Latest Recommendations

From time to time, we will offer you our movie and television reviews and recommendations. This is not an effort to replace the Siskels & Eberts of the world. It is just our thoughts on what we have seen and whether we think it was time well spent.

Ex Machina: Who is Responding to the Data Input, the Robot or the Man?

I have often seen the increasingly alarmist headlines: “Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind.” That’s an actual headline, by the way. For my generation, that conjures images of Terminator-like machines stomping around menacingly, blowing-up cities and annihilating humanity. That just seems too implausible. Why would mankind make machines to kill themselves? Then I saw the brilliant — and chilling — film Ex Machina, and I understood the scary possibilities.

The premise is simple enough: Nathan, the founder of a massive tech company (clearly meant to be Google) lives in a very remote research facility far from civilization. Indeed, it can only be reached by an hours-long helicopter ride. There he builds an A.I. — a woman named Ava. To test her, he sponsors a rigged contest for his thousands of employees and brings the winner, a programmer named Caleb, to join him at his lonely, hi-tech retreat.

At first, Caleb is beside himself excited to meet his famous boss, to see his rumored estate and ongoing work, and to be a part of this historic project. Nathan tells him the nature of the experiment: “The real test is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” With this in mind, Caleb enters into Ava’s room, a place where she is confined and has never been permitted to leave, and begins to engage her in conversation. Day after day he questions her, testing her answers, reactions, and emotions while Nathan watches on CCTV.

Ava is, in the beginning, quite obviously a robot. She is smart and her voice sounds human, but she has no hair, you can see her circuitry, and she looks like a complicated mannequin. Under such conditions, it would be hard for Caleb to forget that she is a robot. That, however, changes. One day she appears in a dress and flesh covers the blinking lights and wires that were formerly visible. Donning a brown wig, she looks completely human, and an attractive one at that. Ava is sophisticated, demure, and charmingly flirtatious — and the effect of all of this on Caleb is noticeable. She is, we realize, seducing him. More than that, Caleb is, reluctantly — we see him reminding himself that she is, after all, a robot — falling in love with Ava.

And this is what is disturbing about the film. We feel ourselves starting to care for Ava, too. We don’t want to see her hurt. Like Caleb, we want to help her escape her confinement. Nathan keeps reminding Caleb that her emotions are not real; they are, he says, programmed reactions to the stimuli of Caleb’s data inputs that come to her through conversations with him. But, as the movie demonstrates, the danger of this sort of A.I. — were it possible to create it — isn’t in its ray guns or strength to rip a man in half. Ava has neither of these, nor is she a physical threat. The danger lies in how we as humans are programmed.

God has “programmed” us to react to stimuli, too. When we see suffering, for instance, even in an animal, it moves us to sympathy or to take action. When we are threatened, we feel fear. And when those we love are imperiled, our protective natures are fired. It is instinctive. How much more would we respond if the stimuli came from an A.I. that was capable of replicating human emotions perfectly and, worse, looked human, too? Caleb is responding to Ava’s femininity, her expressions of concern for him, her expressed desire for his friendship, and her romantic overtures. She is manipulating him to get what she wants: freedom.

This was one of those movies that you found yourself thinking about the next morning. This sort of A.I. creates moral ambiguities. Caleb is distressed to see Nathan “abusing” her. But this is no worse than abusing a laptop, as Nathan points out. She isn’t actually human. Had he thrust a screwdriver through her face, it would not be murder or even morally wrong. But because she so closely mirrors humanity right down to even the minutest facial expression, vocal intonation, and physical gesture, to do so would require a suppression of our instincts. We are, by nature, repelled at the idea of mutilating other human beings. (Basic military training is designed, in part, to strip away a man’s natural inhibition to do harm to his fellow man.) And therein lies part of the problem. To suppress such instincts would become dangerous for those of us who really are human; but to do otherwise in a world of deceptive and manipulative A.I., would be no less dangerous.

Who is right and who is wrong, Caleb or Nathan? The answer, you realize too late, is that Nathan is right. But because we, the audience, have been so thoroughly manipulated by the director of this film through seemingly harmless and helpless Ava, we find ourselves siding with Caleb for most of the film. In the end, the experiment is a smashing success, which is to say, it is a global disaster in the making.

Watch this film and you’ll realize that Hawking may have been on to something with his warning. I find comfort in the fact that Ava is, in fact, played by the real life actress Alicia Vikander. She is not A.I. and she so closely approximates humanity because she is human. But if such a creature could be manufactured like an iPod, humanity would find itself manipulated and destroyed by the emotional data they would put into us.

Full List

The Professor and the Madman

“I have to believe there is hope for all of us. Even the most broken of souls.”

As a writer, I have always wanted a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary. It is an expensive acquisition. It is the most complete dictionary of the English language and possibly the greatest work of English since the King James Bible. This film is the extraordinary story of how it came to be. Seventy years in the making, the Oxford English Dictionary was no mean feat. A tedious process, it required an army of dedicated people to produce — the problem, however, was that the man charged with the task, Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson), did not have an army of people. So he published a letter in Britain, America, and the rest of the English-speaking world soliciting volunteers.

The man who proved most useful to Murray was the unlikeliest of people: Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn), an American surgeon languishing in a London lunatic asylum. Having been declared not guilty of murder on the grounds that he was insane, Minor is suffering from schizophrenia, and his active mind turns in on itself without anything meaningful to do in his imprisonment. By chance, he comes across Murray’s letter explaining the project and soliciting help. Minor begins sending Murray letters containing entries for the dictionary. Murray is astounded at the man’s genius and the sheer volume of his work.

This film is fundamentally about the redemption of three people: Murray, who, as a Scot possessing no university degree, is an outsider to the Oxford University system and a victim of its snobbery; Minor, a decent man and a genius who suffers from mental illness; and Eliza Merritt, the woman whose husband Minor killed. Each plays a role in redeeming the other.

Some reviewers, cynics, trashed this film as “sentimental.” What’s wrong with that? I loved this movie. It brought tears to my eyes. Though dark at moments when it takes us into the world of Minor’s mental torment, this is necessary for us to understand how unlikely his redemption really is. The Professor and the Madman will leave you with a good feeling.

There Be Dragons

This is the story of Josemaria Escrivá and his childhood friend, Manolo, two boys caught up in the vortex of the Spanish Civil War, and two boys who went in opposite directions. Escrivá becomes, well, a saint; and Manolo becomes a confused and ruthless fascist.

Sometime we watch movies on a whim, and sometimes we are richly rewarded (How to Steal a Million, a fun family favorite) and sometimes we are not (American Beauty, a movie we shut off). There Be Dragons falls into the former category in spite of itself. I say in spite of itself because this film might have been epic in the hands of the right director. As it is, the relentless dramatic music is overpowering where silence would have been better, the Catholic symbolism can be a bit campy, and the effort to make Escrivá a saint onscreen can feel a bit unrealistic.

That said, sometimes a story is so good that it is hard for an author or a director to totally screw it up, and that is the case here. The characters are compelling, the dialogue is very good (when you can ignore the distracting music), and the message — our God is a God of grace and mercy — is hopeful. Indeed, it is inspiring.

The film begins with the two boys fighting in Catholic school and their headmaster trying to get the boys to apologize to each other. They refuse, to which he replies: “Remember, the withholding of forgiveness is the one thing, as our Lord made clear, that will not be forgiven.” That sets the tone for the movie. Escrivá becomes a man of grace, Manolo a fascist and murderer. And yet, Escrivá never gives up on him, reminding him continually that God’s grace is real and on offer to anyone who should seek it.

“My life,” Manolo says toward the end of the movie when he is an old man, “So many wrong turns.” We’ve seen it. He has done everything that is wrong. Moreover, he has reveled in it. He has withheld forgiveness and others have withheld it from him. Can anyone truly be redeemed? This is the question this film is asking.

It is a question at the core of the Christian faith.

(I’d give it more if they would turn off the music!)

Molly’s Game

This is the true story of Molly Bloom (played by Jessica Chastain), the so-called “Poker Princess.” Bloom, a bright, talented, Olympic-hopeful just misses making the U.S. downhill ski team when she suffers a freak accident during qualifying. Her skiing career over, she is accepted to Stanford University but decides to take a year off to travel and explore her own limits.

Moving to Los Angeles, Bloom falls in with a bad crowd running illegal underground high-stakes poker games that include Hollywood stars such as Matt Damon, Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Bloom is little more than a secretary to “The Game,” as it is called, but because she is smarter than her shady bosses, she is soon running the entire operation and living a life of luxury, power, and prestige. The problem, of course, is that all of this is illegal. Men, addicted to The Game, are gambling and losing millions in a single night. Some face complete financial ruin while others’ lives are altogether destroyed.

Working nonstop and feeling the pressure of running these secret nightly games, Bloom turns to drugs and soon finds herself afoul of the Russian mafia. After an FBI sting operation lands her in jail, Bloom is faced with some hard choices. Does she turn state’s evidence, save herself, and ruin others, or does she refuse to cooperate with the government and accept responsibility for her own choices? Recognizing the collateral damage to wives, children, and otherwise decent people if she rats out players in her games, Bloom, against her lawyer’s advice (played by Idris Elba), refuses to implicate anyone but herself. 

This film is excellent. It is the story of Bloom’s mistakes, yes, but it is chiefly about her decision to right her own wrongs with determination and strength of character. It is a powerful story of Bloom’s redemption when it appears she hasn’t a chance against a government that has little interest in her guilt or innocence and is willing to do anything to coerce her to testify against others – even threating her with life imprisonment. Be warned that the language is rough. But we thought the film worth it.

Q Planes

We love old movies. Seldom will they leave you feeling like your senses have been assaulted or that little ears need to leave the room. And often old movies say something about the era in which they were made.

Such is the case with Q Planes. We watched this little gem on a lark and thoroughly enjoyed it. Released in March 1939 (WWII began in September 1939), it features Nazis, spies, and a witty Sherlock Holmesian inspector from Scotland Yard (played by Sir Ralph Richardson of Doctor Zhivago fame) who thinks the Germans are trying to steal secret British aircraft technology. With the help of a young RAF pilot (Laurence Olivier), Richardson doggedly pursues his theories of German shenanigans when all but Olivier think he is wrong. “I am right,” he says insistently again and again.

The dialogue in this film is clever in the manner that old movies often are. In most modern films, the humor is crass and obvious. Funny lines are delivered in neon to make sure the audience, who are presumed to be stupid, don’t miss the joke. In films of the 1930s – 1940s, the humor is often subtle; so subtle, that if you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss it. Watch Casablanca with the subtitles on and you’ll see what I mean.

According to IMDB, Olivier and Richardson made up some of the dialogue in Q Planes as they went along, having a rip-roaring good time as they went. Olivier later said that he had a hard time maintaining a straight face at Richardson’s unexpected antics and one-liners. And this is easy to believe, because it is Richardson, not Olivier, who dominates any scene he is in. You will so enjoy Richardson’s portrayal of Major Hammond that you will find yourself wishing they had serialized the character. This movie is fun and lighthearted and family-friendly. We think you’ll like it.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

This is a delightful film about a London writer who gets to know a tightknit community on Guernsey in the Channel Islands and their secret book club during World War II. Having received a letter from this club in the years after the war, the author (Lily James) decides to travel to the island to meet the colorful cast of characters and falls in love with one of them. This is a feel-good story, and we like feel-good stories. (Available on Netflix)

Love & Mercy (The Brian Wilson Story)

Remember VH1 Behind the Music? This is VH1 Behind the Music with heart. In the 1960s, the Beach Boys rocketed to stardom on the music composed by band leader Brian Wilson. The Beach Boys enjoyed international fame and all that came with it. Slowly, Wilson (played by Paul Dano and John Cusack), indulging in the sex and drugs so readily available to him, began a steep downward spiral into addiction, divorce, and isolation. By the 1990s, he is a broken and lonely man under the care of a quack physician named Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti) who uses Wilson’s name and residual wealth for his own wicked purposes. Wilson, convinced of his own worthlessness, seems helpless to improve his state and Landy maintains control over him with continual reminders of his past sins. When Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) enters Wilson’s life like a fresh breeze, things begin to improve. Ledbetter, a woman nursing her own brokenness, recognizes Wilson’s enormous talent and the way those around him have exploited it for their own ends. Loving him for who he is rather than for what he is, she leads him from his black hole existence to light and freedom. This often moving biopic is fundamentally about the bad choices we make and the people who truly love us and redeem us when the chips are down. (Available on Amazon Prime)

The Invisible Guest

A man wakes up next to his dead girlfriend and can’t figure out how he became murder suspect no. 1. As cerebral thrillers go, this one is excellent. Spanish with subtitles, you’ll soon forget them and, just when you think you know what is going on, the story takes an unexpected twist. The film starts in the present and looks back, leaving it to you to put the pieces together until the last minute. So get some popcorn, turn off your phone, and pay attention to what is going on. (Available on Netflix)

Phoenix

A Holocaust survivor, Nelly suffers a bullet wound to the face and reconstructive surgery at the war’s end. Upon recovery, she tries to re-enter her life in Berlin, but when her husband doesn’t recognize her, she decides to assume a false identity and find out who betrayed her hiding place to the Gestapo. Was it her husband, whom she adores? Or was it one of her close friends? She befriends her husband and her former friends (who don’t recognize her either) and tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of her betrayal. Along the way, she finds herself falling in love with her husband again – but do we want her to? This movie is haunting and the moment that she reveals her true identity is powerful. Like very few films we watch, you’ll find yourself thinking about this film for days to come. (Available on Netflix)

Hart of Dixie

Though he would never admit it, Larry is a secret junkie of this show! This lighthearted television series ran on CWTV from 2011-2015. The basic premise is this: Zoe Hart, a young up-and-coming physician in Manhattan, is forced by the director of her residency program to do two years as a GP somewhere in rural America if she is to get the fellowship she covets. She ends up in Bluebell, Alabama. At first, she’s a snob and resents the place and the people. But she eventually comes to love both. Rather than ridiculing the South as is so often the case in movies and television, this show finds humor in the differences between New York and Alabama – with Alabama coming out on top most of the time. This is not Christian programming, so take that as you wish. (Available on Netflix)

Larry Alex Taunton is an author, cultural commentator, and freelance columnist contributing to USA TODAYFox NewsFirst ThingsThe AtlanticCNN, and The American Spectator.  In addition to being a frequent radio and television guest, he is also the author of The Grace  Effect and The Gospel Coalition Arts and Culture Book of the Year, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com.