Chilly ‘Machina,’ Clumsy ‘Child,’ Vivid ‘Kingdom,’ Silly ‘Squeeze’

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By FS

Contributing Writer

From left, Jonah Hill and James Franco in “True Story.” - Photo courtesy of popsugar.com
From left, Jonah Hill and James Franco in “True Story.”
– Photo courtesy of popsugar.com

“True Story”

A real-life relationship between a disgraced journalist and an accused murderer is the basis of “True Story” (wide release), a film that does not reach the standard of similar fare like “Capote” but nonetheless generates a creepy atmosphere.

Jonah Hill plays Mike Finkel, a New York Times reporter canned for fudging facts, and James Franco plays Christian Longo, an Oregon man suspected of killing his family who used Finkel’s name while on the lam. Finkel approached Longo for an interview partially because he smelled a good story — perhaps of an innocent man railroaded — but also to attempt some kind of professional redemption.

Naturally, things do not work out quite as he had hoped.

Hill and Franco both give surprisingly restrained performances in a picture that avoids sensationalizing the material, but also moves very slowly and fails to deliver many shocks or surprises.

The result is a sporadically effective legal thriller bolstered especially by its leads.

“Ex Machina”

The Frankenstein template receives a modern twist in “Ex Machina” (wide release), in which a geeky coder at an Internet search service is summoned to his brilliant, reclusive boss’ isolated Alaskan retreat to administer a Turing test to the genius’ latest invention — a female android so perfect that she may be capable of behavior indistinguishable from that of humans.

Naturally the poor fellow is attracted by the beautiful robot’s charms. He also begins to suspect that her creator is assuming a godlike position that does not bode well.

“Ex Machina” is a coolly cerebral piece of elegantly appointed science fiction that is not especially inventive from a narrative standpoint, but certainly manages a mood of unease and vague dread.

It also offers fine performances from Domhnall Gleeson as the nerdy, nervous underling, Alicia Vikander as the imperturbable artificial woman, and especially Oscar Isaac as her volatile maker.

“Child 44”

Anyone wishing to revisit the misery of Stalin’s Soviet Union can repair to “Child 44” (wide release), a piece of gloomy pulp about a principled security agent who is determined to track down a serial killer despite the regime’s insistence that murder simply does not occur in a socialist paradise.

The procedural part of the plot — which owes a good deal to Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M” — is actually fairly gripping. Unfortunately, the film buries it in a welter of subsidiary elements involving the cop’s wife, whom he refuses to denounce after she’s accused of treason, and his ambitious subordinate, a cruel fellow determined to bring his boss down — while situating everything in a society controlled by ideological mandates and perpetual suspicion.

Unrelievedly grim, even visually, and peopled by actors struggling with such overdrawn Russian accents that their lines are sometimes unintelligible, “Child 44” is an intriguing idea derailed by soporific execution.

“Monkey Kingdom”

The Disneynature project of annual live-action films celebrating Earth Day continues with “Monkey Kingdom” (wide release), a sort-of documentary focusing on a clan of macaque simians in Sri Lanka. The picture’s visuals are vibrant, and the monkeys are critters whose behavior will certainly engage youngsters.

But an anthropomorphic treatment arranges the footage — partially spontaneous but often staged — into a tale of a female monkey named Maya, at the lowest rung of the clan’s rigid social ladder, who rises to a position of privileged leadership when she and her mate prove instrumental in recapturing the clan’s rocky home from invaders.

The story is narrated with a deft touch by Tina Fey, but the message that courage will ultimately overturn an entrenched class system makes it seem as much a fairy tale as most of Disney’s animated features.

“The Squeeze”

The triumph of a young player in the recent Master’s tournament may spur interest in “The Squeeze” (AMC Palace), a caper movie in which a naive golf prodigy is turned into a hustler by a greedy gambler, who sets up a million-dollar match for him in Vegas.  Unfortunately, the kid is threatened with a beating — or worse — whether he wins or loses, and he and his country pals must come up with a scheme to save his hide.

“The Squeeze” has some virtues, most notably a likable performance by Jeremy Sumpter, an actor who is actually proficient in the sequences on the links, in the lead.  But the rest of the cast overplays badly, and the last-act twist is confused and unbelievable.

Golfers may find the movie a pleasant diversion, though; at least it is not bad enough to tee them off.

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