Transcendence

Hey all, this week we’ll be looking at cinematographer Wally Pfister’s feature film Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, and Morgan Freeman. It is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, bloody images, strong language, and sensuality.

Transcendence follows Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Hall) as they create a machine that is all-knowing, while combining it with the full range of human emotions. His experiment, a very controversial one, makes him the target of many anti-technology terrorist groups. In their attempt stop Caster, they instead motivate him to become a participant in his own experiment. Will slowly develops an unhealthy desire for power and knowledge that makes it seemingly impossible to stop him.

4.5 out of 10

Reviews of this have been mostly negative, and I can understand why. We’ve all seen those extremely complex movies that are just too much for us to comprehend, and Transcendence was actually looking like it would avoid being one of those movies. The concept is so great in theory. If anything, it’s extremely original and let’s be honest, Hollywood has lacked in that area of recent. The originality, along with Johnny Depp’s capabilities led us to believe this was something real special. Not to mention it was directed by Wally Pfister, the main cinematographer for Christopher Nolan. Damn, this movie had so much potential. And I think that’s the reason the reviews were so negative; It just could have been so much better.

The cinematography was beautiful, and there was an abundance of fantastic visual sequences. There were some fantastic shots, no doubt the work of an experienced cinematographer. However, the struggle was with the purpose of these shots. Pfister kind of threw in random shots of plants and stuff just to show off his ability to work with a camera. It was visually stunning, but completely unnecessary. Didn’t really help with moving the film forward at all. It was all just for effect, and while that was really appealing, it was kind of just random and showboaty. 

The screenplay was mediocre at best. The characters, like this movie, had so much potential. Depp’s character in particular had the opportunity to be so much more interesting that he actually was. Most of the time he was just there, not really doing or saying much that added to his character. There was so much more to explore with Caster. Depp did the best he could with such a poorly written character, so i guess that’s a positive. Morgan Freeman was just Morgan Freeman, as always. Rebecca Hall wasn’t bad either, her character wasn’t overly exciting as well. She was kind of just a pawn from beginning to end, and she really could have been so much more. I guess that seems to be the theme of this review.

I was really waiting for something super intense to happen, but it never happened. The whole movie was building action that just turned out to be bland. Nothing exciting or memorable ever happened that changed the mood or the direction of the film. It was all too gradual for the sci-fi thriller that it was supposed to be. Though it was supposed to be a thought provoking, mind enthralling thriller, it could have used a moment of intense action and extreme emotion, but there really wasn’t. It was all pretty lame to be honest. I guess that’s the whole reason the movie felt pretty boring to me.

This movie was no doubt supposed to make you think, and for a minute there, it did. I was honestly forced to think about what this movie had to say, but the only problem was, it didn’t last. I didn’t really feel enthusiastic about it enough to care for more than five minutes. The message was way too clear-cut. It was obvious what they were trying to do. They were obviously trying to question technology and its benefit, or lack thereof, on society. I’m pretty sure they asked it, in those exact words. Be more discrete!

This movie had so much potential which is why it is so disappointing. It fell short in so many categories. It was just so mediocre. Even the cinematography some how fell up short, in a way. The more and more I think about this movie, the more and more I realize how dumb it is. Poor Johnny Depp.
~Vig

5.5 out of 10

Science fiction is a hell of a genre.

In fact, it’s probably the strongest sub-category of drama one can hope for. The average sci-fi movie, with just the right amount of characters and a myriad of CGI (Maybe too much in some cases) could tell us a lot about our relationship with science in a very negative (See any time-travel movie) or positive (See…Matrix, maybe?) way. Most often, it lands neatly between with the perils and problems balanced by the endless possibilities.

Transcendence is an….interesting film about robotics and AI. We watch a scientist named Will slowly become accustomed to a new robot body but, you guessed it, things get sour when the limitations of artificial-intelligence are dramatically pushed to the edge by experimentation and so on and so on and so on.

In that respect, Transcendence’s story is pretty standard. Nothing bad, nothing good. It’s a typical sci-fi story if you boil it down. But part of me thinks that Transcendence lost a lot of interesting things in its leap from page to screen. Its the kind of premise that somebody like Isaac Asimov would have cradled but Hollywood suffocated to a point.

Start with the good stuff, shall we? Transcendence DOES have a lot of interesting things going on. It’s been done a good amount of times but plots where humans are somehow rebuilt as computers and how other humans related to those compersons are interesting. There are a lot of questions there: is that computer a person if they feel? Are those emotions genuine? Are our emotions genuine or are they the product of a bunch of patterns that can easily be repeated?

So Transcendence’s story has a lot of weight to it but does it have the right tools? Yes, yes it does. Poor Johnny Depp continually tries hard but never gets the right stage. And you never can go wrong with Morgan Freeman among others (Morgan Freeman has really embraced the Morgan Freeman Effect). The score, as many a IMDB reviewer has remarked, is moving.

freeman transcends

Yet Transcendence has some squirming flaw that took me a while to name exactly: it’s a smorgasbord. A heap of filtered sci-fi tropes of the past couple of years. Aside from that, there’s trouble with whether its an encouraging piece for technology or not. I’m not asking for a straight answer but the film can’t quite balance the positives and negatives of science as much as it wants to (It alternates between showing the merits of AI Will’s plans along with its more sinister elements with noticeable unease). Meanwhile, the characters are…eh. There’s not too much to say. Most of them are cogs that gear the story further. A character in a sci-fi film could be more than a cog but, here, they’re just kind of going through the story.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Otm4RusESNU. And that disappoints me. With some proper balance, more character development and execution this could have worked very well. But those holes are huge, gaping holes. Enough to make its solid grounding unsteady.
~Zach

IMDB: 6.3
Metacritic: 42
Rotten Tomatoes: 19%

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Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

This week we’ll be tackling the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest feature, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson, it is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gun-play and action.

The next installment in the Marvel Universe involves Captain America (Evans) and Black Widow (Johansson) carrying out an array of missions for SHIELD with the help of the Captain Nick Fury (Jackson). However, as the movie carries on, it becomes apparent that something isn’t right with the organization. Old enemies return, alliances are tested and the captain must survive with constantly shifting circumstances, with the mysterious force of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) breathing down his neck.

9.5 out of 10

Marvel’s most recent fixture is bigger and badder than anything we’ve seen to this point. It’s a 2 hour, 15 minute roller coaster ride that keeps you engaged and on the edge of your seat the entire time.

Captain America: The First Avenger was pretty terrible. It was boring, the action was cheesy, and overall, the connection to Captain America he is known so well for having was missing. Steve Rogers is a character we’re all supposed to be able to empathize with and the first one failed to make his story captivating enough for us. The second one, despite him no longer being a scrawny, regular man, makes it easier for us to enjoy his story. It isn’t ruined by poor pacing and a fruitless plot. Everyone has been in a place where they don’t belong; we can empathize with his struggles of trying to fit in with a completely new time period. We can’t quite say we can understand, but we feel bad for him. And that’s what makes this movie so good. We want Captain America to win, and we feel great everytime he succeeds, and we’re scared everytime he gets knocked down. He’s an extremely likeable character, unlike Thor and Iron Man with their cockiness.

That’s enough with all the analytical, meaningful bullcrap; the real fun in this movie is in its action and integration with the Marvel Universe. Like I said earlier, this movie is a fast-paced ride from beginning to end. The action sequences are well-choreographed, and as a result, a lot of fun to watch. The car chase scene with Nick Fury is extremely badass. The character of the Winter Soldier? Badass. Black Widow? Badass, if used in the right context. The whole movie is a lot of badassness if you ask me. The comedy is not excessive either. It wasn’t forced or overused like it was in Thor 2, nor was it radically underused like the first Captain America. The above average writing mixed with the immensely enjoyable action is what made this movie so good.

One of the arising worries many are experiencing about the Marvel Universe is the introduction of so many excessive characters that it just becomes too overwhelming. That could have easily become a problem with the debut of two dynamic characters in Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). However, the characters are so nicely constructed that it’s not a problem. The Winter Soldier was undoubtedly my favorite character in the film. He was dark and vicious, yet still showed signs of humanity throughout, which kept him relevant. Not to mention, Black Widow actually wasn’t a boring, irrelevant character just there for her sex appeal in this one. She was actually pretty freaking cool. I applaud you, producers!

This story did something Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 could not do; it moved the Marvel Cinematic Universe forward. Its plot was fresh and relevant, allowing it to be a good film even without the superhero part attached to it. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t say anything further, but it was a huge risk taken that will really pay out in the long run for MCU, setting up new villains, new heros, and new plot lines that can be explored and utilized in many future Marvel movies.

Overall, this movie is probably my favorite Marvel film so far. It is fun, relevant, action-packed and accomplishes an overarching goal that makes the Marvel universe more interesting than ever before. God Bless You Captain America 2.

9 out of 10

A couple of months ago (While talking Thor 2), I talked about my fear over the fact that the Marvel Universe could very well be spending these next few years spinning its wheels until we get to Avengers 2. Phase I played out more like a solid drum roll while Phase II is just running the clock with very cool, but unsubstantial, stuff to keep us occupied until Joss Whedon finishes, well, whatever he’s doing in Seoul.

But The Winter Soldier really killed it here. It became the best movie of Phase II by leaps and bounds and managed to occupy a spot (Probably fourth or so) on the top five Marvel movies ever (Not just the Disney ones). It moved the universe forward, built up more suspense, yet also managed to satisfy and keep me excited for the time being in the best way possible.

Let’s start with Cap. and the rest of the gang. Cap. has it bad when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Not as bad as Hawkeye. Wherever he was during this, though.). He was probably the least fleshed out of the Avengers members and doesn’t get a lot of good material since his only plight is, as Tony Stark put it so eloquently, being a “Capcicle”. The Winter Soldier knows full well that Cap. is a boy scout and builds the story around it. In fact, he’s less of a boy scout and more of a regulator and a judge, somebody who has to involve himself in SHIELD’s clandestine activities while also trying not to become Nick Fury Jr.

captain america

Captain America (Chris Evans)

That is, after all, what makes The Winter Soldier so great. It has a lot underlying political stuff without being heavy handed. Cap’s struggle against whether surveillance is right may be relevant but its not entirely topical which puts it a tier below The Dark Knight which dealt with similar issues.

The surveillance stuff doesn’t just work on a thematic level but also on a story level. Without giving too much away, the fear that the characters are being under constant watch gives this a sort of claustrophobia and grants the story with a sense that our heroes are being gradually cornered. As Vig brought up to me a while back, the Marvel Universe seems to be giving us a ton of villains while slowly killing off or retiring the good ol’ good guys. I hardly think it’ll be anything that sinister but, if it’s handled well, it could definitely lead to a universal plot point that could trump all plot points.

The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)

The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)

The Winter Soldier pulls a lot of big big moves off smoothly while keeping all of the action pretty small scale. No cities are really torn through, just a couple of SHIELD bases yet this managed to excite me for the next Marvel Installment more than any of the previous ones. As always, keep it coming, Marvel, I (Along with DC) would love to see if you could keep this up.

IMDB: 7.8
Metacritic: 70
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Hey everyone! This week, we feature a new pair of guest writers who you will start to see more often. They’ll tackle Wes Anderson’s latest masterpiece, The Grand Budapest Hotel, starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrian Brody, and F. Murray Abraham. It is rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence.

The Grand Budapest Hotel follows the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a concierge at at a famous European hotel, and Zero Moustafa (Revolori), a lobby boy who becomes Gustave’s confident and close friend. The story revolves around the theft of a valuable, priceless painting and the battle for a family fortune, all while displaying the continually changing climate of between-war Europe.

7.5 out of 10

In 7th grade I spent a night cocooned in bed, colorful earbuds hastily shoved in, watching The Royal Tenebaums on Youtube and praying my parents wouldn’t come into my room and tell me to turn it off. I was transfixed. Since then, I’ve often cited Wes Anderson as one of my favorite directors and that admiration ended up beginning several of my most prized friendships. Needless to say, I was excited about The Grand Budapest Hotel. Back in October I watched the trailer the day it came out and talked about the film in at least 20 different conversations until it was released. Unfortunately, despite (or maybe because of) my high expectations, when I eventually walked out of the theater a couple weeks ago, I felt a bit empty and disillusioned.

To give credit where credit is due, the film was everything viewers look forward to from Wes Anderson. The production design was superb. From baby pink square boxes tied with ribbons and filled with toppling pastries, to the contrast of the candy purple uniforms in the electric red hotel, to the absurdly adorable funicular, it was all perfect and clearly meticulously planned. The humor was right on key. In one scene Zero, the film’s main character, attempts to show off his poetry skills to his mentor, M. Gustave H while in the middle of a jail break. There are witty lines slipped in throughout the film—the fabulous type that if you aren’t careful you might just miss, but if you catch it you’ll be repeating to your friends for years. However, most likely due to Wes Anderson’s ironically huge appeal as a “less know” “artistic” director that people like to brag about appreciating, the Will Ferrel-movie level of laugher in the theater ruined some of the subtly.

 

Despite the similarity in many regards to most of his previous work, I was excited by a couple of new ideas Wes Anderson explored in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Although I’d categorize it as a light hearted film, good for a date or family gathering, there was a ridiculous amount of death. At least seven characters with names and purposes are killed by the end, as well as five other men who pop on screen briefly, and one very fuzzy cat. In typical Wes Anderson style, none of the serious, worldly conflict is taken in the least bit seriously, and I really enjoyed that. Take it how you will, but there was something giddy-worthy about the heaviness of death being casually tossed out the window. Wes Anderson constantly reminds us not to take him seriously and therein lies the charm.

He also plays with age and time in a new and different way. The beginning and the end of the movie take place several years after the majority of the film. Many of the most vivid and exciting characters die before this later, dreary time, and so they are preserved in the excitement and beauty of the magical sub-reality. Delicate layers of age and time are created in the movie in that it starts with a girl reading a book, the author of the book is an old man, the old man was once a young man who went to a hotel, at the hotel he met an old man who was also once young, and once upon a time, when that old man was young, he had an adventure. In this way a depth is created that makes the story feel a bit like a family heirloom.

And yet, as I’ve said, I didn’t love it, which for a long time confused even me. I believe the reason is that I felt there was very little real substance to the film. There was no real emotional impact, no powerful message or intense provocation. Even the storyline was a bit hard to follow and twisted to the point of meaninglessness. One could argue that this type of story is part of Wes Anderson’s charm, and I did appreciate many aspects of this film, but, to me, you can’t wrap a pointless screenplay in a pretty pastry box and ship it out as a masterpiece.
~Sam

4 out of 10

It is a common criticism levied at some modern films that a film’s trailer is more satisfying than the film itself. Generally this criticism tends to apply to lowbrow action or cheap comedy films, rather than the work of arguably one of the greatest directors of this generation. But in The Grand Budapest Hotel I believe I have found such an odd case. The trailer is sublime: it provides considerable laughs in only two minutes while hinting at a darker and intriguing side to the film. Most importantly of all, it is imbued with the striking visual style so commonly found in Anderson’s films. The world of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s style bears more resemblance to a pastry shop than to the actual world: completely filled with bright, fluffy colors. It is hardly necessary to say the trailer had me salivating for the full package.

Sadly though, what was so appealing for a little more than two minutes became tiresome after an hour. The only experience I can liken how I felt watching this movie to is a particularly misguided tasting menu I once unwisely sat through. Each course has some merit to it but they all leave you with the expectation of something richer, more exciting, more substantial to come. And though each of the ten courses seems to be teasing its arrival, the substance never actually arrives. Anderson takes on a similar journey in this movie as he guides us from beautiful scene to beautiful scene without ever giving the viewer what they want: some narrative of consequence to chew on.

Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes

My other primary qualm with the movie is the casting. There have been few movies in the past few years or indeed ever with as accomplished a cast as this one. This may lead you to believe it is a good cast but it is not. Anderson seems to have managed the in some ways quite admirable task of bringing together almost ten truly class-A actors and not getting a single fantastic performance out of any of them. Ralph Fiennes is arguably the greatest disappointment. Fiennes is such an accomplished actor and has inhabited so many classic roles that it took me more than a week of reflection following seeing the movie to realize that really he is not all that suited to the role. This sad miscast mars any of the humor his character may have provided. One reprieve from the mediocrity is Tilda Swinton who does a wonderful job as a manic client of the hotel though her appearance is far too short to provide much comfort.

Tilda Swanton

Tilda Swanton

Quirkiness is rarely a bad thing in movies. In fact it is this movie’s quirkiness that makes it watchable at all. But quirkiness is not an excuse for a movie devoid of much plot or meaning. A good example is the quite casual deaths of almost the main characters in the film. Quirky? Yes. Containing any more emotional depth or nuance than the exaggerated collapse of Juliet in a middle school production of Romeo and Juliet? Sadly not. This movie begs the question of whether Anderson will ever discover the form on which he was able to combine quirk in substance in a ratio that does not leave one dissatisfied and hungry for the next course.
~Nic

IMDB: 8.1
Metacritic: 88
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%