Transcendence (2014) Movie Review

transcendence_ver3Runs into problems narratively, but the idea behind it is endlessly fascinating

“Transcendence” is a Warner Bros. release, directed by Wally Pfister and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality. The running time is .

The cast includes Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cory Hardrict, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Stewart, Xander Berkley and Lukas Haas.

The idea behind Transcendence is big, ambitious and nearly impossible to pull off in a two hour feature film. For a logic-based narrative such as this one it becomes troubling when it ends up with logic flaws of its own, largely as a result of the film’s running time as it would take nearly four hours or one thousand pages to properly set this story up so critical audiences wouldn’t ask questions such as, “Why hasn’t the government noticed this yet?” However, it’s the underlying fabric of this story, the questions it poses about our future, that I found compelling, even if the characters and scenarios involved are a little hokey and ridiculous.

Transcendence takes a look at “what’s next” for humanity, with the increasing influence of technology in our lives, and how it will be used in the future, driving the narrative. Looking into the idea of what’s next is scientist and Artificial Intelligence expert, Will Caster (Johnny Depp), his wife and fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Each has a different idea of how to use advanced technology, while an anti-technology outfit going by the name of R.I.F.T., led by Kate Mara, is determined to make sure that technology is destroyed.

After an assassination attempt leaves Will with only a month left to live, Evelyn and Max attempt to upload Will’s brain into a computer, keeping what they hope will be his conscience alive while his body dies. But will it really be Will? How will they ever know? Machines can’t feel or show compassion? Or can they? If they can what does that mean for humanity?

If you’ve seen the trailer you know the attempt works (on some level), but to what degree you’ll have to watch to find out. Eventually we find techno Will surfing the Internet, manipulating Wall Street and growing in power and intelligence, but to what end. He must be stopped! Right?

transcendence-movie-review-0Johnny Depp in Transcendence
Photo: Warner Bros.

With Transcendence, screenwriter Jack Paglen presents a picture in which technological enhancements aren’t exactly a creation of humanity, but instead an extension of humanity. Where things become dicey is when this extension looks to change the world in which we know it as humanity can only accept so much change.

These ideas are fascinating to explore and once the film’s finale rolls around I absolutely loved the conclusions the narrative reached as a result of the action. Unfortunately the film has a hard time coming to these conclusions in a logical manner. Government agencies are blind to what’s going on in the middle of the New Mexico desert while the R.I.F.T. organization is not only killing people, but going around kidnapping and has their own, crack surveillance team.

Director Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut after making a name for himself serving as Christopher Nolan‘s director of photography on films from Memento to The Dark Knight and Inception, for which he won the Oscar. Handed $100 million for your first directorial effort and a cast of thousands is a daunting task and Pfister couldn’t have chosen a more complicated subject to delve into for his first time out.

Pfister must get us to care for these characters, understand their dilemmas and get us to understand the science behind what’s taking place and why R.I.F.T. is against it all in a very short amount of time and it results in leaps in narrative logic and human emotion that don’t quite gel. Morgan Freeman as an A.I. expert, friend and colleague to the Casters joins forces with an FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy and their involvement in the story is no grander than an episodic primetime television show, so dumbed down and simplified it seems as if they belong on “N.C.I.S.” rather than a high concept feature film.

Transcendence, on the other hand, does play with some cool sci-fi ideas and even bleeds into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory and is, more-or-less, the horror equal to Spike Jonze‘s Her, both suggesting the eventual coming together of technology and humanity, proving there’s very little separating human DNA from the “ones and zeroes”.

What most will probably find disappointing, given Pfister’s past, is Jess Hall‘s (Hot Fuzz) cinematography. Hall presents a muted color palette and has some fun with macro-photography and bokeh effects through rain-driven windshields, but otherwise it’s a rather drab picture with very little to catch the eye as the camera seems to be more of a passive observer rather than taking us deeper into the narrative.

From an acting perspective Depp is given little to do, spending the majority of the film as a digital recreation, but I do remember at the beginning how it’s becoming increasingly hard for me to picture Depp as a “normal” human being, given his penchant for over-the-top characters. Most of the film, however, is placed on Hall’s shoulders and outside of a few up-and-down moments in the beginning as she must flip a switch in support of her now-digitize husband, she does a complimentary job as her growing concern over what techno Will has become begins to surface.

Bettany is also given a lot of the load to carry, but his story gets so muddled into the R.I.F.T. camp and Mara’s over the top, platinum haired character, I cringed a little every time the story went back to their makeshift bunker.

When it comes down to it, Transcendence stumbles narratively. For a film dependent on logic it has too many logic flaws of its own, however most of them in the opening hour. The intent of the film is there, thankfully, and once you strip away the path to where the film comes from and focus on the end game, Jack Paglen has conceived an intelligent look at a possible future humanity may very well face. What’s most interesting about this future, and a question you’ll have to ask yourself while watching the movie, is who is the enemy in this scenario?

Just by watching the trailers and listening to his God-like voice within the film, coming from all the corners of the theater, Will is clearly looked at as an antagonist in the film, but is he really? As you watch, look close at Will’s intentions. Look closely at his goals and what it would mean for the world. There are some interesting discussions to be had here, especially once you push the selfish nature of humanity aside.


Johnny Depp’s ‘Transcendence’ poised for subdued U.S. launch

la_ca_0102_transcendence“Transcendence” is expected to gross $20 million to $22 million in the U.S. and Canada this weekend. It stars Johnny Depp, shown above on the monitor, as well as, standing from left, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall. (Peter Mountain / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Johnny Depp’s new artificial-intelligence thriller probably lacks the processing power to top the U.S. box office charts this weekend.

The $100-million “Transcendence,” in which Depp plays a brilliant researcher, is expected to gross $20 million to $22 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to people who have seen prerelease audience surveys.

That could clear the way for a third-straight victory by “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” or a come-from-behind win for the animated tropical birds comedy “Rio 2.” Those films could each add $20 million to $25 million to their respective, already strong box-office hauls.

Financed by Alcon Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros., “Transcendence” will mark Depp’s first film since the ill-fated 2013 Disney epic “Lone Ranger.”

Other recent Depp misfires outside the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise include “Dark Shadows” and “The Rum Diary.” “Transcendence” could suffer from poor reviews, indicated by a rating of 13% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes as of Thursday.

Warner Bros. is hoping the film will have strong international appeal similar to that of Guillermo del Toro’s $190-million monster and robot movie “Pacific Rim,” which performed tepidly in the U.S. but pulled in more than $300 million from overseas. “Transcendence” lands in China, where it is likely to have a significant draw, on the same day of its U.S. release.

China is also getting an exclusive 3-D version of “Transcendence,” the directing debut of Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister that also stars Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall.

The wild card is the latest faith-based drama “Heaven Is for Real,” which opened Wednesday to an estimated $3.7 million and could generate a five-day total of $20 million or more through Sunday.

TriStar Pictures’ “Heaven Is For Real,” which cost $12 million to make, arrives Easter weekend on the heels of this year’s successful Christian movies “Son of God” and “God’s Not Dead.”

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Todd Burpo, “Heaven is For Real” follows a father who tries to share his son’s experience of the hereafter during a near-death incident. Whereas “Son of God” and “God’s Not Dead” were aimed mainly at the faithful, distributor Sony’s TriStar label is hoping “Heaven Is For Real” will appeal to mainstream audiences as well.

“Heaven Is For Real” stars Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly and was directed and co-written by Randall Wallace.

Disney’s G-rated nature documentary “Bears” will likely saunter forward with around $7 million this weekend, while “A Haunted House 2,” the low budget horror-comedy from Open Road Films, is expected to debut to about $10 million. The original “A Haunted House” launched with $18 million in ticket sales on its way to a $40-million domestic total.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Marvel Studios’ sequel to 2011′s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” has already crossed the $500-million mark worldwide including $167 million from in the U.S. and Canada.

“Rio 2,” from 20th Century Fox’s animation company Blue Sky Studios, opened with $39 million last weekend for a second-place finish and has generated more than $45 million in ticket sales so far at home, with an additional $170 million from overseas.


The Rover (2014) Movie Trailer

“The Rover,” David Michod’s highly anticipated follow-up to “Animal Kingdom,” is set in a world 10 years following the collapse of society. The rule of the law has disintegrated and life is cheap. The film follows hardened loner Eric (Pearce) as he travels the desolate towns and roads of the outback. When a gang of thieves steals his car they leave behind a wounded Rey (Pattinson) in their wake. Forcing Rey to help track the gang, Eric will go to any lengths to take back the one thing that still matters to him. Michod also wrote the film based on a story he conceived with Joel Edgerton.

Release Date: June 13, 2014 (NY, LA; expands: June 20)
Studio: A24
Director: David Michôd
Screenwriter: David Michôd
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Susan Prior, Gillian Jones, Anthony Hayes, David Field
Genre: Thriller
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some bloody violence)
Official Website:

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) Movie Trailer #2

The ultimate X-Men ensemble fights a war for the survival of the species across two time periods in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The beloved characters from the original “X-Men” film trilogy join forces with their younger selves from “X-Men: First Class,” in an epic battle that must change the past — to save our future.

Directed by Bryan Singer, starring Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Ellen Page, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Halle Berry and Peter Dinklage

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13 Sins (2014) Movie Review

thirteen_sinsMark Webber stars opposite Ron Perlman in Daniel Stamm’s horror suspenser

Creepy enough to get the job done, but not sufficiently extreme to fulfill the initial setup.

Opens: April 18 (Radius-TWC)

Cast: Mark Webber, Ron Perlman, Devon Graye, Rutina Wesley, Tom Bower, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Director: Daniel Stamm

In his first feature outing since 2010′s The Last Exorcism, Daniel Stamm does serviceable work on horror-thriller 13 Sins, based on the 2006 Thai film 13: Game of Death. Less a remake than a reinterpretation, Stamm and co-writer David Birke have adopted the original’s premise and reworked many of the details, but the arc of the two films remains very similar.

Produced by Automatik Entertainment and Blumhouse Productions, Sins will face off at the holiday-weekend box office against another Blumhouse title, Relativity’s holdover Oculus, which placed third at the domestic box office last weekend. Some cannibalization may be inevitable, although Sins got a jump on theatrical release with VOD and digital download made available starting Mar. 14.

Recently fired from his New Orleans insurance-sales job (he wasn’t ruthless enough), Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber) puts up a brave front with his pregnant fiancee Shelby (Rutina Wesley), even though he’s facing nearly $100,000 in personal debt with no means of repayment. Besides planning an expensive wedding, he also has to support his mentally disabled younger brother Michael (Devon Graye), who faces re-institutionalization if his insurance plan lapses. So although an unexpected phone call offering to pay him ridiculous sums of money – over $6 million if he’s a winner — to participate in a “one of a kind” hidden-camera game show seems particularly random, Elliot has no problem completing the first challenge for $1,000 – swatting an annoying fly buzzing around his car.

With the disturbingly gleeful voice of the show host on the other end of the call promising to “make all your problems go away,” Elliot’s online bank balance gets bumped up accordingly, so he reluctantly accepts the second task – eating the dead fly. But he’ll have to complete 13 “challenges” in total within 36 hours to win the multi-million-dollar prize, as the game quickly becomes very complicated. After following instructions to harass a young girl whose mother becomes irate at his shameless display of cruelty, and nearly burning down a church, even Elliot realizes it won’t be long until the cops are onto him. According to the rules, however, he’ll lose all his winnings if he fails to complete any stage of the game.

Subsequent tasks involving a dead body and a severed limb earn awards ticking up above $100,000 apiece, but quickly bring him to the realization that winning the competition will require unbridled transgressions, which could clearly cost him his upcoming marriage, his family relations and his own liberty. Meanwhile, detective Chilcoat (Ron Perlman) is closely tracking his moves, as well as a determined conspiracy theorist (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who’s trying to determine the shadowy origins of the contest. Elliot’s discovery that he may be competing against another contender for the game’s winnings adds a twist that could reveal why he was initially selected for the show, but seems destined to play out with savage determinism.

Although it’s never quite clear how a widely distributed video network can keep Elliot constantly on-camera, his increasingly brutal crimes are witnessed by plenty of horrified bystanders. The very public exposure of his depravities not only recalls a certain genre of reality TV competition that specialize in creeping audiences out, but also allows Stamm and Birke’s script to persuasively explore how indulgence in violence can often amplify vicious behavior, as Elliot elatedly gains more and more satisfaction from earning prize money for his criminal outbursts. The true objective of the game, we’re told, is to demonstrate that “anyone can be turned into a monster.”

Webber, who’s been sticking to more indie-oriented projects lately (including his own 2012 The End of Love), gets Elliot’s rapid transformation from timid insurance salesman to manic outlaw right, but never achieves the level of all-out ferocity that the game’s relentlessly competitive scenario seems to require. Perlman, whose roles often go well over the top, appears here to be mostly going through the motions required to provide sufficient conflict to frustrate Elliot’s progress, although Tom Bower as his bitter, vindictive father might have been a better option to convey those plot developments.

On The Last Exorcism, Stamm stuck to a consistently insistent verite technique — Sins dials things back to a more restrained observational style that nonetheless doesn’t shirk brutality and gore, while his regular cinematographer Zoltan Honti’s notably besmirched lensing paints an appropriately grimy pall over the most extreme scenes.

Again working with a brand-name horror producer (swapping Exorcism’s Eli Roth for Jason Blum on Sins) could further boost Stamm’s credentials, although more deference to the film’s unnerving Thai predecessor (represented on Sins by industry veteran Somsak Techaratanaprasert, a producer on the original) might have yielded more distinctive results.

Opens: April 18 (Radius-TWC)

Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Automatik Entertainment

Cast: Mark Webber, Ron Perlman, Devon Graye, Rutina Wesley, Tom Bower, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Director: Daniel Stamm

Screenwriters: David Birke, Daniel Stamm

Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Steve Squillante, Kiki Miyake

Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Jason Blum, Carsten Lorenz, Somsak Techaratanaprasert

Director of photography: Zoltan Honti

Production designer: Jim Gelarden

Costume designer: Marcy Rector

Music: Michael Wandmacher

Editor: Shilpa K. Sahi

Rated R, 93 minutes


Heaven Is for Real (2014) Movie Review

heaven_is_for_realGreg Kinnear stars in the adaptation of the Christian book.

A boy’s journey to heaven will entice Christian audiences without driving other viewers up the wall.

Opens: Wednesday, April 16 (TriStar Pictures).

Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Nancy Sorel.

Director: Randall Wallace.
Christian moviegoers already turned God’s Not Dead into a surprise hit this year, and even more should flock to Heaven Is For Real, a movie made on a bigger budget and drawn from a best-selling book about a young boy’s near-death experiences of the afterlife. This picture from Braveheart screenwriter and Secretariat director Randall Wallace is unlikely to convert any skeptics, but if they wander into the multiplex, they’ll find that that the prettily photographed sermon goes down easily.

The low-pressure approach of the filmmakers is very much the same tactic taken by small-town pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) in his orations to his congregation. He dresses casually and addresses his flock without any hectoring or fire-and-brimstone declaiming. (The ethnic diversity of the small Midwestern congregation, however, seems more politically correct than geographically credible.)  But when Todd’s four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) is rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix, the family’s world threatens to collapse. Colton survives emergency surgery, but he returns to the land of the living with tales of the visions of heaven he experienced, including an encounter with Jesus himself. Todd is initially skeptical, but when Colton recounts details about dead family members whom he never knew, Todd begins to accept the boy’s visions. Yet other inhabitants of the town as well as members of the church executive board are more skeptical, fearing that the boy’s tales from the other side are turning their congregation into something of a circus sideshow.

That’s about the extent of the drama in this rather attenuated film.  True believers will find the film’s evocations of heaven quite enough to sustain their interest, but other viewers — even those who might be curious about the film’s thesis — will search in vain for a more compelling narrative. Margo Martindale plays one of the church leaders who is concerned about the notoriety the boy’s tales attract, but this story strand isn’t well-developed and is resolved far too easily. The overwrought melodrama that marred God’s Not Dead is luckily absent, but Heaven desperately needs a greater sense of urgency.

Some of this is provided by Todd’s financial hardships, which add intriguing and unexpected dimension to the life of a contemporary country pastor. Todd can’t make a living as a preacher, so he works in construction and also as a volunteer fireman. A scene in which he has to tell a hospital administrator that he can’t afford to pay his whopping medical bill gives an unexpectedly sharp edge to the movie.

The grittier realities of life in small-town America are obviously not what this film wants to highlight, yet those glimpses add some valued texture to the film. The images of heaven are too antiseptic to prove very persuasive to nonbelievers, but the film does achieve moments of spiritual grandeur in its more realistic scenes. Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves) brings a breathtaking sense of widescreen wonder to the Nebraska prairie vistas (actually shot in Canada), and these images convey a more subtle sense of transcendent possibilities than the heavenly interludes with gossamer angels.

Working with Semler, Wallace achieves some visual epiphanies, and he also draws effectively natural performances from the actors. Kinnear is always believably human, and as his wife, British actress Kelly Reilly (who made a strong impression as Denzel Washington‘s love interest in Flight) has an appealing earthiness. Martindale has a couple of moving moments, though Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church has a disappointingly thin role as the town banker. One of the reasons the film works as well as it does is because of the casting of Corum as young Colton. Unlike many child actors his age, Corum never milks the audience. He is appealingly understated, which shows the tact of director Wallace. But aside from any acting ability, his angelic face cannot help but strengthen the movie’s thesis. Wallace made a lot of shrewd decisions to sock this movie home, but he can’t entirely overcome the dramatic thinness of the original material. The faithful may well be weeping by the film’s conclusion, while others will remain more detached, feeling little except gratitude that they haven’t been bludgeoned into believing.

Opens:  Wednesday, April 16 (TriStar Pictures).

Cast:  Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Nancy Sorel.

Director:  Randall Wallace.

Screenwriters:  Randall Wallace, Christopher Parker.

Based on the book by: Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent.

Producers:  Joe Roth, T.D. Jakes.

Executive producers:  Sue Baden-Powell, Sam Mercer, Derrick Williams.

Director of photography:  Dean Semler.

Production designer:  Arv Greywal.

Music:  Nick Glennie-Smith.

Costume designer:  Michael T. Boyd.

Editor:  John Wright.

Rated PG, 100 minutes.


Cold in July (2014) Movie Trailer

\How can a split-second decision change your life? While investigating noises in his house one balmy Texas night in 1989, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hal) puts a bullet in the brain of low-life burglar Freddy Russell. Although he’s hailed as a small-town hero, Dane soon finds himself fearing for his family’s safety when Freddy’s ex-con father, Ben (Sam Shepard), rolls into town, hell-bent on revenge.

Michael C. Hall brings a shell-shocked vulnerability to his portrayal of Dane that contrasts perfectly with the grizzled badasses portrayed by Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. Directed with an excellent eye for the visual poetry of noir by Jim Mickle (“We Are What We Are”), this pulpy, southern-fried mystery is a throwback to an older breed of action film, one where every punch and shotgun blast opens up both physical and spiritual wounds. Twists and turns accelerate as the film reaches its inevitable destination: a gore-soaked dead end. “Cold in July” is as muggy, oppressive, and hard to shake as an east Texas summer.

Release Date: May 23, 2014 (limited)
Studio: IFC Films
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenwriter: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell
Genre: Crime, Thriller
MPAA Rating: Not Available
Official Website: Not Available

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Third Person (2014) Movie Trailer

Third Person opens in theaters on June 20th, 2014.

Cast: Liam Neeson, Kim Basinger, Olivia Wilde, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, Maria Bello, Moran Atias, Loan Chabanol

Michael (Liam Neeson) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author who has holed himself up in a hotel suite in Paris to finish his latest book. He recently left his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger), and is having a tempestuous affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), an ambitious young journalist who wants to write and publish fiction.

At the same time, Scott (Adrien Brody), a shady American businessman, is in Italy to steal designs from fashion houses. Hating everything Italian, Scott wanders into the “Cafe Americano” in search of something familiar to eat. There, he meets Monika (Moran Atias), a beautiful Roma woman, who is about to be reunited with her young daughter. When the money she has saved to pay her daughter’s smuggler is stolen, Scott feels compelled to help. They take off together for a dangerous town in Southern Italy, where Scott starts to suspect that he is the patsy in an elaborate con game.

Julia (Mila Kunis), an ex-soap opera actress, is caught in a custody battle for her 6 year-old son with her ex-husband Rick (James Franco), a famous New York artist. With her support cut off and her legal costs ruinous, Julia is reduced to working as a maid in the same upscale boutique hotel where she was once a frequent guest. Julia’s lawyer Theresa (Maria Bello) has secured Julia one final chance to change the court’s mind and be reunited with the child she loves. Rick’s current girlfriend Sam (Loan Chabanol) is a compassionate onlooker.

“Third Person” tells three stories of love, passion, trust and betrayal, in a multi-strand story line reminiscent of Paul Haggis’s earlier Oscar-winning film Crash. The tales play out in New York, Paris and Rome: three couples who appear to have nothing related but share deep commonalities: lovers and estranged spouses, children lost and found.

Third Person trailer courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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