The Pitch: The Nolan system.
The Review: For all that you can say about cinema, it’s not a career path that lends itself naturally to progression. While the likes of Steven Soderbergh have mastered more than one skill in film production, you don’t hear many stories of key grips that went onto thriving careers as make-up artists. If there is a natural pairing of professions in the film industry, you’d think it’s director and cinematographer, the two people most concerned with getting the image right on screen, but when pretty much every list of famous cinematographers turned directors has Jan “Speed 2” De Bont on it, it’s clearly not an easy transition to make. Full marks for effort to Wally Pfister, then, for deciding to break away from a twenty year career in cinematography and a lengthy collaboration with Christopher Nolan to making his own films.
It’s also decent marks for attainment when it comes to the visuals. Pfister’s films have always had a compelling visual quality and he’s stuck to his principles, shooting Transcendence on traditional 35mm film. In collaboration with another Brit, this time his own cinematographer Jess Hall (veteran of Brit films including Hot Fuzz and Son Of Rambow), Transcendence balances beautiful moments of intimate slo-mo with grander, sweeping vistas. Unlike other blockbusters that live just to excite your inner fanboy with a robot riding a giant dinosaur, Transcendence aims for something subtler. The stock middle-America townscape is a bit of a cliché, but that’s one weak link in Pfister’s composition.
For those getting their hopes up that Pfister’s film could be of equal quality in all the other departments, it’s time to unceremoniously dash those hopes. That even extends as far as general shot composition; while certain brief moments might look good, as a whole the film is a dull canvass of browns and whites and nothing sticks in the mind for more than a few minutes. That pales in comparison to some of the acting, which is led by a dialled-in (probably on a 56k modem) performance from Johnny Depp. Once Depp’s settled on an accent, he sleepwalks through the film, sapping interest out of scenes while barely even trying. Rebecca Hall makes a bit of an effort, but everyone else, from Paul Bettany to Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, wanders around in a general state of confusion, wondering where their character development has disappeared to and failing to invest the tired script with any sense of conviction.
There are numerous problems with that script, and not only does the dialogue fail to convince in individual scenes, the script as a whole is a damb squib. Transcendence thinks it has a couple of good ideas, but anyone who’s ever seen more than a couple of episodes of any sci-fi series on TV won’t be surprised at any part of the “human consciousness in a computer” plot, and Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey – which wasn’t that great itself – was a far better exploration of the dramatic possibilities of nanotechnology, a thread which plays out laughably here. To top it all off, the script begins at the end and then flashes back, killing any dramatic tension stone dead. Most of the film’s ideas about technology are laughably poor, but not laughable enough to tip the film into the “so bad it’s good” category. When Christopher Nolan comes up with films about dream worlds, wormholes and men who dress as bats and fight crime, you have to wonder what drove Pfister to trot out such a succession of barely warmed-over clichés that make you yearn for some paint to watch drying. Sad to say, but Wally Pfister’s first film makes Jan De Bont’s directorial career look like a constant procession of genius by comparison; even Morgan Freeman reading out binary code for two hours would have been more appealing.
Why see it at the cinema: As I’ve said, there are some lovely looking individual frames, it’s just a shame they never form into anything resembling a coherent whole. But they do look great on a giant cinema screen.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and bloody images. The BBFC rating advice also indicates that, “there is also a scene in which a couple embrace and kiss.” As that’s in the rating advice, does it mean that embracing is only to be witnessed by 11 year olds with the consent of their parents?
My cinema experience: A Sunday evening at my local Cineworld would not normally be heavily populated, but for some reason this was a big draw so I was sat third row from the front. Someone sat in the middle of the bank of seats in front of me, and then refused to move when another couple came in looking for the two seats either side. That confrontation, as brief as it was, proved to be more interesting that anything projected onto the screen in front of them.
The Score: 3/10
The Review: Ben Affleck has been somewhat derided over the years, but his best contributions to the world of movies have undoubtedly been from behind the camera. For years, his Oscar-winning writing collaboration with close friend Matt Damon was viewed as a one-off, but then his genuinely impressive directorial debut Gone Baby Gone marked him out as a director to watch. Affleck the actor has always been more of a mixed bag though, so there was bound to be a fascination in seeing what Affleck the director could get out of Affleck the actor.
The results are certainly more to the credit of Affleck the director, who again shows that he can deal with action and drama with equal aplomb, and as with his debut knows how to get the best from his actors. Affleck comes across as believable both as the thug who’s out robbing banks and the goofy guy who gets close to bank worker Rebecca Hall (who’s also excellent) to see how much she knows. He’s again managed to surround himself with a solid ensemble, including Jeremy Renner as the more loose cannon member of their crew, Jon Hamm as the FBI man chasing them down and the likes of the always dependable Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite in small but crucial roles.
So there are no complaints at all about the actors, but the rest of the movie is not without fault. First off, the story feels just a little generic, been-there-done-that, and when a Boston crime movie has walked off with a Best Picture Oscar in the last five years, unfortunately you are giving yourself a high standard for comparison, and that’s also reflected in the slight lack of energy – while there’s meat in the drama scenes and the action is solid, the shift between the two and the pacing somehow feels off and saps everything of that spark that would take this from good to great.
Gone Baby Gone also stood out because it posed some fascinating moral conundrums and the story went in unexpected directions. While this doesn’t take any unwanted avenues, it is also eminently predictable and you end up watching more for the performances than anything else. That makes it worth a watch, but it also leaves it feeling slight when it could have been weighty, and you’ll struggle to remember too much about it after the lights have gone up. Affleck the director is still a talent to be reckoned with, and Affleck the actor shows his strengths here; sadly his co-writer credit is the weak spot this time, and let’s just hope he gets better material to work with next time he’s behind a camera.
Why see it at the cinema: The action scenes are thankfully not in the jittery Bay-cam style, but if anything the movie could stand a little more action and a little less conversation. Still worth a cinema visit, but not essential viewing.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: “So no one told you life was gonna be this way…” Six people living in two neighbouring apartments in a New York apartment block and their intertwining lives. But Friends: The Movie this ain’t. There are other TV links, though; writer and director Nicole Holofcener has learned her trade by both writing and directing for TV, in the case of the latter for Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, so she comes with a strong pedigree. What also comes through from her experience is the sense of honesty that both series at their best were capable of exhibiting, in the lives of the central characters, ranging in age in this case from teenage to death’s door.
I’ve just lost a lot of weight over the past year, and it’s interesting seeing people’s reactions. Some are happy to tell you to your face that they thought you were overweight, but would never have said that at the time; some notice when you lose even a small amount of weight and others don’t seem to notice as the weight falls off, but you’re never sure if they’re thinking something, and just don’t want to say. Please Give seems to have captured almost perfectly the knack of exploring these types of social situations, from the mundane to the uncomfortable, with the reactions being sometimes surprising, often amusing but never feeling forced. At the same time, each of the characters comes to reflect at some point or another on their chosen occupation, or in some cases what they feel called to do, and how their own morals and character have led them to the choices they’ve made and the situations they’re in.
The material is typical of other New York movie acolytes such as Woody Allen, in that the characters find themselves in a situation rather than being driven or carried along by a plot, and it’s their reactions in this situation that give the movie its momentum. To make movies like this work, you need a good ensemble of actors, and the name actors appearing (Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet) all bring a lot to their roles without ever being showy. Mentions must go to the other two members of the central ensemble, Anne Guilbert and Sarah Steele, who are least the equal of their more famous colleagues.
What Please Give doesn’t do is anything stunningly original or incredibly daring, but what it does do is present an extremely satisfying and very enjoyable study of people’s reactions to and interactions with each other, and it does so without ever feeling the need to resort to the cynicism which is often to be found in this kind of movie. Holofcener should be applauded for what she’s achieved here, as it all feels effortless, but movies like this don’t come along often enough these days.
Why see it at the cinema: It seems like making movies like this has become something of a lost art, so show your appreciation by forking out for a ticket. And take some of your friends while you’re at it.
The Score: 9/10