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Genuine, three-dimensional characters, 28 July 2015

"What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined... to strengthen each other... to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories" – George Eliot Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's ("The Town that Dreaded Sundown") coming-of-age comedy/drama, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, is both very funny and very sad, full of life's pain but also reminding us of its joy. Based on a novel by Jesse Andrews who also wrote the screenplay, it is a sweet, smartly written film that always retains a human quality that we can relate to. Though its story of teenage alienation and terminal illness may sound like a dozen other genre films, its appealing freshness and rejection of maudlin sentimentality sets it apart from the rest.

Greg, (Thomas Mann, "Project X"), who narrates the film, is a shy high school student with a shaky self-image. Self-absorbed and preferring not to be noticed, he remains aloof while separating people into groups and cliques, not antagonistic to any, just personally uninvolved. Perhaps too stereotypically from the poorer side of town, his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler, "Second Chances") is an African-American boy he has known since kindergarten but who he introduces to others as his "co-worker," the word "friend" having too many connotations for Greg who is afraid of being rejected by those close to him. His fear of intimacy may be a product of his relationship with his overbearing parents, mom (Connie Britton, "This is Where I Leave You") and dad (Nick Offerman, "Danny Collins").

Dad is a well-traveled Sociology professor with a predilection for exotic foods which his family are forced to share and a love of foreign and classic films. Instead of watching Disney and other animated films as children, Greg and Earl have grown up watching such films as "Breathless," "Tales of Hoffman," and Herzog's "Burden of Dreams"(Greg's imitation of Werner Herzog is one of the funniest bits in the film). The two have made over forty films together, parodying famous films using funny titles such as "2:48 P.M. Cowboy," "Pooping Tom," "A Sockwork Orange," "Monorash," and "Senior Citizen Cane." The centerpiece of the film, however, is Greg's relationship with Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke, "Ouija"), a fellow student who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Pigeonholed by Greg as belonging to the Upper-Middle Class Jewish Senior Girl Sub-Clique 2A, their friendship begins on a rocky note when he admits that he is not hanging out with her out of pity but because his mom forced him into it. A deep bond is forged, however, and their relationship unfolds naturally with humor and affection in spite of its unpleasant beginning and the possibility of its sudden end.

Though not portrayed in an overtly physical way, their friendship is one that is truly caring in spite of the emotional and physical toll of Rachel's chemotherapy, something I'm familiar with since my wife has been going through it. Earl also provides some relief by sharing some of their films with her which, at least temporarily, keeps her mind away from her illness. Two supporting roles deserve mention. Molly Shannon ("Life after Beth") is appealing though a bit over-the top as Rachel's mom Denise, while Joe Bernthal ("Fury") is perfect as Mr. McCarthy, a history teacher who allows Greg and Earl to escape the insanity of the school lunchroom and use his office to watch movies and talk about life.

In a very moving sequence, McCarthy shares his personal experience of losing someone close, a story that Gomez-Rejon eventually uses to great advantage. Shot by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), on a quirkiness scale of one to ten, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl registers a high eight with a lot of Wes Anderson-type features such as sight gags, amusing intertitles," animated sequences, and innovative camera-work, but on the scale that measures honesty and sincerity in films, it is off the charts. Probing deeper than most films of its kind, it forges genuine, three-dimensional characters who will make their way into your heart and never leave.

Fails to adhere to the spirit of its title, 2 June 2015

Cheryl Eagan-Donovan's Nothing Truer than Truth proposes that the true author of the Shakespeare canon is Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and uses animation, graphics, archival footage, and interviews with prominent figures in that arts and academia to support its case. Focusing on the sixteen-month period in 1575-76 when Oxford traveled throughout Italy, the location where ten of William Shakespeare's plays are set, the film was shot at Castle Hedingham in Essex, England, Northern Italy, and at relevant historical sites in Venice, Brenta, Padua, Mantua, and Verona such as Villa Foscari, La Malcontenta, the Palazzo Ducale, the Jewish Ghetto in Venice and many others that complement the recent book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy by Richard Paul Roe.

In the film, Eagan-Donovan looks at the life of Edward de Vere, citing Oxford's outstanding education in the home of William Cecil and his tutor Sir Thomas Smith, and the fact that he had direct access to the Queen and the court, both connections reflected in the plays and poems. It also shows many parallels between Oxford's life and the people and events in the plays such as the accepted identification of Polonius in Hamlet as being a caricature of William Cecil and the fact that both Hamlet and de Vere were attacked by pirates. Another strong piece of evidence for Oxford's authorship presented is the number of marked passages in the Geneva Bible owned by Oxford that appear in Shakespeare's plays.

Little context is provided, however, for the discussion and no case is made questioning the correctness of the accepted attribution of the man from Stratford. The assumption seems to be made that the audience is already familiar with the case against William Shaksper and is looking for an alternative candidate, in my view, an unsupportable assumption. The most impressive part of the film, however, is the discussion of details in the plays relative to Oxford's trip to Italy. Shakespeare Authorship Coalition Chairperson John Shahan asks how Shakespeare knew of these precise and specific details about Italy and suggests that there is no other way to account for Shakespeare's knowledge except to acknowledge that he was there.

The film describes and illustrates such details as the location of the Sagittary in Othello, the identification of Belmont as being Villa Foscari, the author's familiarity with Gaspar Ribero as the prototype for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and the use of techniques borrowed from the Commedia del Arte. One of the film's main contentions is that the author's bisexuality offers an explanation for the use of the pseudonym "Shake-speare," both during the author's life and after his death, and for the continued refusal of academia to accept de Vere as Shakespeare.

As evidence, the director asserts that the relationship between the "Fair Youth" and the author of the Sonnets (Edward de Vere) is clear evidence of homosexual involvement. It also suggests that the charges of pederasty leveled in regard to his relationship with the 16-year-old Orazio Cuoco, a Venetian choir boy is further evidence of Oxford's sexual preferences. The film fails to mention, however, that Cuoco never claimed any sexual wrongdoing by the Earl and was not asked about it during an Italian inquisition.

It ignores the fact that Dr. Noemi Magri investigated the transcript of the Venetian choirboy's interrogation and concluded that young Orazio's stay with the Earl of Oxford in 1576-1577 did not involve any "sexual abuse" as is reported in Prof. Alan H. Nelson's Home Page. Instead, the concern over Orazio's being "perverted" (the transcript's language) has to do with the possibility of his being "converted" to Queen Elizabeth's faith by "reading prohibited books" or being taught the "doctrine of heretics." Nothing is stated in the film about these conclusions or any other interpretation of events.

Also not mentioned is that the 1580-81 charges of pederasty were brought against Oxford by his sworn enemies Henry Howard and Charles Arundel who also accused him of atheism, lying, heresy, disobedience to the crown, treason, murder for hire, habitual drunkenness, vowing to murder various courtiers, and declaring that Elizabeth had a bad singing voice. Needless to say, no evidence to support any of these charges was ever presented. In the Sonnets, Eagan-Donovan's conclusion that the relationship between de Vere and Southampton demonstrates Oxford's bisexuality fails to point out that there are many Oxfordians who believe that the nature of this relationship is one of father and son, not of lovers.

Nothing Truer Than Truth presents a strong case that de Vere's knowledge and experience gained from his travels to Europe is clearly reflected in the plays of Shakespeare. Unfortunately, with regard to Oxford's bisexuality, the film confuses speculation with fact, failing to suggest that there are different interpretations within the Oxfordian community on its relevance to the authorship question. While the director is certainly entitled to her opinions on the subject, what is overlooked is the fact that that the film represents Edward de Vere to the world and will be judged as being representative of what all Oxfordians believe. In that context, while the film aptly uses de Vere's phrase that "nothing is truer than truth," it ultimately fails to adhere to the spirit of those words.

Yearning (1964)
Reflects significant social change in Japan, 31 May 2015

Mikio Naruse's film Yearning reflects the significant social change occurring in Japan in 1964 when supermarkets began to offer cheaper prices in order to drive out the small shops which had dominated the market. This changing structure particularly affects Reiko (Hideko Takamine), a widow since the last war after only being married for six months. She has remained with her husband's family to run the family grocery store along with her mother-in-law Shizu (Aiko Mamasu) while brother-in-law Koji (Yûzô Kayama), and sister-in-laws Hisako (Mitsuko Kusabue) and Takako (Yumi Shirakawa) live their own private lives. Takamine's remarkable performance as the repressed widow conveys a longing for a freedom that has been elusive.

The film opens as a van parades the streets advertising the supermarket, driving past Reiko's store in the process. Shot in Naruse's quiet style, the film is a study in contrasts. Reiko is a woman with traditional values who has repressed her own desire for companionship to serve her husband's family, while Koji is a layabout who drinks and gambles and takes no responsibility for the family business. When a group of drunken businessman pressure bar girls to see how many eggs they can stuff into their mouths, Koji intervenes and starts a fight leaving Reiko to bail him out of jail. Koji and his sisters make plans to build their own supermarket, but conspicuously leave Reiko out of their plans, urging her to remarry.

Reiko is hurt by the family's seeming lack of appreciation for her service. She is accepting of her role, but emotionally unprepared when Koji surprisingly confesses to her that he loves her. Though Reiko initially rejects his advances, she tells him later: "when you said you loved me, I felt glad," and "I've been a different woman since that day." She is unable, however, to accept Koji's telling her that she has wasted her life for his family. Though she hears the words, she is too bound to the past to be able to acknowledge their truth. She tells Koji, "I didn't waste my life. I lived it," but she is not convincing. The entire mood of the film changes with Koji's declaration and the way their relationship unfolds constitutes the emotional core of the film and provides its most dramatic moments and its shattering conclusion.

Timbuktu (2014)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A heartfelt plea for the world to return to sanity, 31 May 2015

In the city of Timbuktu, the fundamentalist Islamist group Ansar Dine ("defenders of the faith"), wearing black flags to cover their faces, decimated shrines, Dogon wood sculptures, and World Heritage sites, considering them to be examples of idolatry, a sin in Islam. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Abderrahmane Sissako's ("Bamako") Timbuktu is a series of vignettes depicting the reactions of the people to the harsh laws of the Islamists seeking to impose Sharia law across Mali. Written by Sissako and Malian co-writer Kessen Tall in her feature debut, the film is a lament for the legendary land in which the director lived as a child, and a heartfelt plea for the world to return to sanity.

Set in Mali in 2012, the film begins and ends with running. In the opening scene, pursued by men in a jeep who are determined to break its spirit, a graceful gazelle runs across a pristine desert. The men are doing "jihad," periodically shooting at the animal with assault weapons as one of the hunters explains the strategy: "Don't kill it, tire it," he says, "That is how we win." The film centers on Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a peaceful Tuareg herdsman who lives with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), their 13-year-old daughter, Toya (Layle Walet Mohamed), and adopted son, Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed) in a tent close to town which is now run by the Islamic police.

The family, like others, is forced to live under rules that prohibit smoking, video games, Malian and Western music, and football, though the Jihadists are hypocritical in flouting these same laws themselves. As Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri, "Juliette") and his partner Omar (Cheik A.G. Emakni) drive around the village intimidating people, Abdelkrim sneaks off to smoke cigarettes, unaware that Omar knows his secret. He also flirts with a married woman even though her husband is present, a violation of Sharia law. Though the laws apply to everyone, women are more often than men on the receiving end of the punishment. They must cover their head with veils and wear gloves whether or not it makes sense for them in their profession, and stoning and lashing are ordered for adultery and other crimes.

Based on an actual incident, a couple, found guilty of adultery, are buried in sand up to their necks, and then stoned to death. Not everyone supports the fundamentalist's rule, however. When the militants seek to enter the temple with their weapons, the imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) tells them: "Stop this. You cause harm to Islam and the Muslims, you put children in danger in front of their poor mother, you even hit the mother of two children without any good reason." He asks, "Where's leniency? Where's forgiveness, where's piety, where's exchange? Where's God in all this?" Abdelkrim has no answer but stares silently at the ground.

The central confrontation is between Kidane and a local fisherman (Amadou Haidara who kills Kidane's prize cow "GPS," when he became tangled in his fishing nets. Kidane, seeking revenge for the loss of his cow, wrestles him to the ground but his gun goes off and Amadou is killed, a crime for which. Kidane is arrested and sentenced to death. While the film does not poeticizing injustice, many visual moments are nonetheless works of art: Kidane walking across the water like a Christ figure after killing Amadou and Jihadists shooting into a bush that resembles a female organ.

Despite their slogans and bravura, however, Sissako depicts the terrorists as insecure in their beliefs. A young man, presumably a former rapper, talks to a video camera, attempting to describe his conversion to the militant form of Islam that the Jihadists represent. Even with prompting, the boy is unable to articulate his feelings and simply lowers his head, unable to verbalize the dogma. In a memorable scene, boys play a soccer game without a ball, running up and down the field kicking dirt as if to defy the authorities. Though Sissako does not raise any false hopes about the future, it should be noted that the Jihadists were driven out by French forces after one year in power, and, if the film is correct, much of their success may have been due to the resilience and inner strength of the women of the village who never tired and refused to run.

7 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Good people trying to make the best of a bad situation, 24 May 2015

According to a 2013 census, 20.7% of Israel's population are Israeli Arabs, citizens of Israel who consider themselves Palestinian by nationality. The problems that arise from these conflicting allegiances are dramatized in Avram Riklis'("Zaytoun") film Dancing Arabs, a title that denotes those who have to straddle two cultures and "dance at two weddings." Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Sayed Kashua (who also wrote the script), Dancing Arabs, known also as "A Borrowed Identity," was the opening film of the Jerusalem Film Festival in July 2014 and was scheduled to be released immediately, but was held back until now because of the war in Gaza.

The film, however, is not designed to stir up ethnic animosity but is rather a heartfelt coming-of-age story that transcends cultural barriers. Set in Tira, a predominantly Arab city in the Southern Triangle near the West Bank, the film begins in the 1980s. Eyad (Razi Gabareen), a brilliant young boy is praised by his father Salah (Ali Suliman, "Flying Home") who recognizes his potential to achieve more than he did in his life. Salah himself attended university in Jerusalem but, after serving jail time because of political activity supporting the Arab cause, now works as a fruit picker.

When the class is asked in school what their fathers do for a living, Eyad says repeatedly that his father is a terrorist and refuses to change his mind even when he is hit repeatedly on the hands by the teacher, demanding he say that he is a fruit picker. When Eyad (now played by Tawfeek Barhom, "Farewell Bagdhad") is of age he is sent to a Jerusalem boarding school where his experience of trying to fit in becomes the centerpiece of the film. As the only Arab among Jews, he is an outsider who must learn to speak a new language, study a curriculum weighted against the Arab point of view, and put up with teasing by bullies.

His difficulty with language is suggested by a scene in which Eyad pronounces the name of a rock band "Deeb Burble," because, unlike in Hebrew, there's no "p" in Arabic. As time passes, things begin to improve. One of the best scenes in the film is Eyad's eloquence in a literature class, angrily pointing out Israeli literature's inherent bias toward Arab characters, a courageous statement that even wins the plaudits of some Jewish classmates. Further, when an attractive, free-spirited classmate, Naomi (Daniel Kitsis, "S#x Acts"), takes an interest in him, they begin a relationship that grows deeper in spite of its being frowned on by society and both sets of parents.

As part of Eyad's community service requirement, he works with Yonatan (Michael Moshonov, "Policeman") a wheel-chair bound victim of Muscular Dystrophy who loves alternative rock and has a wicked sense of humor. Yonatan's mother Edna (Yael Abecassis, "That Lovely Girl") welcomes Eyad into her home not only for her Yonatan's benefit but because she genuinely likes him. Yonatan can relate to Eyad's feeling of being separate and apart from others, though the reason is very different. "Sometimes I forget you're an Arab," Yonatan says. "Me too," replies Eyad. "Don't worry," his friend responds. "Someone will always remind you."

Dancing Arabs is not a political film and the Arab-Israeli conflict remains marginal, only occasionally referred to when Eyad's family, mother (Laetitia Eido, "Article 23") and grandmother's (Marlene Bajali, "The Syrian Bride") instinctively pull for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War until they realize what he is up against. The film is basically about good people trying to make the most of a bad situation and the fact that they are so alienated from each other because of cultural and ethnic differences is a sad commentary on the lack of political will on both sides.

While people may expect violence in a film that deals with ethnic conflict, here there are no grand dramatic gestures that turn children into martyrs, only constant reminders of everyday barriers to a sense of belonging. Even when Eyad learns the language, repeats the Jewish version of history in school, and strives to become a model Arab Israeli citizen, he is reminded every day at checkpoints and roadblocks of his being different. The political situation in Israel has deep-seated roots and we know not to expect the issues raised in the film to easily resolve themselves, yet Riklis leaves several threads hanging and insists on a forced resolution that does not ring true. While this is a regrettable choice, it does not detract from a truly fine effort.

Boys will be boys, 17 May 2015

In Takeshi Kitano's 1996 semi-autobiographical film Kids Return, his first since a motorcycle accident (suicide attempt) in 1995 left him close to death, the Japanese education system comes in for a thrashing. Masaru (Kenichi Kaneko) and his buddy, Shinji (Masanobu Ando) know how to have a good time. Not to be bothered with such fruitless endeavors like going to school and learning something useful, they would rather clown around, harass teachers, bully younger students and shake them down for money, sneak into porn theatres, perform stand-up comedy (manzai) routines, or set fire to a teacher's brand new car - just good, clean fun.

As they say in the vernacular "what goes around comes around" and the coming around this time is in the form of a friend of one of the bullied students who unfortunately for the boys is a skilled street fighter. Their encounter turns their attention to a boxing gym where they give up on school and train for revenge against the oppressor. Unfortunately, Shinji is the only one who shows any talent for boxing and he begins to climb in the estimation of "The President." Masura, on the other hand, gives up and joins a menacing yazuka gang. Shinji passively follows an older, cynical boxer who teaches him some illegal tricks to succeed in the ring as well as some strange ways to lose weight.

Things work well for a time until both of the lads crash and burn and realize how much better it is just to hang out and be happy than actually do something constructive. Meanwhile, a gentle boy named Reiko (Atsuki Ueda), marries his perennial sweetheart Sachiko (Yuko Daike) but decides to pass on college. He gets a job in a corporation which doesn't work out and he is soon eking out a living as a taxi driver, a depressing sequence which seems to be in the film for no reason other than to show us how the education system failed again.

Kids Return is a very well done film with some excellent boxing scenes and a few good laughs, but there does not seem to be any lessons learned here. While we have to cut Shinji and Masura some slack because, after all, they are just kids and they may be a tongue-in-cheek stand-in for Kitano's own adolescence, what Kids Return is trying to say with all of this is a head-scratcher – maybe it's just that boys will be boys.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
One of the most enchanting films of the year, 17 May 2015

Set in fictional Wessex County in south-west England in the 1870s, Thomas Vinterberg's ("The Hunt") adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel Far from the Madding Crowd chronicles the ups and downs of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, "Inside Llewyn Davis"), a smart, headstrong woman who is fiercely proud of her independence when it comes to choosing suitors. Far from being a stodgy period piece, this fourth film adaptation of the Hardy classic is one of the most enchanting films of the year, alive with the spirit of a woman of uncommon strength and the beauty of the English countryside captured by the stunning cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen ("The Hunt"). Though marred by an often overly-insistent musical score, it is well-balanced by some authentic English folk songs and dances.

The film, which could have been called "The Story of Three Loves," works as well as it does because of the very real chemistry that exists between Bathsheba and her suitors. They are Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, "Rust and Bone") a sheep farmer, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a prosperous middle-aged landowner, and Francis Troy (Peter Sturridge, "Effie Gray"), a handsome swashbuckling Sergeant. While staying with her aunt, the beautiful Bathsheba first meets Gabriel, the owner of a nearby sheep farm, and she has him at hello. As performed by Schoenaerts, Gabriel is soft-spoken and unassuming but a man of quiet strength and dignity. Without any game-playing or what might be the nineteenth century equivalent of a dinner date, he wastes no time in asking her to marry him.

Bathsheba tells Farmer Oak, however, that she has no interest in being someone's wife, saying "I don't want a husband. I'd hate to be somebody's property." As so often happens in life and at the movies, however, the unexpected occurs and their fortunes are suddenly reversed. Gabriel loses his farm when his sheep are accidentally destroyed while Bathsheba, after receiving an inheritance from her uncle, becomes the mistress of the large Weatherbury farm at a comparably young age. Not cowed by the challenges, she tells her employees on payday, "I shall astonish you all." When Bathsheba learns about Gabriel's misfortune, she hires him as a simple shepherd and an unspoken bond between them begins to grow.

Her life starts to get more complicated, however, when she impulsively sends a Valentine's card to her neighbor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, "Kill the Messenger") as a prank. The prosperous but lonely bachelor misinterprets her card as meaning something more than intended. Boldwood, however, is emboldened enough to propose marriage. He may not be seeking romantic love as we envision it, however, but promises Bathsheba that he will protect and care for her the rest of her life, seeming to need in Carl Sandburg's poem, "a voice to speak to me in the day end, a hand to touch me in the dark room, breaking the long loneliness."

Saddened by Bathsheba's rejection, he is still determined to continue his pursuit and is content for now to wait in the wings. When Gabriel tells his boss what he thinks of her treatment of Boldwood, she immediately fires him, but swallows her pride and hires him back when her sheep become ill and she needs an expert to restore their health. Tired of her role at the farm, Bathsheba falls for the overtures of Frank Troy, a handsome young sergeant whose gallant nature and bright red uniform becomes part of the seduction process. Unfortunately, Sturridge's performance is not strong enough to allow us to easily buy into the idea that she could be swept off her feet that suddenly, given her recent history.

Unaware that her Troy is still in love with Fannie Robbin (Juno Temple, "Maleficent"), a young woman who stood him up at the altar on their wedding day, they are soon married and Bathsheba has to learn a very costly lesson about the limitations of outward appearances. While it is difficult it is to condense a long Victorian novel into a modern two-hour film with wide audience appeal, Vinterberg pulls it off brilliantly with the aid of a fine screenplay by David Nicholls ("Great Expectations") and a great performance by Carey Mulligan.

On the surface, Bathsheba is mercurial and vain but Mulligan captures a deeper emotional level of her personality that balances her vanity with a sweet innocence. "It is difficult", she says, "for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs." Perhaps Far from the Madding Crowd's greatest achievement is allowing us to see who Bathsheba is through her own eyes, not through those who define her.

Ex Machina (2015)
11 out of 25 people found the following review useful:
A riveting, intelligent, and thought-provoking film, 10 May 2015

Is consciousness simply a name we use to group together the brain's activities under a general and abstract heading, or is it something independent of its functionality?" Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick reflects the scientific consensus when he says that a "person's mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make up and influence them." Others question, however, whether the brain actually produces consciousness or simply reflects the source from which it springs. British director Alex Garland raises the issue of the nature of consciousness and whether or not it can be created artificially in the science-fiction thriller Ex Machina, his first feature film.

The title reflects the Latin phrase deus ex machina, which refers to the idea of man playing God (or perhaps just being himself). In the film, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of Blue Book, the world's largest search engine, has created an operational female robot known as Ava (Alicia Vikander). With a sleek, mechanical body fitted with transparent wires, Ava is possessed of an all too human face marked by a graceful beauty. When Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a highly intelligent Blue Book programmer ostensibly wins a lottery at his job, he is invited to spend a week at Nathan's isolated Alaskan research facility without a clear understanding of the purpose. When he arrives, he is met by a bearded, slightly sinister-looking man going through his workouts with a punching bag.

The facility is a complex maze of mirrors, doors that look like bank vaults, and the overall feel of a claustrophobic military compound which Nathan says contains "enough fiber optic cable to go to the moon and lasso it." After telling Caleb to consider him his friend not his boss and calling him "dude," Nathan tells him that he will be the first outside visitor that Ava has interacted with. His task will be to administer the "Turing Test" to Ava to determine whether or not she can think and feel with real emotions. Issues such as whether AIs can have an actual experience of awareness or just talk about it are not raised. Neither are the questions: If Ava passes the Turing Test, will she be aware that she has passed the test, and is self-awareness the same as answering questions intelligently? The conversations between human and machine are the defining moments of the film. As the interviews begin, Ava is in a glass-walled observation room that Nathan can witness via closed circuit cameras. One of the first things she says is, "You can see that I am a machine," something he did not need to be convinced of. As they proceed with the interviews, it becomes less and less certain as to who is the one being tested. As Ava appears to become more and more human with each session, Caleb is not immune to her charms, especially when Nathan tells him she is capable of having sex.

A shadow of mistrust falls between him and Nathan, however, when Caleb learns that he was preselected for the job instead of being chosen in a lottery and senses that his host may have a hidden agenda. This uneasiness is reinforced when he watches the intimidating Nathan abusing Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a servant whom Nathan has suggested is silent but who understands his commands. When there is a power outage and they believe that he can no longer overhear their conversations, Ava tells Caleb not to trust Nathan, that he is "not your friend," a piece of information that ups the tension and suggests Ava has fears for her survival, an all-too-human trait.

Superbly rendered by cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby, and supported by an unsettling score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, Ex Machina is a riveting, intelligent, and thought-provoking film that plays on both our hopes for the evolution of mankind and our deepest fears. Though Garland does not see the film as a cautionary tale, it does suggest that, regardless of our cutting-edge technology, if we are still bound by ego-driven patriarchal power games that lack a moral imperative, the achievement could be counter-productive. While the film rightly suggests that we can envision a future where intelligent machines with a capacity for reason can reshape the world as we know it, it may behoove us to first understand what consciousness really is before trying to induce it.

4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Strikes a universal chord, 3 May 2015

"Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes" - Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth

In 1915, Australian and New Zealand (Anzac) soldiers formed part of the expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey in order to open the Dardanelles to the allies with the ultimate objective of capturing Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany. It was a campaign in which over 50,000 allied troops were killed including 8,000 Australians. Directed by Russell Crowe from a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, The Water Diviner, an Australian-Turkish co-production, was released in conjunction with the 100-year anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli which is celebrated in Australia as an event of national pride even though it led to a military defeat.

The Water Diviner focuses on Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe, "Noah"), an Australian farmer who uses his skills as a dowser or water diviner to attempt to find his three sons who were reported killed at Gallipoli. Without any historical or background information to guide us, the film thrusts us directly in the battlefield where Turkish troops wait in the trenches, ready to advance to positions that have been abandoned by Anzac soldiers. It then shifts to a time before the war when Joshua, his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie, "Beneath Hill 60") and three sons, Art (Ryan Corr, "Wolf Creek 2"), Edward (James Fraser, "Sleeping Beauty"), and Henry (Ben O'Toole) are enjoying life at Connor's farm in Victoria. It is before the boys, encouraged by their father, leave to join the Australian army out of a sense of patriotic duty.

Fast forward four years to 1919 where we watch as Joshua successfully finds a water well on his arid land using his skill as a dowser, a centuries old practice that uses a divining rod or other device to point towards an area where there is water or other objects. It is a skill that requires psychic ability as well as a strong knowledge of topography. Sadly, we soon learn that Connor and his wife are mourning the loss of their three boys, missing and presumed dead in the war. In a poignant scene, Joshua, on his wife's urging, agrees to read the book Arabian Nights to the boys, but all we see is Joshua speaking to three empty beds.

After a further tragedy strikes the family, a heartbroken Connor leaves Australia for Turkey where he hopes to use his intuitive powers to locate his sons' bodies at Gallipoli and bring them home for a consecrated burial. When he arrives in Istanbul, he is met by a precocious ten-year-old boy, Orhan, wonderfully performed by young Melbourne actor, Dylan Georgiades. The boy dutifully steals his luggage and leads Joshua to a hotel where he is reluctantly given lodgings by Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko, "To the Wonder"), a widowed Turkish innkeeper who still views Australians as the enemy.

When Ayshe sees that her son relates to Joshua better than he does his overbearing uncle Omer (Steve Bastoni, "Drift"), she warms up to him and good chemistry begins to develop. Though told by the occupying British officers that he is not allowed to visit the battlefield, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia") and Sergeant Cemal (Cem Yilmaz, "Coming Soon"), leaders of the Turkish army helping the ANZAC "Grave Unit" find missing soldiers, military officers, smooth the way for Joshua to go to the restricted zone. It is there that he makes a surprising and life-changing discovery.

Bolstered by the vivid cinematography of Andrew Lesnie (Oscar winner for his work in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and a frequent collaborator with Peter Jackson), The Water Diviner is an honest and heartfelt effort that shows in human terms the futility of war and the devastating effects it has on families. It is marked by outstanding performances by Yilmaz Erdogan, Olga Kurylenko, and especially by Russell Crowe, who, in an understated way, carries the burden of every father who has lost children in war.

Though the film develops complex characters such as Major Hasan, it also contains some unfortunate stereotypes such as the Turks as noble and heroic, the British as pompous and arrogant, and the Greeks as merciless, marauding bandits. In spite of its tendency towards oversimplification, however, the heart of the film is the simple and personal story of a father's love for his sons. It is a story that is not afraid to show a connection between former enemies, a connection that strikes a universal chord in those who long for peace.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Fails to stir any deep emotions, 26 April 2015

During World War II, the Nazis plundered an estimated 750,000 artworks from European countries including priceless paintings by Van Gogh, Degas, Vermeer, and Michelangelo. Though many paintings and other significant cultural artifacts were recovered by the "Monuments Men," many were destroyed or auctioned off at extremely low prices. Today, there are well over 100,000 items that have not been returned to their rightful owners. In Woman in Gold, British director Simon Curtis ("My Week With Marilyn") explores the fate of one of the paintings, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, which was seized by the Nazis from its owner, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

The painting, an oil and gold on canvas, ended up in Vienna's Belvedere Palace and became a popular tourist attraction, referred to as Austria's "Mona Lisa." Sadly, its original title denoting its Jewish heritage was replaced with the generic "Woman in Gold." Based on a true story, the film depicts the seven-year legal fight of Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren, "Hitchcock"), a Jewish refugee and Los Angeles shop keeper, to reclaim her family's collection of Klimt paintings from the Austrian government. To assist her in her fight, Maria is helped by a friend's son, Randol Schoenberg (a bland and miscast Ryan Reynolds, "The Captive"), grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg has just started working for a big law firm and has no experience in the world of art collection, but Maria is confident in his ability to persuade the Austrian authorities to return the painting, whose worth was estimated at $135 million dollars. After overcoming her reluctance to return to the country in which her family perished, Maria and her young attorney (with apologizes to his pregnant wife, Pam (Katie Holmes, "The Giver"), travel to Vienna where flashbacks to Maria's life as a little girl (Tatiana Maslany, "The Vow") in a comfortable middle-class home provide a background for the painting's creation.

Distressing scenes of the Anschluss in Austria in 1938 are shown where Nazi soldiers are greeted by cheering crowds and Maria witnesses the humiliation of Jews forced to clean sidewalks and have their facial hair removed. In a tense sequence, Maria and her husband Fritz's (Max Irons, "The Host") narrowly escape pursuing German officers in their attempt to leave Austria and fly to Cologne, then to London. Back in present time, Maria and Randol are assisted by Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl, "A Most Wanted Man"), as they try to convince a newly formed committee on art reclamation that the stolen Klimt paintings are rightfully and legally hers.

In her will, Adele, who died at an early age, asked her husband to leave the paintings to the Austrian State Gallery upon her death, but whether or not this is legally binding is a key subject in the case. Eventually the case will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court in a rare instance of a U.S. citizen suing a foreign government. Woman in Gold tackles a great many weighty themes such as Austria's unwillingness to confront their World War II collaboration with the Nazis and the lurking rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, shown in a confrontation with a passerby who tells them that "Not everything is about the Holocaust." Unfortunately, however, the film takes on too much and lacks a clear focus. Characters are presented in broad strokes that fail to do justice to their humanity, depicting them more as symbols for a cause than as real human beings. Though Schoenberg discovers a connection with his grandfather, the famed twelve-tone composer that he never knew, the matter is barely touched on. Woman in Gold is to be commended for its attempt to increase awareness of a little known aspect of the Nazi atrocity, yet with its tepid direction and over reliance on sentimentality and clichés, it fails to truly stir any deep emotions.

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