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Ex Machina

"Ex Machina" has been described as science fiction, but it's more properly a psychological mystery thriller with sci-fi trappings. Young code writer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins an online challenge posed by his boss, Nathan (Oliver Isaac), an Internet whiz who has created the world's most popular search engine. He has also built an android, Ava (Alicia Vikander), that he believes possesses artificial intelligence. Caleb is summoned to Nathan's remote and fabulous, high security house cum research facility to undertake a Turing Test – namely, can Ava make Caleb forget she is a machine? Does she possess true intelligence or is she just dragging appropriate responses from her vast memory banks? Things get odd early on with Nathan's behavior, which is socially awkward to put it diplomatically. The only other person in residence is a cook who speaks no English – and Nathan speaks nary a word of her language though it transpires later she also shares his bed (and I suppose cleans the enormous complex). But clues accumulate that Nathan may be insane and darker things are also hinted at by the cameras monitoring very room, including Caleb's guest chambers. Ava turns out to be an impressive creation but it is only during a power blackout – which she causes – that she reveals just how autonomous she is by warning Caleb not to trust Nathan. And that perhaps is as much as you ought to know going in.

That there are multiple secrets – or secret agendas – is reflected in the visual style of director Alex Garland's film. The characters are often separated from each other and from the camera by sheets of glass or seen in mirrors – all of Caleb's sessions with Ava are conducted with him outside her glass-enclosed quarters. We can see the characters and they can see each other but there are barriers. Allusions to other works of fiction abound. Caleb is allowed to enter only certain rooms, not unlike Jonathan Harker's limited access to areas of Dracula's castle and Nathan's name recalls that of the protagonist Nathanael in "The Sandman," E. T. A. Hoffman's tale of a man who falls in love with a female clockwork doll. Garland's scripts for Danny Boyle ("28 Days Later " and "Sunshine") are similarly suffused with references to other works and like them "Ex Machina" doesn't delve much below the surface. That A.I.s might turn on humans because intelligence also means the ability to plot and deceive is scarcely a new idea, nor is the notion that a human creator might fancy himself a god (there's more than a bit of "Frankenstein" here as well). That the film operates primarily as a thriller – though its title hints at more – does it no great harm; the dialogue is beautifully crafted and the film has a trio of extraordinary performances (Isaac impresses and amazes me more with each film I see him in). It may be a pity that "Ex Machina" flirts with ideas it doesn't really explore but it's still superb filmmaking.

2015 / Lionsgate / 108m / $24.99 BR [R]

Black Beauty

While it boasts a rating, I very much doubt that "Black Beauty" ever saw the inside of a theater; it seems to be tailor-made for the Hallmark Channel and/or the direct-to-video market (its photography alone it resembles a TV movie). Supposedly inspired by the classic novel by Anna Sewell, it seems to have derived no more from that work than its title. High schooler Kym (Sarah Ann Schultz – who's supposed to be 16 but looks at least 10 years older) is working after school for an animal rescue organization when a maltreated horse is brought in. In the course of washing it, she falls in love with the animal and so is opposed to the plans to put it down because its injuries are so profound and because the facilities are not equipped for long term equine care. She convinces grandpa (Bruce Davison) to take the animal to his farm and her dad (Luke Perry), who disapproves of everything Kym wants to do, to let her live there over the summer. In the course of her stay, she finds out about a 4-H competition and decides to enter Beauty – those extreme injuries heal fast – even though the local mean rich girl always wins.

"Black Beauty" is a collection of bad moviemaking decisions. It relies on extensive narration to tell its story rather than dramatizing it – although given the banal and sometimes pointless dialogue that may be a plus. It has music underscored montages about every five minutes or so and almost none of them advance the plot or enhance our understanding of the characters; they do however pad out the running time. And seeing as how there's not much of a story here a lot of padding is necessary. Perry gets to have grumpy phone calls with his daughter and petulant dinner conversations with his wife to remind us he's in the movie. His screen time is limited and he was obviously hired for only a few days so his name could be prominently featured on the DVD case. Davison gets a bit more mileage (and screen time) as the nurturing grandpa; he's about the only one in the cast to give his stick figure any depth. Daniel Zirilli (who co-wrote with Amy Zirilli) directs almost adequately. The result is family viewing for families that really have nothing better to do.

2014 / Lionsgate / 86m / $26.98 [PG]

Gangs of Wasseypur, parts I and II

Through its history, India's Bollywood studios have shown little regard for such niceties as copyrights and any number of popular characters from other countries, such as Tarzan, have been appropriated without payment being rendered to their creators. When "The Gangs of Wasseypur" arrived and its case proclaimed it was India's version of "The Godfather," I expected a much closer copy of the Francis Ford Coppola films than what director Anyurag Kashyyap has wrought. Yes, the influence of the first two "Godfather" films is obvious in this saga of ganglords who rise from coal miners during the British occupation to rivals vying for control of Wassypur. Rhamadir Singh enters politics but doesn't leave behind his thuggish ways; the war between him and Sardar Khan begins when he kills Khan's father. After that, it's a never-ending cycle of hits and retaliatory killings as Singh and Khan build their empire, and raise their sons in the "business." Now there is some history here, which is more likely appreciated by Indian viewers than it will be by Western ones. And the transformation of the coal miner's union into a kind of Mafia is only part of it. The various businesses Khan and his sons become involved with are dictated by the country's history.

The plot becomes awfully repetitive with the murders and revenge punctuated by weddings and funerals and of course lots of Bollywood music underscoring things. At least there are no full-blown production numbers. Kashyyap in fact uses the music ironically to comment of his country's fascination with Bollywood movies and their music; the characters – save one – are forever watching these films in theaters or on television and the music shows up as a ringtone on a cell phone. Singh credits his success to never having seen one and thus avoiding their vapid philosophy. Another drawback for me is that most of the principal male characters (the women are strictly bit players) are such dreadful people I really didn't care who might win out in the end. Bear in mind that I am no fan of the "Godfather" films where I find much the same problem with characters who are all involved in prostitution, gambling and drugs. Fans of the Coppola film will likely be more taken with "Gangs of Wassypur" than I was. It's a similar epic (and in two parts clocking in at over five and a half hours – which probably shouldn't be watched in close proximity – it can scarcely be termed anything else) but set in a far shabbier milieu and shot through with comic sequences at the most surprising times. It has some bravura, and often quite beautiful, photography and several terrific performances. I may not have been overly taken by it but I was rarely bored.

2012 / Cineliciouspics / 320m (2 discs) / $39.95 [NR]

Holocaust: Genocide & Survival
I'm Still Here / Out of Europe / Last Stop Kew Gardens

This box set of documentaries offers an evening (should you choose to watch them back-to-back) that is at least as depressing as it is inspiring. The first one, Lauren Lazin's "I'm Still Here," produced for MTV, consists of excerpts from the diaries of European Jews. Anne Frank wasn't the only teen of that time and place to keep one (it seems possible they all did). It can be disheartening to hear their words, telling of the persecution they faced – sometimes in the most exquisite prose – and then learn that the writer was murdered by the Nazis or that his or her fate is unknown (one diary was found in a ditch by the roadside on the way to a spot used for mass executions) but can be supposed. I think the one entry that will stick with me for some time is the one where a young man reveals his distaste for wearing the yellow star, not because he doesn't want to be identified as Jewish but because, "I was ashamed of how helpless we were." Possibly because of MTV's involvement, a roster of young talent reads the diary entries, including Ryan Gosling, Kate Hudson, Brittany Murphy and Elijah Wood; Zach Braff hosts this moving, poignant documentary.

"Out of Europe" is the story of one family of Belgian Jews whose patriarch had the foresight to realize what the future held for European Jews under Adolph Hitler. With a combination of careful planning and incredible luck they made their way from Antwerp to France and from there to Spain and Portugal and thence to the United States. The interview subjects were all part of that incredible journey, though some were children at the time. Their triumphant story is tinged with the realization that some of their relatives did not join them and became victims to the Third Reich. "Next Stop Kew Gardens" also touches on survivor's guilt. Robert Leiberman contacts as many of his high school classmates as possible that were the offspring of escapees from the Nazis. Curiously most all of them are over-achievers and many of their parents were haunted by the memory of those they could not save. Again the victory is tinged with sadness. All three documentaries are excellent – though I'd give the edge to "I'm Still Here" – but expect to experience mixed emotions.

2008, 2010, 2007 / SISU Home Entertainment / 48m, 55m, 54m (3 discs) / $39.95 [NR]

Singularity Principle

I salute the makers of "Singularity Principle" for daring to make a science fiction film that's about ideas and is based in actual science theory as opposed to dogfights in space and technobabble. The execution of the production alas is somewhat lacking. Peter Tanning (Michael Denis) is working on a project that will open a door to alternate dimensions when his mentor, Jack Brenner (John Deihl) goes missing. Guess where to? This attracts the attention of an unnamed government agency and it sends agent Lawrence Cason (William B. Davis – the cigarette smoking man from "The X-Files") to question Tanning about just how he did what he did (and no doubt wondering how they can turn it into a weapon). The story is framed in the interview that follows Cason's having Tanning abducted, with a hood over his head and duct taped to a chair, no less. Possibly because he senses he has no other option the scientist, after initial reluctance, tells everything – the film gives no reason for the sudden cooperation but of course we'd have no movie if he didn't sing like a canary. He relates his progress in opening a rift and how he began phasing back and forth between the two dimensions but was unable to distinguish this one from the other in which his wife is having an affair with an auto mechanic.

The science is solid because "Singularity Principle" was co-authored and co-directed by physicist Dr. David Deranian. Unfortunately the human story that he and Austin Robert Hines have concocted is pure soap and contrived at that. We learn early on that Tanning's wife (Kallie Sorensen) is discontent; she paints truly ghastly pictures and grouses about his dreams taking precedence. "What about our dreams?" she asks on several occasions. But what those are we never learn so her decision to stray, in at least one dimension, makes little sense. (And while I'm at it, I should note that the attention to scientific accuracy should have extended to other matters; painters do not frame their works until after they're finished.) The acting is good; it may be what carries the picture because the pacing is indifferent. The paucity of special effects is quite refreshing – too many sci-fi flicks are no more than a collection of them – but aside from Denis' performance there really aren't any dramatic fireworks. Davis is as creepy in an avuncular way as ever and Deihl and Sorensen are as good as the script allows. The result is a film made by techno geeks for techno geeks.

2013 / Big Screen Entertainment Group / 87m / $13.99 [NR]

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