Thursday, 24 April 2014

Transcendence



What a mess! And yet I enjoyed it far more than Winter Soldier.

Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who is making significant progress on artificial intelligence. At the beginning of the film, he warns a conference audience that an online sentient machine would have greater analytical power than the collective intelligence of every person who has ever lived. By the laws of film foreshadowing, we just know we are about to see what that looks like. 

But first a terrorist organization trying to protect humanity from the potential dangers of a.i. tries to kill off all the scientists working on it, including Will. Will suffers a fatal wound but his death is postponed long enough for his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), a brilliant scientist herself, and closest colleague, Max (Paul Bettany), to upload his brain into a computer. Max has serious misgivings about this and tries to keep Evelyn’s expectations in check, reminding her that whatever they uploaded is not really Will.

The terrorists are also brilliant and soon hunt Evelyn down, but not before she connects ‘Will’ to the network. As you can imagine, things move quickly downhill from there.

The plot holes in Transcendence are big enough to swallow one of those mega-aircraft carriers in Winter Soldier. Indeed, the film’s flaws make Winter Soldier look like a four-star classic. For example, the terrorists are clearly portrayed as having their hearts and minds in the right place and having very legitimate concerns about what Will and Evelyn are doing. But the first thing we see them do is ruthlessly slaughter a bunch of ‘innocent’ scientists. This inconsistency is pointed out in the film, but that doesn’t help us develop the least bit of sympathy towards these terrorists. Then there’s the mysterious two-year period when ‘Will’ is setting up an underground mega-complex in New Mexico. The terrorists know ‘Will’ is there but inexplicably do absolutely nothing about it during that two-year period – that’s just plain stupid writing. The film also suffers from a lack of story-flow, with many isolated scenes and dialogues that seem to come out of nowhere (i.e. lack a context). Then there’s the science (what there is of it), which feels pretty weak. As for the acting, well, the best I can say is that, outside of Hall, none of the acting was noteworthy (Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are also along for the ride). And finally there’s the ending, which requires some kind of subtitles to understand. Conclusion: what a mess!

And yet, for largely inexplicable reasons, I frequently found Transcendence to be thoughtful, haunting, beautiful and entertaining. Maybe that’s because it had so many theological and moral implications, giving us not only a clear Christ-figure, but also a God-figure. If a good person is given absolute power, what will that lead to? What are the real dangers of artificial intelligence? Lots of good questions with very ambiguous answers. 

Transcendence had the potential to be a great film, but the rookie writer and rookie director were clearly not up to the task. The result is a film that might be really bad or quite good, depending on what repeated viewings offer. The fact is that I am more than willing to give it that repeated viewing, so it gets ***. My mug is up, though the brew inside is a bit dodgy.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Captain America: Winter Soldier



Mindless quotient: 9/10. Sometimes even the lowest expectations are not enough. Why the critics and the masses think Winter Soldier is such a great film is a complete mystery to me. I’m sorry, masses, but I found Winter Soldier to be a waste of my time and money, even when I was accompanied by a couple who thoroughly enjoyed it. The Iron Man films are classics in comparison.

Winter Soldier is the latest film in Marvel’s ongoing Avengers/SHIELD saga, a saga that is making heaps of money but that holds almost no interest for me at all. This time, we’re treated with Captain America (Chris Evans), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). When Nick discovers that something is rotten in SHIELD, it’s up to Captain America to find out what kind of horror lurks beneath the army base in New Jersey where he was once in training, and then singlehandedly (okay, with a little help) defeat it. Oh, yeah, there’s a mysterious soldier (yawn). 

The film’s opening scenes are so abysmal, I was tempted to walk out after only ten minutes or so. But I figured at least there was no place to go but up. I figured wrong. It’s true that Nick’s discovery had huge potential. This could have been an engaging, suspenseful intelligent thriller about how we are being duped by the powers-that-be to live in constant fear so we will beg them for an Orwellian security apparatus. Alas, instead Winter Soldier went for thrills, with endless mind-numbing action, endless special effects, endless shooting (PG????? SERIOUSLY?????), and a predictable cliche-riddled plot. A complete mess. 

Robert Redford, what are you doing in a film like this? Your acting was by-the-numbers, your character was unconvincing, and do you really think Winter Soldier is advancing the film industry in any way? You do your awesome credibility a disservice by being part of the Avengers universe.

If you are one of the masses who can’t get enough of the Avengers, please tell me why, because I’m not getting it (at least The Avengers had some clever dialogue to enjoy along with its endless mind-numbing action). Okay, that’s enough complaining. For the hint of a positive political message and for the scene in which one person nonviolently stands up to the evil descending on our world, I am giving Captain America: Winter Soldier **. My mug is down. 

The Counselor



This 2013 film was written by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and starred Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt and Bruno Ganz. How could The Counselor possibly miss? And yet the critics thought it did just that, and badly, citing the pretentious dialogue, the campy feel and the dull story that seems to be aiming for something but never finds it.

It’s not the first time in the last year that I have watched a different film than the critics. Sure, the film is way out there, with scenes and dialogue that feel completely unreal and over-the-top. But so was Django Unchained, and the critics loved that one. I appreciated The Counselor much more than Django Unchained, not least because, from the very first minute, it had a theme and characters consistent with where it was going and with the message it aimed to convey (yes, there was one), and because it left the worst of its depravity off screen (though there was certainly enough onscreen as well).

Yes, The Counselor is a very dark and disturbing film, featuring a plot that revolves around the worst things human beings are capable of doing to each other, and I would recommend it only to those viewers who have no trouble watching that other film involving McCarthy and Bardem: No Country for Old Men. If you are one of those viewers and are looking for a unique intelligent artsy thriller that’s full of thoughtful dialogue instead of action, you might want to check it out. But do not expect to enjoy it.

That first minute I mentioned introduces us to the counselor (an unnamed lawyer played brilliantly by Fassbender) and the woman he loves (Laura, played by Penelope Cruz) as they’re having fun in their bedroom in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border. The next scene is in Amsterdam, where a diamond dealer (Ganz) sells the counselor a diamond for an engagement ring and waxes philosophical, something the counselor will encounter repeatedly from various men he meets in the film. 

The counselor next visits Reiner (Bardem), who offers him an opportunity to get in on a great investment. But when he goes to the middleman, Westray (Pitt), he is reminded that this investment involves a Mexican drug cartel and that the actions we take always have consequences. This is the clear message of The Counselor, which suggests that we are all complicit in the evils of this world, so we’d better be prepared to suffer the consequences.

The Counselor drives this message home with endless foreshadowing and storytelling. This is not a film offering surprising plot twists, at least not for the viewer (the men mentioned above have no idea that the driving force behind the film’s plot is neither a man nor a Mexican drug cartel but Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Diaz)) . No, The Counselor wants you to know exactly what is going to happen, so that you can experience the relentless tension and the horror of it long before the worst happens (and we know the worst is going to happen).

This makes The Counselor a very difficult film to sit through, so it’s not surprising that the average viewer had no more use for the film than the critics did, but for me it worked, and it felt exactly like what one might hope for in a McCarthy/Scott film. Did the film have to be so dark and twisted to get its message across? I don’t know. 

Did I mention the awesome cinematography? I am giving The Counselor a surprising ***+. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a cult classic one day. My mug is up, but beware of the dark liquid inside. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Le Week-End



Roger Michell’s Le Week-End stars Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as Nick and Meg, a sixty-something couple who decide to spend their 30th-anniversary weekend in Paris. To call that a questionable decision is an understatement, given that these two people are dealing with deep anxieties and not a little late-life depression. From the start of their weekend, they are bickering about everything, and it generally goes downhill from there. 

Not that there aren’t some positive and touching moments along the way, but the best one can say about this relationship is that it suffers from a serious failure to communicate. Le Week-End also features some very funny moments, especially when Jeff Goldblum comes on the scene as a former student of Nick’s who is enjoying all the success (a new bestselling book) which Nick has always craved but never found. The problem is that the funny and touching moments all seem to have a bitter edge (not in itself a bad thing but it does hinder one’s enjoyment of those scenes). 

While I am a huge fan of dialogue-heavy well-acted European films about relationships and the meaning of life (Le Week-End has many similarities to Before Midnight, my favourite film of 2013), this film about the ups and downs of marriage and the struggle of wondering whether one’s life has had any meaning suffers from a few too many scenes that make no sense in the context. Specifically, there are too many conversations between Nick and Meg that just don’t feel believable, as if they haven’t spoken to each other in years and now suddenly decide they should try communicating while in Paris. That kind of writing grates on me in a hurry.

This review seems quite negative, but that’s not because I didn’t enjoy the film (I did) but because I was expecting better. Broadbent and Duncan do a wonderful job, the writing is generally intelligent and full of wit and wisdom, the setting is marvellous and well-filmed and I give Le Week-End a very solid ***. My mug is up but I was hoping for a tastier brew inside.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Iron Man 3



Having felt that Iron Man 2 was mediocre at best (review can be found on this blog) and having seen that the critics didn’t think much of Iron Man 3, I missed this film at the theatres. But with Marvel superhero films coming out every few months, we thought we should do some catch-up, so I finally broke down and watched Iron Man 3 on blu-ray.

The bottom line is that I like number three much more than number two. It is funnier, the acting is better (Ben Kingsley is terrific), the score is better, the cinematography and special effects are outstanding and the writing is much sharper (even sharper than in the first Iron Man film, which was one of those super-mixed-messages films, no doubted exacerbated by having three writers). There are even comments about violence and some anti-government satire, as we saw in the first film (the plot concerns an American conspiracy, involving at least one government leader, to blame the explosive side effects of an American scientific experiment on Middle-Eastern terrorists).

The second installment of the Iron Man series felt like a waste of time, whereas the third, like the first and The Avengers, at least felt like it was making an effort to be intelligent. The last half hour was full of predictable mindless action and there are no serious attempts to redeem the villain (dare I hope for better from the upcoming Spider-Man?), but that is to be expected in superhero films. Iron Man 3 gets a very solid ***. My mug is up.

Now it’s off to Winter Soldier next week to see our favourite American super-patriot: the super-wholesome Captain America.