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Review – Transcendence (12a) [2014]

Transcendence - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Wally Pfister

Executive Producer:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Mychael Danna – Girl,Interrupted, Fracture, Capote, Moneyball, The Captive

In 1948, George Orwell wrote the classic 1984 in which he (implicitly) warned of the dangers of a country using technology to the full to create a totalitarian state. Many of Orwell’s ideas are now part of everyday life. States can monitor an individual’s movements by CCTV surveillance, by their mobile phone activities, by their credit card history, etc… and with a computer database at the tip of the state’s fingers to bring such information when required.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) with the swagger of a scientist on the verge of something special, and after his shooting before his consciousness is wired up into the computer.

Left, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), with the swagger of a scientist on the verge of something special; and, right, sickly after being shot, just prior to his consciousness being wired up to the computer.

The above may be very worrying. But the saving grace is that a person is still needed to activate such technology; for technology cannot operate on its own. However, what if technology could operate on its own? Or, rather, what if a human being’s self-awareness were put into a computer? This is the territory that Wally Pfister’s directorial debut film, Transcendence, deals with.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a scientist intent on creating a conscious computer. His research is at an advanced stage, when he is shot by anti-tech terrorists. With his mind fully functional but his body dying, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), desperate to save her husband and against the advice of Will’s friend Max (Paul Bettany), uploads Will’s consciousness to a computer to keep him alive.

But as soon as Will’s conscience has been uploaded, the question arises as to whether it really is Will in the computer, or if it is something else, especially as transcendent-Will becomes hungry for power. And with all surveillance systems, the internet, and data-records within his control, as well as the ability to advance at a logarithmic rate, what can stop transcendent-Will bending the world to his will?

Transcendence has a complex yet stimulating plot, almost entirely devoid of (headache inducing) action scenes. The film’s language might be tough to follow (although not a prerequisite, it certainly helps to have some knowledge of computer- and nano-science to understand the dialogue). But the idea of whether a soul, in general, can be uploaded into a computer, and the moral risks of technology (possibly) going too far ensure that viewers can appreciate the movie all the same.

Bree (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara), one of the anti-tech terrorists behind the shooting of Dr. Will Caster.

Bree (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara), one of the anti-tech terrorists behind the shooting of Dr. Will Caster.

The idea of technology going too far is not a new one, per se. After-all, Orwell spoke of the matter in 1948, and countless science fiction films, like The Terminator franchise, The Matrix Trilogy, i,Robot, and Prometheus have dealt with the subject since (mostly dragging it through the sewers in the process). Yet, Transcendence handles the subject with maturity, and delivers it in quite an original way. The movie may seem far-fetched at first. But the documentary series Through The Wormhole, narrated by (Transcendence’s and Hollywood’s moral compass) Morgan Freeman, shows us the (disconcerting) capabilities of present-day technology. This, in turn, suggests that what happens in Transcendence is not as implausible as it may ostensibly appear.

But to focus solely on the technological angle of Transcendence would be to miss the point of the film. In a twopart interview, Wally Pfister spoke of how Transcendence is a human story at its core. Due to the film’s mature handling of the subject of artificial intelligence, and due to Paul Bettany’s passionate performance, viewers can understand what the director wanted to convey.

However, Pfister’s casting of Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in the lead roles almost loses him the human element of the tale. Depp and Hall have little chemistry between them and neither look like they understand the scientific language they engage with throughout the film. At least, Hall believes in her character and puts effort into her role. Depp, on the other hand, (in a non-Captain Jack Sparrow-like role for a change) looks disinterested and half-asleep throughout the movie.

Depp and Hall might be Transcendence’s most noteworthy problems. But the dialogue is not great either (irrespective of the difficult language used). In addition, parts of the plot are given away daftly, and are contrived, and are unexplained; then again, it should be noted that Inception suffered from similar unexplained-plot problems, so maybe such issues are to be expected when a film deals with inexplicable elements.

FBI agents, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanen (Cillian Murphy) giving Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) sage advice on her husband's transcendence plans.

FBI agents, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanen (Cillian Murphy) giving Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) sage advice on her husband’s transcendence plans.

Nevertheless, like Inception, the cinematography in Transcendence is first-rate. From Transcendence, one can see why Christopher Nolan employed Pfister as his cinematographer for many of his movies, including The Prestige, The Dark Knight I-III, and Inception (in which Pfister won his Oscar). Indeed, if Transcendence’s script and acting would have been as good as its cinematography, Pfister would be in line for a directorial Oscar-nomination in 2015.

Over-all, Transcendence is a brave film for a director to make his debut. It is an interesting and thought-provoking movie, with phenomenal visuals and cinematography. Transcendence has its flaws, not least with its plot, its dialogue and its two lead actors. But to some extent, one should overlook these problems and concentrate on the film’s treatment of the possible dangers of modern day/near-future technology. For, like Orwell in 1948, these matters are handled in an ambitious, innovative and refreshingly adult way.

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Review – 21 Jump Street (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 2/5

Last year’s The Inbetweeners Movie was a genuinely funny comedy. Whilst lacking in subtlety, it had a fine mix of intelligent and dim-witted humour, as well as realistic characters and a (semi-)plausible storyline. But in recent years many ‘comedies,’ like Due Date and The Hangover: Part II, have lacked much of what made The Inbetweeners Movie so enjoyable. 21 Jump Street, despite a few instances of amusement, very much goes into the latter category of ‘comedies.’

Jenko (Channing Tatum) bullying Schmidt (Jonah Hill) in their high school days. They did not get on at all whilst they were in the same class.

21 Jump Street is loosely based on the 1987-91 TV series with the same title, which starred a young and then-little known Johnny Depp. 21 Jump Street is about two very dissimilar 1980s former high school classmates. Jenko (Channing Tatum – The Eagle, The Vow, Side Effects) was the well-liked, yet brainless jock, whilst Schmidt (Jonah Hill – Superbad, Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street) was the smart, but unpopular nerd.

Despite their differences, Jenko and Schmidt quickly become friends after enrolling in the police academy. Once they finish their course, they become partners on patrol.

However, Jenko and Schmidt are hopeless at their jobs. Subsequently, they are sent to an undercover unit, located on 21 Jump Street. It is there that they’re ordered by their new superior, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube – Ghosts of Mars, XXX2, Rampart), to discover who is behind a drug network that is allegedly based in their former high school. So Jenko and Schmidt go back to their old stomping plain (to find, to their shock, that what was popular in the late-1980s is not anymore), posing as students, to bust the drug dealership before it spreads to other schools.

The plot for 21 Jump Street is simple as well as amusing on a couple of occasions. In addition, the friendship between Jenko and Schmidt keeps viewers interested, due to the chemistry that the two actors share; and the shoot-out scenes are a good laugh and surprisingly gory as well.

Schmidt and Jenko, now friends and cops, apparently dressed as teenagers before going undercover into their old high school. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) ordering them not to get with any school-girls or teachers.

Yet, there are fewer action scenes than one would have predicted; and, alas, the overwhelming majority of the humour revolves round repetitive, mindless jokes between the two main characters; swearing; and vulgarity. Of course all of this can be tolerable and hilarious in moderation. But the directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs), have taken it all (shamefully) to the point when even the crude Steven Stifler (played by Sean William Scott in the American Pie series) might call a halt.

Combined with such coarseness in 21 Jump Street are the performances of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as Jenko and Schmidt,  respectively. The pathetic and overly immature nature of their attempts to behave in a ‘high school manner’ is embarrassingly terrible. Compared to them, Jay Cartwright (played by James Buckley in The Inbetweeners TV series and movie) is a relative grown up! Both Tatum and Hill can do better than this, as the former demonstrated in Coach Carter, and the latter in Superbad and Moneyball.

The poverty of the acting in 21 Jump Street is not Tatum’s and Hill’s alone. Ice Cube; Dave Franco (Superbad, Fright Night, Warm Bodies), playing as Eric, the ‘cool-guy’ of the school; and Brie Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Rampart, Relanxious), playing as Schmidt’s love interest, are all insipid and far from funny. The only noteworthy performer is Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean I-IV, The Tourist, Transcendence), who makes a surprise cameo appearance as his old character, DEA Tom Hanson. That was a clever move by the directors to bring him in. With the film dragging on for a hundred and ten minutes, Depp gives the movie some much needed unpredictability and impetus.

Likewise, it was intelligent of Lord and Miller to alter the dynamics of Jenko’s and Schmidt’s former high school. This entailed that the two main characters had to adapt to virtually new surroundings, which could have given Jenko and Schmidt another dimension to their, otherwise, shallow personalities.

Schmidt sitting with Molly (Brie Larson), the object of his fascination, as he tries to find a breakthrough and unearth who the drug suppliers are.

Yet, the directors badly under-developed these because they give little feel for how the school has changed. Worse, viewers are likely to ascertain almost no appreciation for this particular school or the American high school environment in general; especially, if one compares 21 Jump Street to the excellent Saved By The Bell series, or even the ‘chick flicks’ Mean Girls and John Tucker Must Die. All of those illustrated the different (albeit stereotypical) cliques, and the types of personalities within those cliques, that tend to exist in American high schools. But 21 Jump Street has almost none of it to the detriment of the movie.

Over-all, 21 Jump Street is a light-hearted film with two likeable main actors, who play daftly below their capabilities. The movie has a handful of laughable moments, but they’re overshadowed by the incessant obscene crudity that ruined ‘comedies’ like Due Date and The Hangover: Part II. Neither of those films made audiences cry with laughter as much, or as often as The Inbetweeners Movie. The same can be said for 21 Jump Street.

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Review – Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides 3D (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

When it comes to a fourth movie in a franchise, a sceptic might wonder if it is merely an easy excuse to rake in money, ahead of taking a risk and dreaming up something innovative. Other fourth instalments, such as Die Hard 4 and Fast 4 (not to mention Fast 5), have lacked creativity in favour of the familiar themes and characters that audiences have come to love. The same can be said for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Despite director Rob Marshall’s (Memories of a Geisha, Nine, Chicago) attempts to spice up the Pirates of the Caribbean series, On Stranger Tides illustrates that it might have been better just to have ended the series after the third instalment, At World’s End.

Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the reformed pirate, dressed admirably as a respectable Royal Navy Officer.

On Stranger Tides is based on the book by Tim Powers and centres once again on Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp – Pirates of the Caribbean I, II & III, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, The Tourist), as the droll pirate with warped logic and a twisted moral complexion. This time around, he is out to find the Fountain of Youth. The Spanish and the English are also in a race to find this place, and only Sparrow knows the way. (Although, whether Sparrow has actually been to the Fountain of Youth is, of course, a little dubious, due to his canny nature.)

But to enter the fountain requires certain things that will not be simple to acquire. Plus, the feared and ruthless pirate, Blackbeard (Ian McShane – Kung Fu Panda, Coraline, The Golden Compass), is also hell-bent on reaching the fountain in order to preserve his life for many more years.

The plot is filled with twists and deceptions that have become a predictable feature of the series. The storyline is at times ridiculous; yet, one accepts it knowing that he/she has not gone to watch a serious or realistic film.

One of the new characters in the series, the feared pirate, Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane).

However, the most disappointing aspect of On Stranger Tides is the script. It hampers the film and, primarily, sells the two main stars short. Whilst Johnny Depp gives another fine performance as Captain Sparrow, he lacks his trademark wittiness and oddities. Even his outrageous stunts no longer appear so outrageous anymore. Maybe we are too used to ‘witty Jack’ and expect too much from him. In fairness, it is almost impossible to light up the scene all the time with a brilliant comeback line. Nevertheless, the script for this movie is a far cry from that of Part I, The Curse of the Black Pearl, which had some fantastic lines.

Just as Depp has been let down, so too has Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean I, II & III, The Tailor of Panama, The King’s Speech). Rush returns as Captain Barbossa, who has now seemingly given up the life of a pirate for that of a respectable English naval officer. Barbossa’s character is a pale shadow of the one who entertained us so magnificently in the first three films. This is a real shame, as his rivalry with Sparrow in the past has made for terrific entertainment.

Captain Sparrow taking the beautiful Angelica to the Fountain of Youth via a river in the jungle.

Despite being conspicuously absent from this film, the characters played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are certainly not missed. Their performances in the series deteriorated with each movie. Alas, their replacements, Blackbeard and Angelica (Penélope Cruz – Vanilla Sky, Sahara, Nine), are hardly much better. McShane does not perform badly, even though Blackbeard’s character does not have the depth to be the ‘next Davie Jones’ (played by Bill Nighy in parts II, Dead Man’s Chest, & III in the series); whilst the sexy Cruz offers so much and delivers agonisingly little.

The special effects at least give the film a semi-redemptive feature. With the exception of one or two instances, they are pretty decent throughout the movie. Again though, they look hardly any different from scenes in the other films in the franchise, so viewers are unlikely to give producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean I, II & III, Black Hawk Down, National Treasure) much credit. The 3D is virtually non-existent too.

Over-all, On Stranger Tides continues the worsening trend of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and of over-extended franchises in general. The fourth instalment appears tired and out of ideas, to the extent that not even Captain Sparrow can make us enjoy, or think much of the film. But hey, fans of the series will flock to cinemas worldwide in great numbers to see their favourite characters again, enabling those involved in the movie to make a fortune once more. And fans will probably do the same again when the fifth part comes out in a few years time.

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Review – The Tourist (12a) [2010]

Star Rating: 3.5/5

When a guy generally sits on a train (or a bus or an aeroplane for that matter), he hopes and prays that a drop-dead gorgeous girl sits either next to or opposite him. Alas, this generally does not happen. Similarly, when two or more star actors combine for a film, the movie usually does not live up to its expectations. The Tourist is a casualty of this syndrome.

Nevertheless, Frank (Johnny Depp – Pirates of the Caribbean I, II, III & IV, Sweeney Todd, Alice In Wonderland), a single and simple maths teacher from Wisconsin, has a dream come true at the start of the film when the stunning Elise (Angelina Jolie – Salt, Wanted, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) sits opposite him on a train to Venice. Better still, she is interested in him. Unfortunately for Frank (if there is such a thing as ‘misfortune’ in this scenario), Elise is being followed by Scotland Yard and by Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff – A Clockwork Orange, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a murderous mafia boss. Both parties are after her husband, Alexander. Elise intends to use Frank as a decoy, to dupe the authorities and Shaw into believing that Frank is her husband.

Depp and Jolie gazing at one another as they dance at a ball. When it comes to glamour, there is only one winner.

Frank has no idea about any of this. As Frank, Depp plays a very different character to the intense, weird roles that he has done in previous films. (Think the barber in Sweeney Todd or Willy Wonker in Charlie In The Chocolate Factory.) In The Tourist, Depp plays a bumbling fool, who is in shock that a woman as striking as Elise would want him. Frank is totally infatuated with Elise throughout the movie and Depp does well to constantly remind us of this without being cringe-worthy. Not only is he nervous and uncertain of himself around her; whenever Elise speaks of her husband, one sees a twinkle of crushing depression form in Frank’s eyes as well as a lump develop in his throat. As a result, one has nothing but empathy for Frank: there are few things more gut-wrenching than going out with a girl and having to listen to her talk about how much she loves someone else; especially if you fancy her.

However, as good as Depp is, Jolie outclasses him. As Elise, Jolie plays a cunning, strong-willed and intimidatingly beautiful, high-class woman. The way she dresses, walks and talks (the English accent, last heard when Jolie starred as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, definitely adds to the appeal) make her the object of fascination throughout the film. That we are unsure for more or less the whole film whose side she’s on ensures she is an enigma. This is far from frustrating. Rather, this has the effect of increasing Elise’s/Jolie’s attractiveness several times over.

Depp and Jolie enjoying Venice's romantic charm as they take an evening boat ride.

Whilst Depp and Jolie play very well, the plot is nothing special and has holes in it that must be taken with a pinch of salt. Although the storyline is quite entertaining and full of twists (some of which are quite predictable); at times, particularly in the middle of the film, it can be a bit dull. If one were harsh, one could even go so far as to argue that it is not the storyline but the two main characters that keep the audience interested. That is never a good sign for a movie.

The choice of Venice for a location is a refreshing change. This film could easily have been shot in any of the over-used major cities in films (like London, New York, LA, Paris or Rome amongst many others). Yet, Venice has its unique allure, which is quite well captured throughout the film. The movie also reveals other not-so-wonderful aspects of Venice, and Italy in general, such as corruption within the police. But that is beside the point.

All in all, The Tourist is a tad disappointing. The actors and the charm of Venice undoubtedly make up for many of the shortfalls in the plot. Yet, even if the storyline has its flaws for much of the film, the ending is a different matter altogether. The ending is nothing short of brilliance and will leave one feeling very satisfied indeed.

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