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TRANSCENDENCE Review: No Flash, No Drive

Transcendence PosterMention Johnny Depp and other than his timeless good looks, people will probably think of at least one of the following three things:

1. Tim Burton. Depp and the quirky director first collaborated on 1990′s Edward Scissorhands.  Since that auspicious pairing debut, they have made seven other films together of varying quality and success: 1994′s Ed Wood; 1999′s Sleepy Hollow; 2005′s Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; 2007′s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; 2010′s Alice in Wonderland; and 2012′s Dark Shadows.  It seems there is no genre the duo can’t handle, and theirs is a professional relationship worthy of mention in Hollywood’s history books.

2. Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s hard to argue the success of this franchise.  Its four installments make it the 11th all-time highest grossing film franchise (adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo), and 3rd all-time for franchises with 4 or fewer entries.  And if that isn’t enough juice for you, consider that the films are based on the classic Disney theme park ride, and that Disney altered the ride to include Depp and other elements from the films.

3. Otherwise bad movies.  It’s his curse.  If you remove the titles above (and even some of them are bad), his resumé is more miss than hit, with such clunkers as 1999′s The Astronaut’s Wife, 2005′s The Libertine, 2010′s The Tourist, and 2013′s The Lone Ranger.

That last title was also Depp’s last major release prior to this year’s Transcendence.  Surely with this high-concept sci-fi thriller, Depp is hoping to shake off the stink of 2013′s biggest summer flop.  Sadly, he needs to keep shaking.

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Depp plays Will Caster, a leading authority on Artificial Intelligence.  He’s a reclusive, humble man who is more at home with his research and work than he is speaking to the public, but he has a commitment that he has made to his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his colleague Max (Paul Bettany).  While speaking to an audience about his latest efforts – a computer that is fully self-aware, processing every piece of information available in the global ether and being “taught” emotions – a group of anti-technology domestic terrorists launches a coordinated attack on numerous computer labs.  Their fear is that computers will, essentially, take over the world.  Their mission is to prevent that from happening.

Part of their plan is to take out Will, and although the shooter’s bullet only grazes the genius, it is laced with a toxin that will kill him in weeks.  Desperate to save her husband, Evelyn suggests replicating an experiment they once performed on a monkey: transfer Will’s existence to a super computer.  With a reluctant Max’s help, it works.  But the FBI isn’t having it, and with help from another of Will’s colleagues – programmer Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) – and resistance leader Bree (Kate Mara), the government does everything it can to stop Will from taking over the world’s computer network, and with that, the world.

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It is dumbfounding how bad Transcendence is, and while it’s tempting to say it’s bad “in spite of the fact it is directed by producer Christopher Nolan‘s go-to cinematographer, Wally Pfister,” there is no evidence to support Pfister is capable of helming his own picture.  Sure, he has four cinematography Oscar nominations (with one win for 2010′s Inception), but this is his first directorial effort.  Also behind the camera, the film is written by Jack Paglan, a writer who, prior to this film, had the exact same number of screenwriting credits that most people have: none.  These rookies make rookie mistakes.  A lot of them.

The biggest mistake they make is that they expect us to simply go all-in with them because of the loftiness of the concept (and perhaps because of the pedigree of some of names on the poster, particularly Depp, Freeman, and Nolan).  But by doing that, they abandon every other rule of storytelling.  The first rule they break?  There’s really no story here.

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Once Will is shot and uploaded into the computer, what follows is the cinematic equivalent of a walk on a treadmill: things happen but the story doesn’t go anywhere.  Cyber-Will’s headquarters are built (more on that later).  Max doesn’t know where Will and Evelyn are, so he frets.  Bree is just as ill-informed.  She and her people fret.  The FBI? Ditto knowledge and fretting.

TWO YEARS PASS.  (So help me.)

Bree and company kidnap Max and they fret together.  The FBI decides teaming with domestic terrorists is the best move, so they fret with Bree and Max.  Even Evelyn frets because of how powerful Will has become and the things he’s done to LOCALS WHO HAVE VOLUNTEERED TO BE MEDICAL TEST SUBJECTS WITHOUT ANY DURESS FROM WILL TO DO SO.  Meanwhile, and this is the worst part about this worst part, Will has done nothing evil or threatening.  In fact, he’s remained off the grid, which is puzzling since he is, technically, the grid.  Other than some financial malfeasance (which is not a victimless crime I admit), all he’s done is make enormous technological advancements that include unheard-of breakthroughs in medicine, all to make the world a better place (so he says) … but he never actually implements anything outside of the small desert town he now calls home.

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All of this treadmill walking creates a dull situation where there is no real conflict.  Oh, there is what appears to be conflict in the third act, but it’s really more of an exchange of violent-like acts than actual conflict.  (Kids playing cops and robbers with finger guns are like the Hatfields and McCoys compared to the conflict in this film.)  And just in case you can’t tell the difference between the good guys and bad guys, fear not.  It doesn’t matter.  The filmmakers go to extraordinary lengths to make these characters as two-dimensional as possible.  You know how I know Bree is a domestic terrorist?  She is made up like Avril Lavigne, all punky and stuff, so she must be some radical.  And FBI Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) is definitely a Fed because he’s so wooden and cheerless.  They even manage to suck the life out of Morgan Freeman, who is as bland as I’ve seen him since – well, since ever.

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In addition to that, the filmmakers betray the primary trust between science fiction creators and science fiction consumers: we will believe what is otherwise implausible so long as you are honest with the fundamentals.  The example I always use for this is that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that a man can fly, but if the cop shooting at that flying man fires seven shots from his six-shot revolver, I call shenanigans.  This film is filled with a lot of these shenanigans, even though I held up my end of the bargain by believing a man’s soul could be uploaded to a computer.  Some might think this is nit-picking, but with no narrative to follow, details become more and more prominent, making errors in those details more and more glaring.

During the big, dramatic, violent-like third act showdown between the goodish guys and the baddish guys, I laughed out loud more than once, and I don’t think I was supposed to.

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After my screening, I pondered on Facebook if this film is “Showgirls bad” or “SyFy Channel (with a bigger FX budget) bad.”  I have to go with the former because SyFy Channel productions, at least those of late (I’m talking about you, Sharknado), strive for so-bad-they’re-fun status.  Showgirls, however, takes itself seriously and has since become what it has become.  That’s what Transcendence is, and only time will tell if it becomes the Showgirls of its time and genre.  Until then, it is nothing more than a throwback to a simpler technological time: 1980s direct-to-VHS schlock.



THE RAID 2: BERANDAL Review: When More Is Less

The Raid 2 PosterThe movie sequel.  Historically speaking, it’s almost as old as the movie itself.  To make a sequel - especially one that follows-up a popular title or cult classic - is a temptation from both artistic and financial perspectives.  The former can allow the creator of the original material to go places narratively that they might not have had the opportunity (read: budget) to visit with the original installment.  Or maybe it can allow a new filmmaker to put their own spin on old material.

From a financial perspective, if a film is a hit, a sequel will (for the most part) guarantee an automatic financial draw from fans of the original installment, meaning the studio releasing the film is taking less of a financial risk.  The film is the brand, the sequel its product.

And with every sequel comes the hope that the execution and reception of the film is closer to that of 1974′s The Godfather: Part II than it is to that of 1987′s Teen Wolf Too.  In almost all cases, it’s somewhere in between.

According to, there are 30 major sequels slated for release in 2014.  As of this writing, eight of those have already been released.  As of this past Sunday, I had only seen one: the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  As of this past Monday, I doubled that tally with a screening of The Raid 2: Berandal.  The original film, 2011′s The Raid: Redemption, has the artistic punch and the rabid fan-base that has made it ripe for a sequel since the day the film opened.  The new day – and the new film – has finally arrived.

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Beginning mere hours after the conclusion of The Raid: Redemption, that film’s protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais), is recruited to infiltrate a mob family by endearing himself to the boss’ son, Uco (Arifin Putra).  His incentive? If he doesn’t do it, his police mentor, Bunawar (Cok Simbara), cannot protect Rama’s wife, child, or father from the people who want to remove from existence anyone affiliated with the events of (the first film).  Rama reluctantly agrees, but there is a problem: Uco is in jail, so Rama must get himself arrested and spend his two years behind bars – and away from his family, who has no idea where he is – making friends with the criminal.  Once released from jail, Rama’s mission is simple: weed out corrupt cops from the inside.

Rama, acting as Uco’s right-hand man, soon learns more is going on than he bargained for. Uco is growing impatient to take over the family from his father, and making bad decisions to expedite that process.

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Unlike more popular sequels of today (sequels that are probably better described as chapters of a greater overall story, like The Hunger Games and the MCU/Avengers franchise), The Raid 2: Berandal is a high-octane action sequel structured in the classic ’80s high-octane action sequel mold. It cashes-in on the popularity of its predecessor, it slaps a number after its title, you do not have to have seen the first film to understand the second, and it has a direct connection to the original film (by way of the lead character and a couple of peripheral characters). Like almost all sequels (’80s action or otherwise), though, this one is also inferior to its predecessor. Unfortunately, what diminishes it when compared to the first installment is what also hurts it as a stand-alone film.

One of the things writer/director/editor Gareth Evans attempts to do with this sequel is to make it bigger than the original – bigger in both narrative and visual scope.

In the original film, the plot is simple: Rama enters the building, fights his way upstairs, and tries to get the bad guy. There is a small but interesting subplot about police corruption, a pair of innocent bystanders who are placed at risk, and a compelling twist (no spoilers) that turns the film into more than a video game; there are real consequences for Rama’s actions other than his own safety and who wins or loses. The simple, straight-forward, and compelling story is just as critical to the film’s success as the action is because it never gets in the way of that action. Instead, it gives the action a vehicle.

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Not so with the sequel. Evans opts to raise the narrative stakes by abandoning the intimacy found in the story of the first film and instead attempting to craft a major Asian crime epic. As a writer, he isn’t up to the task of that scope. The plot – about crime and corruption, fathers and sons, and trust and betrayl – has been done before, and often, and to greater effect, by filmmakers with far better storytelling skills (from in and out of Asia). Not only is the overall story here murky, the dialogue is uninteresting to the point of being forgettable and parts of the storyline are woefully underdeveloped or simply forgotten. But the greatest sin to this bigger approach is that so much time is spent developing the parts of the story where Rama is nothing more than a witness as opposed to being the protagonist. Any sense of what Rama is thinking or feeling about his predicament is mostly overshadowed by the larger dialogue-heavy parts of the story … until it’s time for him to fight, of course.

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This clunky, sometimes arduous narrative (creating an unnecessarily doughy running time of 150 minutes) also gets in the way of the action, instead of advancing the story to the action. In the original film, breaks in action were moments for characters and viewers alike to catch their collective breath. Here, it’s mostly breathing that takes place, with spikes of action peppered in, at least in the first two thirds of the film (the final third is heavily action-loaded). Overall, though, the action falls victim to the same problem the story does: trying to go bigger.

The most mesmerizing aspect of the original film is the action, but not simply the volume and intensity of it all. What really sells it is how much action takes place in such confined spaces. The film is practically claustrophobic, with epic battles between scores of men taking place in small rooms and stairwells and hallways. In this sequel, that happens, and those are the best sequences in the bunch, but there are too few of these moments.  There is an early confrontation in a bathroom stall, a fight in a hallway, one in a kitchen, and a fight inside a car. These battles are intense and even the car chase that follows the fight has great claustrophobic elements, as the streets are perilously busy. (That entire spectacular car sequence is one for the history books.)

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But there are larger-scale battles, too – one in a muddy prison courtyard, one in a nightclub, one in the street – that lack any sense of excitement, and feel like they were put there as a way for Evans to show he can choreograph and film bigger battles. He can’t, or at least he needs to work on it; those sequences are the worst of the film and another detriment in a tale already encumbered with other issues.

Perhaps feeling unencumbered by the tight nature of his first film, Evans also throws in some things that feel like inserts for shock value (a gender-bending porn shoot) or gimmicky characters like Baseball Bat Man (who uses an aluminum bat and a baseball as his weapons of choice) and Hammer Girl (a deaf-mute who uses claw hammers as her weapons).  Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl?  This isn’t a superhero movie. Evans then gets too clever by half and takes Hammer Girl’s potentially spectacular train battle and all but ruins it when he edits it into pieces and interweaves it with the slower, sillier exploits of Baseball Bat Man.

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Julie Estelle (HG) and Very Tri Yulisman (BBM) do very well as – what? – the Dynamic Duet, but for how intense the film is and how serious it tries to be, they feel like they should be in lighter, wire-fu fare.  (Forgive me for mentioning this, but when Baseball Bat Man actually does the Babe Ruth point at his victim, I laughed out loud for all the wrong reasons.)

Let me be clear: Gareth Evans is a sensational martial arts director, and both Raid films contain some of the best fight choreography, direction, and (most importantly) editing that I’ve seen. The filmmakers even displays a nice artistic eye with some impressive wide shots and selective use of slow-motion in this installment. But overall, the film starts sagging 15 minutes in and doesn’t get mean and lean again until near the end.

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The Raid 2: Berandal‘s inferiority to its predecessor is not for lack of trying. Unlike many sequels that look to milk franchises for money rather than attempt to make good films, this one actually tries – and hard – to be an improvement on the first. It simply doesn’t have what it takes to do that, substituting bigger for better, with the net result being a mediocre film with some great moments.


DOM HEMINGWAY Review: Sometimes Bad Is Bad

Dom Hemingway PosterEverybody loves a good bad guy, and Hollywood history is full of great ones representing all eras and genres:

- 1930s horror: Bela Lugosi as 1931′s titular Dracula
- 1940s noir: Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in 1944′s Double Indemnity
- 1950s drama: Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsacker in 1957′s Sweet Smell of Success
- 1960s horror: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in 1960′s Psycho
- 1970s sci-fi: David Prowse as Darth Vader in 1977′s Star Wars
- 1980s action: Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in 1988′s Die Hard (my personal favorite)
- 1990s horror: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs
- 2000s superhero: Heath Ledger as The Joker in 2008′s The Dark Knight

What makes these and other villains so great is that they are compelling, often layered characters that are sometimes charming and always evil, and we either love them or love to hate them.  In either case, love is involved, and while we might want the good guys to win at the end of the film, if something should happen so that the bad guys win, well, that wouldn’t be so bad after all.

I tend to think the leading bad guy of the 2010s is Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki from 2012′s superhero blockbuster, The Avengers (as well as from other MCU titles), but there is a lot of decade left.  The latest entrant in the “Am I A Charming Bad Guy?” contest is the title character of director Richard Shepard‘s latest film, Dom Hemingway.

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As the film opens, Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is released from jail after serving 12 years for an undisclosed crime.  His first major course of action is to reunite with his criminal partner, Dickie Black (Richard E. Grant).  The two men travel to France so that their Russian boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), can financially compensate Hemingway for being a stand-up guy; Hemingway did his time and didn’t drop dime on anyone.

But at the villa, things don’t go quite as Hemingway had planned, and the baddie finds himself looking for new work with a new boss.  Meanwhile, Hemingway also has some unfinished business with a daughter whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade.

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I was a little misleading in my summary of the Dom Hemingway.  It actually opens shortly before Hemingway is released from jail.  He is receiving oral sex from a fellow inmate and throughout the entire encounter, he rambles incessantly about the glory that is his erect penis.  Is it funny at first?  A little. But he prattles on and on and on about it, and it’s in this scene that you learn almost everything you need to know about the character: he maintains an off-the-charts level of self-absorption and he never shuts up about it.

Oh, while I’m being honest here, his first MAJOR course of action when he is released from jail is reuniting with Dickie and getting his money, but his true first course of action is to go to the workplace of the man who eventually married Hemingway’s ex-wife (and helped raise his daughter) and beat the living hell out of the guy who got with his wife, even though he was in jail and he and his wife were in the middle of a divorce.  NOW you know everything you need to know: Hemingway is a narcissistic gasbag with a violent streak (oh, who can’t hold his liquor despite his extolling the virtues of his own liver, clearly his second favorite organ).

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The filmmakers cast their lot with a screenplay that thinks violent + egotistical + bombastic = charming.  It’s bad math.  It’s like they’re trying to make Dom both the setup: the erudite hothead bad guy … and the punch line: one with no sense of when to adjust his own volume and/or when to simply shut up.  What they fail to realize is that just as speaking louder to a foreigner won’t make them understand your language more, speaking louder (and more verbosely) to your audience won’t make you more funny.

Making matters worse is that the film has no narrative whatsoever, and with 93 minutes to fill, it becomes a series of sketches that asks, “What kind of trouble can Dom Hemingway get himself into and out of next?”  And into and out of trouble is what Dom gets best, and he has no one to blame but himself, because Dom Hemingway is the only person Dom Hemingway cares about (yes, he often refers to himself – sigh – in the third person).  So, when the time comes for him to attempt to make something of his failed relationship with his daughter (way too late in the film), it rings entirely untrue because his character is completely self-absorbed with exactly zero redeeming qualities.

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The film is not without some small merit.  Grant is quite good as Dickie, really the only friend that Dom has.  He plays the role with great subtlety and gives Law all the room he needs to make Hemingway the center of attention.  As for Law, there isn’t a piece of scenery he doesn’t gnaw on, and he does the best with what he has to work with, but when the character is deplorable and the comedic material is unfunny and the dramatic material is disingenuous, an actor can only do so much.  There is a very entertaining scene late in the film where Hemingway must crack a high-tech safe in ten minutes (or else suffer the loss of his favorite organ), but that’s like saying the dessert was good on a sinking ship.

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Dom Hemingway is made like its being targeted for teenage boys in the 1980s: it has lots of foul language, plenty of violence and substance abuse, and a few topless hookers.  It substitutes humor with shock and plot with situations, with the pre-requisite, late-film attempt at conscience and morality.

Unlike those ’80s types of films, the cast (at least at the head of the list) is top-notch.  But like those ’80s types of films, this one is destined to wind up at the bottom of a bargain bin.