Monday, July 27, 2015

San Andreas (2015) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for on May 28, 2015.

San Andreas is exactly what one might expect it to be - no more and no less. It's as if director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and screenwriter Carlton Cuse assembled this movie after attending a Disaster 101 course. Although technically not a remake of the 1974 film Earthquake, San Andreas features many of the same plot points: a scientist predicting a quake, an M9.0+ tremblor leveling Los Angeles, the rupture of a dam, and various characters using the cataclysm to resolve relationship issues. Heaving earth, fires, and floods are all part of the mix but the advances in special effects technology allows San Andreas to provide one of the most vivid depictions to-date of mass destruction. It's an orgy for disaster porn devotees.

Although the movie fits effectively into the overall disaster genre, it might be worth considering whether real-world occurrences between 1974 and 2015 have altered our ability to enjoy the film as the escapist romp it intends to be. Can anyone watch the collapse of buildings in Los Angeles and San Francisco and not flash, at least briefly, to 9/11? Is it possible to view the tsunami hit San Francisco Bay, and destroys the Golden Gate Bridge, and not recall the 2004 Indian Ocean event? And, with the earthquake in Nepal still fresh, do the images of mass destruction take on a different shade? With the nightly news becoming a catalog of disaster images, is there room for a hackneyed production like this one? Does San Andreas offer a release from reality or does it remind us of dark events of the not-so-distant past?

San Andreas follows two separate storylines that never converge. Paul Giamatti is scientist Lawrence Hayes, whose research into earthquake prediction has allowed him to forecast the big one just as it's about to happen. Following the death of a colleague at an event that destroys the Hoover Dam, Hayes has been able to validate his methods and the latest data tells him that a two-part disaster is about to unfold in California with both southern and northern epicenters.  After making his pronouncement, Hayes spends most of the rest of the movie huddled under a table next to an attractive TV reporter (Archie Panjabi) who has come to the university to interview him.

Meanwhile, Ray (Dwayne The Rock Johnson), an L.A.-based helicopter rescue pilot, finds his plate full once the first quake hits. His first task is to save his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), from a collapsing skyscraper. Then, with her in the co-pilot's seat, it's off to San Francisco to protect his college age daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Blake, accompanied by her mom's cowardly boyfriend, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), becomes trapped and is left to fend for herself by her companion. Helped by a couple of British visitors, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson), she seeks a reunion with her Mom and Dad, unaware that quake #2 is on its way.

Paul Giamatti is perfectly cast as the rumpled scientist and his scenes are by far the most interesting. It causes one to wonder if San Andreas might have worked better if the entire film had focused on his character. The equally cheesy but more entertaining Twister adopted that approach by making its protagonists storm chasers seeking new ways to predict tornadoes. As rescue fireman Ray, The Rock is miscast. The film not only fails to make use of his unique talents (he throws only one punch) but expects him to do some subtle emoting that's not one of his strong suits. Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario are on hand to provide eye candy, with the latter making her first appearance in a bathing suit. It's possible to praise Gugino's acting since it consists mainly of expressing shock and awe at images that were added in post-production.

Whatever quibbles one might have with San Andreas, and the list of problems is a long one (including a bastardization of physics and geography that will give the science community a collective apoplexy), it at least showcases the disaster. Granted, all the most spectacular sequences are available in the trailer, essentially making it unnecessary to sit through the entire 114-minute movie, but at least the film's budget is on screen. The central fault in San Andreas' structure is a common one for disaster movies: with all the attention on the cataclysm, narrative and character development are victimized. As a result, the world is populated by paper-thin caricatures navigating the devastation. What looks impressive in a 30-second TV spot or 2-minute trailer becomes tedious when it's apparent we're going to spend far too much time with the humans. And, as any porn connoisseur will testify, it's all about the money shots not the passages of dialogue in between. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Labels: action, disaster, drama, thriller

Humanity from Space (2015) [TV-PG] *****

Trace humankind's long journey from hunter-gatherer to dominant global species. From the perspective of space, this two-hour special uses mind-boggling data and CGI to disclose the breathtaking extent of humanity's influence, revealing how we've transformed our planet and produced an interconnected world of extraordinary complexity. A trip through 12,000 years of development, the documentary shows how seemingly small flashes of innovation - innovations that touch all of us in ways unimaginable to our ancestors - have changed the course of civilization. As our global population soars, the program considers the challenges humanity will face in order to survive.

Labels: documentary

Irrational Man (2015) [R] ***

A film review by Ann Hornaday for on July 23, 2015.

Joaquin Phoenix has grown an unsettlingly prodigious potbelly for his role in Irrational Man, in which Woody Allen revisits the terrain of his 2005 murder mystery Match Point, with more conclusive, if less memorable, results. Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dissolute philosophy professor as known for his affairs with students as for his erudite theorizing when he arrives for the summer term at a small liberal arts college in Rhode Island.

Depressed, blocked, sexually stymied, Abe drinks from a perpetually topped-off flask and pontificates on Kant and Kierkegaard, emitting a frequency that only women addicted to lost causes can hear. Almost immediately upon his arrival, he’s pounced on by a flirtatious science professor (a delightfully blowsy Parker Posey) and becomes the crush — unrequited, at least for a little while — of one of his students, a coltish, earnestly precocious senior named Jill (Emma Stone). When Abe comes up with a scheme to jar himself out of his psychic stasis — one that involves a local judge and an act of decisive, even fatal, comeuppance — Irrational Man starts to engage themes and cinematic gestures that should be familiar to Allen’s fans: the vagaries of chance, the power of conscience, the subtleties of situational ethics and the fine mechanics of the murder caper at its most craftily Hitchcockian.

Filmed in and around Newport, Irrational Man exudes the handsome good taste that viewers have come to associate with Allen’s films. Shot in a rich, buttery color palette by Darius Khondji, it’s an indulgent pleasure to watch, from Abe’s cozy, well-appointed faculty rental to the floaty cotton frocks Stone wears with heedless come-hither élan. Of a piece with Allen’s past work, Irrational Man is drenched in prosperity and ethnic homogeneity. Its world is comfortable, self-absorbed, insular and as white as a pair of post-Memorial Day pumps.

Irrational Man isn’t a comedy. There are, however, moments that invite rueful chuckles of recognition, especially when Posey’s character is giving Abe the business. She strikes a welcome madcap note in what is otherwise a series of bland medium shots of people talking. (The static, episodic structure gains swinging momentum by way of Ramsey Lewis’s classic 1965 album The In Crowd, which Allen uses liberally throughout the film.)

What people are saying in those back-and-forth vignettes is meant to sound smart, but isn’t, really. That Irrational Man is a sophomoric simulacrum of intellectual discourse reflects the self-deception at the movie’s core. Abe’s agonizing over existential despair and the futility of life sound like the bleating of a spoiled, self-pitying narcissist. Jill, who develops the habit of starting every sentence with Abe says or Abe thinks, considers him a wildly original thinker, but the audience never sees nor hears any evidence of that.

Rather, in Phoenix’s shifty-eyed, shambolic portrayal, we see a man appalled by the disconnect between his true self and others’ idealized projections. For her part, Stone is so well cast as the naive, adoring sylph that she teeters on becoming a caricature. Few actresses are so wide-eyed, literally and figuratively. As charming as she is, and as energetically as she throws herself into the role of would-be odalisque — I love it when you order for me, she moons at one point — she begins to have trouble with Allen’s dialogue toward the end of the movie, when things become both murky for her character and also stunningly clear.

With a nod toward Match Point, the plot here hinges on the perfect crime. But for Abe, it’s not enough to be logistically flawless. He wants the act to be aesthetically and morally perfect as well.

It’s impossible to watch Irrational Man and not be aware of Allen’s autobiography, an echo that extends beyond Jill and Abe’s May-December relationship. Allen indicts the ethical exceptionalism of Abe the Great Intellectual, but there’s little or no daylight between his protagonist and Woody the Great Artist. From Abe’s irresistibility to both young and age-appropriate women, to his brave refusal of Jill’s advances, to the film’s final moments of grim accountability, it’s possible to read Irrational Man as an exercise in have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too wish fulfillment. The fact that perfunctory comeuppance turns out to be not nearly as satisfying as messier moral ambiguity is something that the filmmaker and his viewers will have to reckon with on their own. [Hornaday’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, mystery, romance



Edge of Tomorrow (Live Die Repeat) (2014) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on June 5, 2014.

As improbable a concoction as it might seem, Edge of Tomorrow is a curious mix of ingredients from the 1993 Harold Ramis / Bill Murray comedy, Groundhog Day, and James Cameron's 1986 sequel to Alien. An Earth-versus-aliens tale set in the near future, Edge of Tomorrow offers a time-travel twist to its proceedings. Unlike many movies that toy with journeys through the fourth dimension, this one doesn't dwell on paradoxes and, at least until a tacked-on epilogue, plays by its own rules. Like last year's Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow gives Tom Cruise an opportunity to play an action/hero role in a science fiction playground. Because the script is smarter (based on a Japanese graphic novel called All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka), Edge of Tomorrow offers a more satisfying cinematic experience than Oblivion.

Edge of Tomorrow uses the popular faux news footage montage to set up the story. Earth has been invaded by extraterrestrials dubbed the mimics and all of Europe is in enemy hands. After losing battle after battle, the United Defense Forces have finally scored a victory at Verdun. Emboldened by the army's success, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) has decided on an all-out assault led by war hero and media darling, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). To sell the attack to the planet, Brigham enlists the talents of army publicist Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), who he intends to send to the front line with a camera crew. Cage, unwilling to put his life on the line, refuses the direct order and ends up being busted in rank on trumped up charges, thrown into an infantry unit, and sent into the thick of the fighting.

When set upon by a member of a special mimic subspecies, Cage uses an explosive to destroy the creature. In the process, he kills himself, then awakens back at the beginning of his ordeal and has to endure the entire day another time. He dies again, is reborn again, and the cycle persists. It's déjà vu without end. Each time, Cage is able to use his memories of the battle to survive longer, until he eventually contacts Rita and learns that she knows something about his situation. Come find me when you wake up, she tells him before they are both killed.

Few things in a movie can get older faster than repetition. No one wants to watch the same scene, even with variations, over and over and over. To overcome this hurdle, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) borrows some of the tricks employed by Ramis in Groundhog Day - showing just enough of a scene to make it clear we're in another iteration of the loop, then skipping ahead to the point when things start to change. This keeps everything flowing and discourages a flagging of the momentum. It also allows for moments of gallows humor. Those who don't care for Tom Cruise may derive some satisfaction from this aspect of the screenplay: Cage is killed several hundred times during the course of Edge of Tomorrow. Visually, the film, which transpires in London, has its share of impressive moments, although the special effects don't completely dominate. The 3-D makes good use of spatial relationships but unfortunately degrades the darker scenes.

The main thrust of Edge of Tomorrow focuses on Cage's use of his immortality/time reset ability to locate the aliens' brain and find a way to win the war. That's straightforward; what's more subtle and potentially more interesting is how the relationship between Cage and Rita develops. Each time they meet, Rita's interaction with Cage is reset from her perspective. She doesn't know him. For him, however, it's the continuation of a growing relationship. He becomes familiar with her to the point where he develops deep feelings. For her, however, he's always a stranger. The growing disparity between how they view each other fuels their interplay later in the story. Reticence conflicts with intimacy.

The part of Cage is in Cruise's wheelhouse; he could probably do this kind of role in his sleep. The one out on a limb is Emily Blunt, whose kick-ass interpretation of Rita recalls a couple of strong James Cameron heroines: Sigourney Weaver's Ripley and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. Blunt, who often does softer roles, is credible as the Hero of Verdun. Brendan Gleeson, as the general in charge of the war, and Bill Paxton, as Cage's commanding officer, are both excellent in supporting roles.

Movies that employ time travel as a plot device often become exercises in mental agility. That's not the case with Edge of Tomorrow, which uses a straightforward approach. The explanation for Cage's ability is explained in a clear, uncluttered fashion and the manner in which his days unfold are no more confusing than those in Groundhog Day. There's plenty of action and, despite the fact that much of it is repeated, it never becomes repetitive. Edge of Tomorrow is clever enough that the viewer doesn't have to feel embarrassed sitting in the audience but not so clever that there's no fun to be had. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: action, adventure, sci-fi, thriller

Transcendence (2014) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for on April 18, 2014.

To be fair, Transcendence contains its share of big ideas - science fiction tropes that have fascinated readers and viewers for decades, ever since the concept of computer sentience became fodder for stories and movies. Unfortunately, it takes more than grand concepts to make a movie and the lack of cinematic connective tissue is apparent in this poorly focused, meandering, and ultimately disappointing film. Arguably more than any other genre, science fiction has an obligation to seduce the viewer into applying the willing suspension of disbelief (the means by which contrivances are overlooked). With its plot holes and head-scratching incongruities, Transcendence fails in this arena thereby making the production as a whole feel bloated and unsatisfying.

Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a computer genius who is close to making a key breakthrough in the advancement of artificial intelligence. This makes him the target of fringe terrorist groups who believe the rise of the computer is leading to the downfall of humankind. They strike out at Will, critically injuring him. With only five weeks to live, he begins the process of uploading his consciousness into the most advanced computer on earth - a project continued by his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and a colleague, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), after his death. The process works but the transcended Will is a cold, dangerous entity whose sole goal is the accumulation of knowledge and power. Max is immediately aware of the situation and alerts others, including fellow computer scientist, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy). But it takes longer for Evelyn to realize that the Will in the machine is no longer the man she loved.

This is the directorial debut for Wally Pfister, the veteran cinematographer who has worked behind the camera on all of Christopher Nolan's films since Memento. The film, which was shot on film in a digital era, looks great and the special effects are first-rate, but the same degree of care wasn't accorded to things like storytelling and character development. There are chunks of Transcendence that don't make sense including a bit about a computer virus. There's no chemistry between Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall and their characters' love story, so critical to making the narrative come alive, never feels real. There's a powerful romantic tragedy in Transcendence but it never achieves critical mass.

There's also a key structural flaw. The screenplay, credited to Jack Paglen, opts to present the majority of the story as a flashback. To that end, we start with a world where the Internet no longer exists (and its absence has taken down the power grid) and the main characters are no more. There doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to present things using this chronology and it leeches away much-needed tension. All the while as Computer-Will's power is growing, we know how things are going to turn out. This makes it difficult to remain invested in the narrative.

Pfister's high industry profile allowed him to assemble a top-notch cast (although Christian Bale, originally pegged to play Will, had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts). Depp is strangely muted here, which some might consider a pleasant change after a recent series of over-the-top roles. Rebecca Hall is off-key, struggling to find the right note for an underwritten yet critical character. Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman (the latter two worked with Pfister on the Batman movies) are underused. They spend a lot of time standing around not doing much.

Those who are fascinated by the potential for computer sentience will find some things in Transcendence to mull over, although the most compelling aspects of the movie are derivative. Parts of the film hearken back to a TV episode of the original Star Trek (Where No Man Has Gone Before) that aired in 1966. A more recent antecedent is Spike Jonze's Her, which asks some of the same questions with greater eloquence and resonance. Too often, Transcendence shows a marked preference for what Shakespeare called sound and fury, signifying nothing. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, mystery, romance, sci-fi, thriller

Words and Pictures (2014) [PG-13] ***

A film review by Jeff Baker for The Oregonian, June 5, 2014.

Words and Pictures has more than enough of both. It's excessively wordy -- the characters never shut up and the script by Gerald Di Pego is bursting with literary allusions and quotations and nine-syllable words. And it's got lots of pictures, bold colorful paintings in brightly lit studios, and full-frame two-shots of its handsome lead actors that could hang in the kitchen or den.

It's an unusual movie, traditional and ambitious, formulaic and slightly unpredictable, and is enlivened by strong performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, rival teachers at the most loosely supervised prep school in New England. He teaches English, she teaches art, and they start as adversaries engaged in a tedious non-debate about whether words or pictures are superior. Sparks fly, and anyone who's seen a movie or watched TV in the last 75 years can guess the rest.

But there is some real friction on the road to the film’s inevitable conclusion, and it comes from the way Owen and Binoche attack their roles. Owen is a brooding, hollow-eyed Englishman whose nonchalant depth made Children of Men and Sin City better than they really are. He hasn't always seemed fully engaged in the thrillers and period dramas that have come his way the last few years, but he's all in on this one, tossing off speech after speech in an American accent that doesn't stay in one place for too long. Owen's character, Jack Marcus, is a cliché, a once-renowned poet who has lost his creative spark at the bottom of a vodka bottle and spends his class time hectoring his students about the evils of technology and giving them nonsensical assignments that he doesn't bother to grade. Owen plays his boozy desperation with a physical unpredictability that keeps everyone off balance and knocks one scene, an apology to his estranged son, out of the park.

Binoche uses her physical gifts in a different way. She's blessed with a luminous, expressive face that's more beautiful at 50 than it was at 25. (Her director, Fred Schepisi, knows it. The camera's always creeping in on Binoche and Owen, moving to close-ups as a scene progresses.) What's great about this role is she's playing an artist, Dina Delsanto, whose rheumatoid arthritis has robbed her of some of the ability -- but not the desire -- to paint. Schepisi moves the camera around and shoots Binoche from above and the side as she scoots along on a swivel chair and creates art with real passion and flair. (Binoche is a respected artist who has exhibited in galleries around the world; the paintings in the movie are hers.)

Much of Words and Pictures is second-rate. A subplot involving a sexual harassment case is both clumsily handled and superfluous. A talented supporting cast, particularly Bruce Davison and Amy Brenneman, is underused. The conclusion is preordained. Schepisi has a lengthy resume that shows a skill at working with actors (Plenty, Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation) and a sense of social justice (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, A Cry in the Dark). He gets the most out of his stars, Owen and Binoche, but can't get anything more out of Di Pego's script than a lot of words that don't say anything more than what a bored prep school student already knows. [Baker’s rating: B-]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

Testament of Youth (2014) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Mick LaSalle for the S.F. Chronicle (, Thursday, June 11, 2015.

Testament: Outcry against WWI’s horror

World War I remains the disaster the world has never completely digested, because, like the Wicked Witch of the East, it was followed by something even worse. But for Great Britain and France, its death toll was greater than that of World War II, involving the decimation of a generation of young men.

Testament of Youth dramatizes a war memoir that’s not from the usual angle. Based on the book of the same name by feminist author Vera Brittain, it tells the story of World War I from the viewpoint of a young, upper-middle-class British woman who had a brother, a fiance and family friends fighting on the front lines. Though it had been the ambition of her life to study at Oxford, Brittain left school within months of enrolling to take a job nursing the wounded.

By 1914, the 20th century had yet to show its true colors, but then it did, all at once, with a ferocity that must have astounded people. As Testament of Youth begins, Vera (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) and her friends have no conception that their lives are about to be upended. In the summer of 1914, they’re swimming in the pond, strolling through the countryside and dreading nothing more terrible than the start of school. Then the war erupts, and the men start enlisting.

World War I — or the Great War, as it was known for more than 20 years — marks what will probably stand as the last time anyone could be fooled into thinking of war as a noble and glorious undertaking. The men sign up in a sporting spirit, or at least to avoid ridicule. In the case of Vera’s genial younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton), Vera must intervene with her father to allow the boy to go. In her mind, and his, she is doing him a favor.

As Vera, Vikander is virtually in every scene, the eyes, ears and conscience of the film. When we meet her, Vera is already angry, that her father won’t pay for her education (but will pay for her brother’s), and everything that happens subsequently only confirms in her the sense that men are running the world into the ground. Testament of Youth demands that an actress convey a fierce intelligence, an ever-deepening understanding and a depthless sorrow, lest the story have no impact or meaning. She also must show the openness of youth, a willingness to hope and be happy, because this is not a movie about a scold. Vikander accomplishes all this, often in close-up, for director James Kent’s searching camera.

That it’s not a fiction but based on a memoir allows for some unexpected scenes, as the truth is often more extreme than the things we imagine. There’s a brilliant sequence in which Vera’s boyfriend Roland (Kit Harington), a fellow would-be writer, returns home for a few days, after months at the front, and he acts scornful and indifferent toward her. After months of waiting and worrying, she is almost crushed, until she has the insight that she represents emotion to him. She understands that he fears opening himself up to all that feeling, and yet he must or else he’ll lose himself.

When it was published in 1933, Brittain’s Testament of Youth was a best-seller. Timing is everything in the book world, and the memoir arrived just as intelligent people were beginning to dread and fear a second world war. To see this film is to understand — not in an intellectual way, but in a direct, visceral way — why the British ignored the threat of Adolf Hitler for so long.

In World War I, a generation learned that war was not the answer. In World War II, another generation learned that pacifism was not the answer. It would seem that there just isn’t an answer. [LaSalle’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: biography, drama, history, tragedy, war