Reviews in Short: December 2015

Ex Machina Machina


Take “Hal” from 2001: A Space Odyssey — or any of the replicants from Blade Runner — toss him (or her) into the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and you’ll get something akin to this cautionary tale about a reclusive genius and his latest project: a doe-eyed android named Ava. The question is: Just how “human” is Ava?

Writer-director Alex Garland (Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) delivers a visually striking, dreamlike motion picture — although the characters are a miserable lot, the tone is oppressive, and at times the story drags. Still, this is thought-provoking science fiction, mostly because it’s such a plausible glimpse at our future.  Release: 2015  Grade: B+ Machina




Phoenix Phoenix


A presumed-dead Holocaust survivor (Nina Hoss), shot in the head, has facial reconstruction surgery and returns home to her husband – but he fails to recognize her. Oh, and he might have betrayed her to the Nazis. Absorbing and suspenseful, Phoenix raises memories of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with its haunted tone and themes of fantasy and identity.  

I do have two minor complaints.  The plot suffers from what I call Agatha Christie Syndrome:  People who really ought to recognize someone, do not (or vice versa). And I don’t understand why romantic mood-pieces like this one, which cry out for a musical score, eschew them. Release: 2014  Grade: B




Welcome to New York Welcome


Abel Ferrara’s thinly veiled account of the alleged sexual assault of an immigrant chambermaid by French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn is an intriguing, if not particularly powerful, docudrama. It’s not easy to be repulsed by a hedonistic, unrepentant rich man when he’s portrayed by an actor as charming as Gerard Depardieu. But it’s always fascinating to see how the world’s elite behave and misbehave – whether or not that behavior is real or the product of a screenwriter’s imagination. Release: 2014 Grade: B




American Sniper Sniper


I lost all faith in the veracity of war movies “based on a true story” back in 2003 when the military and NBC (Saving Jessica Lynch) sold us a bill of goods about the saga of Jessica Lynch, so I have no clue how faithful Sniper is to the life of Navy sharpshooter Chris Kyle. I doubt that the real Kyle was as charismatic as Bradley Cooper is in this controversial take on U.S. involvement in the Middle East. But old pro Clint Eastwood knows how to stage a tense, suspenseful battle sequence, and his movie is certainly thought-provoking. Release: 2014 Grade: B




The Girl Hedren


Toby Jones is superb as Alfred Hitchcock and, surprisingly (to me, at least), Sienna Miller is more than his match as Tippi Hedren, the Minnesota model whom Hitchcock turned into a movie star, in the process becoming dangerously obsessed with her. I have no idea how closely The Girl adheres to reality, but as a beauty and the beast docudrama, it’s much better than I expected.  How does it compare to Hitchcock, the Anthony Hopkins vehicle that also came out in 2012? This is better because, like so many of Hitchcock’s movies, it’s absorbing and deliciously twisted. Release: 2012  Grade: A-


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