Welcome to NICKPICKSFLICKS. I am your host for the evening, America's sweetheart, Nick Spake.
5 Stars= It's Simply the Best
4 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Totally Sucks
Just Reviewed Ex Machina and The Age of Adaline-April 24th
Just Reviewed Unfriended-April 17th
Just Reviewed The Longest Rider-April 10th
Just Reviewed Furious 7-April 3rd
Just Reviewed Get Hard-March 27th
Don't ask me how to pronounce, "Machina" ****
Over the past month or so, two movies about artificial intelligence have been released. In March, we got Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie,” which was clunky, recycled, and obsolete. Now we get Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” which is slick, inventive, and a total upgrade in every way. It’s like comparing an iPod to a Zune. Both products basically have the same foundation, but one is plainly a better purchase than the other. Where “Chappie” will fade from your memory as fast as the Zune’s shelf life, “Ex Machina” will stick with you for some time.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer programmer who’s selected to participate in an innovative experiment. He travels to a secluded dwelling in the mountains where he meets his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Drunk on wine, beer, and his own genius, Nathan informs Caleb that he’s made a breakthrough in technological evolution and human evolution too. Nathan has invented a functioning android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It’s Caleb’s job to test the humanoid machine on both an intellectual level and emotional level. The closer he gets to Ava and Nathan, however, the clearer it becomes that neither is what they seem.
Alex Garland distinguished himself as a gifted writer with films like “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine.” His directorial debut has the essence of a stage play, relying more on absorbing dialog than in your face visuals. Of course the special effects here are striking nonetheless, despite only having a limited budget to work with. It also helps that Garland has a superb ensemble to give his characters heart.
This is a transcendent turn for Vikander, who brings Ava to life with captivating body language and speech. Ranging from cold and brooding to curious and affectionate, you’re not sure if Ava is developing real feelings for Caleb or is just manipulating him. Just as enigmatic as Ava is Isaac’s Nathan, who obviously isn’t telling his underling everything. At the center of it all is Caleb, either the smartest man in the room or the biggest fool.
Garland has made a film with the ambiguity of “Under the Skin,” the craft of “Blade Runner,” and the gripping storytelling of a classic “Twilight Zone” episode. His script goes beyond forcing a cliché narrative down our throats about man playing god. At its core, this is a movie about ideas that will get the hamster wheel in anybody’s brain running. The audience is constantly guessing everyone’s motive and who can be trusted. All of these characters are rats in a maze, even if some don’t realize it. What’s fascinating is that the movie doesn’t spell out whom we should be routing to find the cheese. “Ex Machina” demonstrates that we might be able to draw a line between artificial intelligence and intelligence itself, but drawing a line between good guys and bad guys can be much more difficult. This helps to not only make its characters more believable, but more human as well.
Not to be confused with Age of Ultron ***1/2
How much do you want to bet that next weekend somebody will try to get a ticket for “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and accidentally purchase one for “The Age of Adaline” instead? It’s got to be more than a coincidence that these two movies are coming out within a single week of each other, right? Of course if real life were anything like “The Age of Adaline,” implausible coincidences would be natural occurrences. Whether you see it purposely or by mistake, this romantic fantasy is still a pleasant alternative to the swarm of action blockbusters on the horizon.
Blake Lively has done mostly solid work over the years in “The Town” and those “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” flicks. Here she’s elegant, charming, and a true shimmering star as the title character. Adaline is well over a hundred, but doesn’t look a day over thirty. How is this possible? Decades ago, Adaline crashed her car into a freezing lake during a snowstorm. Her car was struck by lightening and somehow this renders Adaline immortal. Um…are you guys sure this isn’t a superhero film because that’s about as feasible as Electro’s origin story.
Over the years, people start to notice that Adaline is aging even better than Elijah Wood. Out of fear of getting taken captive by the government, she’s forced to go on the run and continually change her identity. The only one who Adaline maintains contact with is her loving daughter (Ellen Burstyn), who now looks much older than her mother. Adaline finally lets her defenses down upon meeting a charismatic man named Ellis (Michiel Huisman). The two fall madly in love, but Adaline isn’t sure how to inform Ellis about the significant age difference.
Things only get more complicated when Harrison Ford enters the picture as somebody from Adaline’s past. Without giving too much away, there’s a twist in the film’s second act that’s going to have the biggest sourpusses in the audience rolling their eyes in disbelief. There are quite a few moments in “The Age of Adaline” that really don’t make much sense logically, even if it does try to work in some scientific jargon. A movie like this doesn’t need to be governed by logic, though. It’s a modern fairytale where the planets are aloud to miraculously line up. The question is whether “The Age of Adaline” is truly magical like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or an abra-catastrophe like “Winter’s Tale.”
Thanks to the skillful direction from Lee Toland Krieger, universally heartfelt performances, and some nicely written scenes, this is a sincerely romantic movie. Such a film is difficult to come by in an era of Nicholas Sparks and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but “The Age of Adaline” keeps you invested every step of the way. Even though some plot points can come off as forced and manipulative, the emotion here is 100% genuine and the characters all feel surprisingly authentic. It’d be especially easy for a film like this to throw in a one-note villain. Yet, everyone is essentially a sympathetic, caring human being that deserves to a live long, long, long, happy life.
Just as “The Blair Witch Project” was far from the first movie to employ the found footage gimmick, “Unfriended” isn’t the first movie to be told through a webcam. We’ve seen this premise done before in “The Den,” “Open Windows,” and even an episode of “Modern Family.” Like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” “Unfriended” is likely to be praised for its “innovations” upon initial released. Then after getting overexposed, audiences are bound to label it as overrated. Hype and inevitable backlash aside, however, this is actually a pretty fun ride.
Shelley Hennig plays a high school student named Blaire. Again, is this movie trying to draw comparisons to “The Blair Witch Project?” While chatting with her BF and four BFF’s on Skype, a mysterious seventh guest joins the party. The unknown user has seemingly hacked into the account of Laura Barns, a party girl who committed suicide one year ago. As the friends receive more messages and videos, it becomes clear they’re not dealing with a run-of-the-mill hacker. As each person loses their connection, they also lose their life.
Director Levan Gabriadze does an exceptional job at portraying the mystical realm of the desktop, crowding every scene with Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Chatroulette, iChat, and email. The way Blaire is constantly typing one thing then rethinking her post before sending it is also a nice touch. Even the Universal logo leading into the film has a glitchy charm to it. As well made as “Unfriended” is, none of it would matter if the story had nowhere to go. Surprisingly, the film does amount to an involving narrative with something to say.
This premise provides a lot of inspired commentary concerning privacy, social media, the current state of human communication, and, above all else, cyberbullying. Most movies and TV shows aimed at teenagers strictly differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. As our protagonists are forced to share secrets with each other, though, we see that bullying can come from the most unexpected sources and people. In the end, there isn’t really a villain in “Unfriended.” There’s just a group of naïve kids that make some stupid choices via a tool that far too many people have utilized to promote ignorance.
Even with its underlying themes, “Unfriended” never takes itself too seriously like “The Purge” or “Saw” movies. The film knows that it’s an absurd popcorn flick, embracing its silliness with inventive frights, twists, and laughs. Some will call it groundbreaking while others call it just dumb. Much like Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children,” it’ll be interesting to see how a film like this plays in another decade or two. For now, though, it’s a friend request well worth accepting.
Must resist "Brokeback Mountain" joke *1/2
Have you seen any of the other nine films inspired by Nicholas Sparks’ relentlessly popular novels? Then you’ve seen “The Longest Ride.” Seriously, it is astonishing just how cookie cutter each movie associated with Sparks is. Even the posters for his screen adaptations do nothing to hide the fact that these sappy melodramas all come off an assembly line. The only way to stomach a picture like “The Longest Ride” is by playing a drinking game. Of course if you take a shot every time the film recycles another generic cliché, you’ll probably have alcohol poisoning once it’s over.
There’s little reason to review a movie such as this. Let’s just delve into the plot and you’ll know why it stinks. Britt Robertson plays Sophia, a generic small town girl with big city dreams. She takes a break from studying art one night to see a rodeo show with her generic giggling sorority sisters. There she meets Scott Eastwood’s Luke, a generic blue-collar bull rider with a complicated past. Cue the generic scenes where the two leads go swimming in the lake, get caught in the rain, and make the audience want to throw up in their mouths.
Oh, and don’t worry if that doesn’t sound generic enough for you. “The Longest Ride” has two generic romances for the price of one. On their first date, Sophia and Luke save a generic grumpy old man named Ira (Alan Alda) from a burning car. Alda looks half asleep throughout most of the movie, but this kind of works to his advantage since Ira is bound to die by the third act. Via a series of generic love letters, Sophia and Luke learn about Ira’s courtship with a woman named Ruth (Oona Chaplin). It’s practically love at first sight, but the two are driven apart by a series of generic dilemmas such as war, infertility, and death.
Jack Huston plays Ira in these flashbacks and he at least shares some resemblance to Alda, which is more than can be said about James Marsden and Luke Bracey in “The Best of Me.” Compared to that infuriatingly awful Nicholas Sparks adaptation, “The Longest Ride” isn’t quite as pandering, manipulative, or, that’s right, generic. It has a couple minor saving graces. The actors all give competent performances and the leads have acceptable chemistry. We also fortunately don’t have to put up with any one-dimensional villains or disapproving parents. Still, the cons outweigh the pros here by a metric ton.
Being the tenth entry in Nicholas Sparks’ theatrical library, you should know exactly what you’re going to get with “The Longest Ride.” It’s a cheap soap opera. In all fairness, a daytime soap can either be trashy fun or unbelievably boring. This film strips away any insane plot twists and instead plays up the dull scenes where our lovers just lie in bed together. That might be tolerable for forty minutes. At well over two hours, however, this truly feels like the longest ride.
Lucky number 7 ****
When “The Fast and the Furious” came out almost a decade and a half ago, nobody probably thought it would spawn six sequels. While the franchise’s longevity is surprising, what’s even more unexpected is its boost in quality over the years. Most series officially run out of gas by the third entry. “Fast & Furious,” on the other hand, somehow manages to keep giving audiences exactly what they want in an inventive, well produced, and insanely fun manner. Rather than aging like convenience store beer, the movies have aged like convenience store wine. Maybe that’s because they had nowhere to go but up, although it’s at least more than can be said about “Transformers” or other soulless blockbusters.
Soul has actually become a key component of these “Fast & Furious” flicks. For a premise that essentially started as car porn meets “Point Break,” these characters have remarkably snuck up us. Okay, Vin Diesel’s Dominic and his rebellious crew will never be deeply analyzed in film classes. They do share a powerful family bond, though, that’s shockingly effective. For all the idiotic, mindless escapism these movies provide, they’ve also created people we genuinely care about. It’s truly saddening to think that “Furious 7” will be the late Paul Walker’s final ride as Brian O’Conner. He goes out on a high note, however, with the biggest, most over-the-top, and most involving “Fast & Furious” movie to date.
Considering his roles in “Crank,” “Death Race,” “The Italian Job,” and the “Transporter” trilogy, it’s a sin Jason Statham’s only just now appearing in a “Fast & Furious” picture. He’s right at home here as Deckard Shaw, the older brother of the previous film’s villain. Now Deckard wants retribution for his crippled bro and targets Dom, Brian, and the rest. Deckard even succeeds in offing Sung Kang’s Han, whose death has been preordained since “Tokyo Drift.” For a story that obviously wasn’t mapped out in advance, “Furious 7” does a clever job at bringing everything full circle.
Of course the story is the last reason why people are going to line up for this movie. We’re geared up for the mind-blowing car chases, fights, and stunts. With “Fast Five” and “Fat & Furious 6,” Justin Lin strived to be as shamelessly ridiculous as ever. Director James Wan defies all logic here as our heroes parachute their cars out of planes and drive out skyscraper windows. Whether the action set pieces leave you applauding or laughing hysterically, they’re clearly doing something right.
What keeps us invested in these cartoonish exploits is that the characters are so likable. Almost every major player from the previous films is given time to shine. The only one we could have used a bit more of is Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs, but he still easily steals the movie’s best one-liners and macho moments. We also get a few notably new additions like Kurt Russell as a slick agent without a name, Djimon Hounsou as a mercenary without a moral code, and Nathalie Emmanuel as the most beautiful hacker on the planet.
“Furious 7” ultimately remembers that this series all started with the friendship between Dom and Brian. While some of the CGI required to complete Walker’s unfinished scenes can be distracting, the film still leaves these two guys parting ways with a perfect final image. It’d be truly fitting is this was the final “Fast & Furious” film we ever got. Since the franchise has become an ironic metaphor for an endless road, though, we can count on plenty more ludicrous races, ludicrous heists, and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges. And you know what? That doesn’t sound too bad.
It's a hard knock life ***
“Get Hard” is about as hit and miss as comedies get. Some jokes hit it out of the park where others crash and burn. This isn’t a movie people are going to be revisiting and quoting years from now. Actually, it’ll likely be completely forgotten over time. For a few sidesplitting scenes and two well-matched leads, though, it doesn’t deserve to be entirely overlooked. Assuming you’re in the mood for a comedy like this and have 100 minutes to spare, “Get Hard” is an enjoyably stupid waste of time. How’s that for a recommendation?
Will Ferrell is James King, who, like every character Ferrell plays, has everything going for him. He’s a millionaire, just became a partner at work, and is engaged to a smokin’ hot, yet despicable, woman played by Alison Brie. James’ world is turned upside-down when he’s framed for tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in prison. Desperate to survive in the big house, he turns to Darnell Lewis, an African American car-washer played by Kevin Hart. While James believes otherwise, Darnell has never been to the slammer. Since the businessman is offering 30 grand for tutoring, though, Darnell decides to play along.
Beyond that, there isn’t any plot whatsoever. The setup is just an excuse for Ferrell and Hart to engage in a series of outrageous scenarios and exchanges that don’t exactly play into a grander story. It’s all filler, but a fair deal of “Get Hard” will have you laughing out loud. The best bits include Ferrell mastering the art of hiding a shiv, a fake riot with all too real repercussions, and a lesson in oral sex. Some scenes aren’t as funny as they could be, like Ferrell trying to blend in with a ghetto gang. Other scenes aren’t funny at all, such as when the guys have a run-in with white supremacists. Although it’s often given the opportunity to be more, “Get Hard” doesn’t say anything new about race relations or incarceration.
Nevertheless, Ferrell and Hart are terrific together through the good times and the bad. Ferrell has such a natural gift for comedy that he can make horrible material mediocre and mediocre material passable. He has undeniable chemistry with Hart, who’s yet to star in a great buddy comedy. Regardless, “Get Hard” is a notable step up from “Ride Along” or “The Wedding Ringer.” Ferrell and Hart give it their all here and, in a testament to their talents, those efforts pay off. The two are kind of like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places” if that movie had a lot more needless rape gags.
If you require your comedies to have a little more substance and wit, stay home and rent an old classic from Woody Allen or a new classic from Wes Anderson. Oh, and of course “Trading Places” is always a safe bet. For the modest smiles “Get Hard” will provide, however, it’s just barely worth your ten dollars. See it, have a few laughs, and immediately move on to something else…assuming they don’t try to make a sequel. We really don’t need any more time added to this sentence.