Transcendence

Of all the things I have to say about Transcendence, I’ll open with this: for the majority of its two-hour running time, I was not bored. I was not necessarily excited, thrilled, or having fun, but I was also not wishing it would end, or feeling the need to check a clock. It might just be intriguing and ambitious enough to be worth your time, even if it often fails to capitalize on those factors or even make a whole lot of sense.

The most curious choice that first-time cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister makes is in the opening, which is set a few years after most of Transcendence’s action. We begin with Paul Bettany walking around a semi-apocalypse, claiming that almost all electricity has been wiped out. Keyboards are being used as doorstops. Our heroes (or villains, or both) are dead. The majority of the story is told in a flashback. We know how it ends, and that rids it of much of its potential tension. No more than a few minutes in, we know the fate of both the planet and our central characters.

No matter. We’re soon taken five years back in time to follow Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who are wonderfully intelligent scientists on the verge of a breakthrough. Will believes that it’s entirely possible to transfer a human consciousness into a computer, and in doing so creating something smarter than all the previously born humans combined. Soon after giving a speech in front of colleagues, he’s shot with a bullet filled with radiation poisoning by an anti-A.I. terrorist group known as RIFT and is given a month to live. Guess what happens.

It’s not his choice to have his mind uploaded into a computer. Evelyn makes that decision, much to the chagrin of Will’s best friend — and also brilliant scientist, because of course he is — Max (Bettany). It’s a success. Will is inside the computer. But is it really Will, or just a copy? Or something that looks like him? Is this A.I. good for humanity, or will it be our downfall, like RIFT suggests? Max wants to shut it down, but Evelyn is so happy just to have her husband back. She kicks Max out and begins to do whatever Will wants, including plugging him into the internet so that he can live in the cloud and be with her forever and always.

A montage and two years later, and Will and Evelyn have created the most scientific lab imagined. Will has developed nanotechnology that can heal any wound, while also making things like limbs and muscles several times smaller. Oh, and the people he fixes are able to be controlled by him at any time, but no biggie, right? Will continues to grow in knowledge and power — we’re told by RIFT and Max, whom RIFT captured — and Evelyn blindly does whatever he says, because women, am I right? (I’m only kind of joking that this is how the film portrays this.)

It’s at this point Transcendence becomes far more of a mess than it ideally would. Too many characters are introduced and have nothing to do, their motivations become a complete question mark — they often “switch sides” without much, or any, reason — and we meander slowly along to the conclusion, which wouldn’t feel so bad if we didn’t know how it had to go down. There’s an attempt to generate suspense here, but it doesn’t work because of the way the story is being told.

There are also more than a couple of moments when you’ll wonder exactly how something is working, or how we got to a specific point. A magical “virus” is introduced at the end, which basically just provides a convenient way to wrap everything up, for example. The entire ending — of the story before the “present,” anyway — is a jumbled disaster.

Science fiction films often attract a very critical and scrupulous crowd, and if you’re one of those types of people, I don’t think you’re going to enjoy Transcendence a whole lot, unless you’re also someone who enjoys finding all of the inaccuracies and implausibilities in someone’s work, because this is a film rife with opportunities for that. It’s not a particularly intelligent movie — even if it had some smart concepts — although it certainly wants to present itself as such. I know some people hate that. You’ve been warned.

Good actors are wasted in this movie. Johnny Depp is extremely low-key, spending most of the film on a computer screen and talking in a monotone voice with an unflinching and barely moving face. Rebecca Hall is supposed to be the core of the film but has such an underwritten role that she can’t do much with it — not to mention the way the film often looks down, intentionally or not, at any shred of emotion her character produces. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are non-entities. Kate Mara and Paul Bettany are barely noticeable.

There are an immense amount of problems with Transcendence. They begin at the first scene and carry out through the film. The storytelling method hampers any attempt at generating suspense. The plot itself is often confusing and leaves the characters undeveloped and with muddled motivations. The talented actors get nothing much to do. But it’s never boring. Is it worth seeing? Only to kill a couple of hours at home when you don’t want to get invested in something but also don’t want to do anything else. No, that’s not a recommendation. But the time will pass. That’s about all I can give it.

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Hateship Loveship

A film whose ultimate message is that, if you are a woman, you can win a man’s heart by doing all the cooking and cleaning, while also letting him steal your money, Hateship Loveship is … basically just that. It has no energy, questionable morals, no compelling characters or performances — but boy, does Kristen Wiig want it to — and it’s without a single memorable scene or moment. It’s a nothing film, filled with no reason to watch or enjoy.

We open with Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig) tending to an elderly woman, who then dies. Johanna is a caretaker/housekeeper who has worked for this elderly woman since a very young age, and has known no other life. Seemingly in the very next scene, she’s hired by a man named Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), who is quite rich. It’s his household she’ll be taking care of. Well, she’s primarily supposed to look after Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), whose mother died in a boating accident caused by her semi-estranged father, Ken (Guy Pearce). Mr. McCauley was given custody after the accident, as Ken was high and drunk at the time. Why was he allowed to drive the boat? Who knows?

However, Sabitha is not particularly fond of her new housekeeper, so along with a friend, she cooks up a scheme. She begins to have a correspondence with Johanna, a naive woman, posing as her father. Sabitha makes Johanna fall in love with Ken. Ken knows nothing of this. Eventually, Johanna and fake-Ken plan to have Johanna move in with real-Ken. So she does. Ken still knows nothing. Imagine his surprise when he wakes up and finds her scrubbing the kitchen floor.

Now, let’s pause for a minute and think about what you would do in a similar situation, regardless of which character you are. If you were Ken, would you let her move in and do everything for you, even after explaining to her that you never wrote those letters? If you were Johanna, would you move in with a man who has no feelings for you and do all the cooking and cleaning because … you wanted him to love you and this is how you think it works?

Look. There’s something to be mined here about broken people and the way they go about trying to find someone to love. Johanna is someone whose every moment was dedicated to caring for that lady, so it makes sense that she’d be naive and not really know how love works. She’s now pushing 40, she’s never been in a relationship, and despite being an incredibly nice person, she’s lonely and sad. That makes sense. But the film doesn’t explore any of that. I’m guessing that this is all true. There are hints, possibly, but nothing more than that. And Joe is someone who killed his wife and alienated himself from his daughter. He’s not trying very hard to repair that relationship, mind, but you can tell he’s a destroyed person. But, once again, the film doesn’t really go anywhere with that. The entire movie is filled with promise that remains uncapitalized upon once it comes to its conclusion.

And you’re only going to be able to get to its potential at all if you can get past what’s a pretty absurd premise. I’m not sure how you can listen to its plot and not laugh a little bit. Hateship Loveship isn’t a comedy, by the way; it wants to be a quiet little romantic drama. Yes, starring Kristen Wiig, who seemingly wants to branch out into dramatic acting. This isn’t the project for that. Her character is a quiet, unassuming, shell of a woman — but also someone emotionally repressed and completely lacking in depth. Whether that was the fault of someone behind the scenes or of Wiig, we won’t know, but this isn’t a role to be proud of. Staring blankly into space does not a subtle drama make.

I’m more willing to blame the screenplay and director than Wiig, though, as there are far more problems with the film than its lead actor. Take the random digressions it forces us to sit through, such as the subplot involving Mr. McCauley falling in love with a bank teller. These add nothing to the film. Its characters have no depth to them, either, which is probably a script issue — or, a source problem, as this is an adaptation of a short story (by Alice Munro, if you’re wondering).

There’s no attempt to generate drama or emotions. Everyone seems to stare blankly at one another. None of the actors appear invested in the material. Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up as Ken’s drug-addict girlfriend for a couple of scenes, and even that combination fails to generate a spark. It’s uneventful and silly. It makes you laugh even though that isn’t its intention. And there’s nothing to grasp onto while it plays. Nobody to relate to and no reason to care.

Hateship Loveship is a film for which I fall into the former category, although that’s far too harsh a reaction to a film like this one. It can’t generate that sort of emotion, one way or another. I watched it and found it boring, but I struggle to hate it. There are no redeeming qualities to it, but it’s so mundane that I couldn’t bring myself to find true disdain for it. Kristen Wiig was the wrong lead — although none of the actors get to do much — and the entire premise is ridiculous. This is a waste of your time.

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Raw Review (April 14, 2014)

Spoilers follow for the April 14th episode of Raw.

Having the flu is just about the worst feeling that can come out of nowhere. At 11 AM, I felt more or less okay. By noon, I was bedridden. I sat through Raw twice because I missed about half of it each time, and also because I couldn’t sleep. I’m a touch better today — good enough to sit at a desk instead of lying in bed — so let’s get this Raw review started.

It’s Ultimate Warrior Tribute Night. The show opens with a fantastic video tribute and all the WWE superstars come out to show their appreciation. Warrior’s final promo is cut into the segment, and it’s tough to feel like he didn’t know something was wrong with him. Even though I’m someone who didn’t really see Warrior wrestle — not “in the moment,” anyway — it was heartfelt and emotional. A 10-bell salute and a standing ovation later, and we’re ready to get on with the real show. A few of Warrior’s best matches, in abbreviated form, are going to be interspersed into the show.

We soon learn that, because the QWE writers are incredibly lazy, they have nobody to challenge Big E for his Intercontinental Championship at Extreme Rules. So, for the next three weeks, we’re going to have a tournament. From top to bottom, the matches go like this: Cesaro vs. Mark Henry, RVD vs. Alberto Del Rio, Sheamus vs. Jack Swagger, and Dolph Ziggler vs. Bad News Barrett. The opening match is RVD vs. Del Rio, because somebody messed up. The rest of the matches will be in order.


Rob Van Dam vs. Alberto Del Rio

Del Rio has had a win or two over Big E lately, and if there’s a favorite for this tournament, you have to think it’s him, right? Besides, RVD’s best skill right now is putting over younger stars. This isn’t what happens. A back-and-forth match — a good one, even if RVD doesn’t bring much of his high-flying offense — ends with RVD picking up the win. So much for my “favorite.” RVD will still likely be putting someone else over, although it’s anyone’s guess at what point that’ll happen.


Cody Rhodes and Goldust vs. RybAxel (Ryback and Curtis Axel)

This is one of those bathroom break matches. Neither tag team has any real momentum right now, and with Goldust only signed until SummerSlam (so the rumors say), it makes sense as to why. A brief match sees RybAxel picking up the victory. That’s two in a row for them. Could they be building up for a title chase? Well, the tag team division is significantly weaker than it was just a month ago, so it’s entirely possible.


Paige vs. Alicia Fox

After stealing the title from AJ Lee and making the entire division look weak in the process, now it’s time for Paige to go on a run. Alicia Fox hits three straight backbreakers and dominates most of the match, all before Paige locks in her Scorpion Cross Lock. Impressive move. It seems WWE is going to push Paige as the underdog for a while, letting her look weak for the majority of the match before coming back and winning in a couple of moves. I was surprised with how good Fox looked, but the three straight backbreakers remind us how limited some of the Divas’ movesets truly are.


Batista and Randy Orton vs. The Usos (Jimmy Uso and Jey Uso)

Someday, perhaps, I’ll figure out which Uso is which. This is a non-match, even though it was billed with The Usos wanting revenge on the men who made their Tag Team Championships look weak just a week ago. The Shield winds up coming down just a couple of minutes in to scare off Batista and Orton. This was done to prove something Triple H said in an early moment: As long as The Shield is around, all three former Evolution members will be unable to go after Daniel Bryan’s title. After the match, The Game passes the two men backstage and says “Told you.”


Cesaro vs. Mark Henry

This was undoubtedly meant to be the opening match, but for some reason it was moved down a slot. No matter. This isn’t a good match. In fact, it’s the weakest of all four matches in this tournament. Perhaps that’s why it was moved down. Cesaro does his general offense, which basically amounts to a flurry of punches, elbows, and European uppercuts, occasionally being pushed away by Henry. The Neutralizer is hit, but less impressively than the one he hit on Big Show. He got Show, a bigger man, up higher. I can’t imagine anyone expected Henry to win. Cesaro’s on too big of a role, but he’ll probably have his chance cost by Jack Swagger in one of the later rounds.


Xavier Woods (with R-Truth) vs. Alexander Rusev (with Lana)

Hey, remember when Xavier Woods was relevant? Me, neither. This is your weekly squash match for Rusev, who kicks Woods a few times, hits a slam, and then uses his Camel Clutch finisher, to which Woods taps instantly. Why is everyone immediately tapping to it? It’s just going to seem stupid when someone doesn’t. Give it a second or two, at least. R-Truth attacks Rusev after the match, which doesn’t end well for him. One kick is enough to take out Truth.


Sheamus vs. Jack Swagger

Swagger is a good in-ring performer, while Sheamus is less so. The two men, as we find out here, work well together. Sheamus hasn’t looked this good in month, and Swagger is always pretty impressive. This is a physical match that’s not in the least bit technical. That bodes well for Sheamus, who wins the match with his Brogue Kick, even though he can barely stand after the match. Well done, gentlemen.


Big Show vs. Damien Sandow

I don’t know if this is really a match, but it has Damien Sandow on the mic to begin. He claims he’s the most deserving Superstar on the roster, and then Big Show comes out. Presumably they’re going to fight. Sandow keeps talking and eventually Big Show’s had enough. He knocks out Sandow with one punch, and then leaves the ring. Sandow on the mic is always fun, but this seemed less than likely to give him any sort of push.

A Wyatt Family promo is up next, which means that one of the show’s highlights is up next. Wyatt does all the talking, as he should, before being interrupted by John Cena. Cena degrades the family, showing pictures of Wyatt’s biological family. Sister Abigail looks just like Wyatt. Wyatt’s mother looks like Luke Harper. Wyatt’s newborn child looks like Erick Rowan. How funny! Not. Eventually, we find out that Wyatt and Cena will battle it out in a Steel Cage at Extreme Rules, all to ensure that the rest of his family doesn’t get involved. I assume we’re supposed to forget that they magically got into the Elimination Chamber.


Santino Marella and Emma vs. Fandango and Layla

A waste of two minutes. Santino and Fandango fight for a second before the Divas are tagged in. Layla throws Emma off the top rope for a pinfall. The in-ring action isn’t good and this feud has been dead for weeks. Why is it still being pushed at all? Please, WWE, drop it.

To conclude the segment, we enter Stephanie McMahon’s office, as she’s berating someone for not doing his job. It turns out that this man is Kane. After being told that he’s a shell of his former self, he reaches for his mask, which just so happened to be sitting on the desk. He promises to eviscerate Daniel Bryan next week. More importantly: MASKED KANE IS COMING BACK! I knew it would happen at some point before See No Evil 2, but the earlier the better. This has me more excited than anything else on tonight’s card.


Dolph Ziggler vs. Bad News Barrett

We follow up the most exciting promo of the night with the best match. It’s good to see Bad News Barrett getting a push, and putting him in a match with Dolph Ziggler, a tremendous in-ring guy, is a good idea. The two have a great match with more than a couple of near-falls. Big moves are hit by each, and a great finish leads to Barrett hitting the Bull Hammer for the victory. Is he the new favorite to challenge for the Intercontinental Championship? He just might be.


The Shield (Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, and Seth Rollins) vs. ???

Earlier on the show, Triple H and Stephanie made the announcement that The Shield would be in the main event. Against whom? They didn’t say. The Shield gets to the ring first before Alberto Del Rio’s music hits. And then Jack Swagger’s. Followed by Fandango’s. 3MB, Titus O’Neil, RybAxel, Alexander Rusev, and Bad News Barrett follow. Yes, it’s an 11-on-3 main event. The match is a mess, but it’s not as bad as it could have been. After The Shield is thoroughly demolished, Evolution comes out. Yes, they’re officially a stable again. Entrance music and all. They beat up The Shield even more. That’s how Raw ends. The crowd seemed dead for Evolution’s official return. That’s surprising. Regardless, it looks like we’re heading to a Shield vs. Evolution match at Extreme Rules. That should be good.

The Good: The promise of masked Kane’s return. Evolution’s return. Dolph Ziggler vs. Bad News Barrett. The Ultimate Warrior’s opening tribute. Sheamus vs. Jack Swagger.

The Bad: Me, getting the flu. The Santino/Fandango feud. John Cena interrupting Bray Wyatt’s promo. Damien Sandow getting knocked out in one punch by Big Show.

Match of the Night: Dolph Ziggler vs. Bad News Barrett.

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Joe

I know that one of the most fun both cinephiles and non-cinephiles can have is to make fun of some of the performances turned in by Nicolas Cage, but every now and then a movie like Joe comes around and we’re treated to a fantastic performance by the actor. There’s no zaniness and no insanity to the job he does in this film. He is grounded and intense, reminding us as he works why he has an Oscar, and why filmmakers still pick him for these types of roles. A dedicated Nic Cage in a film like this one is a force to be reckoned with.

Joe is a film by David Gordon Green that feels like it takes place in the same universe as his last film, Prince Avalanche. Like Avalanche, the movie is steeped in atmosphere, set primarily in the backwoods of rural America — although admittedly this one has more scenes set in houses — and focusing on two primary characters, one older and one younger. The older man is Joe (Cage), the manager of a tree poisoning service. He is paid by logging companies to kill trees so they can be cut down and replaced with stronger trees. The legality of the process is relegated to an afterthought.

The second character is Gary (Tye Sheridan), who comes from a less-than-ideal home situation. His father (Gary Poulter, who died two months after filming) is an abusive drunk, and his sister and mother have become reclusive. It’s primarily on his shoulders to get money, and in doing so he finds Joe and inquires about a job. The two become fast friends. Joe functions like a real father for Gary.

Joe isn’t just about the relationship between these two individuals, though. Joe has his own secrets and his own problems, and the film explores all of those, too. He has a history of violence — he’s been to the jailhouse so often that he knows all of the police officers that work there — and he’s always one wrong look away from being set off. He’s generally a good man, but his past issues always seem to creep into his life. He is our protagonist, but Gary features quite prominently into the film’s proceedings.

This is an atmospheric and realistic movie. The setting brings with it its own sense of time and place. It has been filmed in a way that uses its location as well as possible. This is David Gordon Green at his best. His use of local actors and non-actors gives it that extra boost. These people know the area and know how people in the area act, and it allows them to give an additional bit of realism to the film. It’s always a risk to use actors nobody knows about — you don’t know what they’ll bring to the table — but it’s the mark of a good director when they consistently do great work, and that’s one of Green’s trademarks.

Take the late Gary Poulter, whose only other credit — according to the internet — was a cameo on the TV show Thirtysomething. He was a homeless alcoholic, and while he may have just been playing himself, the performance is incredibly strong. You would never know that he wasn’t really an actor. Without looking it up, I’d wager that most of Joe’s crew was made up of non-actors, too, but the only reason I guess that is because I know that this is something the director does.

Joe is violent. It’s not consistently violent, but the few brief points when violence becomes a central focus are brutal. They make an impact because of this. It isn’t excessive or prolonged, but the violence in Joe is certainly powerful. Most of the movie acts like this, actually. It builds up to its important scenes, and then they hit hard in a brief moment, before we go back to the build-up.

It’s slow-paced, I’ll admit, but that’s mirroring the lives of the people being shown. The film reminded me a lot of last year’s Mud, and not just because both films had Tye Sheridan in them. A potentially dangerous man becomes something of a mentor to a teenage boy whose own father is too busy/awful to do the job himself? All set in a realistic and slow-paced environment interspersed with short bursts of violence or emotionally resonating moments? If you liked Mud, you’re going to really like this one.

This isn’t a plot-driven film, and ultimately I’m unsure of whether it has much of a point. It brings with it complex characters, places them in a well-developed setting, and lets them go about their business. It’s a slow-moving character drama with moments of great violence. If it has a problem, it comes in the form of its subplots, which often feel underdeveloped. Tye Sheridan also shows regression from the form he showed in Mud. Call it inconsistency from a child actor. That’s okay.

Joe is a very impressive film — the type of project that both David Gordon Green and Nicolas Cage should consistently produce. Its rural setting — wonderfully captured by its cinematographer — use of local or non-actors, and realistic portrayal of its characters gives it a powerful authenticity. Its characters are well-developed and performed well by the actors, and while it’s slow moving, it’s never dull. A couple of subplots are left slightly underdeveloped, but for the most part this is a great film that you should see.

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Only Lovers Left Alive

There’s a measure of doom and gloom to almost every single element of Only Lovers Left Alive, and it’s perhaps because of this that it’s hard to truly fall in love with what it has to offer. There’s certainly something, and I don’t think it’s the plodding pace or the romanticism with which it presents its material. I think it’s the sadness that permeates every scene. It’s fitting and it is extremely effective, but it’s exactly the same thing that brought me further towards apathy than infatuation.

The leads are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), not the biblical figures but vampires who have survived for centuries. Adam is currently a reclusive musician, living on the outskirts of Detroit and visited only by one man, Ian (Anton Yelchin), whom he pays good money to do jobs for him. Eve lives in Tangier, and we never really find out what she does to pass the time. Vampires need blood, so each one has found a dealer. Adam purchases his from the local hospital, specifically from a doctor, Watson (Jeffrey Wright), while Eve gets hers from an elderly vampire, Marlowe (John Hurt).

The Adam and Eve are lovers, and soon enough Eve is on her way to Detroit so the two can once again be together. They spend their days sleeping and their nights sitting around. They talk, play chess, listen to Adam’s music, and go for the occasional drive. They get their joy simply by being together. Isn’t that sweet? The film develops at a methodical pace, only truly progressing once Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a young vampire presumably turned by Eve, is entered into the picture. She acts as a catalyst for later events and then disappears.

If you are not a fan of slow-moving movies, Only Lovers Left Alive will not be for you. It takes about 3/4 of the film before anything truly happens. It is primarily about these two individuals interacting with one another. You will not get much in the way of plot or action. I know vampire movies nowadays don’t fit this sort of mold, but this is a different type of vampire movie.

It’s about the dialogue, the small moments, and about learning exactly what these characters feel — especially in regards to being alive for centuries upon centuries. They have different personalities and outlooks when it comes to essentially being immortal, but they are eternally connected, even when separated. We learn a lot about them over the course of the film. They’re both incredibly intelligent and well-read, which almost always leads to interesting dialogue and characters. When you put smart characters in your movie, the result is often far better than if they’re unintelligent. There’s more to listen to, there’s more nuance to the dialogue and the actors’ performances — it’s just a better decision all around, but it takes more proficiency from the filmmakers to not make them seem artificial.

Luckily, Only Lovers Left Alive is directed by Jim Jarmusch, who is an offbeat director who is also someone understanding of people, or at least can fake that he is. His films often focus more on the characters and setting the mood around them, and if you’re familiar with his films, you’ll recognize this as one of them almost immediately. It fits perfectly into his film canon.

The mood that is set here is not one of joy or happiness. That’s perfectly fine. That is what the film and its makers are going for, and it accomplishes that wonderfully. If you’re in the mood for a contemplative film shot through a tone of sadness, you’ll be getting exactly what you want if you watch this film. I struggle to love it after the fact. It is a spellbinding watch, one from which you cannot look away, but would I ever see it again? I don’t think I would.

Now, this isn’t a problem with the film. I mention it because it is how I am feeling now that I have seen it, and I offer it as a potential indication of how you might feel, too. I do not feel as if I wasted my time, but it would be disingenuous to say I fell in love with it, or any similar sentiment. It is a good, maybe even great movie, but it is not one that I think is for many people. It is too slow and too melancholic to have much mainstream appeal.

Everyone will be able to appreciate the performances turned in by the primary cast. Tom Hiddleston is a dark and gloomy loner, Tilda Swinton is a shining light of hope — and the way they develop their characters over the course of the film is as much a credit to them as it is the script. Neither is particularly energetic, but their interactions with one another and general demeanor — as well as the way they progress throughout the film — are fantastic. Mia Wasikowska isn’t in the film enough to make much of an impact, acting-wise, but she brings life to the party. Jeffrey Wright and John Hurt are glorified cameos, but seeing their familiar faces is always a pleasure.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a film that thrives on setting a mood and delivering interesting characters. It is steeped in sadness and gloom. It is an incredibly slow burn, but it’s captivating from start to finish. For a film based around a romance, it’s hard to feel romantic about it. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially for fans of director Jim Jarmusch.

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