Monday, April 21, 2014

Rohan: On Failure to Achieve Transcendence

(Our friend Rohan Morbey has been blogging prolifically at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK of late, and has graciously allowed us to cross-post his rather lukewarm review of Transcendence, the directing debut of Dark Knight cinematographer Wally Pfister. We're always happy to include his posts here, and recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)      

Do you remember when movies were turned into novelizations to tie-in to their release? Watching
Transcendence it dawned on me around the hour mark that this film would probably make for an engaging and fascinating read over the course of 500 pages or more, but when you’re left thinking this, it’s clear the film playing in front of you isn’t working. In a reverse logic to how Hollywood works, this is one film which someone should adapt into a book because the screenplay is essentially unfilmable.

This is a shame because if Transcendence has one thing going for it it is originality, and it at least attempts to present a story which provokes discussion long after the film has finished. This alone is a reason why the film isn’t a complete disaster and praise should be given to first time screenwriter Jack Paglen and to debut director Wally Pfister for taking on a project of this scope, rather than something mindless like Fast and Furious 10. The idea is fascinating: scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is at the forefront of artificial intelligence advancements and, with the help of his wife (Rebecca Hall), has developed ‘transcendence’, this having more intelligence and understanding of science than all the collective minds of every person who has ever lived on Earth before. It is the evolution of humanity, beyond all our understanding, so obviously people are scared and want Caster stopped before his creation is put into practice.

Shortly after announcing Transcendence at a conference, an assassin for anti-technology terrorist group R.I.F.T shoots but doesn’t kill Caster, giving him a month to survive after complications appear, so transcendence is put into play. It is at this point, where the film should leap into the next gear and fully take the audience into a technological world beyond our imagination, that it begins to show its significant narrative and visual flaws. Unfortunately these flaws are the fundamentals of film making, rendering Transcendence lifeless for the remaining 90 minutes.

There are many ideas running through the film about what it is to be human and how machines and programs can never distinguish between conflicting emotions, but this is all talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. This could be tolerable if the visuals were able to offset the tech-heavy dialogue but Pfister shows us servers and screens and solar panels, whilst Depp, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and an excellent actor when given a script worthy of his talents, is mostly seen on screens or heard over speakers. This leaves Rebecca Hall to carry this already weighty film, and she does not have the screen presence to do so. The cinematography by Jess Hall is serviceable but bland, quite ironic considering Pfister himself is rightly regarded as one of the best cinematographers working today. Certainly the film isn’t without some visual flourishes, especially towards the end, but there's nothing here which shows Pfister to be a promising directorial voice.

The real trouble with this as a film is that it doesn't make us care: Its central love story is tired, whilst the R.I.F.T terrorist plots, superhuman regeneration, and end-of-all-technology doomsday scenarios never ignite or go anywhere as the film tries to juggle too many ideas for its own good. As I mentioned before, this can work in a large novel but not in a two hour film which is supposed to entertain as well as provoke and inspire thought. Moreover, the portrait of the world without technology in the opening scenes really had me hooked but this is never capitalized on, and that is a huge disappointment considering the quite boring stuff we are given.

Transcendence is a wasted potential but a decent effort nonetheless. I believe it was far too big of a project for a first time director and needed some serious script revisions to lend itself to a visual experience; if this were Pfister’s third or fourth film after a set of smaller, more personal films then we could have been looking at something far greater but giving him $100m the first time around only shows his limitations. For a film which wants to make you think ‘what if?’, we shouldn’t be left wondering ‘if only’.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rohan: In Praise of Joe

(It's been a while since our friend Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK, has been so excited about a movie, but he has graciously allowed us to post his very enthusiastic review of Joe, an indie return to form for both director David Gordon Green and star Nicolas Cage. We're always happy to include his posts here, and recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)     

The backwoods of Austin, Texas. A place devastated by poverty & homelessness, and filled with an anger which can no longer be restrained. This is the setting for David Gordon Green’s naturalistic and excellent Joe, a film rolling out in a slow release in the US (and relegated to VOD elsewhere) but which deserves a wider audience.

Gary (Ty Sheridan), a 15 year old boy, lives in an abandoned and condemned house with his mother, mute sister, and Wade, his abusive, drunk father. Gary is quickly becoming a man, leaving the innocence of youth behind him as he looks for work to support his family and make something of himself. Whilst walking through the woods he stumbles across a group of men cutting down trees for cash; far from professional tree fellers, the men gather every day when the weather allows for it, as their leader Joe (Nicolas Cage) decides who gets work. Joe is a man they look up to and respect, and soon Gary and Joe forge a relationship which has long been missing in the boy’s life.

The subtlety of the screenplay from Gary Hawkins (his debut feature film script) allows the film to organically build a sense of hopelessness, making it clear that Joe, Gary, and Wade were on a collision course even before the film began. The film is is a masculine, aggressive, and heartbreaking study of a small group of men, isolate from the rest of the world and it moves at the pace of the location it's set in; slow, unhurried, and never rushed. This isn’t a film where each scene exists to progress the plot, but often exist to coax the audience into this real world.

The screenplay benefits from Green’s expert attention to detail and obvious affection for the setting. Naturalism seeps through in every scene, whether it comes from Green’s hand held camera work, never flashy or showy yet often strikingly beautiful (he clearly evokes a Malick-like quality in his love of nature, seen here and in Prince Avalanche and Snow Angels), or in the performances from all involved, from Oscar-winning Nicolas Cage to non-professional street performers like Gary Poulter (as Wade) or the entire African American crew who work for Joe. The grounded subject matter allows Cage to give his best performance by far since 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (breaking a streak of 9 sub-par movies) and his most restrained since World Trade Center a year before. When the material is right, no one can touch him and I wouldn’t want to see anyone else in the lead role here.

Joe is, as you can gather, a firm favorite of mine this year. It’s a film which absolutely deserves to be seen and respected as much as Jeff Nichols’ similar Mud was last year, and I hope it begins a resurgence of Nicolas Cage’s career because he more than deserves it, and we deserve more from him. Joe is an excellent way to start.

Friday, April 11, 2014

First Films!: On The Difficulties Of Starting From The Beginning

The folks over at Save Horror had just wrapped up Save Horror Madness (64 horror movies squaring off in an NCAA_style bracket - probably the most diverting thing on Twitter these last few weeks), and mentioned that, by request, they were about to start reviewing the work of true master of horror Dario Argento. They asked their Twitterfiends where to start, and, not surprisingly, a whole mess of folks told 'em to go with Suspiria.

And why not? Even going on four decades after its release Suspiria remains one of the wildest, most beautiful, most mind-bending trips in horror cinema. For his first foray into the realm of supernatural horror, Argento amped up the production design, the dream-like pacing, the elaborate and disturbing violence, the volume of Goblin's classicistic and unforgettable score, and embraced Technicolor. It's a horror classic, through and through, and its cult following is devout. (Occasional contributor here David Robson once jumped off the stage from the curtain call of a play he was in and ran through the theatre to catch a cab to a screening, making it with seconds to spare.) Most of the responses to Save Horror's Argento query listed other near-favorites, but were unanimous in suggesting they start with Suspiria.

Which got me to thinking: when we consciously start watching the oeuvre of a filmmaker whose work is all new to us, why go for the best movie first? We always want to start this kind of endeavor on a good note (indeed, in this era of streaming we want a GUARANTEE THAT THIS MOVIE WON'T WASTE OUR TIME OMG), but doesn't starting with the best imply that it's all downhill from there?

Between that and the fact that SH seemed to be embarking on a larger viewing binge (coupled with the accessibility of Argento's oeuvre), I suggested (strongly suggested)(can't lie, I actually nagged them) that they start with Argento's first movie, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.

It's rare that a filmmaker strikes such a huge success right off the bat - not only did Argento's first film lay down many of his tropes (intense visual imagery & sound design, graphic violence, colorfully unreal production design), but it quickly supercharged the giallo sub-genre of horror, influencing many Italian thrillers in its wake. And it was a huge public and critical success as well, with many declaring Argento "the new Hitchcock." I was excited by the prospect of a horror fan starting with it, and recommended going through the highlights of Argento's career chronologically, veering from the increasingly violent murder mysteries through the hyper-stylized supernatural movies (Suspiria absolutely, but don't sleep on Inferno). Then back to murder mysteries - what does the influence/experience of Suspiria/Inferno shape Tenebre? What to make of the horrors sprung from the natural world, like Phenomena & Opera. And did he just go crazy before he started The Stendahl Syndrome? With such a distinct style and body of work, the context of Argento's earlier work is a rich place from which to contemplate his later masterworks, his still later but confident, 3-star works (indeed, Phenomena may be my favorite of his films) through his apparent slide into insanity on Giallo and Dracula.

And so it nagged at me. Given our willingness to binge-watch entire series on demand (usually starting with the first season, where most series are usually fumbling to establish their aesthetic), why don't we have the patience to start at the beginning with a filmmaker's oeuvre? I gave it some thought, and the only famous filmmaker I could think of whose first movie was most viewers' first experience of his/her work was Orson Welles.

But there are compelling reasons why this is not the case. Most filmmakers' first movies happen at the indie level. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs was an incredibly assured debut (maybe as assured as Argento's), and those of us who saw it theatrically knew that this guy was only going to continue, but it wasn't until Pulp Fiction that most mainstream viewers got their first look at him. And a number of great filmmakers' first works happened too far in the past to access (Alfred Hitchcock's first films, the unfinished Number 13 and The Mountain Eagle, are lost in time). And some first movies genuinely aren't worth the bother (due respect, James Cameron, but Piranha II: The Spawning showed little of your promise).

It's to our credit that we seek out new things in any medium. And there are a whole mess of filmmakers awaiting our discovery. It's rare that we get a chance to first engage a filmmaker with their first work, and it can be a crapshoot. Even when we do this it can provide a misleading context for their work to come; She's Gotta Have It and Fear & Desire both announce major filmmaking talents, but Spike Lee and Stanley Kubrick's major respective preoccupations didn't manifest until their second or third films. And yet sometimes we do come across a lesser-known filmmaker whose body of work is small enough to be undertaken, and whose first work entertains. (In that spirit, I commend you to Eve's Bayou, the filmmaking debut of actor Kasi Lemmons.) With so many movies available, and the context so potentially rich, take the chance on a first movie!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Rohan opens the floodgates on Noah

(Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK,was rather disappointed by Darren Aronofsky's Noah, and has let us cross-post his UNenthusiastic review here. We're always happy to include his posts here, and recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)    

This is a film review. I’ve not read The Bible, I’m not a religious person in the slightest although I have no issue in any way, shape or form with those who are. I watched it solely because it is the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, a film maker I admire greatly, and will be reviewing it as a movie, not as a filmic telling of a story I haven’t read.

As a movie, Aronofsky’s Noah is a rather boring affair. Despite all of it spectacular special effects, superb sound effects and sound effects editing, and every one of its 130 million dollars budget right up there on the screen, there is not enough to entice the audience in, grip us, and make all of the death and destruction worth the 140 minutes we’re asked to invest. That’s not to say all is lost from start to finish, but the underwhelming feeling cannot be denied.

I had no preconceptions of the film, having avoiding all the usual online columns, making ofs, interviews, and trailers. But the thought of Aronofsky in control of a blockbuster budget (at last, as previous incarnations of Wolverine, Batman, and Superman all passed him by) gave me hope that this would rise above the usual CGI-driven spectacle. After all, he is a director with a fantastic body of work, including a genuine 5 star modern masterpiece in the shape of his 2000 picture Requiem For A Dream and the others not too far behind, and he deserves to be cited as one of the finest American film makers to rise to prominence in the past 20 years. This, it pains me to say, is a major step backwards compared to what we’ve become used to from him.

Aronofsky is drawn to stories of characters that will go beyond the limits to fulfill an obsession or goal, and Noah is no different; he is told by God to build an ark big enough to fit two of every animal on Earth in order to survive an unstoppable flood which will kill everyone and everything not inside that ark. I can understand why Aronofsky was drawn to this story and why Paramount stumped up the cash in light of previously successful historical ‘epics’ and Russell Crowe’s name splashed all over the posters, but the end product is both alarmingly keen to please all audiences, and void of any interesting characters other than the titular one.

Aronofsky is a visual director. He’s never been a director-for-hire and each of his films prior to Noah have a visual flair or signature, each one different to the last. However, save for two excellent sequences, the film looks, sounds (dialogue, not the effects), and is paced like any other safe Hollywood spectacle. The inclusion of rock monsters (or ‘Watchers’ as they’re referred to) may antagonize some of the more religious viewers, but for me they were a real frustration as the film resorted to The Lord Of The Rings-style battles which, quite frankly, looked ridiculous and a decade too late. Add to this their human voices (Nick Nolte being one of the voices) and it’s no different than the much (and rightly) maligned Transformers series where nothing said holds any dramatic weight due to the sheer stupidity of it all.

The two sequences where Aronofsky shines are clear for all to see; the river of water and the creation of the world are quite excellent to watch unfold, but they cannot save a production where the remainder looks designed to within an inch of its life, and not in a purposely ‘cool’ Oblivion kind of way. The costumes, make up, hair styles, an design of the ark are so perfect and meticulous that it has the reverse effect on me; I’m not transported to this time period and believe in what I’m seeing, probably not helped by dialogue so boring that I’m forced to find something else to concentrate on, only to see right through it.

As mentioned, no one other than Noah brings anything interesting to the story, with his wife (a wasted Jennifer Connelly) having one scene where she gets to cry and scream, and his kids each representing a flaw in the human condition and little else. The worst character by far is Tubal-cain, a man who exists in the screenplay purely to act as a nemesis and cause a mass battle (which exists to satisfy the action-hungry audience members) and be there to have a fist fight with Noah at the end. Add to this Ray Winstone’s gloriously awful performance as an East End double ‘ard bastard playing dress up and these scenes are pretty much a failure. Winstone must be the worst good actor in cinema today; a man who is clearly very talented in Sexy Beast type roles, but shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a production like this... or Indiana Jones... or The Departed.

Once the flood is over there is another 30 minutes still to come. This is where the screenplay really shows its weaknesses and resembles a soap opera; will Noah kill a baby? Will Tubal-cain kill Noah? Will Noah’s son forgive him for allowing a girl (he’d known for all of 10 minutes) to die? And above all who actually cares? That’s a big problem with the film; it wants to ask questions about God, his power, what’s right and wrong, but it’s so uninteresting in the context of this screenplay that one simply can’t emotionally invest.

It’s easier to say what didn’t work about Noah than what does, because the things which worked are not unique to this film. It’s the awesome special effects, the huge scale, the sheer cinematic scope of the film and those two aforementioned sequences of visual brilliance by the director which just about keeps it afloat (excuse the pun). As for the rest, it’s inexcusably forgettable and that’s something you should never want to label a Darren Aronofsky film as being, but it’s the truth.

Friday, April 4, 2014

You Can Search For Movies On Multiple Platforms. At The Same Time. TECHNOLOGY!

So let's say you want to watch something tonight. You have a Netflix account, but occasionally watch stuff on pay-as-you-go platforms like Amazon or Vudu. And/or occasionally watch things for free on Hulu. On Jaman you can search for movies on all of those platforms at the same time.


I open up Jaman. Easy:

It's called up Interview with the Vampire - perfectly decent movie, but not what I want to watch this evening.

I go to the window with the mood sliders there and click More Options, which gives me:

Then I click Select providers, and get:

A list of all nine of the platforms/providers whose movies one can find on Jaman. Nice. I have subscriptions to both Netflix and Fandor (offering me a nice balance of mainstream and independent cinema) - I could select pay-as-you-go places like Amazon or Vudu, but stick to my subscriptions. I click the boxes for Netflix and Fandor and get a random selection of movies available on both channels:

Excellent! But I want to narrow my search even further, and so I click Select genres. A menu comes up and, on a whim, I select Biography:

Click outside the box when finished and Jaman gives me Biography movies available on Fandor & Netflix:

Fine slew of movies there (parenthetically, since I see it here, you gotta see Patience (After Sebald) if you're in the mood for something smart and deep). I refine my search further, thinking "what's a funny Biography?" I go to the mood sliders in the upper left corner, move the one for "funny" to the right, and PRESTO:

I got some fine choices here: Private Parts if I'm feeling crass, American: The Bill Hicks Story if I want funny and political, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind combines subversion and star power, etc. etc. etc.

The applications of this are pretty vast: you can select a single platform/channel (like Netflix, Vudu, Fandor) whether you use it or not, just to see what kind of selection they have; you can match a specific search based on the mood you're in (I want something sad!), the genres you like (horror! sci fi! comedy!), and the platforms you use (IndieFlix!).

But mainly: you can look for movies to watch across multiple platforms/channels at the same time. What's funny is how this both narrows your search to what's immediately useful while at the same time expanding the options before you. Pretty neat, no?

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