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Film Listings, 3/19/20 – 3/26/20 (Music, Arts & Culture) 

Editor's note: By now you're no doubt aware that local theaters have closed for the foreseeable future, so we've selected a few of the best films available at either Redbox or on Netflix.

Select Redbox and Netflix listings as of Friday, March 20

EX MACHINA (2014)

What's it rated? R

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? Netflix

PickHow will artificial intelligence develop, and when and if it does, how can it be controlled? That's the question at the heart of this provocative and fascinating film from first-time director Alex Garland, who wrote this film as well as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, among others.

click to enlarge GHOST IN THE MACHINE Alicia Vikander stars as Ava, a form of artificial intelligence in the 2014 sci-fi thriller, Ex Machina, available on Netflix. - PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES INTERNATIONAL
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES INTERNATIONAL
  • GHOST IN THE MACHINE Alicia Vikander stars as Ava, a form of artificial intelligence in the 2014 sci-fi thriller, Ex Machina, available on Netflix.

For all intents and purposes, the film has just three characters and one location. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a computer genius but also a grand manipulator—intense, cryptic, and secretive—and the owner of the world's largest internet company. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is intelligent, earnest, yet naïve. He thinks he's been brought to Nathan's remote home as a reward for his coding expertise, but it soon becomes clear Nathan has chosen him to conduct a modified version of the Turing test, in which a human unknowingly interacts with a computer to determine if it's human or machine.

In this case, there's no question that Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a machine. One look at her see-through mesh-like body and wiring can tell Caleb that. The real test is can she convince Caleb that his allegiance should be with her and not Nathan, who has created her but also trapped her in his compound.

Part Blade Runner, part Frankenstein, part cat-and-mouse mystery—the film is a thrill to watch, provided you can suspend your disbelief and ignore some glaring plot contrivances and loopholes that inevitably plague a film as visionary and ambitious as this one.

The tension is palpable throughout, even from Caleb's first interaction with Nathan, who Isaac plays with a delicious malice that vacillates between contrived bro-like casualness to mad-scientist glee. Who is he? A genius? Evil incarnate? Power mad? Full of hubris? All of these? And why does Ava—a machine—elicit more sympathy from the audience than Nathan, or even Caleb, who in one telling moment begins to question his own humanity?

This is a film that deserves a second viewing. It's replete with layers of meaning that get to the very heart of what makes us human and what constitutes true intelligence. Is artificial intelligence the next stage of human evolution? Will its creation lead to the destruction of humanity?

In the end, the film raises more questions than provides answers, but it's highly entertaining—especially for thinkers who enjoy a thorny, twisty mystery. It also suggests that the characteristics we most praise in ourselves—empathy, ambition, capacity for love, tenacity—are the very things that make us most vulnerable. (86 min.)

—Glen Starkey

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

What's it rated? R

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? Netflix

PickDavid Mackenzie (Starred Up, Perfect Sense, Hallam Foe) directs Taylor Sheridan's (Sicario) crime drama script about brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine), the former an ex-con and the latter a divorced dad, who turn to robbing branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their West Texas family farm in an effort to save it. Jeff Bridges stars as soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, who with his half-Comanche partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), go in hot pursuit.

click to enlarge MODERN DAY WESTERN Brothers Toby (Chris Pine, left) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) take to bank robbery in a bid to save the family’s West Texas ranch, in the 2016 western Hell or Highwater, available on Netflix. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CBS FILMS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF CBS FILMS
  • MODERN DAY WESTERN Brothers Toby (Chris Pine, left) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) take to bank robbery in a bid to save the family’s West Texas ranch, in the 2016 western Hell or Highwater, available on Netflix.

Ambiguous morality is on full display here, and the lines between right and wrong couldn't be murkier. About the only "character" that is clearly "bad" is the Texas Midland Bank, which convinced the Howard brothers' ailing mother to reverse-mortgage the family farm, paid her back property taxes to put her further in debt to them, and plans to foreclose on the property, upon which oil was discovered, essentially cheating the Howards out of their property and oil revenues worth $50,000 a month.

Ex-con Tanner is clearly the worse of the two brothers, but he's also fiercely loyal, funny, and brave. He's almost admirable. Toby has never been in trouble with the law and loves his kids, but he's an absentee father, willing to rob banks, and isn't above beating a man senseless. These two are classic antiheroes.

Meanwhile, Ranger Hamilton mercilessly hands out racist taunts to his mixed-race partner, the half-Comanche half-Mexican devout Christian Ranger Parker. They're the good guys, but I couldn't help rooting for the Hamilton brothers, whose cause was worthy but not their course of action. If you liked No Country for Old Men, you'll like this too. It's a modern day existentialist Western.

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens beautifully films Texas's wide-open spaces, but his camera frequently lingers over shuttered businesses, derelict vehicles, and predatory billboard advertisements for loans and check cashing joints.

Through the supporting characters—the bank tellers, waitresses, and townspeople—Texas itself becomes a character. On the one hand, it's about resiliency, where everyone's packing a gun and believes in vigilante justice. The towns are broke and broken, but the people who live there are proud though conflicted. Even though the banks have made their lives harder and preyed on the Texans, their sense of injustice leads them to take potshots at the brothers.

During their second robbery, an old man (Buck Taylor, who played Newly in Gunsmoke), shoots as they leave. At another point, about five pickup trucks of gun-toting townspeople follow the brothers as they make their getaway. If they knew the impetus behind the brothers' actions, these same people would probably be applauding them. The complicated morality of the story, the well developed characters, and the unpredictability of the plot combine to make this one of the best films of the summer of 2016. (102 min.)

—Glen

MOONLIGHT (2016)

What's it rated? R

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? Netflix

PickWriter-director Barry Jenkins brings Tarell Alvin McCraney's story of black, gay Chiron to the big screen, beginning in his childhood (played by Alex Hibbert), through adolescence (Ashton Sanders), and into adulthood (Trevante Rhodes).

Told in three acts, Moonlight explores a character and a world rarely seen in cinema. Chiron lives in a run-down area of Miami with his single mom (Naomie Harris), who's drifting in to drug addiction. His schoolmates tease Chiron, and his only friend is Kevin (Jaden Piner).

click to enlarge COMPLICATED CHARACTER Mahershala Ali won the 2017 Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Juan, a drug dealer who mentors a young gay boy while hooking the boy’s mother on drugs, in Moonlight, which also won Best Picture of the Year and is currently available on Netflix. - PHOTO COURTESY OF A24
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF A24
  • COMPLICATED CHARACTER Mahershala Ali won the 2017 Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Juan, a drug dealer who mentors a young gay boy while hooking the boy’s mother on drugs, in Moonlight, which also won Best Picture of the Year and is currently available on Netflix.

Told episodically, we see Chiron—known as "Little" due to his size and shy personality—get chased into a "dope hole" by some bullies. Local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) comes to his rescue, and takes Chiron out for a meal and later to the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe).

Juan sees something of himself in Chiron and becomes a father figure to him. He teaches him to swim, and in the film's most tender scene, Chiron asks Juan what a faggot is. Juan wisely says, "It's a word people use to hurt gay people." Chiron asks, "Am I a faggot?" To which Juan replies, "No. You may be gay."

In the second act, Chiron is a skinny teenager who has become the target of Terrel (Patrick Decile), a bully, but who still maintains a friendship with Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome). We see Chiron's sexual awakening, but we also see a dramatic turn in his life, which sets up the final act that finds Chiron coming full circle and becoming exactly like his mentor Juan, the drug dealer who hooked Chiron's mother on drugs.

In the final act, Chiron tries to reconcile with Kevin (now played by André Holland), who questions who Chiron has become. The ending is left open, suggesting Chiron's life might still be rewritten.

Despite the open ending, however, Moonlight plays like a tragedy that unfolds like a poem, a deeply personal story about a life most of us will never encounter, but also a socio-political treatise on depressed neighborhoods of color, homosexuality, and grinding poverty.

Watching Chiron navigate through his dangerous world, deal with his emotionally abusive mother, cling to any shred of normalcy in Juan and Teresa's home, try to understand his sexuality, and find a way to cope through adopting a thug persona is nothing short of mesmerizing and heartbreaking.

The acting throughout is incredible, and the story is artfully, tenderly, achingly told. Ultimately, the film upends media's depiction of young black men, instead portraying a poignant pathway to lost youth. This may be the best film of the year. [In fact, it did with three 2017 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Mahershala Ali.] (111 min.)

—Glen

A QUIET PLACE (2018)

What's it rated? PG-13

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? Redbox (and Hulu)

PickDirector and co-writer John Krasinski (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Promised Land, The Hollars) helms this horror story, co-written by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, about the Abbott family—father Lee (Krasinski), pregnant mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and kids Beau (Cade Woodward), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds)—who must live in utter silence to protect themselves from deadly creatures that hunt by sound.

click to enlarge DEAD SILENT Pregnant Evelyn (Emily Blunt) must give birth in absolute silence or risk being torn apart by blind creatures that hunt by sound, in 2018’s A Quiet Place, currently available in Redbox (and on Hulu). - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • DEAD SILENT Pregnant Evelyn (Emily Blunt) must give birth in absolute silence or risk being torn apart by blind creatures that hunt by sound, in 2018’s A Quiet Place, currently available in Redbox (and on Hulu).

While the synopsis may sound like standard-issue sci-fi horror, A Quiet Place is instead throat-clenchingly tense and a thoroughly thoughtful meditation on parenthood, family, and guilt.

The film isn't concerned with where the creatures come from or how they got there. Yes, we see a few newspaper front pages—with headlines suggesting it's a worldwide phenomenon—that are pinned up in Lee's workshop, where he tirelessly toils to improve his daughter Regan's hearing aid. A scrawled-on white board asks, "Weaknesses," but the creatures appear to be indestructible—they're all gill-like earflaps and sharp teeth on long-limbed grasshopper-like bodies that can tear a human to pieces.

Because the creatures are blind and don't appear to have a sense of smell, the film ups the terror level since the creatures can be in the very same room but not know someone's there ... provided the person stays absolutely silent.

The few remaining pockets of civilization are in total survival mode, and every night, Lee climbs to the top of an ominous grain silo on their secluded farm and lights a signal fire, waiting as a handful of others light up in the distance. Lee also tinkers with his ham radio, trying to find if anywhere is safe, but to no avail.

The family's day-to-day existence is silently picking crops and doing chores, giving the kids reading and math lessons, preparing a soundproof box with an oxygen supply to deafen the cries of their impending baby, and occasionally venturing to a nearby town to scavenge through abandoned stores; and to a river to collect fish they've caught in baskets.

All they have is each other, and Lee and Evelyn's primary and immediate goal is to keep their children safe. The film is nearly silent, with almost all dialogue mouthed and accompanied by American Sign Language. It's a fresh and remarkable take on the horror genre, with scenes that will have you white-knuckling the arm of your couch or silently crying to yourself in empathy for the family's plight. It's just brilliant!

If you've read anything about the film, you've no doubt learned that Blunt, who's married to Krasinski, suggested a friend of hers for the role of Evelyn, but after reading the script, she asked her husband to give her the role instead. Well, Blunt is simply incredible as Evelyn. She owns the character, and her birth scene will go down in the history of horror as one of the most gripping sequences ever set to film (well, probably video, but you know what I'm saying).

It's also worth mentioning that deaf Regan is played by a deaf actress, and Krasinski said she was important to give the role authenticity as well as helping the other actors learn sign language.

Most recent horror movies have bored me due to a lack of scares, flat characters, or hackneyed writing and direction. A Quiet Place falls prey to none of that, and it offers a badass but open ending, which I found hopeful though my wife didn't—that's deft filmmaking in my book. [A Quiet Place II was due to be released this Friday, March 20, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of theaters, the release has been indefinitely postponed.] (90 min.)

—Glen

THE WITCH (2015)

What's it rated? R

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? Netflix

PickWriter-director Robert Eggers makes his feature-length debut with The Witch, set in 1630 New England. Devout Christians William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are banished from a colonial plantation after William accuses church leaders of being false Christians, so they and their five children leave and begin a quiet homesteading life at the edge of an ominous forest, but then their animals turn malevolent, their crops fail, and their newborn son disappears. Paranoia takes over, and teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is accused of witchcraft, leading to the family's unraveling. The horror film won Best Director Prize in the U.S. Narrative Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

click to enlarge GOOD AND EVIL In 1630, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is accused of witchcraft, leading to her family’s unraveling, in the 2015 horror film The Witch, available on Netflix. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARTS AND LABOR
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF PARTS AND LABOR
  • GOOD AND EVIL In 1630, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is accused of witchcraft, leading to her family’s unraveling, in the 2015 horror film The Witch, available on Netflix.

I have to admit I wasn't expecting this film. It's got nothing in common with most contemporary horror films. Its vibe is closer to The Wicker Man (1973) than anything in recent memory, and it's more a psychological mystery than scary horror.

Trying to firmly set itself in its 1630 period through dress, speech, manner, and props, it also seems to be created for the 1630s mind—one that's steeped in superstition, fear of God, and ignorance. For me, that's the film's biggest flaw. The family's belief that people are inherently sinful and easily tempted by an all-present Satan leads to a sort of insanity, which for me would have been enough of a story idea to make this a great film, but writer-director Eggers chooses instead to make all the paranormal real and manifest, which actually made the film less frightening.

All I can figure is that he wanted to present the beliefs of his period characters, but for my modern mind, the idea of satanic witches seems silly. Even so, I sat back and thoroughly enjoyed the exquisite mise en scène (most of Eggers' credits are for production and costume design) and the remarkable cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, whose bleak exterior shots are almost as glorious as his candlelit interiors that look like Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" rendered with the skill of Vermeer. Incredible!

It's also worth noting that the film makes terrific use of music by Mark Korven, which sets the film's tone—an overall sense of ominous dread.

And proving once again that kids can be creepy, the film makes good use of Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), fraternal twins that spend a bit too much time cavorting with the family's horned goat. Hmm. Now who else has cloven hooves and curling horns? Could it be ... Satan?

It's beyond my experience to live with so much fear and superstition, to believe that the occult is real, to accept possession as fact. When you believe you're inherently sinful as is everyone else, including your own family members, it starts to become clear how something like the Salem Witch Trials could happen—evil can overtake anyone. I just wish Eggers had focused on that concept. It's one thing to allow your imagination to run wild and starting blaming and mistrusting your own children—that would be truly terrifying—but when it turns out witches are real and that they worship Satan, sorry, but you lost me.

This is a well-crafted folk tale, worth seeing to be sure, but it's not scary. I'll be keeping my eyes out for the next Robert Eggers film. He's got a unique talent. [For the record, Eggers followed up with the amazing and unsettling 2019 film The Lighthouse. A New film, The Northman, is in pre-production.] (92 min.)

—Glen

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019)

What's it rated? R

What's it worth? Full price

Where's it showing? Redbox

PickRuben Fleischer (Venom, Gangster Squad) directs this sequel to his 2009 comedy horror film, Zombieland, about four survivors—Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin)—navigating a zombie apocalypse wasteland. In this follow-up, they slay a whole lot of zombies and encounter other survivors such as Madison (Zoey Deutch), Nevada (Rosario Dawson), Berkeley (Avan Jogia), Albuquerque (Luke Wilson), and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch). Somehow, Bill Murray—slain in the original—returns to play himself.

click to enlarge A MATCH MADE IN HELL Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) meets Nevada (Rosario Dawson) in 2019’s hilarious horror-comedy Zombieland: Double Tap, available in Redbox. - PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES
  • A MATCH MADE IN HELL Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) meets Nevada (Rosario Dawson) in 2019’s hilarious horror-comedy Zombieland: Double Tap, available in Redbox.

Set a few years after the original, this sequel finds America still overrun by zombies. Our four seasoned protagonists have gotten so good at killing zombies that they've even developed a taxonomy: Homers are the slow, easy-to-kill dimwitted zombies; Ninjas are the crafty zombies that can sneak up on you; and Hawkings are the super-smart zombies that are hard to evade. To spice things up, there's a new kind of zombie, the T-800, a relentless, nearly un-killable zombie.

The four are living in the White House—yes, that White House—but they're feeling restless, especially Little Rock, who's tired of Tallahassee's mothering and wants to meet someone her own age. Even Columbus and Wichita's romance is becoming strained. Naturally, change is in the air. What follows is something of a road movie, albeit one populated by flesh-eating monsters and other survivors.

Filled with the same pithy dialogue and gore of the original, Double Tap ups the ante with a bunch of new characters, a trip to Graceland, the search for a hippie utopia called Babylon, and a spectacular conclusion ... that then gets even better during the credits with a flashback to the first day of the zombie apocalypse. The whole affair is a hoot!

One of the running gags in the Zombieland reality is that you can take whatever you want. We see Van Gogh paintings hanging on the wall, when Columbus asks Wichita to marry him, he proposes with The Hope Diamond, and when they arrive at Graceland and see it fallen to ruin, they discover that Nevada (Dawson) has decorated her house with everything from the King's blue suede shoes to his white jumpsuit.

Dawson is a terrific addition to the cast. She's a badass and just the kind of larger-than-life woman to attract the larger-than-life Tallahassee. Yes, of course Harrelson dons the jumpsuit! You can tell the whole cast is having fun making this film. Of course, this is a minor entertainment. It's not trying to outdo the original, just recapture its magic. It's just a breezy, gag-filled romp.

Quintessential dumb blonde, Madison (Zoey Deutch), is the butt of a lot of jokes, but even she has a little character arc as she learns to use sarcasm. Little Rock realizes that hippie-musician Berkeley is a poser and that she's much too tough for him. All the main characters, who spend this sequel searching for a home to call their own, eventually realize that their home can be found in one another. It's not exactly profound but it is sweet. Mostly, Zombieland 2 is fun, and sometimes that's all you need out of a movie. (99 min.)

—Glen

New Times movie reviews are complied by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey. Contact him at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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