Far too slow-paced to work as a thriller and too shallow to properly challenge us as science fiction, this film is unlikely to please many audience members. That isn't to say that it's unwatchable: it looks terrific, and features a strong cast who are solid in thinly written roles. But the material promises far more than the film delivers.
At the centre is Will (Johnny Depp), an artificial intelligence expert who is attacked by an anti-technology terrorist group. With only weeks to live, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his colleague Max (Paul Bettany) upload his consciousness into his computer system, so after he dies he is able to transcend his humanity to solve far-advanced problems. He directs Evelyn to create a vast secret hideout to further develop the work, which progresses for two years until the terrorists, led by Bree (Kate Mara), find them. And now Will's old colleague Joseph (Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) have to choose which side they're on.
This is precisely where the script fails: the sides are far too clear from the start. What should be a story packed with moral ambiguity is instead shaped into a straightforward good versus evil drama that betrays screenwriter Jack Paglen's mistrust of technology. And since everything is slanted so sharply, there's nowhere for the story or characters to go. First-time director Wally Pfister (the Oscar-winning Dark Knight cinematographer) makes sure everything look terrific, but everything moves so hesitantly that we feel like we're watching the movie in slow motion. It's as if the film is always on the verge of saying something important, but can never quite get the words out.
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What makes this thriller extraordinary is its willingness to make us scratch our heads and ask questions as the tense, fable-like story patiently unfolds. This creates an almost unbearably involving vibe, from the slow-burn pacing to the unusual character detail. And all of this allows the cast members to dig deep inside their characters.
It starts as two families in rural Pennsylvania get together to celebrate Thanksgiving, then discover that their two young daughters are missing. Keller and Grace Dover (Jackman and Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Howard and Davis) search the neighbourhood frantically, then try to help local detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) with his investigation. He settles on an oddball (Dano) who seems unable to provide any information at all. With no evidence against him, he's released. But Keller can't bear to think of this man being free while the girls are missing, so he hatches his own plan to sort things out.
There's a lot of symbolism in this screenplay, as everyone reacts to the situation in his or her own way (clearly echoing the world's response to the War on Terror). But it's also a riveting personal story of the desperate need for justice and revenge. Jackman is terrific as the deeply religious man whose love of guns informs his decision-making. He impulsively reacts like Liam Neeson in Taken, charging to the rescue. By contrast, Gyllenhaal's Loki is more measured and observant, while Howard's Franklin struggles with his own moral decisions. The women are a completely different story, and equally provocative: Davis is feisty but helpless, while Bello crawls into her shell.
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While this package has all of the key marketing elements to reach the Twilight audience, the film itself is rather a lot more fun, made with some wit and intelligence, plus a cast that's happy to chomp on the scenery. Based on a four-novel series, this film actually has more in common with True Blood than Twilight, with its Deep South setting and the clash between religious fundamentalism and supernatural beings.
At the centre is Ethan (Ehrehreich), a 16-year-old who is bristling against the isolation of his small South Carolina town. His recently deceased mother instilled in him a love of books banned by the town's hyper-religious leaders, and the local librarian Amma (Davis) helps keep his interest alive. As a result, he's more open than the other teens when Lena (Englert) arrives at school. But she's shunned because her Uncle Macon (Irons) is the town's pariah, a landowner whom everyone thinks is a devil worshipper. Actually, the whole family are casters, people with special powers that are designated good or evil on their 16th birthday.
The plot stirs up some suspense as Lena's big day of reckoning approaches. She's terrified that she'll go over to the dark side like her man-eating cousin (Rossum) or, worse still, her spectral mother, who does her mischief by inhabiting the body of the town's most pious housewife Mrs Lincoln (Thompson). This of course gives Thompson two insane characters to play at the same time, and she has a ball with it. As does Irons with the shadowy, snaky Macon. And at the centre, Ehrenreich and Englert both show considerable promise, with their strikingly non-Hollywood good looks and a depth of character that makes the film more engaging than we expect.
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