Movie Review: Transcendence (2014)

July 7, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Count me as one of the few people who don’t think Transcendence sucked balls.

I admit, given the hype surrounding the script and the star-studded cast, that the film is a relative disappointment, but I still found it to be an intriguing take on the man-vs-computer concept that’s thought-provoking on some levels and at least never boring.

Johnny Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who plans to develop a sentient computer that he predicts will create a technological singularity, or in his words, “transcendence”. His wife, Evelyn, is played by the wonderful Rebecca Hall, and his best friend is Max, played by Paul Bettany.

Of course, there are people out there somewhat uneasy about the possibility of such a creation, and they plan an attempt to derail the whole thing. One thing leads to another and soon Will is forced to insert his consciousness into a quantum computer in a attempt to cheat death. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it worked, and the rest of the movie is all about the consequences of this and questioning whether the computer really is Will’s consciousness or just an imitation of it.

Trascendence, made for $100 million and made only $90 million at the box office, was both a commercial and critical failure for debut director Wally Pfister, previously best known for his cinematography work on Chris Nolan films (Memento, Batman Trilogy, Inception). Despite the film’s unique visual flair, the film was savaged for its lack of logic — even within its limited sci-fi story universe — and bad science, and it also didn’t help that it was released amid the recent Johnny Depp backlash.

For me, Transcendence may have failed to deliver the philosophical sci-fi experience it was trying to achieve, but it’s still not a bad film about the dangers and limits of technology and artificial intelligence. I thought it started off well in drawing audiences in and developing the relationships between the characters, which I thought proved crucial down the line in heightening and contrasting their feelings and emotions.

It’s far from the first sci-fi film to tackle the “control or be controlled by technology” premise, but Transcendence does feature some interesting ideas that I hadn’t seen or thought about before. I won’t give those things way except to say that it takes us not only out of the cyberworld and the world of the physical, but also ventures into the world of the metaphysical. The ramifications take us much farther than say something like 2008′s Eagle Eye or even last year’s brilliant Her (which is a vastly superior film, by the way).

Though the science is extremely sketchy (even for someone as clueless about science as me), I thought both the script (by Jack Paglen) and the direction did a fairly good job of blurring the specifics and using misdirection to fudge things so we simply have to take what is happening on screen at face value. The problem is that fudging can only take audiences so far, and at some stage the whole facade begins to crumble because the computer keeps doing impossible things on the one hand but doing impossibly stupid/illogical things on the other. And once you start to ask yourself why a computer this intelligent and omniscient would do this or not do that, it’s too late — the entire premise of the film collapses in a hurry. The irony is that for what is supposed to be a thinking-man’s sci-fi, thinking too much is the last thing you should do if you want to remain engaged.

That’s a deal killer for most viewers, but let’s face it, it’s not the first time a sci-fi film has failed to make sense. In my humble opinion, the obvious holes are what prevent Transcendence from being a great sci-fi, rather than what make it a completely unwatchable movie. There are enough positive things about it to not call the film a waste of time.

For starters, the eerie feeling the film generates is genuine. While it’s not a horror film per se, some of the things the computer is capable of in the film are genuinely creepy and will make you think twice about handing your life over to artificial intelligence. Secondly, the cast is awesome and contains big names I didn’t even realise were in it. In addition to the aforementioned trio of Depp, Hall and Bettany, there’s also Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara. None of them get to do much, but a bit of added star power never hurt anybody (except in those Expendables movies). And thirdly, the film is stylish, imaginative and not as predictable as you’d expect. It’s well-made, solidly paced over the course of its 120-minute running time, and is never in danger of being a snoozer. That’s already more than you can say about most sci-fi flicks these days.

At the end of the day, Transcendence is never quite as intelligent or philosophical as it set out to be, nor is it as action-packed or exciting as a traditional sci-fi blockbuster. That said, I think those who approach it with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised by how much it has to offer.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Lego Movie (2014)

May 8, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I was really excited when I heard they were making a Lego movie. But then I saw the trailer and thought it looked lame. And then I heard people say really good things about it. So I watched it. And the verdict?

Everything is awesome!

I don’t usually care much for animated films and judge them by harsher standards by most people, but The Lego Movie is pure fun and a lot of joy. The jokes and wisecracks come fast and furious, and it didn’t take long before I found myself having an absolute blast, letting go of my prejudices and simply going along on the wild, adventurous ride.

It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen this year and probably still will be by the end of it. Not everything works, of course, but a surprising amount of it hit the mark with razor-sharp precision. And it’s a gags free-for-all, from slapstick to satirical and from lighthearted to black, with a touch of Will Ferrell randomness. I thought it would just keep using the same gags many of us have already seen from those Lego video games, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The best compliment I can perhaps give it is that the feel was Simpson-esque at times, with a healthy dose of the more tasteful South Park humour.

The most clever thing about the film is that it is multi-layered, from the jokes to the surprising message that rears its head towards the end. What it means is that it can be enjoyed by people of all ages and that everyone will probably take something different out of it. You might laugh at different things depending on your age, but there’s no avoiding the uncontrollable urge to laugh.

Is there a story? Yes, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek one too. Chris Pratt voices Emmett, an ordinary construction worker who is suspected of being the prophecised one known as “the Special.” Together with the help of a sassy lady by the name of Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and a Gandalf-ish wizard by the name of Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Emmett must try and fulfill his destiny and stop the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from destroying their world with dangerous superweapon.

The all-star cast is filled up by other big names such as Liam Neeson, who plays the hilarious Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett as Batman, Channing Tatum as Superman, Jonah Hill as the Green Lantern and Colbie Smulders as Wonder Woman. Additional cast members include Charlie Day, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Dave Franco.

What impressed me about the voice cast was how they were utilised. Normally when you get A-listers doing voices in an animated film there is the risk of them being too recognisable to make the character effective. In The Lego Movie they used the most recognisable voices to its advantage, with Liam Neeson doing his best Bryan Mills impersonation (from Taken) while Morgan Freeman fired out his lines as he would had he been playing God. The results are but-gustingly funny.

The great thing about Lego is that it has so many licensing arrangements with different franchises that it has the ability to throw in a lot of well-known characters. If you were excited at some of the video game character cameos in Wreck It Ralph then you’ll spray your pants when you see some of the cameos in The Lego Movie. I don’t want to ruin the surprises, but if you the character has a Lego version then you’ll probably see him or her in the film.

And I haven’t even gotten to the visuals, which are spectacular. All the colours and all the bits and pieces of Lego you can imagine, being put together and taken apart rapidly on a regular basis. I expected The Lego Movie to be pretty, but not the visual feast it turned out to be.

At 100 minutes the length is about right, but it does slow down considerably as it tries to wrap up. Others might feel like the film was a bit out of control and too all over the place, and it probably was, but I think that was exactly how the filmmakers intended it to be — a crazy, energetic piece of imaginative entertainment that has something for everyone. Let’s hope the sequel (due May 2017) can produce an experience just as special.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Last Vegas (2013)

February 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The idea’s not too bad: a bunch of old friends (emphasis on “old”) catch up for one final hurrah in Las Vegas. Throw in four huge stars — Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Klein — as the leads, toss in a few old jokes (again, emphasis on “old”), and that’s Last Vegas in a nutshell.

I didn’t have a huge problem with Last Vegas, but there was really nothing to like about it either. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, National Treasure 1 & 2, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), it’s a very safe, mildly amusing comedy driven by the star power of its four leads. On the other hand, there’s not much to sustain the film apart from the gimmicky old jokes, and the result is a frequently lame, utterly forgettable experience that you’ll likely erase from your memory in a hurry. It’s a film that wouldn’t have been contemplated without its stars, and is in any case probably best reserved for the straight-to-DVD rack.

Douglas, De Niro, Freeman and Klein are childhood friends who grew up on the tough streets of Brooklyn and remain in touch today as seniors dealing with their own separate problems. De Niro’s character is still mourning the loss of his wife, Freeman’s character is battling an array of physical ailments and his overbearing family, and Klein seems to have lost interest in life. In comes Douglas’s character, seemingly the most charismatic of the group, who is about to get married to a woman less than half his age, and decides to throw a bachelor party in Vegas with his three oldest friends.

So as you might have guessed, the whole fish-out-of-water scenario is designed to put four old guys in a place they’re not expected to be comfortable with, and having us watch them have fun drinking, dancing, splurging and having the time of their lives. The Hangover for Geriatrics is essentially the idea, and it’s not a bad idea, except that it doesn’t work for very long. The running joke throughout the film is that old people are clueless and not cool, a schtick that just keeps getting rehashed again and again. But given that they are the protagonists, the film then tries very hard to convince us that they are, after all, very cool indeed, and young punks who disrespect them will come to regret it. And of course, all four of our heroes will learn important life lessons when it’s all said and done.

I’ll have to be brutally honest here. After a nice setup, the film devolves into cliches and becomes painful to sit through. The jokes are obvious and repetitive, and despite the best efforts of its stars (including the adorable Mary Steenburgen as the love interest), the film is inescapably bland and predictable until its merciful conclusion. It’s not horrible, it’s just…meh.

I am probably making Last Vegas sound a lot worse than it actually is. If you are in the mood for a streamlined plot, obvious jokes and 105 minutes of stereotypical icky Hollywood feel-goodness, then Last Vegas is borderline enjoyable. If you expect more than that from a film with four screen legends, like I did, then chances are you’ll end up bitterly disappointed.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Oblivion (2013)

April 21, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I won’t lie. Oblivion looked pretty awesome from the trailers and I had expected a lot. Which might explain why the film was kind of disappointing. It’s perfectly adequate and beautiful to look at, with moments of tension and occasional thrills. But in the end, it is a film that falls way short of its lofty ambitions and does little to separate itself from other post-apocalyptic sci-fi flicks in recent years.

It is no surprise that the film was directed and co-written by Joseph Kosinski, who made his silver screen debut with Tron: Legacy in 2010, another sci-fi flick that values style over substance. Kosinski’s background is in CGI commercials, including for video games Halo and Gears of War, and he definitely brings that video game feel to Oblivion.

The story is told largely through the point of view of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a technician who fixes drones on a post-apocalyptic Earth that has been rendered uninhabitable following the attack of an alien race. Harper resides in a futuristic home with his mission and personal partner (Andrea Riseborough), who maintains regular contact with a woman (Melissa Leo) from headquarters.

Not surprisingly, things start to fall apart for Jack following an encounter with Scanvengers and a frightening discovery. He starts to wonder if everything he believes is real, and whether the reality he knows is an illusion. I don’t need to say much more, but you can already tell from the brief summary that Oblivion has a fairly typical sci-fi storyline about one man’s search for the truth, and that truth is probably what you suspected all along.

I guess that’s where my problem with the film lay. While it had its fair share of action-packed moments, including several high-speed chases and explosive gunfights, the film travelled at what felt like an intentionally slowed pace so it would come across as more of a “thinking man’s” sci-fi movie. But the thing is, the more I thought about the movie the less sense it made, and the less clever and creative it felt. It just wasn’t as original or intelligent or “different” as it thought it was or wanted to be. The plot twists were also rather predictable and the ending was overdone.

That said, it didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the movie, which did have its moments. Tom Cruise, notwithstanding all his crazy shenanigans off camera, is his usual solid self and delivers a performance that carries the film throughout. I particularly liked his interactions with Riseborough, and thought he had much more chemistry with her than with Olga Kurylenko, who appears midway through the film. Morgan Freeman, on the other hand, felt like a poor casting choice, mainly because his star power meant he would get some screen time in the trailers, which is essentially a big spoiler, and also because that damn voice is so recognisable. Also underused was Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister), who plays one of Freeman’s henchmen.

The film placed a strong emphasis on visuals, with sweeping landscapes, cool-looking machines and gadgets. All that is good stuff, but it’s a shame the screenplay couldn’t make the film more engaging from an emotional and intellectual standpoint. A lot of questions were left unanswered and the questions that were (kind of) answered didn’t have impact I had been hoping for. In the end, I’d say Oblivion was perfectly adequate, but by no means a sci-fi classic or even one of the more memorable sci-fi films I’ve seen in the past decade.

3 out of 5

Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

April 15, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Olympus Has Fallen has been called “Die Hard in the White House”, and for once this description is apt. Of course, it’s nowhere near as good as (what I believe is) the greatest action movie of all time, but all things considered it’s about as good as you could reasonably hope for given the insanity of its central idea — the White House getting taken over by terrorists.

Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, a former Secret Service agent who gets reassigned to a desk job after a tragic accident. The South Korean president visits and somehow the White House gets overrun by a mysterious terrorist. The US president, played by Aaron Eckhart, is held hostage, and Banning becomes the only man who can save him — and the world!

The premise is as corny as described, but to be honest I didn’t find it all that hard to swallow, thanks to director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter), the man with the coolest surname in Hollywood. Fuqua doesn’t make Olympus Has Fallen realistic (that’s impossible), but he allows us to sufficiently suspend disbelief through clever misdirection and never giving the audience time to think about the plot’s deficiencies by bombarding them with non-stop, blazing action. I just kept thinking, “Yeah, that could happen,” and went along for the ride.

Contrast that with another film I reviewed recently, Red Dawn, also about a foreign invasion of the United States (and one of the worst movies of 2012), and you too will appreciate Fuqua’s supreme filmmaking skills. Though both films have lots of guns and explosions and Americanism, Red Dawn bored me to tears, whereas Olympus Has Fallen had me mesmerised.

The film essentially copies the Die Hard template but ups the stakes about a hundred fold. A capable dude caught in a situation he didn’t expect to be in — but instead of a commercial building you have the White-freaking-House. One man against a whole army of badasses. A mysterious and brutal villain determined to weed him out. Epic gun fights, skilful hand-to-hand combat, exploding helicopters, falling from high places, sceptical allies on the outside, no friends on the inside. Awesomeness.

I’ve never really liked Butler outside of 300,  but here he makes an excellent Secret Service guy because he looks the part. Aaron Eckhart won’t be remembered as one of the best on-screen presidents, but he’s certainly not one of the worst either. He doesn’t get to do a whole lot in this film but he makes the best of what he’s got.

The rest of the supporting cast is stellar. As usual, there is the omnipresent Morgan Freeman in the type of role we have seen too many times; Angela Bassett and Robert Forster as anxious government officials; Aussie Radha Mitchell as the wife; Ashley Judd as the First Lady; and Melissa Leo — the standout — as the feisty secretary of defense.

The weak link was Dylan McDermott, another ex-Secret Service guy. It was probably more how the character was written than his acting, but he came across as totally unconvincing and lacking in personality. His story arc was also poorly conceived and concluded. Just crap.

Also crap is some of the pitfalls of the action film that Fuqua just couldn’t avoid, such as blessing our hero with obvious insights that somehow escape the common man (and all of the president’s staff), the usual America “f*%k yeah” moments, as well as the the odd annoying cliche. I also found it strange that a number of the more interesting plot points were either not explored or wrapped up prematurely. I can’t go into details without divulging them, but those who have seen the film will have an idea.

Nonetheless, Olympus Has Fallen turned out to be far better than I expected. Stylish, explosive and rarely a dull moment, it’s the action film that Die Hard 5 could have and should have been (instead of that silly Russian story). Actually, it would have been a pretty good premise for a 24 movie too, if they ever decide to make one. This is a movie I would definitely keep watching if I happen to stumble across it on TV in a couple of years.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: One of the best decisions the producers made was to make this a R-rated film (MA15+ in Australia), which allowed all the violence it needed to be effective. It will be interesting to see what type of film White House Down (which looks like exactly the same film except with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx), set for release in the summer, will be with what is expected to be a tamer PG-13 rating. My guess is it won’t be as good, but you never know with Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) at the helm.

 
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