Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Transcendence" Review

From executive producer Christopher Nolan, Transcendence marks the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister.

Like his work on Inception and the Dark Knight films, Pfister’s dark, brooding visual style translates well to his directorial efforts.

It’s just sad that the pretty pictures are so weakly supported by a poorly-executed story.
Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) hope to achieve a better, healthier, more tranquil world. To do that, they team up with colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to build an omniscient, self-aware, artificial intelligence that can transcend the abilities of the human brain.

It’s no spoiler that Will ends up victim to a terrorist group who will stop at nothing to assure this dream is never realized. As Will’s health deteriorates, Evelyn and Max decide to upload his consciousness to a computer. Little do they realize that they've just given him the greatest gift of his life – to act as the intelligent force behind the world’s first omniscient supercomputer. As his power continues to grow, Will soon poses a threat to the entire world.

Surprisingly, there are never any news reports depicting the effects of Caster’s work, so we never quite understand how palpable that threat really is. It feels too isolated to actually be a credible, worldwide hazard.

First-time scribe Jack Paglen still offers plenty of food for thought with weighty concepts that don’t seem all that far away from our own future. With such heavy themes regarding the “God complex” and artificial intelligence, I’m surprised that this story isn't directly based on previously-published source material. It feels fresh from the pages of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick.

Paglen offers a concept that’s diverting enough and will certainly spurn conversations about what the future of technology might look like.

However, the script feels too cluttered with painfully awkward dialogue and underdeveloped characters.  A few scenes with Depp and Hall feel as if they were cut short before the exchange could conclude.

There are never any lighthearted moments, either. In a science fiction film entirely devoid of even one chuckle, this makes the chemistry between the characters feel muddled and otherwise forced.

Then you have Morgan Freeman as Dr. Joseph Tagger – another colleague of Will and Evelyn’s. In hindsight I have no clue what his purpose in the movie is. I suppose he aids Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) as they try to discover how the terrorists who attacked Caster operate.

I will say that it’s refreshing to see Depp take on a role that doesn't require hours in the makeup chair. As Dr. Caster, he reminds us that he can truly act in something outside of a twisted Tim Burton fantasy.

Kate Mara also stars as the leader of R.I.F.T, the anti-technology organization that knocks off the good doctor. Her character here is pretty much the antithesis of Zoe Barnes in House of Cards. This makes for a fun flip in dynamic for the actress.

It’s got all the trappings of an exceptional sci-fi thriller, but the big concepts feel undercooked in Transcendence.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" Review

The Grand Budapest Hotel is more than just another entry into Wes Anderson’s cache of quirky comedies.

It’s a tremendous caper with hilarity, heart, and mayhem bursting at the seams. Its darker elements, though seemingly uncouth for an Anderson film, evoke shades of the Coen brothers.

For those unfamiliar with Anderson, it’s worth noting that he has a very distinct visual style in all his films. GBH is no exception.

There’s always an actor or vertically-positioned prop defining the very center of the frame. He uses lots of vibrant colors – in this case mostly pink, red, purple, and grey.

Anderson also utilizes lots of flat space, and his shots are mostly middle, symmetrical shots with an occasional swish pan or zoom to another flat, middle shot.

That kind of camerawork, along with Anderson’s propensity for practical visual effects and painted sets, creates a very unique filmgoing experience for the audience.

Such deliberate whimsy makes it feel as though you’re watching a live stage comedy or even one of the early works of French filmmaker Georges Méliès.

This kind of vibrant visual style isn't for everyone. Fans of Anderson’s work will cherish this film as a masterpiece. If GBH is your first rodeo, you may not appreciate it as much. However this is only the second of his films I've seen, and I loved it.

The story of GBH is told in chapters, with each profiling specific characters and events relevant to the plot.

The entire thing is told in this Inception-like fashion where a girl from the present day sits down to read a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” As she reads, the book’s author (Tom Wilkinson) gives an introductory narration in the mid-1980s. From there the voice switches to the author’s younger self (Jude Law) in the 1960s when he visits the hotel and speaks with its proprietor Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). The yarn that Moustafa recants is his coming-of-age story as a young lobby boy in the 1930s (Tony Revolori) who plays apprentice to the hotel’s legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).

When Gustave and Zero steal a famous painting from a deceased widow (Tilda Swinton), her son (Adrien Brody) and a hitman (Willem Dafoe) team up to bring them to justice.

The narrative style works well enough. You almost forget it’s a huge flashback or that a girl is sitting reading the entire story in a book the whole time.

Dafoe’s hitman makes for the majority of the film’s darker moments with grotesque images nearly always springing up in his wake. Although he's still silly enough to keep the lighthearted tone consistent throughout.

Riotously quirky performances from Fiennes and Revolori stand out from a star-studded cast which also includes Harvey Kietel, Jeff Goldblum, and Edward Norton among other big names.

The film’s only major disappointment is to see classic Anderson players like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman reserved to only a few minutes, if not seconds, of screen time each.

Anyone looking to escape the usual trappings of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters should book an extended stay at The Grand Budapest Hotel.


Friday, April 11, 2014

"The Raid 2" Review

There's no "redemption" for the disappointing Raid 2.

In 2012, Welsh-born filmmaker Gareth Evans reinvented the action movie with The Raid: Redemption – an Indonesian martial arts film heralded for its brutal action sequences.
Its sequel – appropriately, The Raid 2 – was touted as The Godfather, part II of action movies by critics and audiences who had seen advance screenings at the Sundance Film Festival.

That kind of hype is a tall order to live up to.

It pains me that I bought into it because the film turned out to be another victim of “sequel syndrome.” That’s when a filmmaker tries to repeat initial success by making the next one bigger and badder. In turn, the sequel loses sight of what made its predecessor so fantastic.

The first Raid was a taut, focused thriller that relied on visceral, hand-to-hand combat and gunplay to generate thrills. There were no complicated subplots, and no overload on character development – just good, old fashioned ass-kicking from start to finish.

The Raid 2 starts two hours after the end of Redemption. Our hero, Rama (Iko Uwais), is sent undercover to infiltrate an organized crime syndicate. We assume the syndicate is the same that the villain from the first film was working for. The synopsis for The Raid 2 on IMDb also suggests that Rama sets out to uncover corruption within his police force, but I didn't catch any of that. It would've been way more interesting with police corruption in it.

As it stands, Evans tries to add some depth to his colorful cast of characters, which is okay. It’s clear that he wanted to up the scope from a single apartment building to an entire city, and I admire him for wanting to take risks with the narrative.

Besides, if your hero makes quick work of a single high-rise, who wouldn't want to see how he fares against a whole city full of thugs?

Where “The Raid 2” suffers is with its high number of central characters. Evans spends too much time trying to develop irrelevant characters with bland dialogue. That’s why the movie is about 45 minutes too long. (It’s two and a half hours altogether!)

What also pissed me off was the fact that Evans used Yayan Ruhian in both movies. Fans know that his character suffered a grisly fate at the end of The Raid: Redemption. It’s a confusing surprise to see the actor return as a different character in The Raid 2. I just kept thinking, “What the hell is he doing here??? If he honestly survived the first movie, I quit.”

Clearly Evans likes Ruhian. I suppose the director wanted to keep him around for his excellent fight choreography.

The niche audience of testosterone-fueled teenage boys and adrenaline-crazed girls that sits down to watch The Raid does so to see some of the finest fight sequences ever committed to film.

Both movies have plenty of that. Uwais and Ruhian are masters of “silat,” a method of Indonesian martial arts. Their fast-paced moves and Evans’ top-notch editing make this franchise’s action scenes worth the price of admission. The new sequel is just bogged down by too much exposition to recommend over its predecessor.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" Review

As the 9th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one might expect "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" to be just another stale superhero flick.

That kind of estimation couldn't be further from the truth.

"Winter Soldier" is exactly the post-"Avengers" kick that this franchise badly needed. Dare I say it’s even better than "The Avengers"?

As Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) continues to realize his place in the digital age, he and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) make a shocking discovery that rocks S.H.I.E.L.D. to its core. As demons arise from Steve’s past, the line between friend and foe becomes blurred. One of those “demons” is a master assassin known as “the Winter Soldier.” His mission, simply, is to eliminate Captain America, but there’s a grander scheme afoot that slowly reveals itself through a series of twists and turns.

Directors Anthony & Joe Russo (perhaps best known for their work directing episodes of "Community" and "Arrested Development") ditch tired CGI spectacle in favor of hard-driving, old-school action.  As such, it's quite unlike any superhero flick to come along in the past few years.

The story from series vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely plays like a gritty espionage thriller in keeping with the recent James Bond incarnations, Bourne films, and even genre classics like “The French Connection”. Some action sequences and themes of techno-paranoia (a la WikiLeaks) made me think that “Winter Soldier” could be as close as Marvel ever gets to Christopher Nolan’s take on Captain America.

Chris Evans’ portrayal of the First Avenger feels bone-deep throughout the film. He has the perfect look and understands that this is a character who is stalwart in his values. This makes Cap easy to sympathize with – perhaps in this situation more than most because he finds himself facing a new threat that isn't made in a laboratory or from outer space.

Anthony Mackie makes his Marvel debut as Falcon – one of the few people Cap can trust on his most daunting mission yet. Mackie is a perfect casting choice, and I can’t wait to see what he brings to the table in future installments.

There are lots of characters in “Winter Soldier”, so it isn’t surprising that some among them feel slightly underutilized, especially Batroc the Leaper (Georges St. Pierre). He’s a big baddie in comic book lore and is good for one badass fight scene at the film’s opening. 

There's also a sweetly nostalgic scene with Steve at the bedside of an ailing Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) asking for advice. I appreciate the throwback, but Atwell is masked by a load of gaudy makeup to give her an aged appearance. She's tough to take seriously, but I still would've liked to see this dynamic explored again, even if just for that dance Steve agreed to 70 years earlier. I don't care if it's in the lobby of the retirement home.

At nearly two and a half hours in run time, the movie is a bit overlong anyway. The writers' decision to abandon these subplots is probably a smart one.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” features much that fanboys and newcomers alike should be excited about. Fans will enjoy the allusions to other films and characters, as well as a change in dynamic for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Newbies will stay for the breathless action sequences and riveting spy-thriller themes.

Alas, the real “marvel” is that “Winter Soldier” is the studio’s finest stand-alone effort since the first “Iron Man” and one of the best superhero films in recent memory.