Transcendence: a slow moving science fiction film. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever combined the words “slow moving” and “science fiction” in the same sentence. While there are positive aspects to this 119 minute movie, it is long 119 minutes. The film has an excellent cast, including Johnny Depp as the lead character, Will Caster. However, for the first time ever, Depp’s performance bored me. While his Tonto can be criticized on many counts, boredom is not among them. At its foundation, Transcendence has an intriguing premise: artificial intelligence using the brain of a single individual. The opening sequence, which held my interest, shows Caster giving a Steve Job type presentation about where his research is heading. As he is leaving the auditorium, he is shot but not killed. For storyline convenience, the bullet, which is laced with radiation, guarantees Caster’s death over time. The assassination is part of an organized eradication of people involved with artificial intelligence. From this initial premise, which makes scientists the bad guys, the story winds through a series of implausible events that are told with too much verbiage and too little action. Intertwined with the sci-fi/ thriller threads, the movie also tells a love story between Caster and his scientist wife, Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall. While Caster and Evelyn’s love for each other is eternal, there is no comparable chemistry between Depp and Hall and the connection falls flat. Morgan Freeman appears briefly as a colleague of Caster but his role is very limited. Also underused is Paul Bettany who plays Caster’s neurobiologist partner. Roger Ebert often talked about the need for a film to be believable within its defined framework. Transcendence falls far short of Ebert’s test. This failure combined with the film’s painfully slow pace leads me to say for the first time ever about a Johnny Depp movie: it is not worth seeing. The script, written by Jack Paglen, raises some fundamental issues about the potential power of machines and it is easy to understand what attracted Depp to the movie. Unfortunately, the director, Wally Pfister, fails to overcome the script’s defects. I hope Paglen and Pfister do not work together again.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Bethlehem: a contemporary Israeli movie. The primary characters are an Israeli secret service officer and a Palestinian teenage informant. In 2013, the movie was given an Ophir for Best Film. The Ophir is the Israeli Academy of Film and Television’s equivalent of an Oscar. In its 99 minutes, this movie offers a case study as to why there has been no peace in the West Bank. In this Cain and Abel tale, the political and social difficulties existing in the West Bank are starkly presented. Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) is a 17 year old living with his parents in Bethlehem. His brother, Ibrahim, is a Palestinian militant responsible for the death of Israelis. Razi (Tsahi Halevy) is a married Israeli secret service officer working for an antiterrorism unit and who has gotten Sanfur to assist him in tracking terrorists. The film gives different reasons as to why Sanfur chose to cooperate with Razi. You may view the Sanfur character as complex or as just a confused teenager living in a violent society. Ibrahim’s mission is simple - to kill Israelis - and while Ibrahim’s story is essential to the movie, the focus is on Sanfur and Razi. Bethlehem is written by Ali Waked, an Israeli Arab, and Yuval Adler, who also directed this excellent film. The violence of the place and times are shown primarily through Sanfur’s interactions with his family, friends and society. The film shows the mistrust many Israelis have for Palestinians as well as the mistrust that lies within the Palestinian community itself. Through the presence of the individual in Ibrahim’s Cell No. 2, the movie also makes the point that Bedouins are viewed as second class citizens within the Palestinian community. Hiham Omari, as the Bedouin Badawi, gives a powerful performance. This film appears to be an honest presentation of what is currently happening in the West Bank. Subtitled.
The Grand Budapest Hotel: a Wes Anderson film. I usually don’t lead with the name of the director but Anderson has become the leading off-beat comedy film director and, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, he hits a home run. The script, which Anderson co-authored, was inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew from the 1930’s who may have been the most widely read German author of his time. This zany tale takes place at the dawn of WW II in a fictitious Eastern European country located somewhere between Germany and Russia. The movie was actually filmed in Gorlitz, Germany. The lead character, M. Gustave, played marvelously by Ralph Fiennes, is the concierge and ruler of the Hotel. The movie opens in 1985 and the country is under communist rule. An elderly writer, played by Tom Wilkinson, is recalling his visit to the Hotel in 1968 and his introduction to the Hotel’s owner, a Mr. Moustafa, played by F. Murray Abraham. Moustafa then proceeds to tell the then young writer, played by Jude Law, how he came to own the Hotel. The Hotel is the centerpiece of the story and the timeline morphs to the 1930’s where we meet Gustave and a newly hired lobby boy called Zero (Tony Revolori), who is the young Moustafa. Then the fun begins in earnest. The Gustave character reminded me of Max Bialystock of The Producers - both romance older women and are financially rewarded. Tilda Swinton plays Madame D, who is 84. Madame D does not want to leave the Hotel because she has a premonition she will die. And, off screen, she does die; Zero shows Gustave the newspaper article about her death. Gustave and Zero head off to Madame D’s home where they meet her family, who are reminiscent of Marx Brothers characters with Adrien Brody playing Madame D’s son and Willem Dafoe playing the family hit man. There are also three bizarre sisters. As the inheritance story unfolds, the totalitarianism of the era presents itself with Harvey Keitel appearing as Ludwig and various prisoners and other characters played by Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson and Jeff Goldblum. Unlike many movies with star ridden casts, everyone stays in character. The 100 minute film moves at a brisk pace and you never know what oddity will happen next. There is an undercurrent in the film as to the reality that will befall the region where the Hotel is located, however, it is presented with irony and charm and plain old fun.