Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning go-to cinematographer Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with this fantastical tale of a 21st-century ghost in the machine. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) believes that mankind is on the verge of a new order of artificial intelligence. It involves “transcendence,” whereby the electrical impulses of the brain—the emotions, memories, and ideas that make up our consciousness—are uploaded into a supercomputer. And after Will is shot by a member of a radical neo-luddite group (no, seriously), that’s exactly what he does to himself, losing his physical form and becoming a being of pure software.
At its best, science fiction sparks the imagination, inspiring the question, “What if…?” And in the world of cinema, this enthusiasm gives way to conjecture, even debate: Remember the decades of geek chatter about the version of Blade Runner that might have been, eventually leading to Ridley Scott’s Final Cut? We come away from Frank Pavich’s remarkable documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune with that same excitement. The second half of that title is no doubt familiar, either as Frank Herbert’s seminal novel or as the much-reviled 1984 film by David Lynch that it eventually became. The first part, not so much: Chilean-born filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is perhaps best known for the surreal Western El Topo, widely considered the first “midnight movie” for its offbeat appeal.
In true comic book (excuse me, graphic novel ) fashion, Rise of an Empire presents the “origin” of the evil god-king of Persia and his hatred of all things Greek. Set ten years before the Battle of Thermopylae, this wild prologue is very much in the wheelhouse of writer/artist Frank Miller, whose as-yet-unreleased Xerxes comic provides the basis for this follow-up to the epic 300. A great Athenian warrior named Themistokles sets this dark destiny in motion, and we leap forward a decade to the resulting Persian invasion of Greece. An older Themistokles takes to the seas to stand against Xerxes’ overwhelming naval forces, as led by the savage, mysterious Artemisia, their deadly clashes concurrent with the legendary sacrifice of King Leonidas and his brave fifteen-score Spartans.
After an onslaught of Real American Heroes and Robots in Disguise, we often meet a new toy-inspired movie with the lament, “It’s just a two-hour commercial!” And so it is with no small measure of shock and awe that I watched The Lego Movie. The immensely talented filmmaking duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller has managed to tell an engaging story with boundless wit, originality, and even audacity, while still embracing what we know and love about these little bricks and the many associated characters.
Embellished from John Cheever’s most famous short story, The Swimmeris a rather artful drama that is ultimately open to individual interpretation. Determined to swim his way home from pool to pool across the county, middle-aged Ned also spends this unusual day wrestling with the very truth of his life, reality coming at him in increasingly hostile waves as he encounters more of his friends. Clad only in bathing trunks—except for one scene in which he removes them altogether—the legendary Burt Lancaster imbues this misguided soul with his bigger-than-life screen presence, carrying the entire narrative on his broad, buff shoulders.
When you think about the serial nature of comic books and the virtually limitless stream of new stories published each month, big-screen sequels in this genre should be a slam-dunk, right? Unfortunately, Kick-Ass 2 loses its way; its themes becoming at once muddled and more clichéd. High-schooler/hero Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is upping his crime-fighting game under the tutelage of 15-year-old Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), who soon faces her own identity crisis. Inspired by the duo’s exploits, an all-new team of masked heroes has assembled, just as the vengeful son of a dead mob boss begins recruiting his own evil army, and a showdown is inevitable.
Thorin, heir to the dwarf throne, is on a quest to reclaim his homeland and unite his people. But to do so, he’ll need to survive an onslaught of murderous Orcs, steal a vital stone back from an insanely powerful talking dragon, and overcome all manner of treachery along the way. Fortunately, he makes new allies in his travels, but while there’s certainly no shortage of characters in this middle chapter of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth epic, it dawned on me that none of them are especially compelling. With their numbers growing, we don’t really have the chance to get to know any of them.
Patently rejecting the notion that brevity is the soul of wit, IaMMMMW is Hollywood’s first (and last?) “epic comedy,” clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes in its popular version. Just about every A-list comedy actor of the era is involved in this sprawling tale of some everyday folk who drop everything for an unplanned dash to find a deceased criminal’s buried loot.
Michael Mann’s feature film directing debut, this rough-hewn caper drama fairly throbs with energy, thanks in large part to the inspired use of a Tangerine Dream musical score. Criminal or not, Frank (James Caan) is pretty difficult to like, but he’s a total professional, so naturally the Chicago mob wants to own him. They underestimated Frank, however, and his rage erupts stylishly in this unrated director’s cut.
In 2009, one of the kings of quirky dramedy, Wes Anderson, managed to surprise us again with a star-studded, fully stop-motion-animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s deliciously absurd Fantastic Mr. Fox. This laid-back bad boy has settled down with his wife and pup, but can a fox ever really change his nature?