Transcendence

Johnny Depp has become something of an enigma. Depp excels at playing wildly over the top characters with very little grasp of what anyone would consider reality. In Transcendence however, Depp makes a completely different choice. Unfortunately, that choice is to sleepwalk through a performance. His character is completely muted with a monotone speech pattern that never displays any hint of emotion. It mirrors the entire film in many ways. This is a one-note, one-theme movie that never stretches out to reach its potential and becomes a logistical nightmare by the end.

Depp plays Will Caster, a brilliant doctor in the field of artificial intelligence. A terrorist organization attempts to assassinate him, but instead of outright killing him they give him radiation poisoning. He is given a month to live and in that time Caster’s wife (also a brilliant scientist) decides to try and upload his consciousness into a computer. Whether or not they are successful is a question that the film tries to answer.

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In some ways Transcendence is akin to the Spike Jonze film Her from last year. It is science fiction, but delves into topics that are not far off from our own reality. Our technology is expanding at an exponential pace and these films deal with what will happen when that technology begins to intersect with humanity. What does it mean to be human? Can a computer understand human emotion? Is artificial intelligence the next logical step in human evolution? Transcendence broaches these topics but never weaves them into its reality in the way Her did. I will give credit to the film makers for attempting to deal with some thought provoking issues, but the film is a mess and never feels like it actually has something to say.

This is the first directorial feature for longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister. I believe that Pfister would have been much better served by starting on a smaller film and getting his bearings before tackling a hundred million dollar film with a star studded cast. This has all the trappings of a first time director: shots that look very nice but don’t mean anything to the story and are flourishes with no point, camera angles that feel just a tad off, a complete set piece to set piece story with scenes that feel separate from the whole. The last of those is something that Pfister’s mentor Nolan is still guilty of so the carry-over there is understandable. There are just too many little problems for the film to add up to anything great.

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This is also the first screenwriting feature for Jack Paglan. Again there are numerous problems that more established screenwriters would have found ways around. The Cillian Murphy character is completely pointless and from a logic standpoint shouldn’t even be in the film. The Morgan Freeman character is inconsequential. The terrorist organization is never fully fleshed out so their agenda seems vague at best. Caster’s wife, played by Rebecca Hall, is forced to change emotions and motivations on a dime depending on what the script is requiring of her in that scene. The script is a draft or two away from being something poignant, but as is is messy and needs some polish. Transcendence feels like a film that either needs to be longer or shorter. It introduces too many characters and plot threads for the film to deal with in the running time. It should be either significantly longer to give the film time to run with its ideas, or stripped down to eliminate the side characters that are unnecessary in the final version.

It is sad that a film that discusses the logic of computers being able to understand and mimic human emotion falls victim to logic problems throughout. For instance, a terrorist group that wants to rid the world of dangerous technology uses every technological weapon at their disposal. Or the fact that someone was able to build a gigantic underground secret lab with the most high powered computers in existence over the span of two years and no one noticed. It is these kinds of problems that hold the movie back. Transcendence has ambitious ideas that are completely let down by the filmmakers’ lack of experience. In more capable hands this could have been something special, but what we received was mediocre at best. Grade: C-

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The Raid 2: Berandal

The Raid: Redemption was a breathtaking surprise out of Indonesia in 2011. It was a no-frills, all out action fest with some of the most incredible hand-to-hand and martial arts scenes ever filmed. Writer/Director Gareth Evans crafted a very tight 90 minute one location action movie that put aside any real character development or unnecessary plot in favor of a cacophony of brutality. Now in 2014 we are given a sequel that picks up mere hours after the first ended. However, where the first film reveled in its stripped down approach The Raid 2 favors a far grander scope. Gareth Evans gives us his version of The Godfather and Goodfellas mixed with Infernal Affairs (or the American remake The Departed if you’re so inclined.) This is an ambitious film and it is a wonder to behold. The only caveat is the penchant for ridiculous violence that is all over the film.

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The Raid 2: Berandal follows the Iko Uwais character Rama from the first film. He is a police officer that is desperately trying to stop the corruption that is plaguing the police force and government. He is enlisted to go undercover and infiltrate the Bangun crime family by getting thrown in jail so he can befriend Bangun’s son Uco. After his release he worms his way into the family and must remain ever vigilant as Uco and the syndicate clash with the rival Japanese. This is a story that’s been told before, but what those films didn’t have was the brilliance that is this film’s action scenes.

Gareth Evans films action in ways that have never been seen. The camerawork is impeccable and he shoots in ways that don’t seem possible. The choreography, camerawork, and editing combine to make one of the most unique film going experiences you will likely ever have. There is even a car chase scene that rivals the very best that have been filmed. The most amazing element is how seamless all of the action is considering how many special effects must be used. Bones are breaking and blood is flying, but the camera never flinches. As a further testament to all of the above elements, the film is mostly shot hand-held, yet we never lose track of what’s going on. Most hand-held fight scenes are purposely shot so that the audience feels the chaos of the situation but can’t really tell what specifically is going on. That is not the case with The Raid 2. The hand-held method here allows us to move with the fight. The audience sways with the action and feels the hits. It is marvelous, innovative, and inventive.

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Iko Uwais is stellar as Rama and brings an emotional weight to his actions that wasn’t seen in the first film. For me though, the standout was Arifin Putra as Uco. Putra is magnificent throughout the film as the ambitious son of a crime boss that is tired of waiting for his turn to rule. He makes the dynamic between his father and himself relatable and brings a tragic character majestically to life. This is his most high profile role to date and it bodes well for his future.

The Raid 2: Berandal is a visceral experience that is not to be missed for fans of the genre. There is nothing quite like it. It’s almost as if Tarantino mashed up Reservoir Dogs with Kill Bill. Gareth Evans served as writer, director, and editor on the film. He served as action choreographer on the first film and lends his hand here as well, along with three others, two of which are Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian who star in the film. There is so much to love here that I could rattle on and on for hours, but I didn’t want to understate how amazed I was at the work of these men. This is the kind of film that genre fans will sit around and gush over saying things like, “Oh Oh remember that one scene with hammer girl on the train? That was awesome.” And everyone will smile because they do remember that scene and it was fantastic. Then someone else will break in with a recollection of another scene and the smiling will go on and on. Grade: A

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Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

I struggled somewhat with my thoughts on Captain America 2. On one hand, this is a finely executed comic book action movie. On the other hand, it’s nothing more than a finely executed comic book action movie. This stands as the best Marvel film behind The Avengers with a nice balance of action and character moments. All of the actors do their best with the material and we are given a few more moments of an actual storyline than we are used to with Marvel’s films. I was entertained and completely enjoyed myself during the film. All of that being said, I can’t help but be underwhelmed by the whole affair. The enjoyment I felt during the movie had faded by the time I made it to my car. There was nothing new in the film and all I was left with was a vague sense of sameness. Marvel’s brilliant marketing strategy that has led to this interconnected universe has overtaken any attempt to make a unique film experience. The template is firmly in place and there will be no deviations much less any surprises. What we are left with is a mildly enjoyable two hour teaser for the next Marvel movie.

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Chris Evans returns as Captain America. He is more versed in today’s age and the fish out of water elements so prevalent in The Avengers have faded away. He is joined by Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow as they try to fight back against bad guys, or who they think are bad guys, or who appear to be bad guys and might in fact be good guys. To be honest it’s hard to tell for vast portions of the movie what’s actually going on. I’m not sure that it matters anyway. We come to Marvel films to watch gloriously over the top action sequences and they do not disappoint here. Every action set piece is well staged even if they don’t make a lick of sense. A Nick Fury car chase scene, in particular, is quite well done. Captain America and Black Widow are given a bit more room to flesh out their relationship, which is a welcome diversion, and their interplay is surprisingly good.

Rehashing the plot is kind of pointless seeing as Marvel has rehashed the same story over and over again. Captain America 2 is essentially Thor 2 except where in that film there was Nordic gods and magical battles, here they are replaced with military action and espionage tropes. I’m sounding more and more down on this film as I go on, but I just can’t help myself. If you are a fan of Marvel’s movies you will undoubtedly enjoy the two hours and fifteen minutes you spend in the theater. There is enough here to like that I don’t begrudge anyone enjoying this film. For me though, I’m starting to feel like Marvel is churning out two hour trailers and I’m tiring of the routine. Grade: B-

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the latest film from Wes Anderson that exists in the universe that only he inhabits. It is a love letter to nostalgia and technique that seeks to justify not only his particular place in cinematic history, but perhaps film as a whole. It also serves as being the most Wes Andersonish film Wes Anderson has made while alternately being the most accessible. The film is a story within a story within a story, while also being a comedy/ heist/ jailbreak/ war/ chase film. Grand Budapest is incredibly ambitious and dense yet never feels too cluttered. It even manages to sneak in some stop motion sequences for good measure. If this had only been an exercise in style and technique Wes Anderson would still deserve praise. As it is, The Grand Budapest Hotel is all of that plus being brilliantly acted, a study in comedic timing, and delightfully charming as well.

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The story begins with an author recounting a story that he was told years earlier that actually took place many years before that. The main plot concerns Gustave H. who is concierge at the titular hotel as he trains, and somewhat befriends, a young lobby boy during rather tumultuous times during a fictionalized version of Eastern Europe in the 1930’s. To give away much more would deprive the pleasure found in letting this story unfold. Comedies in particular suffer when too much is known about the plot, so I will leave it be and instead focus my attention on other matters.

Wes Anderson has assembled every third actor in Hollywood for this film. Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori have the most screen time, but there are supporting turns from Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, and Bill Murray among others. Each and every actor feels perfectly placed in the world even when they shouldn’t fit. Edward Norton, for example, plays the nicest faux-Nazi ever and never even attempts to act German, yet it feels completely organic. This is a testament to Anderson’s ability to realize his particular vision on screen.

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Ralph Fiennes anchors this film as the charming English dandy that is both eloquent and profane. Fiennes is remarkable in this role. While he is widely known for playing the baddies and creeps (Lord Voldemort et al.) he shows a brilliant comedic timing and oozes charm into a role that could easily have been either viciously snide or wandered into parody. His tone is perfect and energizes the film in addition to landing the most laughs. The cast is stellar all around, but I believe particular mention must be made to this wonderful and somewhat unexpected turn from Fiennes. This was a tight rope of a role and Fiennes walked it as very few could have.

Wes Anderson has long been criticized for making the same movie over and over and his detractors will make the same complaint here. Anderson has found a style uniquely his own and rather than abandon it he has embraced the whimsy with a great zest. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel also shows signs of Anderson experimenting in some new ways. There are his typical dolly shots and swish pans to be sure, but here he also highlights different aspect ratios and utilizes symmetry even more forcefully than normal. The difference in aspect ratios for different segments of the film is notable because Anderson uses sight gags that only work when they are presented in the format that they appear in. He is pushing beyond the boundaries of being quirky for quirk’s sake and framing his shots in ways that complement the material. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a definitive step forward in Anderson’s career, showing that he is capable of telling a unique story to accompany his unique visual style. Grade: A

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Noah

Noah is a sweeping enigma. It is a film in two halves telling two very different stories and those stories don’t gel together but butt up against each other like the waves against the sides of that most famous ark. This is a biblical story told via The Lord of the Rings. Noah is foremost a fantasy film for the first half, then after a clean break, a family drama for the second half. It is a scattering of things for all people and that ultimately is what I believe holds the film back. Noah never feels like one coherent vision but bits and pieces from everyone crammed together into a vessel that can’t quite keep it together.

I don’t plan to argue about the biblical accuracy of Darren Aronofsky’s film. That is a different conversation, but suffice it to say that Aronofsky has taken certain liberties with the plot out of Genesis and created a fable that is much more aimed at the environmentalism of today and the psychological mindset of zealots. I will discuss Noah as a film and the strengths and shortcomings of both the visuals and story are reflective only of the film.

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The story of Noah is fairly basic and more or less sticks to the source material. The Creator has decided that mankind has become evil and it is necessary to eliminate the wicked. Noah receives a vision from the Creator telling him that there will be a great flood and that he is to build an ark to save the innocent animals so that after this cleansing the Earth can flourish again. The story in Genesis is fairly short and straightforward, so Aronofsky pads the content with plot elements to make it more dramatic. Unfortunately, the disparate elements don’t add to the story as much as stretch the plot here and there as an attempt to mask the natural shortcomings of adapting a three paragraph story into a two and a half hour film.

I will admit that a large part of the underwhelming feelings I have for the film stem from my affection for the director. Darren Aronofsky has made films that are distinctly his. They are unique looks at the world, and while some are more widely lauded than others, critical consensus has generally been in his favor. I personally am an avid fan of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and Black Swan in particular. The problem here is that Noah doesn’t seem like an Aronofsky film. It has more of an anonymous feel that is more akin to a studio product and is a far cry from the visual panache he is known for. The only stylistic carry-overs appear to be his use of close-ups and hand-held camerawork, which feel really out of place in this story. While those choices tend to evoke immediacy and intimacy in his other films here they distract. I try not to let my expectations affect my feelings for the finished product, but I admit that Noah was not at all where I thought Aronofsky would take the material. I was expecting something more akin to the far superior Take Shelter from Jeff Nichols which I would rewatch in a heartbeat over Noah.

The cast is led by Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Ray Winstone. All are fine choices and do the best they can with the material. Russell Crowe has become so synonymous with period pieces that he just feels like the obvious choice to play Noah. Connelly and Watson fade into the background for most of the picture with just a few glimpses in the spotlight. They both get their chances to have one big emotional moment before shuffling back into the background. Ray Winstone gets credited as the main antagonist, and not only is his entire character wholly unnecessary, but technically he is the second villain behind water. I give credit to the actors for trying, but there is only so much they can do while spewing didactic speeches in lieu of real dialogue. They were doomed from the script phase.

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Noah is a frustrating film as it hems and haws its way to nothingness. It isn’t helped by the awful CGI throughout or the pitiful dialogue. There are flashes of brilliance, such as Noah’s recounting of creation, that are so wonderful that it just further serves to show how lackluster the rest of the film is. I was underwhelmed by the spectacle and disappointed in the uneven tone. If the film is a success it will surely lead to more auteur directors being handed over a hundred million dollars to make their epics, but I can only hope that those directors remember to bring with them that which made them auteurs to begin with. Grade: C-

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