AGEBOC ’15 May 29-31

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Four weeks in and we have had four different winners. Rob takes the honors this week but it’s still anyone’s game!

Predict the #1 film of the weekend.

The one who predicts closest to the total Friday to Sunday gross for the #1 film wins 4 points. Runner-up gains 2 points. Predicting within half a million earns 2 extra points.

Multi-part Bonus Question (half-point for each, total of 2 points possible):

1. One of this weekend’s big releases was the subject of the first Gone Elsewhere Exclusive (back in 2008) to get widespread coverage beyond our little enclave.

a. Which movie is it?

b. What was it known as previously?

c. Who scooped it for us? (either name, or both, is acceptable)

d. Who were the original two (rumored) leads?

Deadline is Thursday May 28th 11:59pm blog time

To find out the rules of the game, go to the main thread for AGEBOC 09.

Current Rankings:

Joe – 9.5
James – 8.5
Rob – 8
Marco – 7
Jackrabbit Slim – 7
Juan – 2

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

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I’ve often thought the formula for the success of the Mad Max films was combining the overwrought bravado of professional wrestling, car culture, and post-apocalyptic science fiction. I find it interesting that it’s been thirty years between films, but George Miller, who started it all, is back at the helm, and this Mad Max film, subtitled Fury Road, is the best of them all, and is surely one of the best action films of the year (take that, Avengers).

Most apocalypse films these days have to do with climate change, but we’re back in the Outback following a nuclear exchange (lots of signs of radiation sickness–the film is not for the squeamish). Max, now played by Tom Hardy, has himself a meal of a two-headed lizard (this gave me a giggle and reminded me of the three-eyed fish on The Simpsons) before he’s kidnapped and hauled off to The Citadel, a huge complex of caves that is run by an elaborately costumed dictator called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who is very sick, and propped up by armor and other affectations, which makes him a little like Darth Vader.

Max is used as a blood donor, since he’s universal, and hung in a cage. He’s strapped to a young warrior (Nicholas Hoult), who’s off chasing after Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, with shaved head and eyeblack on her forehead), who has betrayed the Citadel by hauling off Joe’s breeding wives. During the fight, which takes place in vehicles at high speeds, Max manages to free himself, and comes across what looks like a quintet of Victoria’s Secret models (indeed, some of the actresses are, another is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley) washing off, like a beer commercial’s idea of a male fantasy. I guess Joe has pretty much the same taste in women that is popular now.

Anyhoo, Max and Furiosa team up to go to the “Green Place,” which she remembers from childhood. But they’ve managed to tick off everyone in the process. Chasing the “war rig” she drives is not only Joe and his warriors, but a contingent from Gas Town (led by a man with an artificial nose and elephantiasis), the gang from Bullet Farm (with turbans made out of bandoleers), and they also cross some motorcycle riders who keep watch over a canyon.

As I recall with Beyond Thunderdome, which found Max saving a bunch of children, this time he’s saving, er, helping to save, women who are seen as nothing but objects. The script, like most good science fiction, touches on modern themes–The Citadel is a damn good example of the one percent, which doles out water a bit a time. Joe tells the squalid citizens below to be careful not to get addicted to water, a concept that would be funny if it weren’t so horrible. Furiosa does return to her home, but finds only a few women, suspicious of men, and of course they are nurturing but also bad-ass.

The action in this film is intense. There are only a few lulls between set pieces. Most are of the vehicle variety, and this film has more tricked-out modes of transportation than any gear-head could dream of. I especially liked the use of VW Beetle bodies to adorn trucks, and the fighters who balance on long, flexible poles to bend down and attack others. Of course, as with the other films, I am reminded, if gas is so precious, why do they drive around so much? There’s also a spectacularly done fistfight with three sides–Hardy, Theron, and Hoult.

The acting is fine. Hardy is solid and doesn’t say much. This role made Mel Gibson a star, maybe it will do the same for Hardy, who is known by cognoscenti by not so much by the general public. He does have to spend half the movie with an iron mask on his face, just like he did when he played Bane. Theron is also quite good, playing a well-rounded character, not just window dressing. Even the models are competent.

The film is also quite beautiful. The photography is by John Seale, and there are some luscious scenes during both the heat of mid-day and at night. The FX team I would imagine is responsible for a huge dust storm that the drivers head into.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a rarity: an intelligent action film, with good performances and spectacular stunts. You will find it hard to catch your breath. Oh, and lest I forget, I loved the bad-guy car that has a guy playing a flame-throwing electric guitar on the front. For the guy who has everything.

My grade for Mad Max: Fury Road: A-.

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of May 22nd, 2015

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Tomorrowland: George Clooney stars in this big-budget Disney epic which sounds like a rare misfire from director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol).  Reviewed by our own Joe Webb here.

Thanks to iffy critical response and a lackluster marketing campaign (based on the trailer: I couldn’t tell you what this is about beyond magic rings and flying bathtubs) I’d expect this to be a semi-disaster domestically for the studio.

Rotten Tomatoes: 49%, Metacritic: 60%

Personal interest factor: 3

Poltergeist: Remake of the 1982 horror classic from producer Sam Raimi and director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember).  Reviews are somewhat kinder than expected, sounds like a decent time waster if you were to stumble upon it on cable in a year.

Rotten Tomatoes: 36%, Metacritic: 46%

Personal interest factor: 2

AGEBOC ’15 May 22-24

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James fired up the box office CARNIVORE machine early and vaulted into 2nd place!

Predict the #1 film of the weekend.

The one who predicts closest to the total Friday to Sunday gross for the #1 film wins 4 points. Runner-up gains 2 points. Predicting within half a million earns 2 extra points.

Bonus Questions:

1. Which movie will have above a 50% drop in its 2nd weekend – Pitch Perfect 2 (PP2), Mad Max: Fury Road (MM:FR), or BOTH?

2. Share your first (or a memorable, or somehow related) Poltergeist-viewing story for a half point.

Deadline is Thursday May 21st 11:59pm blog time

To find out the rules of the game, go to the main thread for AGEBOC 09.

Current Rankings:

Joe – 8.5
James – 8
Marco – 6
Jackrabbit Slim – 4.5
Rob – 3.5
Juan – 1.5

Review: Far From the Madding Crowd

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Kudos to director Thomas Vinterberg, screenwriter David Nicholls and star Carey Mulligan for an absolutely smashing adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd. It’s kind of under the radar, and probably will be long forgotten at awards season, but it shouldn’t be.

I read the book last year, and the film, while making necessary cuts, is almost entirely faithful, so I won’t go over the plot in detail. Suffice it to say that the first time we see Batsheba Everdene (Mulligan) she is wearing pants, a pretty bold thing to do in 1870, even is she is riding a horse. She is espied by neighboring farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who almost immediately proposes marriage. She declines, but after he loses his sheep in a freak accident, she takes him on as a shepherd after she inherits her uncle’s farm. Because they have changed places in station, it is unthinkable that they can marry.

She is then pursued by another rich neighbor, Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who is both overly romantic and just a bit creepy. He promises her he will always protect her, a statement that will lead to tragedy.

Mulligan ends up marrying for passion, a callow soldier, Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge). Everyone, including the audience, can see this a bad idea, especially since we know he meant to marry Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), who used to work on Mulligan’s farm. Immediately after marrying Mulligan, he starts throwing his weight around and gambling away her money, which is especially hard to watch considering she is an immensely competent farmer.

So we have a love quadrangle here–with Oak, Boldwood, and Troy as the men in Mulligan’s life. I find it interesting that Hardy, as does the film, makes passion an evil. Oak and Boldwood both love her, but with Boldwood especially there is no desire. He tells her that he doesn’t mind. His love for her is so complete and so unyielding that one can understand why she would shy away.

The film, like the book, is also funny, especially in the early going. Mulligan’s performance is so damn good that she can make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. She has a way of sneaking quick smiles, such as when Boldwood, in one of his proposals, promises her a piano. She can’t but smile. He says, “Do I amuse you?” and in a sense he does, because when Oak proposed he also promised her a piano. But she assures him no, “I already have a piano.”

Bathsheba Everdene was one of the first feminist heroes, a woman who truly does not need a husband and says so on many occasions. The film, while not a manifesto, does show that even strong-willed independent women make mistakes in love. But the happy ending, which for Hardy was a rarity, gave me a nice golden glow as I walked out of the theater. As the feminist saying used to, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” but every once in a while a fish might like to ride a bicycle.

In addition to Mulligan, Schoennaerts and Sheen are very good. Schoennaerts we can expect big things of. As Troy, Sturridge is quite the melodramatic villain, but his dewy eyes are quite effective in scenes in which he both professes his love for Mulligan and his disdain. There’s a scene in a chapel that is heart-wrenching, when he tells her what he really thinks of her.

This is sure to be one of my favorite films of the year.

My grade for Far From the Madding Crowd: A.

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of May 15th, 2015

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Only two major releases this weekend, both of which are sequels to films I haven’t seen.

Pitch Perfect 2:  I’m totally out of touch on this one.  I remember the original being some sort of phenomenon and judging from the box office (low 60’s for the weekend) the heat hasn’t died down one bit.  Is it a Glee type thing?  An all-out musical?  I don’t know and you really shouldn’t be listening to anything I have to say (which is nothing) about this.  A third film should be a lock, obviously.  Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson star.

Rotten Tomatoes: 68%
Metacritic: 66%

Personal interest factor: _______?

Mad Max: Fury Road: Despite being a child of the 80’s, I’ve never actually watched a Mad Max film from beginning to end. The post-apocalyptic vehicular mayhem should have appealed to me, but I think it was the Australian-ness of it all that turned me off.  It wasn’t until Crocodile Dundee hit several years after Beyond Thunderdome that I began to understand (and later embrace) their alien culture.

The making of this film seems just as interesting as the finished product to me (production started way back in 2011, there were multiple delays, reshoots, the budget just exploding and the two leads allegedly despised each other) but the reviews are absolutely ecstatic and it seems like a safe bet for pretty much anyone.  Go see it.

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

Metacritic: 89%

Personal interest factor: 10

TOMORROWLAND review! Gone Elsewhere Exclusive!

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Tomorrowland_poster“Whatever you think this movie is about, you’re wrong.” So began Brad Bird’s introduction to his latest film Tomorrowland. He immediately clarified by saying that it’s more accurate to declare that you’re only partially right. Mr. Bird has been adamant on social media and in interviews about not wanting to ‘spoil’ too much and requesting that the public to exercise self-control in trailer-watching & analyzation. In that vein I will announce that mild spoilers are included but you won’t find much detail that affects the story.

I had the privilege of attending a special screening of the film at a fundraiser for the Walt Disney Family Museum held at the ILM/Lucasfilm theater in the Presidio. Bird was there and had a great deal to say about the legacy and influence of Walt Disney on the film but also on his idea of the future in general. Disney and his companies, partnerships & employees developed many technologies that are old news to us but were really quite revolutionary. His original ideas for EPCOT inspired what Tomorrowland in the movie is designed to be.

Bird believes that we as a society have become disenchanted with the idea of the future (every YA novel must be set in a dystopia) whereas not that long ago the future was full of endless possibilities, solutions, peace & harmony. This is stated quite obviously in the “second” opening of the film where teenager Casey Newton (played endearingly by 25-year-old Britt Robertson) is frustrated with the fact that everyone is describing the plight of the world but no one wants to fix it. Her father works for NASA, and she thinks of him as a genius, but his position is set to end when the site that he is working at is scheduled to be torn down. Casey tries to find a way to sabotage the equipment meant for dismantling and this is why we find her at the police station with the Tomorrowland pin as seen in the teaser-trailer and those that followed. That pin leads her from Florida to Houston to New York (& beyond) to find the man who knows what it all means.

I earlier said “second” opening of the film because the first is told by Frank Walker (George Clooney) about what happened to him at the 1964 World’s Fair (again a huge Disney connection). A young John Francis Walker (played with equal amounts determination and wonder by Thomas Robinson) has invented something that he believes could inspire people, but it doesn’t quite work. It does, however, catch the attention of a young girl, Athena (a very impressive Raffey Cassidy who I can’t talk more about without fear of spoiling too much), and she invites him to be a part of something much larger than even the World’s Fair: Tomorrowland. The relationship between Frank & Athena is shown only for a few minutes in the opening and later in some flashback snippets, but I wish we could have seen more of that development. You later find out that their interactions are pretty much the emotional undercurrent of the film and I kind of felt shortchanged by what we weren’t shown.

One of the main complaints I had about Lost was that it featured excellent build-up with very little or wholly unsatisfying payoff. And so it is with Tomorrowland, so I believe co-writer Damon Lindelof brought that feeling over to the big screen. The first hour-plus moves briskly in a race to find out what is going on. We are moored to Casey and find out the surprises just as she does. There is much more going on that we just assume will be explained later, but much of that explanation never comes. When the “villain” (Governor Nix) shows up in the last-third it kind of seems like he was forced to be there because someone said they needed a villain. When this villain explains his evil plot in a monologue I couldn’t help but think back to The Incredibles where Bird, through various characters, made fun of such things, but he uses it here to an almost boredom-inducing length.

The resolution to the “problem” doesn’t feel like enough and the ending montage is far too on-the-nose to be effective. There is an environmentalist undercurrent (maybe overcurrent…the real John Francis was a ‘planetwalker’ after all) that is obvious as well. While much of the buildup never quite paid off, many of the references were too transparent to remain fresh. Scientists/engineers named Newton, a person concerned about the destruction of the earth named after a person concerned about the destruction of the earth, a young girl full of wisdom, courage & inspiration named after the goddess of…well, you see where I’m going. At the end of it all I felt that there was so much potential, a great ‘muchness’ welling up inside of the film, that they ended up focusing on the wrong thing and wrapped it up with the standard ‘large thing falls on villain and everyone is saved’ kind of thing.

Hopefully, though, it will inspire the youth to dream and really solve problems. I don’t feel that I’m too old and have given up on the future but Tomorrowland feels like a missed opportunity. The cast was wonderful (with the unfortunate exception of Hugh Laurie who was saddled with frowny dialogue and unclear motivations) and I was pleasantly surprised by Raffey Cassidy’s Athena who was wisely kept out of most of the trailers. There is a wonderful scene with Keegan-Michael Key & Kathryn Hahn as sci-fi collectible shop owners that is equal parts hilarious and terrifying. Sci-fi, comic & movie geeks & nerds will have a field day looking at everything contained in the store. Key gets one of the best entrances I’ve seen in a few years.

But I’d really love to see a movie about young Frank & Athena that follows them for 20 years.

My Grade: B (an A+ for the promise & a C- for that promise unrequited)

Tomorrowland opens in theaters nationwide on May 22nd.

Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

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I haven’t liked all of Oliver Assayas’ films, but I grant they are always interesting. Cloud of Sils Maria, his latest, is a fascinating if flawed study that has parallel stories of two women in both real-life and in art. It also has an unsolved mystery.

The focus is on Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a famous actress who was made famous by a play called Maloja Snake when she was eighteen. She is on her way to Zurich to accept a prize by the reclusive playwright who made her famous. But on the way, she finds out he died.

She is accompanied, it seems at almost all times, by her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) who is both factotum and sounding board for everything Binoche is saying or thinking. The ceremony goes on as planned, but is now a wake of sorts.

The crux of the film is when a young director wants to revive Maloja Snake, which is the story of a young woman seducing an older woman and then abandoning her, but with Binoche as the older woman, not the younger women, whom she originated. Binoche is reluctant to do this–it’s sort of like a one-time Juliet now being offered the part of Lady Capulet–especially when her co-star would be a young train wreck of a movie star, Chloe Grace Moretz.

Binoche ultimately accepts and she and Stewart hole up in the deceased playwright’s home in Sils Maria, a Swiss village. We learn that “Maloja Snake” refers to a weather phenomenon, in which clouds slither through the mountains like a white, puffy snake. Binoche and Stewart read the lines from the play together, and we wonder how much the fictional relationship is like their own. It’s not spoon-fed to us–there is no evidence of a love affair between the two–but there is something uneven in the relationship. In addition to being her employer, Binoche demands a lot from Stewart. She’s certainly kind to her, but Stewart doesn’t have much of a life of her own.

I’m kind of fascinated by who would choose to be a personal assistant, on call to another human being 24/7. Binoche and Stewart are moret than just boss and employee. It seems that Binoche goes no where without her, and talks to her more than an agent or manager. Stewart, deglamming herself with owlish glasses, gives an intriguing peformance. We know almost nothing about her; her background is a complete blank, but she represents the youthful target of movie marketing. When the pair go to see Moretz’s latest film, a superhero blockbuster, Binoche laughs openly as Stewart says it has real meaning, which makes Stewart mad.

The film is very talky–it’s about theater people, after all–but most of it is compelling. Moretz makes a fine Lindsay Lohan stand-in, and the two leads are excellent. But some of the writing is clunky. At one point the playwright’s widow takes Binoche to the spot where the playwright was found dead, a meadow overlooking the valley. This is where the “snake” comes through, and the widow explains it. This is very bad exposition, because surely Binoche would have known this, having been in the play twenty years earlier. Can you imagine starring in a play and not knowing what the title signified?

As for the mystery, I won’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say it is very reminiscent of L’Avventura, and makes one re-think the entire film. I had to go back and wonder whether one particular character was a figment of another’s imagination. You will have your own ideas.

My grade for Clouds of Sils Maria: B+.

AGEBOC ’15 May 15-17

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Joe snags the first 7-pointer of the season, vaults into first place and declares the game officially over! We will now start version 2 of this game in which Joe holds first place in perpetuity. Or not

Predict the #1 film of the weekend.

The one who predicts closest to the total Friday to Sunday gross for the #1 film wins 4 points. Runner-up gains 2 points. Predicting within half a million earns 2 extra points.

Bonus Questions:

1. Which movie will be #2?

2. Will Mad Max: Fury Road earn more or less in its opening weekend than the last movie – Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – earned in its entire run ($36,230,219)?

Deadline is Thursday May 14th 11:59pm blog time

To find out the rules of the game, go to the main thread for AGEBOC 09.

Current Rankings:

Joe – 7.5
Marco – 5.5
Rob – 3
James – 3
Jackrabbit Slim – 1.5
Juan – 1

Opening in Las Vegas, May 8, 2015

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After last week’s big opening for The Avengers, things look to calm down this week as there is no must-see film.

Likely the highest-grossing new film will be Hot Pursuit (30), yet another in the genre of female buddy movies. This time it’s Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, as a policewoman and the wife of a drug kingpin. Witherspoon is a producer, and after doing such honors for more thoughtful films such as Gone Girl and Wild, she’s taken one step back with this apparently humorless comedy. A. O. Scott: “While a movie that fails to catch fire is disappointing, there is something even more dispiriting about a movie that doesn’t even bother to try, that tosses its stars a soggy book of matches and expects them to generate a spark.”

Kristen Wiig, who as a comedy star of television, could have gone the route of making routine films like Hot Pursuit, has admirably sought to make more interesting films. Her latest is Welcome to Me (67), a film about an emotionally disturbed woman who wins the lottery and finances her own talk show. Mike D’Angelo: “The bold, arresting movie doesn’t really work, but is nonetheless almost impossible to stop watching.”

The D Train (55) stars Jack Black as a guy organizing his high school reunion. He’s off to Hollywood to try to get his class’ most famous member, an actor, to come. The trailer suggests there’s some sort of homosexual angle to it, but maybe I’m reading into something into it that’s not there. If so, it seems a strange twist to a movie nowadays. Rene Rodriguez: “The clownish humor is imbued with a great, genuine pain. Unfortunately, the twist proves too much for the filmmakers to handle. The second half of The D Train collapses into a series of plot curlicues and narrative dead-ends. The picture loses its nerve and opts for a pat, wan resolution.”

Also this week, Noble (63), a biopic about Irish activist Christine Noble, who helped needy Vietnamese children.

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Avengers: The Age of Ultron continues the amazing roll of the Marvel Universe films, which have made more money than I can count. This one is written and directed by Joss Whedon, and it’s an agreeable comic book film, if not the best of the series, and far below the original Avengers in quality.

It does have the advantage of not having to be any kind of origin film. The Avengers have their own building, in the East 40s in New York if I’m a judge of New York iconography (presumably any questions about where they got the money can be answered: Tony Stark). The six members: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are getting along just fine, although Stark, Iron Man’s alter-ego, is still worried about all those aliens that Loki let onto Earth in the last movie. He wants to end the need for superheros by creating an artificial intelligence that will stand guard over such things.

But, as we learn in all A.I. films, right up to and including the recent Ex Machina, this never goes well. Stark has created Ultron (voiced with creepy glee by James Spader), but he interprets his mission: “Peace in our time” as getting rid of not only The Avengers but all humanity. He does have a point–no humans, no war. Everybody gets mad at Stark for playing God. By the way, hadn’t Tony Stark ever heard of Neville Chamberlain?

So Ultron wreaks havoc, eventually lifting an Eastern European city into the sky, but before that the Avengers and their ancillary members circle the globe trying to stop him, with big set pieces at the appropriate intervals. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but I couldn’t help thinking I’ve seen it all before.

Into the mix are thrown two new characters: Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who were married in Godzilla) are twins with strange powers–he can run really fast (he’s the Marvel version of The Flash) and she can fuck with your head and has telekinesis. In the comics, they are called Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, also those names aren’t used here. In the Marvel books, they are the children of Magneto, and are mutants, and in fact Quicksilver was seen in the last X-Men film, so for comic book geeks this is all blasphemy (and Hawkeye is a dissolute bachelor, not a family man). But I digress.

As the action continues, we get a few subplots, such as Johansson and Ruffalo forming a relationship (she’s the only one that seem to get him to go from Hulk to human) and there’s a lot of talk about magic stones that can destroy the universe (which will probably tie in to the crossover with Guardians of the Galaxy). But there just isn’t a spark that the first one had. It’s a film that exists only to make money, and that seems to be all that anyone in it is interested doing.

What will stick with me about this film is Spader’s great dialogue and delivery, and the creation of the Vision, played by Paul Bettany, who will also be around for the next film. In the comics, he and Scarlet Witch had a thing going, but in the movies it’s all topsy-turvy.

My grade for Avengers: The Age of Ultron: B.

AGEBOC ’15 May 8-10

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Marco comes from down under to move up top in Week 1!

Predict the #1 film of the weekend.

The one who predicts closest to the total Friday to Sunday gross for the #1 film wins 4 points. Runner-up gains 2 points. Predicting within half a million earns 2 extra points.

Bonus Questions:

1. Will Avengers: Age of Ultron drop more or less than 56% this weekend compared to last?

2. Will Hot Pursuit earn more or less this weekend than Tammy did in its opening weekend ($21,577,049)?

Deadline is Thursday May 7th 11:59pm blog time

To find out the rules of the game, go to the main thread for AGEBOC 09.

Current Rankings:

Marco – 5
Rob – 2.5
Jackrabbit Slim – 0.5
Joe – 0.5
James – 0

Opening in Las Vegas, May 1, 2015

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It’s all about Avengers: Age of Ultron (66) this week, as the tentpole season starts. I saw it today and a review will be forthcoming. As these things go, it’s okay, but not nearly as good as the first one. Estimates are at 187 million, a significant drop from the first one as well, but I don’t think anyone will go hungry. A. A. Dowd: “There’s so much ground to cover here—so many introductions to make, so much story to churn through, so many gargantuan set pieces to mount—that the movie never really finds room to breathe.”

Counterprogramming for those who don’t like comic book movies is Clouds of Sils Maria (79), which is getting high marks, especially for Kristen Stewart, who seems determined to put Twilight in her past. Mick LaSalle: “It’s not a combination most of us would’ve thought of, but Stewart and Binoche bring out the best in each other.”

Review: Ex Machina

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I read an interview with Alex Garland, writer and director of Ex Machina, who said that when he started on the project, there hadn’t been any movies about artificial intelligence since Steve Spielberg’s A.I. Then, as his movie was being made, a rush of them surfaced: Chappie, Big Hero Six, Her, Transcendence, and Automata. Some of these are about how robots are our friends, but most, as they have since the notion was invented with books like I, Robot, have been a fear of A.I. It all goes back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein–don’t play God, or it will bite you in the ass.

That’s the kind of movie Ex Machina is, but it isn’t clear from the beginning. A young coder (Domnhall Gleeson) is plucked from his job at a large Internet search company and whisked to the deep woods, where the owner of the company (Oscar Isaac), a peculiar genius who likes vodka, Jackson Pollock, and working out with a punching bag, awaits him. Gleeson has won a lottery to spend a week with the great man, but not just to pal around and shoot pool. Isaac wants Gleeson to test his latest robot with the Turing test.

The Turing test is when a person determines whether he is speaking with another person or artificial intelligence. If he can’t tell the difference, then the test is passed. So he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with a pretty face but visible circuitry. This confused me–usually when one hears of the Turing test it’s through anonymous electronic messages. It’s not much of a test when the tester can clearly see the subject is made of wires.

Anyway, Gleeson gains a crush on Vikander, and I won’t spill any more. There’s an “ah-hah” moment that anyone with half a brain will see coming, but as for the very end, it surprised me and was immensely satisfying. I was pretty much absorbed through the whole thing. Most of the movie is only the three characters, and there’s lots of power plays going on.

This is pretty heady stuff, and requires some thoughtful attention, which I appreciated. It’s the kind of movie you can argue with your friends for hours about. The motives of the characters, including Ava, are intriguing and can’t easily be discerned.

The acting is all first-rate, though Vikander, by definition, has to be pretty one-note, but she is while also showing shades of intelligence. Gleeson has to play a guy who is increasingly depicted as a sad sack, and his shoulders seem to slump as the film goes on. It’s Isaac, though, who steals the show. I have no idea what Sergei Brin or his ilk do in their spare time, but I can easily imagine it’s like what Isaac is up to, where electronic wizardry surrounds him. He’s a guy who you can never quite trust, and is too smart for his own good. It’s hard to believe this is the same actor who was in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year. He’s the real deal.

My grade for Ex Machina: A-.