Film Review: Transcendence

This review was originally posted at The Orange Post on Sunday 11th May 2014.

The problem with movies entrenched in the technology of the day is that they do not age well. As with last year’s godawful Paranoia (smart phones, wow!) technology soon surpasses the “future” depicted onscreen, rendering the film irrelevant (Hackers) , or at best, a museum piece for us to gawk at with amusement (The Net).

Conversely, every decade or so produces a standout film foreboding the dangers of artificial intelligence. In the sixties, we had (arguably) 2001: A Space Odyssey. The seventies gave us Westworld and the eighties, WarGames. Terminator 2: Judgment Day sprung for the nineties, and the last decade produced er, Eagle Eye.

I’m not sure yet which category Transcendence will eventually fall, but for the moment, let’s just call it a thoughtful slow burner of a sci-fi thriller, with legendary cinematographer Wally Pfister firmly in control of proceedings until the very last reel, when it all gets a bit silly.

Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) are brilliant computer nerds who have developed an artificial intelligence system known as PINN. Alongside their colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany), the scientists struggle with the ethical consequences of their work, however, when Will is fatally injured by anti-technology extremists, led by Bree (Kate Mara), they are forced to upload him into the digital work, a process known as transcendence. As the online Will grows exponentially into an omnipresent “god”, government officials Buchanan and Tagger (CIllian Murphy and Morgan Freeman) attempt to shut the experiment down. But how do you switch off god?

Pfister is best known for his cinematography work alongside director Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception. On his directorial debut, Pfister has assembled a cast to die for, and even manages extract a nuanced performance from the usually mugging Depp.

As expected, Transcendence looks beautiful, particularly the scenes set in New Mexico. The CGI is flawless and believable within the context of the storyline.

Throughout the screening I kept thinking that the film could so easily have been the pilot episode of TV’s Revolution, or a prequel to the Terminator films. Perhaps it is proof that the film is a little too slow paced that my mind was wandering slightly, but overall, Transcendence worked for me. A box office failure worldwide, I hope it eventually finds an audience in the home video market.

With this promising directorial effort, I look forward to Ffister’s next project.

 

Published in: on May 12, 2014 at 00:09  Leave a Comment  
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Box Office Bomb Autopsy: The Lone Ranger

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 23rd July 2013.

Hollywood is reeling after a string of blockbusters failed to perform at the box office. White House Down (starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, due in Australia on September 5), Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger (both now showing) have all tanked, with the latter projected to cost Disney over $100 million in losses. That’s a lot of Disney Dollars for the House of Mouse.

Hi-ho Silver, let’s perform an autopsy on The Lone Ranger before the body gets cold, although one could argue that it was already dead on arrival.

I booked ahead for a screening of The Lone Ranger on its first weekend of release, anticipating a full house. To my surprise, there were only a handful of people in the cinema. That’s a pretty clear indication of the lack of interest in the franchise. How many people worldwide have been waiting for a Lone Ranger movie? Well, I only know of one, my dad. He absolutely loved the film. As for me, I can’t remember ever seeing a Lone Ranger TV show. I know the catchphrases and the William Tell overture but that’s it. How did Disney expect to market this film to children?

Previously, Disney relegated its more adult orientated output for Disney-owned imprints such as Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films or Touchstone Pictures. Not so anymore. The Lone Ranger begins with the standard Disney opening sequence and soon follows it with the villain, Butch Cavendish, played by William Fichtner, eating an adversary’s heart. Despite the Lego playsets and merchandise, this violent film is not for kids.

Director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp have previously struck box office gold with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The same formula is employed here: a complex story with supernatural overtones, Depp completely engrossed in a goofy character, big budget action sequences, a Hans Zimmer score and an overlong running time. Unfortunately, audiences were already starting to lose interest in Jack Sparrow and company by the third sequel (with a fifth entry on its way) and Verbinski and Depp may have gone to the proverbial well once too many. And why call it The Lone Ranger when it’s clearly Depp’s film as “sidekick” Tonto?

There are some major problems with the tone of this movie which is also confusing audiences and critics, much of it surrounding Depp’s portrayal of Tonto. There’s no doubt that Tonto is a racist stereotype. Whether you are comfortable with this largely depends on whether you believe that Depp has Native American ancestry. In May 2012, Depp was adopted as an honorary son of the Comanche Nation but has no confirmed Native American bloodlines.

The Lone Ranger features some violent sequences of Comanche warriors getting mown down en masse by machine guns. Clearly it is trying to acknowledge historical atrocities, but almost immediately we return to Depp playing the fool as Tonto. The film is trying to say something. I’m just not sure what. And neither do the filmmakers.

Despite its problems, I still had fun with The Lone Ranger. Armie Hammer has a great name and shows solid comic timing as the real sidekick of the film, the titular character also known as John Reid. The cinematography, especially in Monument Valley, Arizona, is handsome and the action sequences are skilfully handled. You can see every one of the $250 million dollars spent on the film. The baddies, played by Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson, are appropriately nasty (for a non-family film). Besides my complaints above, my only other gripes are some pretty poor prosthetic work on Depp’s old Tonto (although not J. Edgar terrible) and Helen Bonham Carter playing her standard quirky character.

The Lone Ranger may have failed to fill Disney’s coffers but don’t feel bad for the House of Mouse. Last year they reaped in $1.5 billion on The Avengers and will soon be launching some new entries in a little known film franchise called Star Wars.

Published in: on July 23, 2013 at 17:50  Leave a Comment  
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Film Reviews: 21 Jump Street and John Carter (of Mars)

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 20th March 2012.

Despite being an aficionado of all things eighties, I must admit that I have never watched a whole episode of 21 Jump Street. I do remember how every episode ended though. The gang would be back at the station following a successful mission. Someone cracks a joke. Everyone laughs, there’s a freeze frame and then the end credits roll, complete with the Stephen J. Cannell closing logo. I must have been a big fan of the show that followed.  I’m not sure what it was. I’m thinking it may have been the craptacular Manimal or Knight Rider.

21 Jump Street is the latest in a long line of TV adaptations for the big screen. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the team responsible for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, have taken the show’s title and basic premise to create an outrageous buddy action comedy in the vein of Bad Boys that will satisfy anyone who prefers their jokes blue and isn’t offended by copious amounts of coarse language.

The flick stars former model turned “actor” Channing Tatum (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Vow) and the newly slimmed down Oscar nominee Jonah Hill (Superbad, Moneyball) as recent police academy graduates who are sent back to high school undercover to investigate a drug ring. Of course, neither character wants to relive their traumatic high school years.

Not every joke hits its mark but the cracking pace of the film means that you will hardly notice. Tatum and Hill have great comedy chemistry and the supporting cast, led by a foul mouthed Ice Cube, all get a chance to shine. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that most of the actors cast as students are clearly too old to be at school.

A very unique car chase and hilarious cameos from original stars Peter DeLuise, Holly Robinson and Johnny Depp are worth the price of admission alone. 21 Jump Street is highly recommended.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, Disney utilised its other studio imprints such as Hollywood Pictures to release films with non-family friendly aspects such as nudity and violence. Lately, they’ve become more liberal and happily released their swashbuckling cash cow Pirates of the Caribbean saga under the Disney label. John Carter, with its battle scenes and alien decapitations, is the latest film from the “House of Mouse.”

Known throughout production as John Carter of Mars, the title was shortened after market research showed that the word “Mars” might turn off moviegoers who don’t like science fiction. I’d suggest that the movie poster and trailer, which both feature the red planet prominently, might also be clues.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, the man behind Wall-E and Finding Nemo, John Carter stars the serviceable Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) as the titular Civil War veteran who wakes up on the surface of Mars with super strength (different gravity and bone density, you see) and finds himself embroiled in a four way battle between the native inhabitants.

Many of the set pieces are direct knockoffs from iconic sci-fi movies such as the Star Wars franchise but considering that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the John Carter books 100 years ago, it’s pretty hard to know who inspired who.

Much has been made of the film’s mega budget (US $250 million) and poor box office showing so far ($42 million over eight days with a 59% drop off on its second weekend), but don’t believe the hype. Despite an overcomplicated and confusing storyline, the visuals are fantastic and the retro-fitted 3D compliments the alien landscapes. This is the closest you’ll get to a live action Pixar film.

Published in: on March 26, 2012 at 07:35  Leave a Comment  
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