FRESH POUR: Transcendence (2014) / Bears (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Dir. Wally Pfister
Warner Bros. Pictures

Cyberpunk films should seem like a slam dunk in this age of neuroscience, the ubiquity of the Internet, and all the recent talk of the Singularity. Why is it, then, that Transcendence (the directorial debut of regular Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister) feels so dated and out of its time? In a plot that seems to belong squarely in the tech-paranoid 90s, the film follows brilliant computer scientist Dr. Will Castor – played by Johnny Depp, reminding us why he often sticks to campy, over-the-top roles. He’s just naturally robotic in his normal self, leaving us little to work with or establish before he is summarily uploaded into an artificial intelligence after being shot with a radiation-laced bullet by a eco-terrorist who fears the Singularity (the proposed fusion of humanity with technology). Having quickly gone through the rigmarole of uploading his consciousness into an AI to stave off death, Will’s devoted, yet vacant wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) escapes with him after the aforementioned eco-terrorists track him down, following his instructions as he quickly sets up a minimalist science lab in a small town, with which to expand his influence.

As far as the film itself goes, it’s clear that Wally Pfister should remain a cinematographer, and not devote himself to oddly paced and overly ponderous slogs like this movie. It’s very telling that such a tech-paranoid film would be shot on film instead of digital (Pfister being a huge advocate for the preservation of film as a medium), and many of the shots are absolutely gorgeous. However, Pfister has problems with character scenes, as the direction feels stilted and even the framing of figures in shots feels weird. It doesn’t help that most/all of the characters are completely flat and talk to each other in the same portentous half-whispers for the film’s entire runtime; entire subplots are dedicated to the Paul Bettany, Morgan Freemand and Cillian Murphy characters, none of whom we are given any insight into as characters. They just end up being the token ‘resistance to technology’ crowd that is necessary for the film’s inevitable, forced action setpiece (which is unimpressive to say the least). The eco-terrorists are painted with a particularly broad brush, especially Kate Mara’s radical character who is a constant presence in the film, yet is given nothing to do. The film is paced in fits and starts, with entire character acts seemingly breezed past in montage – Pfister clearly tries to ape Nolan’s effective use of such dreamlike editing in his own films, but the script simply doesn’t support such wanton meandering.

At the film’s heart, Transcendence tries to be a human story about the love of Will and Evelyn Castor, but we aren’t given much to root for or relate to. Human-Will is given such little screentime before the inciting incident that he doesn’t make an impression on us, and it isn’t long before he is ripping off the stock market minutes after he is plugged into the Internet to learn and grow. Evelyn, meanwhile, seems more and more like a co-dependent wallflower with each subsequent scene; she starts to get interesting around the time she starts to get sick of Will’s alienating omniscience and possessiveness, turning the film briefly into a cyberpunk version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In the end, though, Will is vaguely redeemed by an abrupt heel-turn (he wasn’t going to kill anyone after all!) that lands with a whimper, making me wonder why the hell we bothered with all of this in the first place.

Cliché as it might have been, the film might have worked better with a love-triangle element to it, in which Paul Bettany is seen as a romantic rival by Will after he is uploaded, as he can touch her the way Evelyn constantly desires in the film. Instead, Bettany is kidnapped and literally kept in a cage by Mara and crew for the vast majority of the film, making his established status as audience-surrogate (he stars in the limp framing device that shows a world after we lose electric power) practically worthless.

There’s so much more to talk about when it comes to the film’s mistakes, but there are a few things it does right, admittedly. The cinematography is gorgeous at times, and it’s refreshing to see film grain on the big screen again; Mychael Danna’s ambient electronic score is also quite nice. However, these don’t make up for a meandering, glacial film that takes itself far too seriously for the subject matter, and foists so many characters upon us without giving us a reason to care. Pfister is a brilliant cinematographer, but he should stick to his day job (or at least get a better script next time).

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Transcendence Drinking Game:
1) Drink for shots of plants
2) Drink whenever Will Castor (Johnny Depp) says “Evelyn” in his creepy robot voice
3) Drink every time someone makes a doom-and-gloom proclamation about technology, the Internet, etc.
Finish Your Drink When:
Will says, “I’m not going to fight them. I’m going to TRANSCEND them.”

Disneynature’s BearsBears
Dir. Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey
Disney Nature

When it came to what other film I was going to cover this week, it was a hard call; I hadn’t seen A Haunted House, so I didn’t feel like covering A Haunted House 2, while I dreaded the treacly, deceptive evangelist tactics of Heaven is For Real. Instead, I decided to see Bears, Disneynature’s seventh documentary feature, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed myself. Disneynature is the Disney company’s nature-documentary wing, focusing on narrative-documentary films released in theaters for a short time; this is the first of those I had seen, and it turned out to be a richly rewarding experience.

The primary draw of this film, of course, is the breathtaking HD nature documentary footage, filmed by the same crews that do the David Attenborough documentaries Planet Earth, Blue Planet and so on; the crisp colors and wondrous vistas of Alaska are gorgeous to behold on the big screen, and that alone was worth the price of admission. Between helicopter footage of snowy mountain ranges, close-ups of ferocious bears, and time-lapsed footage of sun-kissed forests and streams, Bears is an absolute visual feast.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film, and one which makes it difficult to review, is its strange status as neither a narrative nor a documentary film, but something in between. The film follows a March of the Penguins model by combining this beautiful documentary footage with a narrated story, as the film chiefly follows a mama bear (named Sky) and her two cubs, Scout and Amber, through the cubs’ first year of life. The film’s main narrative thrust is the search for food, as Sky  must make sure to get enough salmon so that her cubs won’t starve during next year’s hibernation, which makes her run into all sorts of obstacles – including two separate enemy bears named Chinnok and Magnus, and a particularly persistent wolf who follows them from place to place. In the end, the narrative seems abruptly pieced together and a little too convenient (several scenes claim a raven has been leading them to places of salvation throughout the film), but it acts as a decent way to tell such a laser-focused story in amongst the beautiful nature footage. It helps that the bears are just damn adorable; all three main bears have so much personality, whether in their behavior or imposed on them by the narration. It’s almost impossible to be cynical when you see the millionth scene of Scout rolling around or being flung around by the scruff of his next by Sky.

John C. Reilly narrates the film, which is great, because Reilly is probably the closest thing we have to the human equivalent of a bear anyway. His narration is appropriately affable for the type of film that focuses on how cuddly and cute the bear cubs are; he’ll often give voice to the bears (“Hey Mom, how do ya get this clam open?!”), pretending to speak for them in a strangely reactive way that works. Bears’ narration sounds as though they finished the film, sat John C. Reilly down in a chair, and recorded him watching the movie, while also giving him the occasional cue card of nature facts to give to the audience. It’s kind of delightful hearing Reilly take us through this journey, which adds to the odd charm of the film, but without threatening to undercut the moments of drama found throughout the film, from animal attacks to the threat of starvation.

All in all, Bears is delightful, charming documentary that doesn’t descend into mawkishness too much (one jarring, obnoxious Mumford & Sons montage sequence aside), and when it does, the bears are just so damn cuddly you don’t care. The narrative framework, while forced, doesn’t detract from the wonderful nature photography, and at less than 80 minutes the film definitely doesn’t waste your time. It’s far from unbearable, and you won’t have to grin and bear it – it just bears repeating that this film makes up for its threadbear plot in spades.*

*I needed to get that out of my system. You’re welcome.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Disney Nature’s Bears Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever John C. Reilly speaks for the bears
2) Drink every time a bear stands on its hind legs
3) Drink any time there is a close-up of a non-bear animal
Finish Your Drink When:
You see a bear scratching its ass.

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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