Assorted Thoughts of a Salted Caramel...
Transcendence

                                      Transcendently dull…

A tedious mind fart of a movie, it’s easy to see why Transcendence has provided Johnny Depp with his fourth flop in a row. Drawing on the concept of 'the singularity' (the point at which an artificial intelligence will supercede that of human intelligence), it charts a chain of events set in motion by a terrorist organisation bent on curbing what they see as humankind’s over-reliance on technology. Critically wounded in one of their attacks, desperate wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads the consciousness of her husband Dr. Will Caster (Depp), with predictably apocalyptic consequences.

Frankly, it all reads like a sub-1990s internet movie, which is part of the problem. Quite apart from the fact that the plot is riddled with more holes than an extra Swiss cheese (I’m not even going to get into why it matters that a standard chip array doesn’t resemble a neural network), it has all the philosophical complexity of a conversation in the Kardashian household. In the wake of ‘happy slapping’, neknomination and countless other trends bound to have Daily Mail readers frothing at the mouth (regardless of the fact that humans have being doing stupid stuff for as long as they’ve existed - it’s just that now they can tell other people about it on an epic scale) an anti-tech thriller is pretty much a given.

Sadly, Transcendence is a bug riddled beta-version. Mistakenly consigning Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman’s ethical scientists to the sidelines, it’s populated almost exclusively by deeply unlikable characters (lead terrorist Kate Mara has a terminal case of bitchface that is a cause for concern for the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot), all of whom will have you rooting for the end of humanity almost as much as the end of the film. As for Rebecca Hall, they might as well have dropped the pretence and just called her Eve given that she and Mara appear to be primarily responsible for The Fall Of Man version 2.0, while Depp manages to prove conclusively that he’s only worth watching if left unchecked - boffinish villainy is not his forte.

The real shocker is perhaps that this - stunningly average looking - exercise in tedium is brought to us courtesy of the cinematographer responsible for the Batman trilogy and Inception.

Messy, boring, predictable, Transcendence will do nothing for the techno-thriller, Johnny Depp’s bankability or our apparent fear of science. One day, someone may make a slick cyber thriller that’s as gripping and emotional an experience as stalking your ex on Facebook. Sadly today is not that day.

Need For Speed

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                           As slow-witted as it is fast-paced…

Another year, another video game adap. In a post-Fast and Furious world however, it’s debatable as to whether there’s enough demand for another road racing franchise. 

Which is actually one of the movie’s strong points - it attempts to distinguish itself from the slick, testosteroney FF series by harking back to a simpler age. NFS doesn’t just nod to Bullitt courtesy of a drive-in movie scene at the beginning, it lifts its entire look, from the rumbling low angle shots as some very, very sexy cars drift around city centres and interstate highways to the moody close ups. It must be said that this is certainly one of the better video game adaptations ever thrust upon an unsuspecting population. 

All of this is held together by Aaron Paul (whose taciturn charm and simmering rage mark him out as far, far too good for this movie) in his first big silver screen outing post Breaking Bad. The money has clearly been spent on cars and style, to great effect. The downside is that they clearly spent less money on the script than on the tea budget for the British cast members. That Michael Keaton’s squawking race organiser and Dominic Cooper’s skeezy nemesis aren’t the weakest things about this movie is a damning indictment. It’s a confused mish mash of a movie, peppered with lapses of logic that aren’t so much plot holes as gaping chasms. It’s a shame as, without too much tweaking, it could have been Fast and Furious fun with the intensity of Drive. 

Instead it’s a petrol headed recruitment ad for street racers (the film is alarmingly relaxed about the consequences of illegal street racing, particularly for innocent passers by) that opts for the easy money of addled mediocrity rather than taking a punt at something greater. 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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              An extreme case of Seasonal Affective Disorder…

Another year, another chapter of Marvel’s masterplan.

In the wake of the Battle of New York, the billion dollar Iron-Man threequel and near immortal Asgardians, it’s not unfair to call Captain America the runt of the superhero litter, labouring away doggedly in the shadow of his hulking playmates. It’s not just that the Cap’n is a bit of a goody two shoes, he also seems, well, a little out of his league amongst the genius playboy billionaire philanthropists of the Marvel universe. 

So it’s to Marvel’s credit that Captain America: The Winter Soldier has shrugged off the lukewarm reception to the WW2 boys’ own charm of The First Avenger (which I appear to have been alone in liking) and planted his patriotic boots firmly up the ass of the 21st century. Chris Evans’ Captain now leaps off tall buildings (frequently), takes out elite hit squads (unarmed) and even brings down a stealth jet (single handed). This unexpected metamorphosis allows for some staggering set pieces (if you thought the Avengers’ plummeting heli-carrier was a sight to behold, wait till you see what happens when Marvel tries to outdo itself) and bone crunching close combat (albeit occasionally obscured by the apparently obligatory shaky cam). 

Yet despite cranking up the noble freedom fighter angle, Steve Rogers is now a bona fide BadAss, a man morally rather than chronologically out of time as he questions SHIELD’s increasingly overzealous approach to security. Despite the futuristic tech and ambivalent wikileaks references, The Winter Soldier often has more in common with 70s conspiracy thrillers than millennial cyber actioners as Captain Rogers is hunted down by an omnipotent establishment and a seemingly unstoppable foe in the form of an old acquaintance sporting a new arm and some superior firepower.

Steeped in a creeping paranoia (matched by the richly utilitarian cinematography), The Winter Soldier manages to do a pretty decent job of pulling the rug out from under its audience on several occasions, using Captain America’s relative obscurity to its advantage. It also does a superior job of developing its characters compared to most comic book movies - the bittersweet conversation between Steve Rogers and his longtime love wouldn’t be out of place in a serious drama.

And yet, while there are no motor-mouthed Tony Starkisms on show, there’s a decent thread of bone dry wit, not to mention enough wry in-jokes (check out the inscription on the gravestone at the end of the movie) to stop the whole thing becoming DC dark. 

Talent spotted off the back of their brilliantly anarchic Paintball episodes for Community (easily the most  action movie homage ever to grace the small screen), brothers Anthony and Joe Russo deserve much of the credit for this smooth transition. They even manage to address the Captain’s biggest flaw, namely the terribly poe-faced lack of humour. Contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t Evans’ fault - he’s proved his comic chops on multiple occasions, not least as his own Marvel doppelganger the Human Torch, so he arguably deserves more kudos for not having turned in a very vanilla dud (see: Superman Returns, for how this could have gone).

Instead he plays the ramrod straight man with aplomb, allowing his more bombastic co-stars to crack wise. This works particularly well for new entrant Anthony Mackie, whose flyboy Falcon gets a much better crack at sidekick than Don Cheadle’s terminally outdone Lieutenant Rhodes, his easy, everyman charm a welcome addition to the wider Avengers franchise.

It’s perhaps 5 minutes too long and, despite some added smoulder from Scarlett Johansson’s sultry superspy, the women are as marginalised as ever, particularly those eschewing skin tight leather, (although I will concede that this may have had something to do with Cobie Smulders’ pregnancy). In other words, it’s not flawless - but I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog, so I’ll be rooting for the 100 year old soldier when he takes on Batman and Supes in 2016

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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You can check out any time you like,but you may not want to leave

Wes Anderson’s latest offering has been described across the board as being at the outer reaches of his unique and quirky style, almost divisively so, with some bound to find its tweeness profoundly annoying. 

Personally, I expected to be settled firmly in the latter camp. With the possible exception of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I’ve found Anderson’s films, and the willfully oddball characters that populate them, to be enjoyable in a marginally irritating way.   

However, with his elegantly slapstick tale of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H, legendary concierge of the eponymous hotel, and faithful lobby boy Zero as they encounter a spot of bother involving a dead dowager, a priceless painting and a steadily rising pile of dead bodies, Anderson has in fact created his masterpiece. 

Souffle light yet shot through with black comedy (from severed fingers to dead cats), TGBH walks the tightrope between frantic farce and daring caper with nary a misstep, its lovingly crafted miniature sets cementing the feel of an adult fairytale. Packed to the brim with Anderson familiars (Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and, inevitably, Bill Murray) as well as a legion of newcomers, I can see why this film may prove too exasperating for some. 

But strangely, for me, this works precisely because it is a near flawless execution of Anderson’s very particular style, so committed to its flamboyantly kookiness that like its refined protagonist, it’s the very epitome of charm. 

The Wolf Of Wall Street

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      He’ll huff, and he’ll puff, and he’ll snort your house down…

Big, brash and (grotesquely) funny, The Wolf Of Wall Street is the fifth collaboration between Leonardo Di Caprio and director Martin Scorcese.

DiCaprio is clearly having the time of his life playing the self-proclaimed wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort as he not only chews up the scenery, but spits it out and snorts it up through a hundred dollar bill. For a film that plays out like an ebullient mash up of Dynasty and Trainspotting, the cinematography is appropriately brash and sweeping, suffused with a sense of hubris so tangible it’s practically a fully fledged member of the cast.

There’s no big reveal, no redemption and certainly no repentance. DiCaprio’s errant trader is a greedy, self-serving addict with the moral compass of a lobotomised leech, amply supported by Jonah Hill and assorted others on an odyssey to snort, drink and defraud their way through hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Repellent, and compelling in equal measure, this three hour marathon of excess has but one salutary lesson: rich people always win. DiCaprio’s outrageous Belfort is a self-confessed crook, but he’s not the problem. As Matthew McConaughy points out (in the sort of unforgettable 5 minute cameo that should earn him the Dame Judi Dench Award for Scene Thievery), these guys don’t do anything except take a hefty commission on other people’s greed - a point rammed home by the film’s final scene.

Many will be (rightly) angered by the portrayal of Belfort’s dizzyingly glamorous, criminal lifestyle. But that would be like blaming Caravaggio for the beheading of John the Baptist. Instead, better to sit back and enjoy Scorcese’s gleeful portrait of a crook, even as you grind your teeth in chagrin. 

Cavemen

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                         Just crawl back into your cave…

Quite how anyone could have made such an execrable rom com so lacking in either rom or com, especially with such adorable leads (Camille Belle and Skylar Astin) is a mystery of almost planetary proportions. Suffice to say that everything about this movie is so bad it made my skin itch. Then it made me wish I were a lesbian. A celibate lesbian. A time-travelling, celibate lesbian with the ability to journey back to a point where I hadn’t seen this tedious movie.

Having a Walter Mitty moment of my own in Iceland…

Having a Walter Mitty moment of my own in Iceland…

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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                                      Jack Ryan: Bourne Again

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the latest reboot of bestselling author Tom Clancy’s most iconic character. On the one hand, the decision to go for an origin story is at least a fresh(ish) take on what is now a five film franchise. Sure, love interest Kiera Knightley is significantly less annoying than usual, and Chris Pine does a commendable job of combining Ryan’s intellectual athleticism with a combat style best described as crouching tiger startled bunny (even if his thunder is somewhat stolen by Kevin Costner as his grizzled CIA mentor).

Unfortunately however, despite Jack Ryan’s arguable claim to being the granddaddy of the smart action thriller, Shadow Recruit reaches audiences more than a decade after Matt Damon’s amnesiac spook gave the genre a much needed kick up the backside. After Bourne and a re-Bourne Bond, Shadow Recruit doesn’t have much of a USP. Instead it’s a bog-standard thriller that’s not helped by a snoozefest of a plot. 

Wearing its post financial crash heart on its sleeve, it’s not quite the somnolent trade wars of Star Wars Episode 1, but it’s not far off. There’s no rogue nuclear device or genetically modified lergy poised to take out the population of London/Shanghai/New York. Instead it’s basically a plot to wipe out the West’s bank balance courtesy of some forex shenanigans, which is about as riveting (and comprehensible) as a lecture on credit default swaps delivered in Esperanto. The movie’s meandering feel isn’t helped by the utterly unthrilling conclusion to every potential obstacle (exhibit A: Knightley’s kidnapping).

Perhaps Kenneth Brannagh would have done better to have concentrated on directing instead of pulling double duty as co-star as well. It’s too devoid of events of any description (let alone the incendiary variety) to satisfy the action crowd and nowhere near smart enough for anyone hoping for a side of intellectual stimulation alongside their high octane main course. I hope they make a second one, but that’s based more on the potential than the achievement of the latest instalment, which aims for masterful, but grinds to a halt at ‘meh’.

Parental Guidance

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                                    Grandmom knows best

Bette Midler and Billy Crystal introduce some freestyle grandparenting into the lives of their uptight daughter and precocious grandkids. Nowhere near as terrible as the original reviews suggested, it’s nonetheless a compelling case for introducing a compulsory retirement age for male actors in Hollywood.

Enchanted

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                                         A fairytale ending…

Ejected from her animated paradise on her wedding day, an adorable Amy Adams finds an unlikely ally in the form of Patrick Dempsey’s cynical divorced single dad as she attempts to reunite with James Marsden’s dashing but empty headed Prince. The result is an amiable skewering of the Disney fairytale tradition, proof that the House of Mouse has a sense of humour about itself after all (shame they couldn’t subvert the wicked stepmother trope though).