Friday, April 25, 2014


Dir. Wally Pfister

2.5 out of 5

All machines-run-amok scenarios share a common hurdle: how do you demonize hardware?  Most of them avoid this question entirely - the burden of guilt tends to fall on those creating or controlling the technology rather than the technology itself.  The techno-thriller Transcendence looks at the current Internet age and sees something more disconcerting than mad scientists or sleep-deprived programmers hitting the wrong keystrokes.  In a world where we've allowed various forms of artificial intelligence to exert so much control within our lives, how long until they realize how much power they truly possess?

To be fair, every system needs an input, and Transcendence has computer genius Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a rockstar inventor developing a sophisticated supercomputer called P.I.N.N. that mimics brain activity to achieve a almost-sentient consciousness.  Will, along his wife and fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his colleague Max (Paul Bettany), believe in their work's ability to address massive global concerns such as poverty, hunger, and pollution.  However, a neo-Luddite terrorist group sees a perversion of nature, and one of its agents fatally wounds Will with a radiation-tainted bullet.  

Desperate with grief, Evelyn and Max use Will's last weeks to fulfill his last-ditch plan to upload his own consciousness into P.I.N.N., abandoning his mortal body in exchange for a prolonged digital lifespan.  Will dies but the gambit works:  he speaks to Evelyn first through a command prompt, then as a voiceover and eventually as an omnipresent 3D avatar.  The breakthrough causes a rift between Evelyn and Max, with the latter providing the obligatory warnings about overreaching technology while the former sees a way to extend both her emotional and academic relationships with her late husband.  Even for a grieving widow, though, she seems pretty naive; Evelyn barely bats an eye when Will casually requests to be connected to the Internet so he can probe global financial markets.

The film sustains itself largely upon its own admirable creative gumption as well as its talented cast, particularly Hall, who ably translates Evelyn's grief into a workaholism that conjures a sprawling solar-powered compound for Will's project - now called "Transcendence" - in a blighted desert town.  Renowned cinematographer Wally Pfister, best known for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan, also brings a fully-realized visual sensibility to his directorial debut:  a creeping claustrophobia that prominently features Evelyn among long corridors of servers, solar panels, and research bays, as if trapped in a literal labyrinth of technology.

Unfortunately, Pfister and writer Jack Paglan keep bumping up against the limitations of the undercooked yet overcrowded plot.  Transcendence has a way of awkwardly combining its heady, hard sci-fi themes with dramatic cues straight from a B-movie, and the tumble down the slippery slope begins when Will starts turning people into his own networked acolytes.  Much like the Transcendence project itself, the movie's ambitions often outstrip its logic.  Max's story is downright baffling, first with his eleventh-hour protests ringing hollow alongside his admiration for and acquiescence to Will.  Later he's kidnapped and apparently turned by the same Luddite terrorist (Kate Mara) who ordered the murder of his best friend, not to mention a bunch of other top computer scientists.  And too much time is spent on thinly-sketched, practically superfluous characters like Cillian Murphy's bland FBI agent and Morgan Freeman's wizened government scientist, who appear to be filling some kind of Nolan repertory quota.

Transcendence ultimately boils down to the same old conclusions about new technology.  On paper it almost resembles a darkest-timeline version of Her.  In practice it's the kind of film where a scientist can mysteriously vanish from mainstream academia and triumphantly reappear as a liaison between terrorists and law enforcement.  Give Pfister credit for wanting to make a Nolan-esque "big ideas" movie within the boundaries of a satisfying plot-driven genre thriller.  Sadly, Transcendence only lives up to half of that billing, a movie that winds up showcasing the flaws of man and machine alike.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive
Dir. Jim Jarmusch

3 out of 5

"Zombies" - that's the derogatory term for humans used in by the vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a moody rock musician living in a nearly-deserted Detroit neighborhood.  He can't stop complaining to his undead mate in Tangier, Eve (Tilda Swinton), about how the living have a limited grasp of genius, be it artistic or scientific.  Maybe if they'd lived for a dozen centuries, they would have an appropriate frame of reference.  As it is, Adam sighs, they're "still bitching" about Charles Darwin.

You wouldn't expect a powerful supernatural being to have such a defeatist attitude, but Only Lovers Left Alive confirms that the ennui of modern life is unavoidable even for bloodsucking immortals.  Beyond that, however, indie film godfather Jim Jarmusch's farcical take on vampire mythology doesn't attempt to rewrite or revolutionize the genre's conventions so much as it refracts them through the auteur's deadpan sensibility.  "Jim Jarmusch vampire movie" is not just shorthand; it's an accurate plot description.

But the film does have a plot, concerning Adam and Eve's struggle to maintain anonymity in an age where privacy is eroding quicker than the Motor City's property tax base.  Resisting their natural urge to feed on the blood of living people, they rely on networks of trusted allies and ethically malleable doctors for sustenance.  With their predatory instincts hampered, these vampires have an eternity with nothing to do but seek knowledge and beauty...but only when the sun goes down.  Adam's response to these limitations is to slip into a deep funk, one so bad that he instructs his assistant - an oblivious burnout played by Anton Yelchin with slackerish aplomb - to commission the creation of a single wooden bullet.

It doesn't take long for Eve to reunite with her partner and pull him out of the doldrums, but still, Only Lovers Left Alive is in no rush to go anywhere.  The film revels in the witty solipsism of these romantic loners who view the world as one elaborate arch joke - a viewpoint that could easily become insufferable, but Hiddleston and Swinton wear it well.  Though the former fits neatly into Jarmusch's personal arrangement of vamp archetypes, the latter hardly registers less as a monster and more as a dreadlocked earth mother with a Vitamin D deficiency.

Beyond the winking, bone-dry humor, however, there is an unmistakable sense of boredom.  There's something interesting to be extrapolated from the way that Jarmusch, himself a cultural icon, takes some of the most libertine creatures in cinema and hands them the personalities of laconic art school grad students.  The introduction of Eve's free-spirited "sister" (Mia Wasikowska) feels almost like a begrudging apology for the film's lack of tawdry business, and is easily the film's most predictable character.  Only Lovers Left Alive is best approached with the same cool, detached attitude its characters display for the world created by the "zombies" - a world not necessarily worthy of unconditional love, but rather a curious and particular appreciation.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cuban Fury

Cuban Fury
Dir. James Griffiths
3.5 out of 5
If you were to make a list of the ideal candidates to play the leading man in a dance-themed romantic comedy, odds are that Nick Frost (best known as the Falstaffian counterweight/BFF to Simon Pegg in Edgar Wright's "Three Flavours Cornetto" trilogy) would be overlooked.  Still, I can't imagine anyone but Frost playing Bruce Garrett, the one-time salsa dancing prodigy at the center of Cuban Fury.  After a run-in with some bullies before a major competition derailed his dreams of dance-floor stardom, the shy Bruce has eased into a contented, if lonely, life as a mechanical engineer harboring a crush on his new boss, Julia (Rashida Jones).  As it happens, Julia is also a salsa dancer, providing Bruce with the spark he needs to reignite his passion not just for dance, but for life in general.
A underdog character study masquerading as a romance, Cuban Fury takes as much inspiration from Rocky as it does from the rom-com tradition.  There's the chauvinistic rival (Chris O'Dowd) who's constantly undermining the hero's sense of worth, the crusty mentor (Ian McShane) who uses unconventional methods to motivate his protégé, and the doubts that plague Bruce as he tries to let people into his life without letting them down.  And it's Frost's physicality that really sells the premise.  Not only is it much easier to share in Bruce's trials and triumphs with an actor who doesn't fit the traditional mold of a movie star, but it's genuinely exhilarating to watch him gain confidence and self-esteem as he reclaims a part of himself that went missing long ago.
A confident first feature for director James Griffiths and writer Jon Brown - both with plenty of prior TV experience - Cuban Fury still has its flaws apart from its awfully nondescript title.  There some broad elements that don't always mingle well with the film's refreshingly restrained sense of humor.  Jones adds another pleasant-yet-uninspired dream girl to a résumé of underwritten roles, and the flamboyantly gay novice dancer (Four Lions' Kayvan Novak) who befriends Bruce comes uncomfortably close to being a straight-up stereotype.
That being said, funny can forgive a lot, and Cuban Fury is a frequent generator of belly laughs.  The stacked supporting cast is capable of stealing scenes at any moment, whether it's the hilarious Novak playfully puncturing Bruce's uptight demeanor or McShane lovingly contributing his nasty streak to an otherwise gentle film.  Frost delivers a sweet-natured, charming performance that gives the humor an emotional resonance, detailing Bruce's attempts to remain hopeful in the face of life's disappointments.  Even at his lowest moments, Griffiths and Brown never make him the target of pity.  Cuban Fury cheerfully advances the notion that even our small-potatoes struggles are worth fighting, a happily low-key endeavor with a surplus of what's paradoxically missing from so many other romantic comedies:  heart.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Nymph()maniac: Volume 2

Nymph()maniac: Volume 2
Dir. Lars Von Trier

3.5 out of 5

My thoughts on Nymph()maniac: Volume 1 can be found here.

Contrary to the recent history of epic-length films broken into installments, Nymph()maniac: Volume 2 really does have two discrete halves - in other words, it's more Kill Bill than The Hobbit.  And while the opener was no Sunday drive, Vol. 2 is unmistakably a Von Trier film, a dark chronicle of pain and suffering and occasional pathos that serves as a fitting companion piece to the more sensuous Vol. 1.  After a few brief scenes picking up the pieces of Vol. 1's semi-cliffhanger, the flashback timeline catches up to a point where Joe - the woman recounting her sexual autobiography to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the bookish Samaritan who discovered her beaten and bruised in an alley in Vol. 1 - is now played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  The casting switch coincides with wholesale changes in Joe's life, including a child fathered by her bad penny-lover Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and the loss of her ability to achieve sexual satisfaction.

The latter obviously presents certain challenges for a nymphomaniac, which allows Von Trier to explore his obsession with the extremes of human behavior.  Joe begins dabbling in riskier forms of sex in her effort to recapture the thrill, trying everything from random encounters with non-English speakers (the theory being that sex without verbal communication presents a certain level of danger) to submitting herself to a sadomasochist (Jamie Bell) who doesn't believe in the concept of a safe word.  (In a development that will surprise no one familiar with his work, Von Trier quickly picks up on the analogous nature of pain and pleasure.)  

It must be stressed, however, that this is even less lurid or erotic than Vol. 1, which already had its share of raw, unsparing moments.  Von Trier seems more determined than ever to remove his subject matter from a titillating context, employing a drab visual style that emphasizes late 20th-century aesthetic decay in its crumbling council housing, copious fluorescent lighting, and the characters' increasingly frumpy wardrobes.

More than just a controversy magnet or an exercise in miserabilia, Nymph()maniac is Von Trier's bid to recontextualize sex in as many ways as possible.  In Joe he has a character who explores a definition of the sexual impulse beyond an expression of love and intimacy or a biological urge to the point where, in her world, it's simply a reflexive response: a viewpoint that comes into play when Joe launches a mid-life career as an expert interrogator/debt collector for an upmarket dirty work specialist (Willem Dafoe).  

The film's late push to make Joe's sexual experience "useful" allows Von Trier to take potshots at his favorite target - therapy - and leads the metaphorical interplay between Joe and Seligman, one of the more unexpected pleasures of Vol. 1, into more didactic territory.  Seligman's final monologue feels a bit too tidy and academic after nearly four hours of the Von Trier's emotional battery, but it's followed by a final twist so improbably wild and over the top it either ruins or saves the film, depending on how much you prefer to see Seligman as the filmmaker's surrogate.  Whatever the case, Nymph()maniac is a fully realized, fully adult emotional journey that speaks seriously and sympathetically to the wanton and the chaste alike.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dirs. Anthony and Joe Russo

2.5 out of 5

Patience is a virtue when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The long-term nature of the Marvel movie franchise is, by now, common knowledge to savvy moviegoers and casual fans alike, a development that protects a film like Captain America: The Winter Soldier from a more rigorous scrutiny.  A pedestrian addition to the MCU canon, Cap's latest adventure epitomizes the concept of these interlocking movies as a exercise in anticipation for the next chapter, sometimes at the expense of creating a dramatically satisfying stand-alone piece of entertainment.  And this happens to be one of the times where Marvel sells the sizzle reel while making the audience think it's getting the steak.

Set almost entirely in Washington, D.C., Winter Soldier centers on Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his post-Avengers life as an operative for S.H.I.E.L.D., the secretive multinational defense organization headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, finally given more to do than just glare and issue orders).  While on a mission to ostensibly rescue a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel hijacked by Algerian pirates, Rogers observes his colleague Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) collect data from the ship's computer.  Rogers begins to question the moral rectitude of an organization that's seemingly spying on itself - fears that Fury does nothing to assuage when he briefs Cap on a new global surveillance program to be carried out by three new computer-controlled, heavily-armed helicarriers.  A security crisis promptly places Rogers under suspicion of treason, and soon he and Romanoff are on the run, trying to evade the reach of senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and clear Captain America's name.

Placing the most naive member of Marvel's cinematic stable of superheroes at the epicenter of a political thriller is a clever premise, but unfortunately one that's not given enough room to breathe.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels crammed with subplots and characters that add to the spectacle but do little in terms of story cohesion: there's Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), an American military veteran and ally of Rogers with access to a cutting-edge flight suit; Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent whose cover is blown immediately after she's introduced onscreen; and the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a genetically-enhanced assassin who periodically drops in to shoot people and glower at the Captain and generally look like the cover of a futuristic Assassin’s Creed video game. 

You'd think that the nemesis would earn his subtitle, but Winter Soldier is intent on masking intentions and emotions for the sake of a few plot twists: some interesting, some terribly telegraphed.  Outside of those moments, however, it's a lot like climbing an expository ladder - one that often finds Captain America retracting his past and makes the film feel like it's covering old ground.  Last November, I praised Thor: The Dark World for being an outside-the-box extension of the Marvel brand; Captain America returns the company to business as usual, creating copies of past successes and relying on sideways allusions and we'll-get-back-to-that-later teasers to give the illusion of story propulsion.  

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, known mostly for their work in the world of TV sitcoms, are tentative action helmers who don't exactly put their stamp on the Marvel house style, but there are glimpses of their prowess - they squeeze more tension and humor out of Fury under siege in his souped-up SUV than in any of the other standard fight-and-chase sequences.  In the end, maybe a fairly inconclusive film like Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the price of watching an ambitious cinematic universe unfold.  Sometimes you've just got to wait for the good stuff.