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Entries in wally pfister (2)

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

Friday
Sep232011

Moneyball

A couple weeks ago, we were treated to Warrior, a sports drama that broke the mold of a typical sports drama and became something more. Hot on its heels is this week’s Moneyball, a movie that, similarly, hopes to break new ground in the genre by focusing more on what goes on behind the scenes rather than on the field. It’s written by Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of last year’s best picture, The Social Network, directed by Bennett Miller, director of Capote, framed by Wally Pfister, cinematographer of The Dark Knight, and it features a terrific cast of Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Its resume is second to none and although it’s a technically sound film, it nevertheless tells an inconsequential story, one that will likely have people asking when it’s over: that’s it?

Moneyball tells the true story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager for the Oakland Athletics, when he attempted to wrangle up a championship team despite a tiny budget during the 2002 baseball season. To do so, he enlisted the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an Ivy League graduate who explained to him that the owners of Major League Baseball teams are trying to buy players when they should be buying wins. He believes there are undervalued players out there that are overlooked because of trivial matters like body type or play style. He thinks, despite a lack of money, they can find 25 men worthy of calling themselves a ball club.

Moneyball can be viewed a number of different ways, though none of them are particularly interesting. One way can be as a traditional sports story about defying expectations—after all, this ragtag group of players ended up setting the record for most consecutive wins in a single season—but defying expectations meant making it to the playoffs, where the team lost in the first round, making a movie adaptation about them questionable. Another way would be as a story about a man who changed the way the game was played, or, more specifically, how managers recruited players, but that’s a tidbit that is interesting as a footnote in a sports book, not as a full length feature film. You could also see it as a film about a man overcoming his emotional struggles, but even that proves to be uninteresting because his struggle stems solely from baseball. They don’t come from a meaningful outside factor like in the aforementioned Warrior; they come from not winning games, which is hardly a struggle at all.

The best sports dramas aren’t about the sport, they’re about something else. Remember the Titans, for example, was about a social divide brought on from racism. The Express similarly dealt with race relations, chronicling the story of the first African American Heisman Trophy winner, an accomplishment that meant more than the sport itself. Moneyball is simply about baseball, that’s it. While not necessarily a bad thing, its insignificance can’t help but show through when compared to other films in the genre.

There needed to be a reason to care about Billy and his team, but none is ever presented. He’s a divorcé, a situation ripe for emotional turmoil, but only one scene exists between him and his ex-wife and, as far as the viewer can tell, their post-marriage relationship is fine. He too has a good relationship with his daughter, shown through scenes that prove to be the only gripping moments away from baseball. In his family life, nothing seems to be eating away at him. The film tries to create a connection between his desperate need for success by tying it in with flashbacks from his failed professional career, seemingly wanting to make up for the fact that he never lived up to expectations as a player, but again, it’s not fleshed out enough and the connection gradually diminishes until there’s nothing left.

Moneyball is a baseball lover’s movie. If you don’t know what an RBI is or are uninterested in the player trading process or don’t care about the likelihood of a player getting a hit based on the pitches he swings at, this movie may not be for you. Because the process used to recruit the players is based on an old algorithm, there is a lot of statistical talk, which many will find dry and boring. I played baseball as a kid and watch it today, so I found it somewhat interesting, but these talks are as deep as this movie gets, which is a problem considering its pretentiousness in thinking it is so much more. It’s still worth seeing because of the great performances, top notch cinematography and gripping dialogue, but it’s simply too shallow to make an impression.

Moneyball receives 2.5/5