Monday, April 28, 2014

The Other Woman

This is likely to be another controversial review amongst some of my friends, so right off the bat I want to say that I'm sorry for what you are about to read. Like my previous reviews of Pitch Perfect, What to Expect When You're Expecting, and Breaking Dawn, I'm pretty sure I'm not the target demographic for this film. A lot of my readers are probably jumping to the conclusion that I have some kind of bias towards romantic comedies. While it's true that I haven't recommended many recent rom-coms, I am a pretty big fan of the genre as a whole. I've previously referenced my love for (500) Days of Summer as well as older films like While You Were Sleeping and You've Got Mail. Judging solely from the trailer I knew what kind of film I was going to get, but I tried to go in with as open a mind as possible.

Carly is a successful lawyer who has a seemingly great relationship with her boyfriend, Mark. However, when he refuses to meet her father for drinks, Carly decides to surprise him at his Connecticut home in a skanky plumber's outfit. But rather than her boyfriend, Carly is instead greeted by his lovely and blissfully ignorant wife, Kate. After Carly's strange visit, Kate begins to put two-and-two together and travels to New York to confront her husband's mistress. Once she realizes that Carly was also deceived by Mark, Kate is determined to become friends with the lawyer, who only wants to get vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Together they realize that Mark is not only cheating on both of them with a plethora of other women, but that he is also embezzling his partner and framing Kate for the crime.

Most of this film is devoted to drunken hijinks and typical chick flick montages of dancing and laughing (seriously, there's even a scene set to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"). The Other Woman has all the trappings of a film written by a first-time screenwriter, which I later found out is exactly the case. It seems like the writer cherry-picked common tropes from the genre and stuffed them together without much thought to the story. Almost every part of this movie is directly lifted from other rom-coms, specifically John Tucker Must Die. For those who don't know that film, it basically centers around a group of girls who find out that they've been dating the same guy and then conspire to take revenge on him. Even that film isn't one I would recommend necessarily, but I couldn't believe how similar it is to The Other Woman, down to pouring estrogen capsules in the antagonists drink. It's unfortunate that Hollywood insists on churning out these cliche-riddled chick flicks rather than actually trying to do something original.

In some ways, it isn't surprising that this film was originally rated R, only changing to PG-13 following an appeal by the studio. The stupidity alone fits the bill of "restricted" in my opinion. Having said that, the biggest problems weren't the parts that insulted my intelligence, though a few moments literally had my jaw dropped in complete incredulity (particularly the incoherent conclusion). The main issue I have with The Other Woman is its total aimlessness. The characters are simply running around in circles, not accomplishing much and indulging in countless bits that seem to have been made up on the spot. Having seen where this film goes and replaying it in my mind, there are so many things that either don't pay off or make absolutely no sense. I had to restrain myself from pointing out every plot hole or completely pointless scene while we were in the theater, though by the time the final confrontation occurred I couldn't resist it any longer.

But despite all that, I think there's still a good movie in the middle of all this garbage they're passing off as humor. Take away all the dog poop jokes, the nauseatingly extended diarrhea scenes, and even the gratuitous shots of Kate Upton's... uh, acting talents... and they may have come up with something that didn't make you feel dumber when the credits rolled. With a different director and screenwriter as well as a few casting alterations (yeah, you basically have to strip this movie to the bone), I think this could have been a really good dramatic story about two women coming to terms with their relationships being a complete lie and finding a friendship with each other as a result. They could have even left in some of Leslie Mann's comedic moments, since she was easily the funniest part of the film. I think it was a mistake in terms of good storytelling to make this a slap-stick, low brow comedy that is ultimately forgettable.

If you haven't sniffed it out yet, this movie is a complete stinker. Trust me and the other critics on this one and don't spend your money. I wish this movie had been better, because I feel like Hollywood is due for another memorable, touching, hilarious and enjoyable romantic comedy. Unfortunately, The Other Woman is nothing more than a two star movie.

THE OTHER WOMAN is rated PG-13 on appeal for mature thematic material, sexual references and language

Monday, April 21, 2014


Another film from my most anticipated list of 2014 was released this past week, and for the last couple of months I've been hoping that Wally Pfister's directorial debut would be as mind-blowing as it had the potential to be. Transcendence has an extremely high-concept plot, a cavalcade of talented actors, and had Christopher Nolan's name attached (if only as an Executive Producer). Needless to say I had pretty high expectations for this movie from the man behind the lens of some of my favorite films of all time. Having said that, my anticipation took a sucker punch to the gut when the first wave of reviews starting coming in on (currently at a devastating 19%). Even after writing a feature article and speaking to the director personally about the film, I entered my viewing last Thursday with extremely tempered expectations.

Dr. Will Caster and his wife are working on the first ever sentient artificial intelligence, presenting about the aspirations of each of their projects before an audience of potential benefactors for their research. Not everyone shares their enthusiasm for technological advancement, however, as demonstrated by the eco-terrorist organization known as R.I.F.T. Following the presentation, one of the members of this anti-technology group shoots Will with a radioactive bullet, guaranteeing the scientist's death in a few short weeks. Unable to let her husband go, Evelyn instead works with a fellow scientist to upload Will's consciousness into their preexisting AI technology so as to preserve as much of him as possible. The project is ultimately a success, but the question remains - how much of this new super-intelligence is Will, and can it be trusted?

This movie has a lot of really interesting ideas to explore, and I was really excited to see where it would take them. Unfortunately, they really ended up going nowhere. For such a controversial and intriguing subject, I couldn't believe we didn't get more examples of good or bad applications for such a powerful technological advancement. The viewpoints offered by the film are those of people for it and people against it without any explanations or explorations as to why they felt that way.

As much as I hate to admit it (because I'm a huge fan of his), I have to lay most of the blame for this movie's problems at the feet of Wally Pfister. Being a first-time director has got to be a huge challenge in any movie, let alone an incredibly ambitious sci-fi blockbuster with A-listers like Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. It's a little frustrating when most of the individual aspects of a film like this work on their own but they just don't fit together into a cohesive and satisfying whole. Balancing and integrating all of the different parts of a production is totally the director's responsibility, and it just felt like Pfister was a little overwhelmed. His inexperience can be felt throughout the film, but particularly during moments of humor. The actors looked a little lost whenever they were supposed to say something even moderately amusing, even those with extensive comedic chops (Depp, Freeman, Bettany, etc.). There are also weird transitions and time-lapses in the film that felt slightly forced, and even cuts from scene-to-scene had an amateurish quality to it. Regardless of whose fault it really is, the inability to make the story flow in a natural and organic way was not only a detriment, but it nearly crippled the entire narrative.

Having said all that, there are a lot of things to like about Transcendence. For one thing, the acting across the board was quite well done (during serious moments), and even when it wasn't I have to think they just needed an extra take to really nail it. Johnny Depp returns to form in this film, finally letting go of his over-the-top quirkiness and delivering a subdued and more layered character. Also, the ideas are still so interesting that even their sometimes sloppy portrayal on screen couldn't ruin the fascinating implications of the concept. Not only that, but the emotion in the movie is genuinely heartfelt, with the performances of Depp and Rebecca Hall really selling the relationship of the two leads. I have to think that a lot of that is helped by the music by Mychael Danna (Moneyball, Life of Pi, etc.), which is so good I will probably end up downloading it regardless of my thoughts on the rest of the movie.

While I didn't really like Transcendence all that much, I also didn't hate it. There's still plenty of good stuff in here to enjoy depending on your tolerance for speculative sci-fi. It's just hard seeing a movie with so much potential go totally off the rails, which makes it even more disappointing than just a mediocre failure. Had the executives put someone else in the director's chair and placed Pfister back behind the camera, this could have been a terrific movie. As it is, it's one of the bigger let-downs I've experienced in quite some time. Though I think it's only a slight improvement over the recent Divergent, I still give Transcendence two and a half stars.

TRANSCENDENCE is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Coming Soon: Transcendence!

Release Date: April 18, 2014
Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Wally Pfister
Written by: Jack Paglen
Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy
Running time: 119 minutes

"Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him."
- (Official press release plot description)

With an incredibly talented cast as well as a fresh and in some ways culturally relevant topic, first time director Wally Pfister aims to make a new name for himself with the sci-fi thriller Transcendence. Pfister came into the public conscience thanks to his award-winning collaboration with director Christopher Nolan as director of photography (which resulted in multiple Academy Award nominations including one win for Inception), but has also done great work in films like The Italian Job and Moneyball. A great advocate of film over digital photography, Pfister has always sought to provide the best visual experience possible for the audience, and though he isn't behind the camera on Transcendence, it appears that he's brought that sensibility to this film as well.

Much of his workload seems to be lightened by the stellar cast he's managed to assemble in this high-concept sci-fi pic. Speaking about the incredible cast he was able to work with, Pfister said, "It's mind-blowing... I feel incredibly fortunate to be lucky enough in my first outing as a director to have the likes of these incredible actors."

Despite recent flops like The Lone Ranger and Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp is still a huge star that will certainly attract an audience. Unlike those and other films that helped Depp rise to prominence, this seems to be quite a departure from his usual over-the-top characters like The Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka. Playing a subdued and stoic scientist calls back to his more subtle performances of films such as Finding Neverland that garnered critical praise and awards recognition.

"(He) is just a joy to work with and he is a really smart guy," said Pfister of his leading man. "I was very, very fortunate to be able to get Johnny." Stepping away from the norm and taking on such a different kind of role may be just the adrenaline shot Depp's career needs to return to top form.

Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, and Johnny Depp

It's a different story for Morgan Freeman, who seems to be in more movies than Liam Neeson these days. Following their most recent collaboration in The Dark Knight Rises, it's not too surprising to see Freeman return to work with Wally Pfister in Transcendence. Not only that, but having familiar faces on set is surely a comfort to such an increase in responsibility for the first time director. Freeman's role in this film appears to be quite similar to that of the batman films, which should make many viewers feel right at home.

However, he isn't the only returning cast member from previous Pfister works. "Obviously I've known Morgan for ten years and Cillian (Murphy) for ten years. You know, we've done three "Batman" pictures together and I was very comfortable working with them," Pfister said of his familiar casting choices. "My previous relationship with them and Rebecca (from The Prestige) came to play in terms of casting them, so it's really a dream cast."

When asked about his relationship with Christopher Nolan and what he's learned from the legendary director, Pfister replied, "One of the great things about Chris is his discipline on set and... to observe somebody who really considers every minute of your set time to be precious."

Based on the talent of the cast and crew as well as the highly promising trailers (shown below), it appears that Transcendence is certainly well worth the time and energy spent by all involved. Funding and distributing such a big-budget movie by a first time director is surely a bit of a gamble for Warner Bros and Alcon Entertainment, but regardless of the box office numbers it definitely appears to be a fascinating take on man's evolving and complicated relationship with technology.

TRANSCENDENCE will be released nationwide on April 18th, so be sure to pick up your tickets as soon as possible!

*For more information about this film, please visit the official Transcendence web site.

Here's a clip of my question to director Wally Pfister! For a transcript of the full interview, click here!

<-- (Don't forget to click a theatre link to find showtimes of Transcendence in a theater near you!) 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Yet again, anybody following my reviews (or my most anticipated of 2014 list) could tell you I was really excited for the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Though I really enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, Phase Two of Marvel's movie universe has been fairly anti-climactic. It seems like they've been coasting on so much good will from The Avengers that they haven't really concerned themselves with raising the bar yet again like they did with the original Iron Man. From the second I saw the trailer for this film, however, I knew we had a chance to finally get another game-changing installment of the MCU. Thankfully I only had to wait until April to find out whether my suspicions were true.

After the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers/Captain America is once again a revered hero with his own historical attraction at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. As he continues working with a covert team of S.H.I.E.L.D., he begins to grow leary of what he deems to be unethical behavior (I'll leave it at that to avoid spoilers). Nick Fury, the organization's director, assures Steve that what they're doing is necessary, pointing out how things have changed since the transparent days of Captain America's native time. After an assassination attempt, however, Fury's words become prophetic as Steve must find out who the mysterious killer is and how to stop him.

This is a much different film than any other in the MCU, as it somehow manages to tackle contemporary issues while providing a perfect context to tell a story about Captain America. Who would have thought that a character created in the 1940's would have such relevance to our time? Cap's straight forward perspective of right and wrong not only mirrors his comic book incarnation, but also provides some much-needed morality for the shadowy leaders depicted in this film. His scathing indictment of their fear-based, militaristic and secretive governing choices earns him quite a few enemies throughout this story, which provides a perfect backdrop for some of the most amazing action scenes I've ever seen.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo aren't necessarily the obvious choice for a mega-budget action film (they're better known for directing TV comedies like Arrested Development), but they do a fantastic job of portraying Captain America's abilities in a practical, but incredibly stylish manner. The fight choreography is top notch (most of the hand-to-hand combat gave me chills) and creates innovative ways for Cap to use his trademark shield in combat. So much of this movie is done with practical effects - real car chases, real explosions and stunt men - which adds a heightened sense of reality to this hyper-realistic comic book adaptation. Combine that with the layered and complex script, and it's no wonder this movie comes across like a political thriller that just happens to star Captain America.

But every superhero must have his villain. Marvel has done an okay job with the villains in their films thus far, the strongest being Loki and Red Skull, in my opinion. However, not only is the latest film in the series a step up in the screenwriting and the action, but it also boasts the best villain Marvel has ever produced (including the Spider-Man and X-Men films). The titular Winter Soldier is the ultimate foe for a character like Captain America, matching his strength but polar-opposite in his nature. Where Cap would go to any lengths to protect the innocent, Winter Soldier will go to any lengths to complete his mission, regardless of who gets in his way. Sebastian Stan absolutely kills it in this role, making him not only a terrifying nemesis (to the point where you feel nobody on screen is safe when he's around) but also a complex character in his own right. The Russo brothers absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one.

The performances across the board are great, with standouts Robert Redford bringing a legitimacy as well as Anthony Mackie giving some much needed levity to the otherwise intense film. Scarlett Johansson continues her pitch-perfect portrayal of the Black Widow, providing some subtle insight into her character's emotions with nothing but facial expressions. Chris Evans himself absolutely owns the role of Captain America at this point, and easily gives his best performance yet in The Winter Soldier.

This movie is so layered and complex that I can't wait to see it again and notice all the details I couldn't possibly absorb the first time around. Every knot is tied and every plot thread pays off with a near perfect balance of intensity, excitement and humor. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not only the best film of Marvel's Phase Two slate (and much better than Captain America: The First Avenger), but it may be the best Marvel film to date. It's certainly a game-changer, and one that accomplishes the feat of reigniting my enthusiasm for the upcoming Avengers sequel. Once again, PLEASE stay through the entire credits as Marvel has taken to inserting two post-credit scenes in their films. I'm still shocked that anybody leaves during the credits of a Marvel movie. In case you couldn't tell, I loved this film and I give it a very strong four stars.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout