DVD Review: 'Transcendence'

In Transcendence, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) is introduced as the classic mad scientist, someone who moves forward with experimental technology without stopping to consider the consequences. Of course, she has a good reason to do so: love. Her husband, the brilliant scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp), was making breakthroughs in the field of self-aware artificial intelligence when an anti-A.I. group, Revolutionary Independence from Technology (R.I.F.T.), assassinates him with radioactive poisoning. Since it’s such a villainously slow death, Evelyn has enough time to copy his brain activity and upload his “consciousness” into the A.I. supercomputer he created. Friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) has reservations about copying Will’s consciousness and hooking it up to the world’s network of computers, but Evelyn considers it a sound scientific plan, since a digital husband is better than no husband at all.

Similarly, on paper, Transcendence seems like it should be good idea. It’s an original sci-fi concept, not based on a pre-existing franchise property. Wally Pfister, longtime director of photography for Christopher Nolan, chose it as his directorial debut. (In one of the wan bonus features, someone calls Pfister a veteran with the passion and energy of a first-timer.) The cast also features members of the Christopher Nolan Repertory Company, including Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy. With all of these factors in place, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to expect a movie on the level of Nolan’s Inception. But, like Dr. Caster’s experiments, Transcendence is much smarter in theory than it is in practice.

Not that the movie should be blamed for trying. Many recent films have focused on Transcendence‘s two main themes: the practical applications of self-aware artificial intelligence, and humanity’s relationship to it. Just a few months before the film’s release, for example, Spike Jonze‘s Her covered similar ground. But while Her focused in an emotional, one-on-one human interaction, Transcendence‘s view is more macro, centered on the power of A.I. that has access to the world’s accumulated knowledge in a plugged-in society. Or was it more of a political view, telling the story of the struggle between the people who barrel forward with new technology too quickly versus the people who rally against it entirely? Or is it about whether or not humans can form a romantic relationship with A.I. created from the exact neural pathways of someone they once loved? And, if scientists can create A.I. from the exact neural pathways of a living human, what makes that A.I. different from the original? In short: What makes us human, and can it be copied or created?

These are big questions, and Transcendence tries to tackle all of them without ever really getting a bead on any of them...

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DVD Review: Disney's 'Ichabod and Mr. Toad' and 'Fun and Fancy Free'

...It would have been neat if the Blu-ray gave viewers a choice to either watch the movies as two distinct features in their original forms, or as a series of shorts that could be accessed separately and watched in any order. Yet if you want to go from “Sleepy Hollow” to “Bongo”, you have to stop Ichabod and Mr. Toad, head to the top menu, select Fun and Fancy Free, select play from that menu, and fast-forward through the overlong introductory material with Jiminey Cricket.

Format nitpicking aside—and I realize it is a lot to ask Disney to slice-and-dice its beloved feature films—this Blu-Ray two-movie collection has charm to spare. For the most part, the shorts are some of Disney’s strongest, and taken as a whole they offer a variety of animation styles, characters and tones...

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DVD Review: 'Need for Speed'

'Need for Speed' Is About the Thrill of the Ride, Not the Script

...In other words, this is a car movie, one made for people who love cars, and for people who love other car movies. Enthusiasts get to gawk at Marshall’s Ford Mustang GT500 and other exotic cars, like a Lamborghini Sesto Elemento or a Koenigsegg Agera R.

These cars are treated (and shot) with a lot of love. Director Scott Waugh, in his commentary with Paul, mentions that he favors practical effects over CGI, and you can tell; the cars have heft and weight to them, and the most interesting visuals in the film are done in the service of the driving scenes. The cars are also the subject of most of the Blu-ray’s features, which do everything from break down the biggest stunts to analyze the different rumbles that each car makes.

But besides just lavishing attention on the cars, Waugh loves placing them in the context of other, classic driving movies, from Bullitt to American Graffiti. In the commentary, Waugh and Paul point out many of these references (and, yes, video game Easter eggs, too), down to the tiniest background details. (A stunt coordinator and son of a stunt coordinator, Waugh also likes to give shout-outs to all of the stunt drivers and their previous films.) When Bullitt is playing in the background of a drive-in theater during one of the opening scenes of the film, Waugh mentions that he was afraid the movie would come across as a period film, since he puts in so many references to the ‘60s and ‘70s...

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DVD Review: 'Under the Skin'


...We follow Laura as she drives around the streets of Glasgow in a van, luring and seducing men into her orbit, often to their detriment. For these scenes, Glazer uses a series of non-actors in largely improvised environments; the van is outfitted with up to 10 hidden-camera setups.

The result of these conditions—regular people having unscripted conversations in a natural setting without cameras reminding them they’re being filmed—should be naturalistic. However, they don’t entirely feel this way. While these scenes do feel authentic, Glazer heightens the action beyond the typical found-footage-style documentary. His images are more beautiful than something you’d expect from dashboard cameras. He also sets the scenes to a discordantly beautiful score by Mica Levi. You can feel the disconnect between Laura and the rest of humanity; everything feels distant and unsettled.

This is largely to the credit of Johansson. She’s capable of telegraphing both seduction and isolation simultaneously. She connects with the men she meets on the street, but you can tell that there’s an emotional disconnect. While there is dialogue throughout the film, Johansson is essentially giving a silent performance. The words that pass between her and the men are of no consequence to the arc of the film; they’re just to get the men in the van. The emotional core of the story—which comes more and more into focus as the film progresses—is almost entirely advanced through Johansson’s face...

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DVD Review: Winter's Tale

The love story should be the heart of Winter’s Tale, but the movie is frequently caught up in the more supernatural elements of the story, and everything is consumed in its spiritual mumbo-jumbo. For example, at least two different characters are pressed into service to explain that Lake’s horse is “actually a dog”—specifically Athansor, the “Dog of the East”—that just sometimes takes the form of a horse. This information never comes to bear in the rest of the entire movie, as Athansor never appears as a dog; it’s just magical nonsense.

It’s not just background nonsense, either; the movie goes out of its way to play up its spiritual angle. Light and its mystical properties, for example, is a major theme of the movie. Instead of just being a recurring visual motif, though, Goldsman makes sure the light is always front-and-center. This results in something onscreen twinkling right before an awe-inspiring event happens. It’s a constant primer that the audience doesn’t actually need.

The magical elements of the story come at the expense of developing real characters. By the time a second set of major characters is introduced in the 2014 timeline, Winter’s Tale doesn’t have enough time left to get invested in them as people. Instead, they become just another set of mystical objects in Lake’s quest for miracles.

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DVD Review: Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit


...All of this happens in what is basically the prologue to the actual events of the film, which show how the squeaky-clean Ryan, following his injury, is recruited into the CIA, first as a data analyst at a financial firm in New York City, and then as an agent on his first field assignment to avert an act of financial terrorism in Russia. As Ryan progresses up the ranks of the CIA, though, the story doesn’t get any more nuanced. Ryan is always the most observant, most competent, most morally upstanding guy in the room. The Americans are the good guys; the Russians are the villains. It is, like its airport-novel origins, pretty boilerplate.

For something so formulaic, though, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is at least well done. Director Kenneth Branagh borrows from the best of recent thrillers. He throws in a Bourne-style fight scene here, a Mission:Impossible break-in-and-heist-sequence there, and some Zero Dark Thirty-like data analysis, along with a dash of his own classic, theatrical flourishes. (Branagh takes on the role of Russian baddie Viktor Cherevin, a cold-blooded killer who still makes time to talk about the novels of Mikhail Lermontov.)

With each of these sequences, Branagh changes his filmmaking style to match. The Bourne-like fistfight also borrows its director’s affinity for the shaky, handheld camera aesthetic. The longer heist scene has more fluid camera movements and quick cuts to ratchet up the tension. Throughout, Branagh makes everything sparkle: fluorescent lights of a city, reflections on smooth surfaces of modern architecture, blinking lights of a computer message. The elements of the story may be familiar, but everything looks shiny and new.

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TV Review: Halt and Catch Fire


With the relationships among MacMillan, Clark, and Howe in the foreground, Halt and Catch Fire makes impressive use of its time period without treating it as an elbow-to-the-ribs joke. Sure, there’s the obligatory Return of the Jedi reference, but there are no Rubik’s cubes, day-glo colors, “Billie Jean,” or any of the other hackneyed ‘80s touchstones. Instead, 1983 appears here to be a transitional year that separates the ‘70s from the ‘80s, pivoting to the age of the personal computer, and the details designating this moment are specific rather than generic.

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DVD Review: Lizzie Borden Took an Axe

Taken all together, Lizzie Borden Took an Axe is unsatisfying on every level. It doesn’t dig deep enough to make Borden a deliciously evil villain that still inspires some loyalty, like Hannibal Lecter or Joe Carroll. The procedural elements detailing the trial amount to dueling monologues from the prosecution and defense, making them more dry than dramatic. (And shallow, too: You see the hoards of press and gawkers at the trial, but their impact is never explored.) It doesn’t shed any new light on the century-old case. And the camp doesn’t go over-the-top enough to fulfill any kind of cheesy midnight-movie craving.

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DVD Review: The Spectacular Now

'The Spectacular Now': What's So Great About Being an Adult?

On the surface, it seems like The Spectacular Now is no different from your average teen movie. It starts off at an Atlanta, Georgia high school sometime during senior year. The all-around popular guy, Sutter (Miles Teller), meets the pretty-but-unnoticed shy girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). They strike up an unlikely friendship, then an even-more-unlikely romance, and then have to figure out what to do about the world after high school.

In the hands of James Ponsoldt —adapting the novel by Tim Tharp—what could easily become your typical end-of-high-school love story becomes something much harder to create: a teen movie that resembles real life more than other teen movies. In Ponsoldt’s commentary and a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes included in the Blu-ray, Ponsoldt says he was striving for authenticity and, for the most part, he achieves it.

Teller and Woodley, along with the rest of the cast, look and talk like real teenagers. Their clothes are worn and wrinkled and look like they were bought at Target. They sweat when it’s supposed to be hot out, and things like pimples and scars aren’t airbrushed out or caked over with makeup. (The authenticity spills over into the location as well; an Atlanta native, Ponsoldt notes in his commentary that he wanted to show off the city the way the locals see it, by including, say, his favorite college record store as opposed to the usual tourist attractions.) ...


PopMatters Year-End Lists: The Best TV of 2013 (and the Worst Movies)

The Best Television of 2013

No. 11
Girls
“One Man’s Trash”, a second-season episode of Girls, may have been polarizing even to the most strident fans of the show, but it proves why the series deserves a spot on any Top TV list. The episode finds Hannah Horvath (series creator Lena Dunham) spending a lost couple of days with a Brooklyn doctor (played by Patrick Wilson). The episode exists in a bubble; Hannah barely talks to any series regulars, and she and the doctor never venture outside of his brownstone together. It was so removed from the rest of the series, people speculated it was a dream. “One Man’s Trash” proves Girls’ originality and fearlessness. In a TV-watching culture that prizes serialized storytelling and binge-watchability above all else, Dunham isn’t afraid to take her show on a different tack and do a stand-alone episode. She’s also not afraid to go broad when other shows are trying to be grounded, or to show female characters spiraling out of control or refusing to grow up (normally the domain of male characters). It’s this willingness to take risks—some of which, admittedly, turn out to be more successful than others—that make Girls one of the most exciting shows on television.

No. 33
Sleepy Hollow
Sleepy Hollow throws everything at its audience. A time-traveling protagonist transported two centuries in the future? Yes. A menagerie of monsters? Why not. A secret, alternate history of the United States and Revolutionary War? Sure. Why not add in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (the famed Headless Horseman is one) and other Biblical catastrophes, too? It all works together, mostly because Sleepy Hollow moves along at such a pace that don’t have time to pick apart how any of it is stitched together. The mix of supernatural elements also gives the show a balance between monster-of-the-week episodes (which usually come with cool creature designs) and episodes that lay out the mythology for the oncoming war between good and evil. But what really sells it is the charm of Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), who sounds equally authoritative talking about 18th-century Freemasons as he does decrying the 21st-century “ten percent levy on baked goods”—aka the sales tax at Dunkin Donuts. Washington Irving would be tickled.


Click through to read the full list at PopMatters. I also had a few blurbs in The Worst Films of 2013 (#12, #16, and #23), but let's not dwell on the negative, shall we?