensity for megalomania as he turns something Caleb said into implying Bateman is a god. The next day as Caleb and Ava are talking, the power goes out and the facility goes to emergency batteries. The outage also knocks out all the security cameras and microphones recording their interactions. Ava warns Caleb not to believe anything Nathan says. Confused, Caleb doesn’t report what Ava said to Bateman. Over the course of their talks, Ava puts on clothes and a wig to appear more human and Caleb begins to feel pity for the android that is locked away from a world about which she is so curious.

“Ex Machina” is a subtle tale of life, love, loneliness, deception, ego and what exactly it means to be alive. The U.K. film written and directed by Alex Garland is a quietly riveting tale. It is accessible sci-fi that asks hard questions and offers no easy answers. It is the kind of movie audiences will either love or hate but won’t be able to walk away from without having a strong opinion either way.

Aside from the somewhat creepy performance of Oscar Isaac, the standout role here is Alicia Vikander’s Ava. Vikander doesn’t do the expected stilted, emotionless performance that is the standard interpretation of artificial lifeforms. Ava is slightly emotional. You can see it in her face as Caleb describes the loss of his parents in a car crash when he was a teenager. The mixture of pity and concern on Ava’s face was a surprise as one might expect an unchanging expression from an android. Instead, Ava gives a minimal indication of anguish. It is enough to get the point across but not so much as one would expect from a person. Ava is in the wasteland between humanity and machinery. Vikander’s performance is a tour de force of subtlety. It is a subtlety the audience believes as Ava is an unknown that could behave in a million different ways from overly emotional to completely blank. Since Ava is an AI, perhaps she would misinterpret what was expected of her reaction. Vikander and director Garland play this scene and many others perfectly with a “less-is-more” philosophy. They let Gleeson and Isaac handle the big emotions while Vikander has the harder job of showing what a new consciousness would do. Ava’s movements, accented with quiet, slightly mechanical-sounding effects, are also measured and economical. There are times when Ava is shown lying down, curled up in a fetal position. In looking back, I now wonder why? Ava doesn’t sleep and can’t tire in the traditional sense so why is she lying down? Is it an effort to show us just how human she is? Is it motivated by Ava’s desires to be accepted as human so she does the things humans do? The fact I am asking these questions a full day after seeing the film speaks to the impact of the story.

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson are fantastic as Bateman and Caleb. Their initial uncomfortable interactions give way to an uneasy friendship which slowly dissolves. Isaac plays Bateman as someone who is constantly on the line between normal, average person and complete psychopath. Isaac turns Bateman on a dime, making a simple discussion into an uncomfortable showdown. Bateman always seems to have other motives behind his actions and Isaac is able to show the audience that he’s scheming without making it obvious. Bateman is not a mustache-twirling villain, he’s much more dangerous. Gleeson plays Caleb as a goldfish thrown into Bateman’s shark tank; but Caleb soon learns to have as dangerous a bite as his boss. Gleeson has Caleb wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Ava. It is a quick trip from considering her a science project to a person in trouble that needs his help. The cat-and-mouse game between Bateman and Caleb is just as interesting as the Ava storyline.

Ava’s look is as much a character as Ava herself. The mixture of metallic frame, transparent limbs, skull and midsection and a lifelike face make it nearly impossible to take your eyes from her. The effect is mechanical and futuristic without being so completely alien as to make Ava distracting. Her face, often shown in close up during her conversations with Caleb, is her only normal-looking human feature; yet it’s enough for the audience to quickly join Caleb in thinking of her as a person. There are other moments in the film without spoiling anything that show just how different a creature she is. All of the visual effects in the film are flawless.

“Ex Machina” is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence. There are several times we see fully nude women. There is a brief scene where a character describes how it’s possible to have sex with Ava and that she would enjoy it. The violence comes at the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil anything but I will say it is brief and rather graphic. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

After Star Wars came out back in the late 70’s, science fiction enjoyed a brief renaissance. Sadly, many of these films were merely repackaged plots from westerns and other genres that were now set in space. Many studios thought if their films had spaceships and ray guns they would make money. They were wrong as they didn’t try to make the stories they were telling compelling enough for the public to part with their cash. That has always been the problem with science fiction: If you peel away the special effects is there a story worth telling and being seen by an audience? Often the answer is no; however, “Ex Machina” is compelling and asks the kinds of questions that may need answers in the next 50 years. In the meantime, go see the movie.

“Ex Machina” gets five stars.

After all the hype and publicity it’s finally here: “Avengers: Age of Ultron” hits theatres this week as the only wide release. Normally I don’t say which film I’m going to review next; however, I don’t see any point in being coy when one of the most anticipated movies in the last 20 years is opening. So, next week you can be assured of what I’ll be reviewing. Here’s the latest trailer:

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