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xmachina.jpgYes, but who—or what—is the deus in this taut probe of artificial intelligence?

Directed by sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina slowly turns some of the major questions of futuristic metaphysics (e.g. Philip K. Dick) around in its spare, elegiac hour and 45 minutes. With complete precision the film moves like a beautiful Swiss watch, involving only a few moving parts. It is impossible to stop watching.

Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a young programmer selected by billionaire über scientist (read Victor Frankenstein) Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to take part in a variation on the Türing test (is an artificial creation capable of exhibiting seamless consciousness). Helicoptered to Nathan’s remote compound (you can feel Mary Shelley haunting the wild and rocky periphery) Caleb meets both the creator, and his creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) a disturbingly perceptive composite of beauty and circuitry. Caleb has seven days in which to decide whether Ava is the real deal. Is she capable of self-awareness, emotion, humor, and deception? Without revealing crucial plot details, the short answer is hell yes! What happens, however, as we gradually gain increasing knowledge that things are not what they seem (more…)

monalisa.jpgOnce upon a time people went out to galleries, museums, private homes, and lots of other places, to enjoy seeing artwork.

Today people go out to rented spaces, retail shops, and studios to support artists.

In other words, people go out and congregate in places filled with all of their friends to support the work of another one of their friends. The results can be scorchingly bad. Privately, people will admit that they’re weary of having to support the arts, weary of traipsing through one more opening of work that would embarrass a beginning student. Everybody knows it’s become an obligation, rather than a pleasure. These sorts of vanity fairs fail to surprise, delight, or provoke controversy.  They’re designed to bolster egos and provide soothing reassurance.
The word “support” makes this party-like activity seem like a good thing, like helping a disabled person cross the street. Or throwing a Tupperware party.  But supporting such vanity activities actually neutralizes genuine art-making, and levels the hard work, brilliance, and inspiration of real artists.

Art in the era of digital reproduction has been reduced to so much hobbyism, therapy, narcissism, and social activist reassurance. Instagram, ergo sum.

At these politically-correct gatherings—people come in, and go out very very quickly (more…)

sk.jpgWe’ve been the best of friends, we’ve been the worst of enemies. We’ve been intimate and we’ve been indifferent. But Stephen Kessler and I have known each other for 35 years and except for the few decades when we didn’t speak, we’ve managed to maintain a robust respect for each other’s shared defiance in the face of mediocrity.

Stephen Kessler has written with a fierce intelligence pretty much every single day of his life. From those early alternative riffs called “Polygraph” that he penned at the dawning of the age of the Santa Cruz weeklies, to his literarily impeccable Redwood Review, to countless gracefully nuanced, and internationally celebrated translations of the A list of Spanish poets, Kessler just doesn’t know how to cease and desist.

And just when we thought we’d already collected enough of his work to savor for years to come, he up and launches not one, but two new works. New prose poems that Proust their jazzy way through some of the key memory spots in his personal biography—Where Was I?—and a brilliantly curated “greatest hits” of memoirs, essays, vision quests, and kvetches titled Need I Say More?

I savored the prose poems, rife with street scenes of LA and Santa Cruz, (more…)

oswald.JPGLike many of you, I still carry a torch for the intimate bistro, with its tiny little upper room and its tall Victorian brick walls, the original Oswald. During its delicious flowering nothing could match it.

But last week I enjoyed a dinner at the newer incarnation of Oswald, on its dicey corner of downtown, with its spare eschewing of ambience, and found it—yes, I’ll say it—as good as I remembered those earlier Oswaldian days.

How in God’s name could an appetizer as, shall we say “yesterday” as seared ahi, be so insanely perfect? This one was. From its sparkling fresh tuna, to the impeccable potatoes, beets (beets that somehow recoined the entire concept of “beet”), and sexy snap peas. It was a one-dish premonition of Spring, and the beginning of a dinner that went from great to greater.

My full review of this wonderful dinner at Oswald is available in the current GTWeekly.

americansnip.jpgAmerican auteur Clint Eastwood has delivered yet another provocative work in American Sniper. A physically transformed Bradley Cooper, as legendary marksman Chris Kyle, leans into the addictive allure of the Iraq conflict and illuminates Eastwood’s latest masterpiece.

An unflinching anti-war film that is draped in the American flag, Sniper forces us into the chilling midst of modern ground level warfare. Cooper, bulked up and Texas drawled, plays real-life Navy SEAL sharpshooter Kyle, who in his unimaginable four tours of duty performed feats of heroism and marksmanship that earned him the nickname “The Legend,” among military aficionados, and a bounty on his head among the Iraqi.
Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern plant us in the dust and rubble of war-torn Ramadi, while the SEALs hunt and seek and attempt to take out the savvy and wily enemy, including a brutal assassin called “The Butcher.” Kyle became a born-again (radicalized?) patriot on the morning of 9/11 and believes without question that his duty was to take out the “bad guys” who threaten his fellows and his country.

Working with the cool confidence of a master, Eastwood believes in his subject—that war is hell, that sometimes we are capable of selfless actions, and that the emotional disconnect between vets and their families is often irretrievable. Eastwood is at his best at probing the quiet moments of unconscious damage done by Kyle’s kill count. (more…)

nexubxbyaxecbb_2_c.jpgI can’t stop thinking about how perilously close Benedict Cumberbatch is to becoming one of those actors doomed to circle their own groundbreaking performances. Over and over.

With his odd physiognomy and quicksilver reactions, Cumberbatch has given us some compelling geeks, socially-inept geniuses, and brooding, suffering weirdos. But as I look ahead to the roles he is slated to embody in the upcoming TV, stage, and screen pantheons, I am growing uncomfortable. Cumberbatch is about to become a stereotype!

Richard III in a three-part mini-series for TV. Yes, that Richard III! Then there will be Doctor Strange, with Cumby as Strange. He’s already filmed the next season of his eccentric and dazzling Sherlock Holmes. And I know—because I already have tickets—that he will be playing Hamlet (more…)

turing.jpgAs a devoted Benedict Cumberbatch groupie, it pains me to have to say that even the theatrical genius who dazzled us in Sherlock, and amazed us in Frankenstein cannot raise The Imitation Game—by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum—above the level of a made-for-TV Hallmark special.

Perhaps it was a hopeless task after all, attempting to express on-screen tension and drama about the creation of a code-busting device that anticipated today’s computers. Not exactly the visual equivalent of parting the Red Sea, is it? As mathematical innovator Alan Turing, Cumberbatch offers dazzling micro-gestures via twitching eyebrows, quivering lips, clenched (and unclenched) jaw, not to mention the required sort of physical awkwardness one expects of Cambridge geniuses. But these alone do not a film make. Even the surrounding cast of remarkably good-looking British actors (many recognizable from Downton Abbey) as Turing’s fellow code-breakers (more…)

interstellar-movie-mcconaughey.jpgFor two and a half hours I waited for something to pump energy, concept, or even engaging visuals into this bloated Hollywood block buster.

And for two and a half hours I waited in vain.

Interstellar is excruciatingly bad. Bad, B A D! Why do I say this?  Here’s why! It pops up on our collective event horizon after the following truly engaging films: Alien, Contact, 2001, Gravity, The Right Stuff, Star Wars, hell, even Star Trek, to name but a few. Christopher (Inception, The Prestige) Nolan has gotten his knickers in such a twist paying homage to these earlier, far better films, that he seems to have forgotten that we’ve all seen them too.

We know about wormholes. We’ve seen spaceships leaving earth’s gravitational pull. We’ve watched scientists writing equations at the blackboards that somehow explain how relativity works. The very people who would be willing to sit through a new, highly-hyped sci fi film—for two and a half hours!—would be savvy about these basic space voyager tropes. What was Nolan thinking?!!!!

The only person who seemed to have forgotten these concepts (more…)

jennifer-lawrence-katniss.jpgApparently while I wasn’t paying attention (i.e. during the second installment of the Hunger Games film trilogy, which I failed to view) Katniss has destroyed the very Games that put her, her buddies and her lumpen no-necked boyfriend Peeta in such deep owl pucky. But at any rate, Mockingjay Part I opens with a glassy-eyed Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) along with her mother and sister living in a giant silo community called District 13 many many levels underground. Somewhere, far away, the malicious leader of all this mischief, Snow (Donald Sutherland) is still wearing white Nehru jackets and wringing his hands like the Roman dictator upon which his character is styled. Donald Sutherland began life as an actor playing smug, cloying smart alecks (M.A.S.H., etc) and he’s never stopped.

I figure I had to watch this phenomenon if I wanted to crystallize my growing insight into the Millennial mind set. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly applaud the actress in Lawrence as much as the next aging girl. But at a certain point in Mockingjay I found myself wincing. Katniss isn’t simply a tough action heroine. She’s the Messiah. And all of the survivors (more…)

hawking.jpgI expected treacle, but The Theory of Everything turned out to be a beautifully-crafted biopic about astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, his intellectual ascent and his physical decline. Kudos to confident director James Marsh.
Made from a book by his wife Jane—who married Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) while he was a student at Cambridge and stood by him during the entire devastating course of the onset of motor neuron disorder — the film moves swiftly thanks to a superb cast and cinematic expertise. Hawking is a well-known figure, both in the rarified halls of cosmological theory, and in popular culture. His disease, his wheelchair, his electronically-generated “voice”, his impish grin—all are fairly iconic to anyone who can pick up a copy of People magazine.

Smartly photographed and well played, The Theory of Everything, reveals a bit of the back story we’re all keen to discover. As the sympathetic, brave, and ultimately weary wife, actress Felicity Jones is perfect. Her resolve, her deep interest in him and in maintaining his dignity, are all etched on the screen in the actress’ deft and very lightly-drawn portrait.

As Hawking, British theatrical wunderkind Eddy Redmayne outdoes Daniel Day Lewis’ left foot, if you know what I mean. It manages to avoid being the predictable freak show, and yet it also avoids shedding insight into the bold and controversial theories that have made Hawking the stuff off Isaac Newtonian legend.

A nice way to pass a few hours. Watch Redmayne, on the fast track to be next year’s Benedict Cumberbatch.

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