Film Review: Transcendence

Transcendence opens with a bookending present-day sequence depicting the post-technological ravages of Berkeley, California. Here, the denizens silently walk the dusty downtown streets and shopkeepers run military-guarded trade posts where keyboards serve as doorstops. Emerging in a neighborhood dormant with overgrowth, Max (Paul Bettany) narrates vague, expository stuff about mankind’s “inevitable collision” with technology as he makes his way to an empty house once belonging to Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall).

The movie then flashes back to the day Will, a prominent researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, is shot by an agent of a terrorist group called R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology, a name loudly indicative of the level of writing on show here), which has simultaneously staged attacks on multiple of Will’s research teams. Though he survives his initial injuries, the bullet that struck Will was laced with a polonium isotope that will kill him in a month’s time, which spurs his wife Evelyn and friend Max to upload his consciousness into the remnants of an existing artificial intelligence framework called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network—again, the writing).

Wally Pfister’s directorial debut (he made his name as Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, dating back to the Memento days) is not so much a mess of big scientific and philosophical concepts as much as it is lifeless procession of those concepts. Much of the problem derives from the proliferation of big-name actors (Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara) playing characters who exist on a logical plane that solely works in favor of the clunky plot. (In response to Will’s developing godlike powers of cell regeneration, Murphy’s FBI Agent Buchanan leads an bafflingly small special forces team in an attack on the underground facility housing Will’s AI while the other characters just look on.)

On a smaller budget, Transcendence at least couldn’t afford calling so much attention to its shortcomings. What’s here shows that Pfister, on his own, is not a long form storyteller. In fact, everything that happens in Transcendence is so incidental, I’m not even sure he’s seeing the page for the words written on it.

Film Review: The Raid 2: Berandal

At a runtime of 150 minutes, The Raid 2: Berandal takes a while to get going, and that’s a strange thing to say about a film that opens with an execution.

We pick up hours after the conclusion of 2011’s staggeringly action-packed The Raid: Redemption with not-so-rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais), still bleeding from the ill-fated raid on a 16-story drug lord stronghold, delivering the crooked police lieutenant Wahyu to Bunawar, the head of an internal affairs unit. In order to weed out corruption in the highest ranks of Jakarta’s police force, Bunawar convinces Rama to go undercover as a common prison thug, arresting him for the brutal beating of a politician’s son with the eventual hope that Rama ingratiate himself with Uco (Arifin Putra), an overambitious crime boss’ son serving time. 

The Raid 2 spends its first hour setting up a vast, entangled web of characters whose motivations and alliances are rarely immediately clear. Returning writer-director Gareth Evan’s handling of such a large scope both works and doesn’t. To his credit, the film never overtly explains the significance of each narrative thread, relying instead on blink-and-miss-it visual storytelling. It can be a lot to take in at times, especially if all you’re expecting is more of the relentless, bone-crunching fight sequences from the original. It is a welcome addition, though, that rewards its audience and in turn makes every action set piece feel earned (and boy, there are many, and they are incredible). 

There are moments, however, when the lack of explanation translates to the film abandoning its primary narrative in favor of fringe characters whose most significant traits are defined by their respective weapons of choice (see: Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man). Evans the Action Director more than justifies the presence of these characters—Evans the Director of Drama, not so much. (A troubling example of this is when Rama disappears for almost 45 minutes in service of a subplot featuring a sad, machete-wielding homeless assassin with baby issues that never ends up affecting the plot as much as the time devoted to it would suggest.)

For its uneveness, The Raid 2 nevertheless lands the big hits with surgical accuracy, rightly focusing its attention on the impossibly well-choreographed action. For The Raid series going forward, I take it as a good sign that, even with bits of broken teeth lining their throats, these characters have a lot more to say.

Film Review: Need for Speed

Need for Speed 2 

As yet another film based on a lucrative video game franchise looking to print money on the silver screen, Need for Speed doesn’t exceed the speed limit by any means.

Aaron Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, an automotive mechanic who moonlights as a street racer when he isn’t just standing around wearing leather jackets. Behind on a loan payment on his garage, inherited from his recently deceased father, Tobey accepts a commission to build a car for rival racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who went pro and subsequently stole Tobey’s girlfriend (Dakota Johnson), promising Tobey a quarter of proceeds of the car’s $2.7 million price tag. Putting it all on the line in a street race in a lame display of macho stupidity, Dino cheats Tobey out of the winnings and frames him for vehicular manslaughter to boot.

Never mind that Need for Speed is a hackneyed revenge flick that fails to do anything remotely new or interesting in its two-hour-plus running time. Present in full force are the expected schlock and awe machinations of a script that consistently mishandles every interaction that doesn’t directly involve rubber meeting asphalt.

Played for laughs is Imogen Poots’ character of Julia Madden, a British high-end car dealer whose first three meetings with Tobey consist of alarmingly outdated girls-don’t-know-guy-stuff gags made all the worse when it turns out she’s supposed to be Tobey’s love interest (you spend the rest of the film increasingly upset at the pairing as the unbelievable romance inevitably blossoms).

Paul brings none of the charisma that made him famous on Breaking Bad, dialing in a vacuous performance for an exceedingly dumb character who mistakes brooding for substance. Poots is naturally funny and injects the film with some much-needed humanity, but her charms are too frequently deafened by the exhausting supporting cast, the most egregious example of which is Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi’s military pilot, whose incessant wise-cracking ought to land him an indefinite prison sentence on the Disney Channel.

Need for Speed’s sole point of recommendation is its well-executed race sequences. As lovingly as the growl, screech and crunch of the various supercars are conveyed, though, it’s a drag when they turn out to be more articulate than the rest of the cast.

1.5 Star

Music Review: St. Vincent - “St. Vincent”

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Since her collaboration with David Byrne on Love This Giant, it seemed that Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, had set a new course, departing her musical curio shop of porcelain melodies and corroded guitar underpinnings for a style that would remain subversive but within a pop context.

Where she went feels dangerously like a retread of the outsider anxieties characteristic of Byrne’s musical persona, nods to which are pervasive in “Digital Witness,” the fifth track and first single from St. Vincent’s eponymous LP. “This is no time for confessing / I won’t bother your mind,” sings Clark, as if acknowledging by omission that she is indeed dressed in the “big suit” made famous by Byrne in Stop Making Sense. Whereas with Byrne the suit was little more than a sight gag played for satirical laughs, for Clark it’s a second skin, and the comfort with which she wears it is bewildering and enthralling.

St. Vincent is a confident album because it is so directly imitative of its influences. The opener “Rattlesnake” quicksteps with a crunchy, digitized amalgam of bass, guitar and keys reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” while “Huey Newton” is so firmly situated in the R&B stylings of the early ‘90s that you half-expect R. Kelly to step in for a verse or two.

Modern pop acts such as Snow Patrol and Metric can likewise be traced in “Regret” and “Psychopath,” both unabashedly optimistic songs offering unhinged perspectives on failed relationships and new love. Like peers past and present, Clark draws on the same ubiquitous well of pop sensibilities, which by all other accounts appeared completely tapped, producing catchy riffs and big choruses with her penchant for twisted tonal digressions and uneasy synthesized chords spruced throughout. (“Bring Me Your Loves” is potent example, the strings of the guitar sounding as if caught in a blender while falling down a set of stairs.)

For as showy as St. Vincent is on the surface, its charm lies in the subtlety with which it appropriates familiar elements without falling subject to them. Though she is most compelling on the album highlight “I Prefer Your Love,” a synth-driven slow dance ode to the strength we draw from the love of others, Clark almost achieves the same success with the album closer “Severed Crossed Fingers.” It’s a lament of lost love (evoking Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” in another moment of mimicry) in which she describes waking up “puddle—eyed, sleeping in the suit,” noting that “the truth is ugly. Well, I feel ugly too.” Wearing that big suit, the truth according to Clark is as hypnotic as it is strange.

3.5 Star

Film Review: The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie is the first no-brainer movie-going recommendation since last summer’s Pacific Rim—a film so brimming with wit, heart and visual inventiveness that it stands as the best movie of the year so far (by far) and one of the best family comedies since Judd Apatow raunched up the field with 40-Year-Old Virgin nine years ago.

Just go see this movie.

Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) stars as the voice of Emmet, a construction worker in the LEGO metropolis of Bricksburg, who is perfectly content to “follow the instructions,” which allows him to live a uniform existence among his fellow Bricksburgians. After he is unwittingly swept up in a resistance movement of Master Builders who seek to reclaim the LEGO universe from micro-managing President Business, it’s the exuberant earnestness with which Emmet takes on his role as the Special that serves as one of the film’s most charming aspects (one winning sequence showcases Emmet’s ingenuity as a Master Builder with the double-decker couch, which is just what it sounds like).

Based on the creative bankruptcy of other toy-based movie adaptations (Hasbro’s Transformers and G.I. Joe series, not to mention Battleship), there’s a gross misconception that The LEGO Movie is little else than 90-minute product-placement-a-thon meant to appeal to anything with eyes and opposable thumbs between the ages of 8 and 14. It is not cynicism that drives me to say, yes, it is that, absolutely. It is also, however, so much more.

The film’s success stems from its irrepressible commitment to convey a true and affecting message about the drawbacks of conformity by virtue of a runaway creative vision of the extensive LEGO universe. This formula, equal parts pitch-perfect satirical depiction of modern life and gleefully frenzied fever dream, helps The LEGO Movie make the most of its daunting franchise-crossing licenses (Will Arnett’s Batman could very well enter the pantheon of most-memorable onscreen Batmen while a cameo from the crew of the Millennium Falcon contributes to one of the film’s biggest laughs).

The result is a film that endeavors to delight its audience using a voice that’s wholly its own. On these terms, The LEGO Movie is a knockout.

4 Star

(Originally published in Colorado Mesa University’s The Criterionon February 11, 2014)

Film Review: I, Frankenstein

I, Frankenstein 16:9

Yikes.

Serious treatments of Frankenstein’s monster have always faltered on the big screen for one reason or another, with examples ranging from the misguided (Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) to the abominable (Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing). Regardless of whether or not I, Frankenstein qualifies as serious, writer-director Stuart Beattie’s adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name at least appeared to offer a new, albeit ludicrous, take on Mary Shelley’s gothic horror classic.

Posing as a direct sequel to Shelley’s book, the story picks up with the monster (Aaron Eckhart) deciding to give his creator, the eponymous Victor Frankenstein, a proper burial (“It’s more than he deserved,” grumbles Eckhart—a lot of grumbling from him here) when he is inexplicably ambushed by demons. While he manages to dispatch a few by himself, gargoyles eventually rescue him. Recognizing something special about the monster, the gargoyle queen names him Adam and tells him of a perpetually ongoing war between heaven and hell unbeknownst to humanity, etc., etc. Fast-forward to present day and Adam is ready to take it to the demon leader Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy), one exploding demon at a time. 

The film’s generic good versus evil setup ensures that none of the specifics it belabors us with really matter. Serving solely to get us from one incoherent set piece to the next, the plot oafishly sidesteps itself and its characters at every turn (two different instances show Adam confronted with troubling revelations about his existence only to react accordingly by jumping through the nearest window). The action scenes aren’t half-bad when we can actually see what’s going on (a memorable one pits Adam against one of Naberius’ lieutenants in the basement of a collapsed building) but the large-scale, CGI-heavy skirmishes depicting multitudes of demons bursting into flames are so uninspired that they could very well have been generated by an iTunes visualizer.

For a movie that nearly achieves Zen in terms of its jazz-handed indifference, I, Frankenstein’s biggest problem is that it has no sense of irony. It operates on a tonal level that is dead serious when it should be deadpan—and sometimes that works, but not here. Watching an otherwise decent actor like Eckhart delivering a line like “Descend in pain, demon!” should at least be stupid fun. In I, Frankenstein, it’s not even entertaining.

0.5 Star

(Originally published in Colorado Mesa University’s The Criterionon January 27, 2014)