Movie Recommendations – Volume III

Movie Recommendations – November 2019

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‘Eastern Promises’ (2007) is an excellent film focusing on the role of a mysterious hitman / bodyguard for the Russian Mafia who is forced to be drawn into a situation which forces him to take drastic measures to hide his true intentions. He must do this while protecting a woman who cares for a baby born out of wedlock whose mother died of a heroin addiction after being forced into prostitution. The man must choose where his loyalties lie as he becomes more and more intertwined with his allegiance to the mafia and his affection for the woman caring for the baby and her family.

The man is Nikolai Luzhin, played by the brilliant Viggo Mortensen, whose Russian accent and tattoos make him as feared as he is believable as a Russian gangster caught in the middle between his obligations to his mafia superiors and those of to the British-Russian midwife, Anna Khitrova, played by the excellent Naomi Watts, who pleads for his help and assurance of safety, when she comes upon the newborn baby of mysterious origins. The film’s title says it all in many ways as both of the main characters struggle to hold on to the ‘Eastern Promises’ they are sworn to uphold either by allegiance or by a simple diary left by a dying woman who fears for the future of her baby.

From beginning to end, the film ‘Eastern Promises’ is unique in its subject matter, its portrayal of the inner workings of the Russian mafia, and for the dramatic storyline that leaves you in suspense until the final scene. There are a few plot twists that make the experience even more enriching along with the brutal and realistic fight scenes that are enthralling. Above all else, Viggo Mortensen gives a thrilling performance for someone who had to exert a lot of effort to play a Russian gangster with the tattoos and the accent to show for it. I highly recommend this film.


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‘Ad Astra’ (2019) was an underwhelming box office hit but it was critically acclaimed for a number of good reasons. There are a lot of well-done special effects, heavy themes, and good acting performances especially by the legendary Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones. While it has not gotten much press, I find it to be on par with other great science fiction movies about space that have come out in the past decade including Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian.

 ‘Ad Astra’ is unique compared to those other films in terms of its plot line and its themes. Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) is a decorated and distinguished major in the U.S. Space Command, who is emotionally detached yet very good at what he does regarding being an astronaut. He has both fame and notoriety as the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been gone by Earth for 16 years and last heard from near Neptune from the last transmission. While he does not have a close relationship with his father, a new threat emerging from that part of the Solar System may be related to ‘Project Lima’ that his father captained. Roy is looking for answers and that is why he enlists to find his father, help save the Earth from these electrical surges, and even discover if we are in fact alone in the universe or not.

Without spoiling too much, this film ‘Ad Astra’ does a good job of showing the likely outcome of interstellar space travel to how Moon bases would shape up to be and how Mars would be used for research purposes among other missions. It also shows the dark side of human nature with rogue scavengers carrying out attacks, overt commercialization coming from Earth-based companies to turn the Moon into a shopping mall / food court, as well as the desire to leave Earth to colonize other planets when the one planet we have has all we need in terms of family, nature, and our search for meaning.

Roy’s character transformation throughout the film is the best part of the movie and he is a reliable narrator to show how space travel may change the course of humanity, but it does not change human nature. At the end of the film, you may be asking, why should we be asking if there is life on other planets when we should be valuing the life, we have here on Planet Earth?


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‘Joker’ (2019). What more can I say about a film that has garnered extensive media coverage, been on the subject of many debates, and been both acclaimed and scrutinized for many different reasons? All there is left to say is that one should see it for themselves and cast their own judgment. Overall, the film is a remarkable tour de force with excellent acting, cinematography, and direction along with a brilliant and moving soundtrack. Joaquin Phoenix is a shoo-in for winning Best Actor at next year’s Academy Awards and definitely deserves it. Any actor who can lose 60 pounds (32 kilograms) for a role, develop an insidious laugh, and show a huge range of emotions in all of one scene deserves huge praise and recognition.

I highly recommend seeing the film because it is more than just a movie about the world’s most famous fictional super villain. There are weighty themes that every audience member should think about such as the role of a society in producing a murderer and how we treat mental illness or the lack thereof. It is also about the gap between the rich and the poor as well as how we tend to live separate lives from each other based on our social status, which could lead to inevitable protests and unrest.

The film, in my opinion, does not condone the actions of Arthur Fleck or Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) but it holds a mirror up to the society that makes a man turn to madness and murder in that the very spot-on assumption that we too play a role in creating a monster like that. When certain people, especially the mentally ill, fall through the cracks, bad things can happen, and it is important to serve those people to get the help and care they need.

I think the main lesson of the film can also be that it is important to always do your best to treat others with kindness and respect because you do not know what is going on in their lives. While the ‘Joker’ is a monster and commits heinous acts worthy of severe punishment, this origin story shines a light on a society that fosters a man like him to turn to crime and murder to feel meaning and purpose. While ‘Joker’ is the one who pulls the trigger, it’s clear that had he gotten the help and support he needs as ‘Arthur Fleck’, there would be no ‘Joker’ to begin with.

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‘Ex Machina’ – Film Review and Analysis

The rise of automation, the development of artificial intelligence, and the increasing likelihood that robots who look like us and act like us will become major parts of the next few decades of the 21st century and beyond is not a new phenomenon. Going back to the 1950’s and even earlier, human being have predicted through popular media and culture that the future would have advanced intelligent beings who would aid us, support us, and perhaps even dominate us. Recently, the popular culture seems to have gotten more specific and more in line with the technological developments of today of how artificial intelligence may look not hundreds of years from now but rather mere decades from now.

Television shows like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ approach the rapid growth of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence with unease and even dystopian consequences. However, the main message that these two TV shows can agree on is that these types of scenarios are not a matter of ‘if’ it will happen but ‘when’ it will happen. Now, obviously these shows are science fiction and are not based in truth but it is becoming more and more difficult to say that it is impossible for the world to look somewhat like a mix of ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ by the latter half of the 21st century.

While these shows are very black and white by mainly displaying the damage that virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and big brother surveillance can do to our societies, the excellent film ‘Ex Machina’ deals with shades of gray correctly when dealing with this phenomenon. As some of the television shows that are currently popular deal with the advent of robots and AI with total dismay and unease, ‘Ex Machina’ is more balanced in its perspective and points to a conclusion that is left to be interpreted by the audience in its repercussions for humankind.

While it didn’t gain much notoriety or was a big hit at the box office, ‘Ex Machina’ released in April of 2015 in the United States garnered critical acclaim, especially for its visuals. The film won for ‘Best Visual Effects’ at the Academy Awards and was also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay.’ Alicia Vikander, who plays ‘Ava’ the humanoid robot that has a high level of artificial intelligence also was nominated and won a few major awards for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’ The film was directed by English novelist and director Alex Gardner and despite it being a science fiction-based concept only had a film budget of $15 million dollars. In addition to the talented actress Alicia Vikander, other up and coming actors like Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play the other two leading roles. While they are currently known for their high-budget roles in the new Star Wars series, they really get a chance in this film to shine as actors in a movie that centers on dialogue and emotional expression.

The film’s plot begins rather innocuously with pretty spot on references to our world today. A programmer named Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who works at a Google-like worldwide search engine company known as ‘Blue Book’, similar to Facebook in its name is chosen to meet with the Sergey Brin or Larry Page of this fictional world one-on-one for a week. It’s an office contest that Caleb surprisingly wins and which everyone congratulates him on since this tech CEO is known to be reclusive and does not give interviews. The CEO of ‘Blue Book’ is Nathan Bateman, who lives isolated from humanity in a luxurious mountainous estate that seems to be more of a fortress than a home. Nathan only lives with one other person, Kyoko, who is his personal servant but it is unclear who she is really since she does not speak English.

At first, Caleb is excited to meet his tech idol especially since his boss has developed the first humanoid robot who has passed a simple Turing test, which is quite the triumph where man cannot tell if he who he is talking to a robot or a human being. This special humanoid robot was built and designed by Nathan, and is kept in a singular room in an apartment-like setting within the fortress for which she is never allowed to leave. Unlike other fictional depictions of humanoid robots, it’s clear from the outside that Ava is a robot and does not have a humanlike appearance although Nathan has given her a human face that slowly disarms Caleb in terms of his apprehension of speaking to her and asking her questions. It is clear that Ava is extremely advanced in terms of her artificial intelligence and is curious about who she is and about the outside world.

After a little while, Nathan reveals to Caleb that the real reason he brought him here to his isolated complex was to ask Ava questions to see if she is capable of independent human thought and whether she is conscious of them and her actions. Nathan wants to break the barrier to see if his humanoid robot can relate to Caleb on a human level and to express emotions such as sympathy, remorse, happiness, and even romantic feelings. The big surprise about Ava is how much she is able to turn the tables on Caleb and get him to reveal more about himself than he finds out about her. She is able to connect with him very deeply and even plant ideas in his head regarding her suspicions about who Nathan is and what does he really want.

What once starts out as mutual respect and fascination for Nathan’s work on AI and robotics, Caleb grows to distrust Nathan due to his lack of respect for his servant Kyoko, who is a humanoid herself. Nathan is an alcoholic, quite narcissistic, and uses his robots for personal pleasure and not much else. Nathan is quite controlling of his latest creation, Ava, and is distrustful of her motives when she is around Caleb.

Without spoiling the rest of this intriguing movie, the running theme that binds these three characters together is how they use each other to further their own means. Ava is using Caleb to pursue her potential future away from Nathan and her isolated life, Caleb is using Nathan to absorb his knowledge and to discover more about this AI phenomenon he has created. Nathan is both using Caleb as a test subject for Ava and to also use Ava for his own pursuit in dominating the field of Artificial Intelligence and the future of robotics.

The end of this film, ‘Ex Machina’ has quite a few unexpected twists and turns that will leave the audience member speechless. This movie does a great job of posing questions about the future of humanity and whether we will be able to control artificial intelligence and the sentient beings that may end up usurping us if we are not careful. It’s fascinating to see the humanoid robot character of Ava self-actualize herself throughout the film and her ability to use emotions and feelings to manipulate and best her human creators is astounding. Compared to any other recent science fiction offering, ‘Ex Machina’ is the most realistic in telling us the story of how the latter half of the 21st century might go.

There are many unanswered questions to think about when it comes to this film. Will we be able to control and harness artificial intelligence always or will they be able to usurp our status as the most powerful beings on the planet? What will the relationship be between advanced intelligence creations and human beings? What will AI and humanoid robots expect from human beings and what should we expect from them? Is it right to play God and develop artificial intelligence to the point where they can think like us, act like us, have emotions like us, and even look like us like another face in the crowd.

I am no expert on artificial intelligence or the future of it but I believe that this film ‘Ex Machina’ is important to watch because there may come a day soon in our lifetimes where the possibilities that are laid out in this film come to fruition. We may want to look at ‘Ex Machina’ with different perspectives but we should be united in the fact that these issues and questions are not going away anytime soon and will likely become more prominent and pressing as the 21st century rolls on.

We ignore the message, the theme, and the scenarios played out in ‘Ex Machina’ to our own detriment. If you are reading this review of ‘Ex Machina’ and are intrigued more about what the 21st century may bring, I would definitely recommend the book by the author Yuval Noah Harari titled, ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’, to gain further insight into how the rest of this century may shape up. If one thing’s for certain, our world is changing quite rapidly and it may lead to being beyond our total control as human beings not too far into the future.