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Column Fri Apr 18 2014

Transcendence, Heaven Is for Real, The Railway Man, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Unknown Known & Hateship Loveship



Transcendence is one of those science-fiction works you foolishly allow yourself to get excited about because a whole lot of smart, talented people are involved in its conception and execution. The pedigree includes executive producer Christopher Nolan, first-time director (and Nolan's constant director of photography) Wally Pfister, and actors Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Clifton Collins, Jr., to name a few. Even the concept is intriguing: what if one of the world's most authoritative minds on artificial intelligence is able to have his memories and mind placed online, where he could have access to literally everything to world has to offer?

But wait, you say, a scientist putting his brain on a computer? Didn't I just see that as a subplot in the new Captain America movie (and a few other films dating back to the 1980s)? Yes and yes, but Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is no ordinary scientist; he's someone who believes that such an achievement can lead to giant leaps in research, medicine, security and many other things useful to human kind, far away from the prying eyes and weaponizing hands of the government and military. He would be the first computer with an emotional core, which was kept in check (in theory) by his loving wife Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Water (Bettany), both scientists as well. Dr. Caster calls this state of computer-human mind meld "transcendence," and what could possibly go wrong?

If you're thinking this set up sounds fairly cool, you'd be right. The opening of the film, which involves an assassination attempt on Caster's life by an anti-technology group led by Mara's Bree. And while the assassin's bullet only grazed Caster, a toxic coating finished the job with enough of a delay to set up the wires necessary for his mind to be digitized. His reveal as a voice (and eventually a face — lord knows a film that paid a lot of money for Depp to be in it will not go without showing his face) coming from a computer screen is fairly dramatic, even if it resembles what goes on in Her just a little bit too much. That's one of the biggest issues I had with Transcendence; it resembles too many other things. A view of the world that bookends the film is ripped right from NBC's terrible series "Revolution," for example.

Perhaps the most shocking element of this film is how quickly it falls into familiar action-movie, low-grade sci-fi patterns. Naturally Caster's logical mind takes over and makes decisions about controlling human behavior that might be perceived as dangerous (because it is). Using nanotechnology to aide in healing humans rapidly, Caster chooses to leave the nanos inside patients so he can control them or heal them instantly. There are even nanos in the very fabric of his laboratory buildings and the solar panels that provide them energy. If one gets knocked down, they simply rebuild themselves in seconds.

Waters becomes so terrified of what is transpiring that he joins the protesters and gives them enough information about the facilities to stage a raid. What this means of course is that a fairly intelligent idea about mind-controlled computers becomes a dumb action movie with a few special effects to make things visually interesting. And then there's Depp's performance. Even as a living, breathing person, he's a bit too knowing and aware of his own coolness. When someone at a conference asks him if he's trying to create God with his computer, his well-rehearsed counter is so obvious that we know from the start that any computerized version of Caster will lose itself in its own power and possibility.

The biggest disappointment about Transcendence is that it's a lost opportunity to really dig into and debate the issues brought up in this story. Of course there should be conversations about how linked a computer should ever be to the human brain, about a sentient machine with the ability and access to control the world around it. Screenwriter Jack Paglen is a name I'm not familiar with, other than work he's been reported to be linked to in the near future. I've seen his named connected with Prometheus 2 (he's since been replaced on that) and even a film version of the "Battlestar Galactica" series.

And while his script for Transcendence seems thoroughly researched, it's focused on the wrong things. Too often, the story gets lost in the love story between the Casters, and quite frankly it slows down and interferes with the narrative to such a degree that it became beyond frustration, bordering on infuriating. There was never a doubt in my mind how this would end up, and how/if the potential threat would be neutralized. This film isn't a maze or puzzle; it's a straight line from Point A to Point Boring.

The rest of the cast is fine, I guess, but seeing Freeman and Murphy on hand made it clear that Nolan called in a few favors to boost the famous faces in the film. I keep coming back to how utterly flat Depp becomes as the computer version of Caster. He's not meant to play it as a robot; he's meant to be an emotional being, and my guess is that a computer would attempt to approximate the appropriate emotion in certain situations. But not this one. He's as one-dimensional as the monitor he appears on. Transcendence is a great-looking film, but beyond that and a strong opening, it doesn't have the staying power to be anything close to impressive.

Heaven Is for Real

Before you decide to crap upon or otherwise dismiss this film about a real-life smalltown minister whose young son has a near-death experience, during which he claims to have been to heaven, be confident in the fact that this is not a film trying to make you believe in God or heaven or Jesus or angels, although all four are a part of this story. Although the phenomenon of faith-based films still baffles me in their existence (preaching to the choir never seemed like the best kind of recruiting tool), Heaven Is for Real (based on the best-selling book by Todd Burpo, played in the film by Greg Kinnear) is more the story of a man of the cloth who has his belief structure challenged, not by non-believers, but by his son laying eyes on the very things he encourages other to believe in every Sunday.

The very nature of faith is to believe in something because you have never seen or heard from; it's an extreme form of trust, and you agree to do so because it feels right in your heart. But when 4-year-old Colton Burpo (newcomer Connor Corum) tells his father, "I heard angels sing, I met Jesus, I saw your long-dead father, I met my miscarried sister, I saw you in the hospital chapel yelling at God," it's a lot for him to accept all at once. Because when you get something resembling proof of what you previously only had faith in, that's a whole other level of believing. And that subject alone would be a fascinating one for a movie to tackle, but maybe not this one.

Heaven Is for Real gets quite a bit right, but the whole package feels too quaint and is delivered too by the numbers. I was surprised how much of the film deals with Todd's spiritual shake-up; he actually says to his congregation that he's not sure what he believes any longer, and that's enough to get the church board members in a tizzy and threaten to remove him if he doesn't get his head on straight. Strangely enough, the board members aren't concerned that he'll stop believing in God and heaven; they're afraid he's believe his own son's claims. Kinnear is an excellent choice for this character; he's a charming enough guy to believe he can not only hold a crowd with his laid-back sermons (we never ever see him in any kind of collar, because he's not a priest), but also a talented enough actor to play the anxiety-riddled family man.

The supporting cast is stronger than you typically find in a faith-based film (I'm talking to you, October Baby, Fireproof and Courageous, and wait until you get a look at the upcoming Moms' Night Out... oof!), with such actors as Kelly Reilly (Flight) as Todd's loyal wife, Thomas Haden Church and the always-reliable Margo Martindale as a church board member who shares a particular scene with Kinnear that almost brought me to tears. More interestingly, the film was directed by Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, Secretariat, The Man in the Iron Mask, and the writer of Braveheart and Pearl Harbor), who clearly is all about the sweeping, epic tales. I'm guessing the unusual nature of the Burpos' dilemma captured him more than the godly elements specifically.

But even a filmmaker like Wallace can't overcome the overly saccharine nature of the storytelling. It unfolds like a folk tale, rather than a development that put a severe strain on this family. We learn early on that Todd has many jobs in the community, which at first seems to be a way of showing us that he's a working-class man of the people. But we soon come to realize that he works so many jobs because he and his family are having trouble making ends meet on a preacher's salary, combined with especially tough economic times. That is the real drama of this film, and it's unceremoniously pushed to the background in favor of less compelling material.

I suppose I should thank someone in charge that there are no manufactured villains to contend with, just a few concerned parishioners who just want somewhere to feel holy every Sunday without being challenged (I'm have no doubt they get plenty of challenges the rest of the week). I'm not bagging on the film because of its religious tones; those are actually fascinating to me. It's the not-so-veiled attempts not to offend anyone one, either in the film or in the audience.

Heaven Is for Real is not a terrible movie; anyone who says it is probably thought so before they walked into the theater to see it. It's simply, whole-heartedly average — an intense beige that offers no enlightenment or resolution. If there's any message here, it's to believe in something, even if that something has nothing to do with God. That's good advice, I suppose, but it doesn't make for an especially interesting viewing experience.

To read my exclusive interview with Heaven Is for Real star Greg Kinnear, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Railway Man

When I found out that British serviceman Eric Lomax worked worked on the same Japanese rail line while he was a prisoner of war during World War II that the soldiers in The Bridge On the River Kwai did, I was intrigued. But this version of the POW experience is not filled with whistling and conspiring against ones captors. No, director Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man (based on Lomax's autobiography) is about surviving in the face of some truly brutal treatment and dealing with the resulting demons for the rest of one's life.

The film actually opens with the much older Lomax (played with a quiet dignity by Colin Firth), a train enthusiast who meets the lovely divorcee Patti (Nicole Kidman). He dazzles her with his knowledge of schedules and the landmarks surrounding the various stations throughout the countryside, and she still finds something charming about the reserved and socially awkward gentleman. But not long after they get married, Lomax begins exhibiting severe symptoms of PTSD, as if he's reliving his horrifying captivity all over again. He even begins to shows signs of being a danger to himself and Patti, and she turns to one of her husband's only friends from that period, Finlay (Stellan SkarsgÄrd), who reluctantly fills her in on the pure torture they went through in Japan, mostly at the hands of the interpreter Nagase (played in flashbacks by Tanroh Ishida).

By pure chance, Lomax discovers that Nagase is still alive back in Japan (and played by the great Hiroyuki Sanada from Sunshine, The Wolverine and 47 Ronin) acting as a tour guide. Naturally, Lomax heads back to the place of his torment — to do what, we're not exactly sure. Without giving away too many details about events from the past or present, I will say that The Railway Man gives us some of Firth's finest pure dramatic acting, certainly more impressive than his work in The King's Speech and more devastating a portrayal than he gave in A Single Man.

War Horse's Jeremy Irvine plays Lomax as a young soldier going through the torture, and his transformation is even more dramatic than what Firth brings to the film. I'll admit, I had no idea how this encounter was going to play out, or if Lomax would even have the courage to see it through. Director Teplitzky wisely doesn't seem to care if major characters vanish from the film for stretches of time, if that's in fact what happened in real life. I know this may sound obvious, but often the temptation is to add things here and there for dramatic impact, which is certainly not required in this sometimes unbearably tense work.

The Railway Man moves at its own speed — nothing is rushed and nothing needs to be. None of the actors are reaching for big moments; they simply arrive at them and allow the circumstances to spill over them and onto us, and our hearts collectively break. It's a quietly impactful movie that shows us a side of war not often portrayed, stripped of the glory, leaving only the shame. The film almost dares you to leave the screening unchanged; good luck with that. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Vampires are played-out fictional creatures that nearly all forms of artistic expression have exhausted of dramatic and entertainment value. But thankfully nobody told writer-director Jim Jarmusch this while he was conceiving of the centuries old married vampires Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton), who are so deeply in love they can't even live together all the time. What Jarmusch has done is considered what life would truly be like for these blood-thirsty beings, and how they would exist in a way where they were never caught or even noticed. And then he imagines what sort of force would completely destroy their comfortable existence. The answer, it turns out, is family.

Adam lives in the most desolate, hallowed out place in Detroit. He's a famous rock musician, but nobody knows what he looks like or where he lives. He has a blood supplier who works at a blood bank because killing humans would call attention and the bodies would pile up quick. Eve resides in Tangier with her friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who just happens to be the man that Shakespeare conspiracy followers believe wrote all or most of the Bard's works. Eve is a collector of knowledge, who senses that Adam is growing depressed and she makes the journey to Detroit (on the red-eye, naturally) to comfort him.

Watching Hiddleston and Swinton move together is like watching a finely choreographed dance with two soulmates gliding in and out of each other's space. Even their personal style tells us so much about them. She looks like a wild animal draped in ancient garb the makes her look like a god of nature, while he dresses like David Bowie would never have the guts to, even at his boldest. He is surrounded by vintage guitars and other musical artifacts and recording equipment, procured for him by his promoter, Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is truly the only normal person in the film.

Every detail of Only Lovers is perfectly tailored and designed, from the hair, makeup and dress to the elaborate production design of Adam's home, the dwellings where Eve visits Marlowe and other beautifully dressed locations. Jarmusch leaves nothing to chance, and why should he? These characters have had hundreds of years to decorate themselves and their homes. Adam and Eve are the epitome of cool without trying to be overly slick or in any way menacing. Again, their intention is not to stand out. Of course, all of that falls apart when Eve's wild-child sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up in Detroit shortly after Eve does for a little family visit that turns into her wreaking havoc on everything she comes into contract with. She's a holy terror that forces all things to fall apart or necessarily be destroyed. Sounds tragic, I know, but it's also kind of fun.

In fact, there's a wonderfully wicked sense of humor running through Only Lovers that is essential to getting through some of the deadly serious moments. Eve tries to downplay Adam's depression by reminding him that he's gone through this cycle before and somehow ended up missing the Middle Ages. Jarmusch also lovingly adds a few details to the vampire list of tricks by giving Eve the ability to touch any object and be able to time stamp its creation. There are several nice touches that prove how much fun the director had creating these characters, and it makes a significant difference. Only Lovers is a fluid, stylish blend of old-school Gothic wonder and hipster flair that Jarmusch seems almost destined to have made. And I don't know how any fan of the celebratory weirdness that both Hiddleston and especially Swinton bring to anything they do could turn this one down. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Only Lovers Left Alive star Tilda Swinton.

The Unknown Known

At one point during the searing documentary The Unknown Known, director Errol Morris lays out a series of fictional events that begins in the Reagan Administration in which the film's subject, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, eventually becomes president. The timeline is actually close to reality, with just one major change that involves Rumsfeld, and not the elder George Bush, being appointed the head of the CIA. Rumsfeld contemplates the idea of being president and agrees in part that things might have turned out that way for him. It's a harrowing moment in a film filled with them.

You can look up Rumsfeld's career online if you so desire; there's no need for me to detail it here. But what is fascinating about him as an interview subject is that it's clear that the wheels are always turning. He considers not only every answer, but also why Morris is asking the question in the first place. Sometimes before he answers, he goes after the filmmaker about the nature of the question, asking him to qualify it. This phenomenon is especially notable when Rumsfeld is being grilled about getting into the war in Iraq.

Through liberal use of archival footage — I found the press briefings Rumsfeld gave during the war especially infuriating — we begin to develop a picture of Rumsfeld as not so much a member of the inner circle on the war but as a ringleader for the circus of scared reporters afraid to ask the toughest questions when his answers clearly make no sense.

Some might be tempted to compare The Unknown Known with Morris' award-winning offering The Fog of War about Robert McNamara, but the two films are quite different, with McNamara admitting to a series of bad decisions, while Rumsfeld refuses to acknowledge so many years of active deception and lies. He still believes he has a legacy to protect, or perhaps he's been telling the lies for so long, he's started to believe them. The shit-eating grin on his face seems to bear that out.

But Rumsfeld is also a great man to listen to and an engaging storyteller when he wants to be. Listening to him talk about meeting his wife for the first time is quite charming, and he was certainly in the foreground when major historical events were unfolding. I was captivated listening to him recite some of his own memos (known by many as his "snowflakes" due to their abundance and the fact that no two were the same) that seems to rewrite history almost as fast as it was being written. The more I got to know Rumsfeld, the less I understood what he was made of. He somehow manages to become more of a curiosity after watching The Unknown Known, and that makes the film as entertaining as it is frustrating. It opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Hateship Loveship

In a film that has been dancing around the festival and limited-release circuit since last year's Toronto Film Festival, director Liza (Return) Johnson's latest is a bittersweet but surprisingly hopeful story of the heart, based on Alice Munro's short story Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (adapted by Mark Poirier). Hateship Loveship follows the quiet life of Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig, in a nicely understated performance), a caretaker who is hired by an Iowa widower (Nick Nolte) to help take care of his jaded granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), whose father Ken (Guy Pearce) left her to live with his father-in-law while he attempts to build a life for himself in Chicago running a broken-down motel.

After Johanna receives a thank-you note from Ken for looking out for his daughter, she decides to write back a quick note, which is intercepted by Sabitha and her friend, and they take on the role of Ken writing letters and emails to Johanna that quickly turn into seduction exchanges, including an invitation to come to Chicago to move in with him. With a set up like that, you'd expect the eventual reveal would send Johanna into a tailspin, since she comes across as a woman who has never been in love and certain never been pursued so persistently by a man (she's meant to be plain, the one trick Wiig can't quite pull off). Instead, the story takes an unexpected turn when Johanna arrives to find a drug-addicted Ken, sick and barely functioning. When he tells her he doesn't even own a computer to send this romantic emails, rather than leave, she takes it upon herself to take care of this struggling man, cleaning his apartment, and getting the motel into shape.

His life having fallen apart after his wife died, Ken clearly hasn't had this kind of attention and care in quite some time, and his life has become a series of failures, bad company and even worse decisions. Johanna represents a caring that he so desperately is missing from his life, and has made his daughter both miss him and despise what he has become. Hateship Loveship is a bit clunky and obvious at times, but I will admit, it surprised me more than once with the plot turns it makes. I also enjoyed watching the gradual reveals we get about Johanna's life prior to joining this family. We know from an opening scene that she took care of an elderly woman for many years, but she seems to be just one of those people that is happiest taking care of others, whether they're old or simply in dire need of fixing.

Having floored us with her work in the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit, Steinfeld has struggled to find her groove as an actor again in sub-par films like Ender's Game, 3 Days to Kill and a recent version of Romeo and Juliet. But playing a fairly normal, angsty teen with a hint of rebellion, she seems to have hit upon a strength in her abilities, which allows Sabitha to subtly change and mature as the story goes on and her father grows up. Hateship Loveship is primarily worth checking out if you're curious about Wiig's range as an actor. Outside of that, it's a sweet, harmless but largely unremarkable family drama, sprinkled with weird comedic touches, that amounts to a pleasant enough moviegoing experience and nothing more. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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