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Entries in Morgan Freeman (7)

Thursday
Apr172014

Transcendence

Wally Pfister is probably one of the most talented, yet unheralded, workers in Hollywood today. Many may not know that he’s actually the man behind the camera for every single one of director Christopher Nolan’s films (aside from his first, “Following,” and his upcoming sci-fi film, “Interstellar”). He even won an Oscar for his cinematography work on “Inception,” so it’s clear the man has talent. He knows how to shoot a movie and evoke emotions through visuals. Since film is a visual medium, that strength is arguably the most valuable to have in Hollywood. In this regard, his directorial debut, “Transcendence,” follows his tradition of excellence (despite being shot by “Hot Fuzz” and “The Spectacular Now” cinematographer, Jess Hall), but it’s lacking nearly everywhere else. Pfister certainly picked some things up from Nolan, but he lacks his penchant for storytelling. With an uneven pace and unexplored themes, “Transcendence” can be described as little more than a missed opportunity.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an artificial intelligence expert. With many years of research and hard work behind him, he hopes to one day create a machine that will be able to reach singularity—or as he likes to put it, transcendence—that moment in time when a machine reaches superhuman intelligence. It’s a vision that doesn’t seem to be too far off in the future, which sparks a radical movement of extremists determined to stop it. After giving a speech about the future of artificial intelligence, a member of that extremist group shoots him. Although he survives the attack, the bullet is shown to have been laced with poison, which entered his bloodstream, giving him only a month to live. In light of this, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) comes up with a crazy idea. She suggests planting a nanochip in his brain and uploading his consciousness to a supercomputer, thus ensuring he lives on. Her partner, Max (Paul Bettany), reluctantly agrees to give it a shot, though the odds of success are low. Much to their surprise, however, it works and Will is essentially alive, or as close as one can be to it, in a computer.

These early moments, along with the closing, are perhaps the best in the entire film. Though essentially a sped up tragedy—complete with dramatic music, emotional breakdowns and even a sad Morgan Freeman narration for good measure—it works. The capable actors bring their characters to life, upping the ante for what’s to come. However, anyone who has seen a film about technology achieving sentience will see all of it coming from a mile away, which is to say things don’t quite go according to plan.

This gives way to a plethora of wonderful ideas that, sadly, are haphazardly introduced and never intelligently expanded on. At one point, after Will reaches his sought after transcendence, the film seems to be heading in the right direction and finds its focus. Will begins to heal the sick, even those with long time illnesses that modern medicine hasn’t found cures for yet. He lets the blind see, the paralyzed walk and more. It asks, what if we could be better than God? What if we could fix the mistakes a supposed flawless creator burdened us with? What if we could see everything all at once, as any omnipotent being should? What if we could heal someone’s potentially life threating injuries in seconds, to the point where it’s like those injuries never even happened? These are compelling thoughts, ones that seem wonderful at first, but the complications of playing God slowly reveal themselves, showing that these vulnerabilities and afflictions are what make us human.

Granted, the effects of playing God are hardly breaking new cinematic ground, but they gave “Transcendence” the weight it so desperately needed. Unfortunately, it’s also around this point that it introduces its most absurd idea: the taking over of actual human bodies through the use of nanobots and “connecting” them to Will’s digital infrastructure. While I hesitate to say that such an event is completely out of the realm of scientific plausibility, it nevertheless gives the film that typical Hollywood feel and essentially strips it of the ideas it had just minutes before introduced.

Despite messy narrative and thematic arcs, “Transcendence” still manages to pack a ton of awe into its runtime, mostly thanks to Pfister’s understanding of cinematography. The shot composition is solid, the camera movements are fluid and its interesting focus on seemingly mundane objects ground the film. For those interested in the technical creation of filmmaking, “Transcendence” will be a thing of beauty, but it all goes back to those missed opportunities. Despite similar central ideas, it never quite reaches the bombastic action of something like “The Terminator” or the heartfelt wonders of last year’s “Her.” It tries to combine both into one cohesive whole, one that can tug at the heartstrings while also keeping things exciting, but, ultimately, it collapses under the weight of its own ambition.

Transcendence receives 2.5/5

Wednesday
Feb122014

The LEGO Movie

When “The LEGO Movie” was announced, the world let out a collective groan. While the beloved brand has branched out in recent years to various media forms, including an ever growing popular series of video games starring Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, the Marvel heroes and more, a movie just seemed too much. At the time, it would not have been unfair to assume it would be a 100 minute commercial and, in a sense, it is, but this final product so much more than that. This is not a cheap cash grab by the company and the movie doesn’t have a singular purpose to sell product (though I imagine that will be an added bonus). This is a funny, thoughtful film with a surprisingly resonant story that warms the heart. Older audiences will hope “The LEGO Movie” will at least be watchable while it entertains their kids, but they’ll soon find a childlike wonder they haven’t experienced in a while. If you’ve been pining to feel like a kid again, “The LEGO Movie” will do it. It’s not just “good for a kid’s movie,” as many cynics may suggest. “The LEGO Movie” is destined to be one of the best of the year.

The story starts out silly enough. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an ordinary guy, which is meant in the purest sense of the word. There is truly nothing special about him. He wakes up, does a few jumping jacks and heads off to work as a lowly construction worker. He’s a happy person, though much of that happiness is simply a façade to hide his loneliness. One day, however, things change when he stumbles onto an artifact known as the Kragle. Long ago, as the wise sage Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) puts it, a prophecy was foretold of a Master Builder who would save the world from the potentially devastating effects of the Kragle, and much to his surprise, he's that hero. Along with his newfound partner, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), he sets out to stop evil mogul, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), from freezing all of the world’s inhabitants and creating a perfect city.

These early moments are seemingly the most inconsistent for “The LEGO Movie.” It has some satirical bits, lampooning simplistic, one-joke television sitcoms with the LEGO world’s most popular show, “Where’s My Pants?” and generic pop music with the equally popular “Everything is Awesome!” But these moments are fleeting, as it quickly moves onto something else. It similarly pokes fun at itself, namely the immobility of the LEGO figures. When Emmet does those aforementioned jumping jacks, for instance, his motions are awkward, almost like he’s jumping up to cheer for something than to exercise, as the LEGO arms don’t extend out like is required for jumping jacks, only forward and backward. Another great moment is when the film admits that all LEGO characters essentially look the same (a search for Emmet by the evildoers yields no results because he “matches everyone in our database,” an underling says). But these moments come so rapidly as to seem a little inconsistent.

The story too is all over the place, a little bit like an ADD child on a sugar bender. Once it introduces its multiple universes angle, you start to wonder if the film is going to go completely overboard. But then something magical happens. A twist, which I dare not spoil, brings everything together. It explains why the story jumps around and why all of these seemingly unrelated characters from the vast Lego collection (which ranges from Shaquille O’Neal to Michelangelo the painter to Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle) have come together in one place. Unexpectedly, the film finds a purpose. In this silly, joke-a-second corporate product pushing movie with what appears to be, at first, a sporadic and inconsequential narrative, a giant heart is found. What happens is something that will seem all too familiar to certain members of the audience. While hardly revelatory, its ultimate message of letting loose your imagination and creativity is nevertheless endearing. It’s enough to make the parents in the audience want to take their kids home and let them run around and explore, creating magical worlds in their heads that only they can comprehend. It is that impactful.

If, somehow, the ending doesn’t touch you, there’s so much more to enjoy that it will hardly detract from your experience. The sight gags are contextually brilliant, like the fire effects that are merely see through orange plastics, and the absurd amount of cameos thrown into this thing is enough to make any nerd, LEGO fan or otherwise, smile with joy. From Harry Potter to the Simpsons to real life historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, the movie is packed to the brim with excellent inclusions, most of which you need to see for yourself. Even its soundtrack brings the goods, including a hilarious song written by Batman (Will Arnett) that satirizes the brooding nature of the character’s recent cinematic endeavors. Like a good spoof movie, the jokes come so rapidly here that one viewing is simply not enough. Most viewers are bound to miss the more subtle references and quick comedic jabs that “The LEGO Movie” throws in.

Too many adults these days seem to be lacking an imagination and a childlike sense of wonder. Their cynicism seeps through every facet of their being and they find that the ability to lose themselves in an adventure is now seemingly impossible. If you’re one of those people, especially one of the ones who desperately wants to recapture that youthful spirit, go see “The LEGO Movie” immediately. It’s about as magical and wondrous a movie as I’ve seen with more laughs per minute than any movie in recent memory. “The LEGO Movie” is an absolute delight.

The LEGO Movie receives 5/5

Friday
Apr192013

Oblivion

If you’ll take a moment to travel back to 2010 with me, you may remember a movie called “Tron: Legacy,” the highly anticipated sequel to the beloved 1982 classic, “Tron.” Undoubtedly, you remember the gorgeous visuals, eye-popping 3D and perfect score by electronic synthpop duo, Daft Punk. Surely, if you’re a fan of the original at least, you remember the fuzzy feeling you got when you saw Jeff Bridges back in his iconic role. What you may also remember, if you’re a more discerning viewer, is that the film was hollow. With all its flash and technical expertise, it was missing a worthwhile script to complement them. Director Joseph Kosinski was hardly to blame because he did everything he could with a film that, by and large, was narratively empty. His new movie, “Oblivion,” likewise has a wonderful score and stunning visuals, but there’s so much more to it than “Tron: Legacy.” Having written this one himself, the movie is filled to the brim with interesting themes and ideas that were all but missing from his previous directorial effort. It’s a movie that excites you and pleases your senses, but it also works your brain and gives you something to ponder over long after it’s done.

The year is 2077, five years after a mandatory memory wipe, and the Earth has been ravaged. Years ago, a mysterious enemy called the Scavengers destroyed the moon and attacked Earth and mankind did the only thing it could to win the war: it nuked itself. This, along with the changing weather patterns from the now destroyed moon, made the planet practically unlivable. Now, all remaining humans have evacuated to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Only a couple people remain back on Earth, Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), and their job is to extract whatever remaining resources it has left. However, after a shuttle crash lands on the planet with a beautiful woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) in it, the very same woman Jack keeps having flashbacks of, they discover things aren’t as they seem.

To go further would be ill advised, as doing so would constitute spoilers, but not in the narrative sense that most would consider a spoiler. Sure, I could go into the mid-movie twist about the Scavengers or the revelation Jack has after traveling into the previously forbidden zone or even the big finale about what’s really been going on (though, of course, I won’t), but it would hardly matter because they aren’t the least bit surprising. Each twist is taken directly out of the big book of science fiction plot conventions, each of which we’ve seen so many times, you’d have to be a complete newcomer to the genre to not see them coming. However, doing so would give away the sense of discovery and the careful thematic unraveling the film so beautifully explores. What makes “Oblivion” feel so fresh even in the face of these sci-fi clichés is the way they’re used, not because they simply fit the conventions of a science fiction story, but rather because they’re necessary to flesh out the meaning behind the picture’s glossy veneer.

And glossy it is, an adjective used in the kindest way possible. “Oblivion,” much like “Tron: Legacy,” is a visual wonder. Director Joseph Kosinski has a keen eye and manages to capture the beauty of this ruined world in a way that makes it feel alive. The majority of the world’s oceans are now dried up, the rusted ships strewn throughout being the only hint that there was water there at all. The moon off in the background, broken apart, unlike the sight we’re used to seeing in the night sky, is a sight to behold as well. This post-apocalyptic landscape is simultaneously beautiful, scary, lonely and full of wonderment. Even if the story and themes don’t hook you, the visuals absolutely will.

“Oblivion” is one of the best science fiction movies in recent memory because it, like many of the most beloved sci-fi classics, is about the human condition, not about dumbed down destruction and chaos. It explores the beauty of existence and the necessity to preserve it. It explores the importance of identity and the need to hold onto the memories that define us. It explores the meaning of life and death, intertwining them in a beautiful finale that gives purpose to both. Despite a few minor stumbles, including an uncharacteristically sappy final shot that doesn’t necessarily fit with the sadness and desperation that came before it, “Oblivion” is a wonderful and thought provoking movie.

Oblivion receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Mar212013

Olympus Has Fallen

This week’s new film, "Olympus Has Fallen," is not going to be for everyone because it brings out feelings that many know all too well. Although it’s perhaps a strange comparison to make, the film will undoubtedly remind many Americans of what they felt on September 11th, 2001. The story revolves around an extremist terrorist group that infiltrates the White House and takes the President hostage, killing dozens in the process. It’s an unwarranted attack, much like that sad day in American history, and the group’s motive is nothing but one of hate, though they hide it under the veil of their skewed ideologies. Some will find the feeling too much to bear and perhaps even find the premise itself despicable while others will swell with patriotic pride at the way the characters onscreen handle themselves in such an extreme situation. Being an inhabitant of the Washington DC area (and having watched the movie mere miles from the actual White House), I felt a strange mixture of both, but the latter outweighed the former. Olympus Has Fallen knocked me down and drained me emotionally, but those initial feelings just made the back half of the film that much sweeter, when I had to fight my urges to stand up in the middle of the theater and cheer.

Gerard Butler plays our hero, Mike Banning, a former Presidential bodyguard who was demoted after allowing the President’s wife, played by Ashley Judd, to perish in an automobile accident, even though it was the right call to make and it saved the President’s life. A year and a half later, those aforementioned terrorists overtake the White House, codenamed “Olympus,” so Banning, not too far from the building itself, springs into action. With the White House’s staff all dead and the terrorists holding the President, played by Aaron Eckhart, hostage, it’s up to him alone to save the day.

If you strip away the setting, Olympus Has Fallen tells a well-worn story. From the “last action hero” set-up to the “ticking clock” conclusion, it’s nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times over. Luckily for the movie, it’s that setting that makes it so intense and, ultimately, rewarding. Because of its sensitive subject matter, it will surely sadden some and anger others, while forcing them to ask that one question one always asks when they witness such senseless violence: why? But that’s what gives the film its bite and when that good old fashioned American bravado comes into play, it’s immensely satisfying.

Of course, this is all assuming you can get past the fact that the story itself is so outlandishly absurd. The background of these terrorists and the extensive preparation they must have undertaken are absent from the overall narrative, most likely because there is no convincing way to make their actions seem legitimate. To be fair, this isn’t the film’s focus, but one can’t help but wonder how they were able to pull this mission off with such accurate precision, which included in-depth knowledge of highly confidential information, American nuclear weapons systems and “next generation weaponry” that, for some reason, is mounted on the White House’s roof.

The story is indeed ridiculous and its poor CGI doesn’t help in pulling off the illusion of plausibility, but it’s nevertheless gripping. Where it lacks is in its side story revolving around Banning’s wife, Leah, played by Radha Mitchell, which is embarrassingly underwritten and exists solely for some late movie cheese that should have been cut out altogether. It also tends to dumb things down a bit, constantly flashing names and places onscreen, as if it thinks its audience isn’t smart enough to realize the characters are standing in the middle of the Oval Office. But what Olympus Has Fallen lacks in intellectualism, it makes up for with pure visceral thrills and optimistic pride and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work, even if it is a little too obvious for its own good.

Olympus Has Fallen receives 3.5/5

Tuesday
Jul172012

The Dark Knight Rises

There are few people that would argue The Dark Knight is anything less than a fantastic film. Most tend to agree it’s one of, if not the best superhero movie ever made. There are even those who think it’s one of the best movies ever made, superhero or otherwise. That film raised the bar for superheroes so high that it’s likely to be a very long time before one reaches or surpasses it. That philosophy holds true for director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, but luckily, the film is only a disappointment in comparison. It may not reach the brilliance of The Dark Knight, but it’s still the best and most exciting movie of the summer. Dark, violent, terrifying and exciting, The Dark Knight Rises fires on all cylinders.

When we last saw Batman (aka Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale), he was running from the cops. He was taking the fall for the murder of Gotham’s district attorney, Harvey Dent, who the people of the city had put their faith in to clean up their streets. In Bruce’s mind, it was his duty to prove that true good couldn’t be corrupted, which meant making a martyr out of a madman. Now, Bruce has hung up his cape and mask because the city has turned against him, thinking him to be a violent sociopath who deceived their trust. However, a new villain is emerging. His name is Bane (Tom Hardy) and he’s out to destroy the city. He’s a bullish brute and it soon becomes clear that the police force won’t be able to stop him, which forces Batman out of retirement.

The Dark Knight Rises may be a misleading title for the film, seeing as how Batman does more falling (both literally and figuratively) than he does rising, but that’s why these films work. Nolan doesn’t treat his hero as a god. He treats him as he is: a human being. Bruce has demons to wrestle with, first isolated to the anger felt from losing his parents all those years ago, but now combined with the heartbreak of losing his only love, Rachel (played by both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively), at the end of The Dark Knight. He’s not cracking jokes like Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (despite the occasional witty moment). There’s too much at stake for such trivialities. His desire to fight stems not just from doing what’s right, but from the pain he’s feeling, his need to restore balance to a city gone mad, a city that took the life of everyone he ever loved. The Dark Knight Rises is a dark adult tale told by a masterful filmmaker who knows how to balance the necessary action with character development and relationships.

If anything, it’s the action that dragged down Nolan’s first film, Batman Begins, which was heavy-laden with too much shaky cam and too many cuts. Whether a product of the time, when the Bourne movies were finding so much popularity with the technique, or simply due to Nolan’s own inexperience with staging and filming fast paced action scenes, they were easily the film’s weakest aspect. But with The Dark Knight, Nolan refined his craft. The camera was smooth for much of the action, moving only to give us a better view of it, not to blur it. Nolan carries that maturity over into The Dark Knight Rises. While large in scope, including an absolutely incredible opening and appropriately epic finale, the action is never too much, never overloading your senses like many action movies these days. It’s presented in a way that feels organic, not forced for the sake of keeping action hungry audiences at bay, and Nolan’s steady hand approach ensures we get to savor every second of it.

But regardless of the film’s strengths, it’s impossible to watch The Dark Knight Rises and not compare Tom Hardy’s Bane to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. When doing so, there is a clear winner. The Joker was a larger than life personality, one that gave the film a quirky feeling, kind of in the vein of a dark comedy, and the man behind the make-up gave one of the best performances ever put to film. Awarded posthumously at the Oscars that year, Heath Ledger created a terrifying monster, one that frightened, yet delighted at the same time. Bane, on the other hand, is too prophetic to be frightening. The majority of the fear instilled by him comes mainly from his size and brute strength rather than from anything psychological. He intimidates visually, but lacks the personality and off-the-wall insanity that made Heath Ledger’s cackling Joker so terrific.

Of course, Bane isn’t a bad character and Tom Hardy’s representation of him is just fine; they look worse only because Heath Ledger’s Joker was so amazing. The only true problem with the character comes from his voice, which is so modulated (thanks to the ever present mask covering his mouth) it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying. Why such a problem was left unhandled—despite Nolan’s partial admittance to making select modifications after fan complaints from an early trailer—baffles the mind. A few other problems bring about the same reaction, like Bane’s nonsensical villainous plot that, for some reason, takes at least five months to unravel or why Batman would waste time lighting his logo on fire on a Gotham City bridge when he has mere hours before the city is destroyed. These moments don’t necessarily make sense, but they make the proceedings flashy and tense (and it’s impossible not to smile when that logo lights up).

The Dark Knight Rises is bogged down by a bit too much expository dialogue as well, but it more than makes up for it with a plethora of other brilliant little touches, like a sly reference to Killer Croc, another villain in the Batman universe. In an act of extreme skill, Nolan brings this story full circle, wrapping up his take on the character in as satisfying a way as one can imagine (though that very last shot, which I dare not spoil, should have been taken out). It works narratively, emotionally and on a visceral level—if the final 30 minutes don’t get your blood pumping, nothing will. It’s certainly not perfect and if comparing it to The Dark Knight, then it’s a disappointment, but if that’s the case, this is one of the best disappointments I’ve ever experienced.

The Dark Knight Rises receives 4.5/5