Post Date Apr 21


Transcendence Movie ReviewWarner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Running time: 119 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

Wally Pfister has made his name as one of the top cinematographers in the industry, having worked consistently with Christopher Nolan and winning an Academy Award for Nolan’s mind-bending masterpiece “Inception.” Now, Pfister is calling the shots himself, making his directing debut with “Transcendence” — and he seems to be aiming for the same kind of philosophical questions and existential dilemmas that “Inception” posed.

Pfister certainly brings his eye for striking visual compositions and dazzling special effects to this sci-fi thriller. Several individual images are really quite lovely. But his artistic talents are in the service of a story that begins life with some thinky (if hackneyed) notions about the dangers of being too reliant on technology before turning numbingly boring and, eventually, just plain silly. It’s an ambitious misfire.

Johnny Depp is oddly monotone and detached as Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who’s been experimenting with artificial intelligence alongside his equally brilliant wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), with whom he shares a charmingly boho-chic craftsman in Berkeley, Calif. When a high-tech terrorist group (led by a barely-there Kate Mara) shoots him at a conference with a radioactive bullet, he only has a few weeks to live. So he uploads his consciousness to the Internet to preserve his legacy. As one does.

Surely nothing will go wrong, right?

In no time, Will is everywhere, seizing access to millions of dollars, controlling machines and minds and — with Evelyn’s help — establishing an elaborate, underground, solar-powered bunker in a middle-of-nowhere desert town, ostensibly in the name of furthering technology. The plot holes are more like chasms, requiring great leaps of faith. The couple’s longtime friends and colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman, part of an esteemed supporting cast) are after them, as is the obligatory FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) leading the investigation into who’s targeting Will and where he is now.

Will’s omniscient, omnipresent quest for power should be frightening. The multitiered hunt to shut him down should be thrilling. The conflicted position Evelyn finds herself in should be heartbreaking. (And Hall’s performance truly is the best part here, because at least she infuses the story with some recognizable humanity). Instead “Transcendence” is none of the above. Working from a script by Jack Paglen, Pfister has made a film that’s actually quite talky, stodgy, dull and overlong.

“Transcendence” also represents a misguided use of Depp’s talents. He’s such a physically creative and fearless actor that it seems like a strange choice to trap him in avatar form inside flat-screen monitors for the majority of the film’s two-hour running time. This Max Headroom version of Depp’s character never registers as a force to fear, despite his growing appetite for control. He’s sedate, annoyingly needy, passive-aggressive and — ultimately — a source of unintentional laughs, pathetically popping up all over the place, begging his wife to talk to him.

Depp hasn’t exactly had a great few years between “The Tourist,” “The Rum Diary,” “Dark Shadows” and “Lone Ranger” (although the animated “Rango” was gorgeous and a great use of his off-kilter charm). But you can see why he would be drawn to the pedigreed team involved with “Transcendence” as well as to its themes, which couldn’t be more relevant. Still, the perils-of-technology parable has been told more grippingly countless times since the proliferation of personal computers began. Hell, “War Games” is scarier than this.

As for the man-vs.-machine interface at work, “Her” made that connection more believable, more moving, and that has everything to do with Spike Jonze’s script. “Her” always treated Scarlett Johansson’s character, the operating system Samantha, like a real and complex person which made her romance with the lonely Joaquin Phoenix totally relatable, despite its innate absurdity. But, as in “Her,” “Transcendence” also features a human surrogate for Will’s physical longings, courtesy of Clifton Collins Jr. When he puts the moves on Evelyn, the moment should be poignant, but instead provokes squirms and giggles.

When it’s all over, you will turn on your iPhone and ask Siri to find you a good restaurant for a bite to eat near the theater. And you will have learned nothing.

Post Date Apr 18 — 13 Sins

13 Sins Movie Review“13 Sins” is darkly funny and deeply twisted. It’s a remake of a 2006 Thai film but it also has something relevant to say about today’s economic woes and the culturally-driven desire to get rich quick. See it with someone who isn’t easily offended. Here’s my review.

Read the review here

Post Date Apr 18 — Bears

Bears Movie ReviewBears! They’re cute and cuddly and furry. But sometimes they get hungry, and there isn’t always a pic-a-nic basket lying around. My review of the latest family-friendly Disneynature documentary timed to Earth Day.

Read the review here

Post Date Apr 15

Draft Day

Kevin Costner as Sonny Weaver and Jennifer Garner as Ali in “Draft Day”Summit Entertainment
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and sexual references.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

“Draft Day” reminded me a lot of “Moneyball,” understandably. Both are about the behind-the-scenes, stat-based wheeling and dealing that go on between big-league professional sports teams — number crunching rather than bone crunching.

While the more serious-minded “Moneyball” focused on the true story of how sabermetrics changed the way baseball teams assess players, the fictional “Draft Day” ultimately is about the way in which character can prevail over combine figures during one of the biggest events on the National Football League’s calendar. Both films offer a glimpse inside the executive offices and a chance to eavesdrop on conversations between some of the most powerful figures in sports. Fans and non-fans alike will find themselves getting caught up in the tension.

But “Draft Day” also reminded me of a totally different kind of movie: “The Devil Wears Prada.” If that juicy peek inside the fashion industry (with a withering supporting performance from Meryl Streep) was a chick flick guys could enjoy, “Draft Day” depicts a macho, muscular world in which women viewers can find themselves enthralled, as well. Of course I know a ton of passionate, knowledgeable female football fans, but “Draft Day” isn’t even really about football. It’s about coming into your own and finding clarity at a personal and professional crossroads. It’s about doing your job. It’s a day in the life.

Director Ivan Reitman — working from a script by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman — makes that day crackle and come to life from the start. There’s something very old-fashioned about the tone here, about the lessons and hard-won victories (I’ve seen the word “Capra-esque” bandied about to describe it, which seems fitting). But “Draft Day” is also completely contemporary in its details, which gives it an air of authenticity. Much of it was shot at Radio City Music Hall during the actual NFL Draft, with commissioner Roger Goodell himself announcing the fictional players’ names. Veteran media figures like Chris Berman and Rich Eisen, along with former superstars like Deion Sanders, Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar, also make cameos as themselves. The access Reitman & Co. received is unprecedented — and man, did they spend some money on majestic aerial shots of empty stadiums across the country — but “Draft Day” doesn’t feel like a total infomercial.

In fact, it’s the abundance of drama off the field and away from the spotlight that becomes a distraction and weighs the film down. When it’s about Kevin Costner trying to prove all his detractors wrong as the beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns, it moves beautifully. As Sonny Weaver Jr., Costner gives one of the finest performances of lengthy career. He’s no-nonsense and a little beat-up. Much of the cocky swagger that’s defined Costner for so long is gone here. He doesn’t care if we like him — he’s just trying to survive.

Costner enjoys some nice chemistry with Jennifer Garner as the team’s salary-cap expert with whom he’s secretly involved (although what develops between them strains credulity and feels like one extra dramatic element too many). Her character is a great one — smart, confident, capable — a strong business woman and a strong football woman. I love that she exists in this testosterone-infused world. Garner also has such a likable presence that she isn’t wielding her character’s talents in a defensive way that suggests she’s got something to prove. She’s just damn good at what she does.

Then again, the film itself is surprisingly good — Reitman’s best since “Dave,” and that was back in 1993. After the early comedies he directed, which defined a generation — “Meatballs,” “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” — Reitman has not exactly been on a roll in recent years between “Evolution,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and (the decent) “No Strings Attached.” “Draft Day” may be overloaded with dramatic subplots over a single, eventful day, but it functions really entertainingly as both a comedy and a mystery.

From the moment he wakes up, Sonny is under pressure from all sides: his girlfriend, Ali, who doesn’t want to hide their relationship anymore; talk-radio idiots scrutinizing his every move; fans calling for his firing; fellow GMs cajoling him to make a trade for his No. 7 pick; arrogant team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), who only cares about “making a splash,” as he puts it; opinionated Coach Penn (Denis Leary in comfortably quick-talking mode), who thinks he knows what’s best for the team; and players pushing themselves directly on Sonny’s private cell phone number (“42″ star Chadwick Boseman, hugely charismatic as an outside linebacker). Even Sonny’s mom (Ellen Burstyn) gets in on the act with a flair for the theatrical as she insists that Sonny take time to honor his father, the Browns’ beloved, recently deceased head coach.

The suspense steadily builds as Sonny charms and barters, bobs and weaves, but it reaches its peak when the Browns are on the clock and Sonny must make his decision. Will it be the highly touted Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a pretty boy who seems too good to be true? Boseman’s Vontae Mack, who’s got a big heart beneath his hotheaded persona? Or team legacy Ray Jennings (Houston Texans running back Arian Foster), who’d love to follow in the footsteps of his father/manager (Terry Crews, solid in a rare dramatic role)?

How Sonny gets there is nothing short of thrilling  — a Hail Mary pass, if you’ll pardon the football metaphor — but he certainly connects.

Post Date Apr 11 — The Railway Man

The Railway Man Movie ReviewAustere and old-fashioned almost to a fault, “The Railway Man” offers tastefully safe treatment of a horrific subject: the torture of a British Army officer at a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman give solid performances in this true story. My review.

Read the review here