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Transcendence ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Transcendence

Transcendence ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Transcendence has all the elements of a summer movie and it isn’t even summer yet: a one-word title, a big-name movie star (Johnny Depp) and a fast-paced techno plot with plenty of action. Johnny plays Dr. Will Caster (a part that almost any actor could have played). Dr. Caster works in the field of artificial intelligence. He and his team (including his wife, Evelyn, and his best friend, Max) are working on a computer system so advanced that it far surpasses human capabilities. The potential for helping mankind, curing illnesses, healing the planet, etc., are staggering. The one problem they can’t seem to figure out, though, is how to make the AI system “self-aware.”

A radical group wants to end the study of artificial intelligence, believing it has the potential to bring about the end of the human race, and murders some of the researchers. When Dr. Caster is shot, the gunshot doesn’t kill him, but it seems the bullet that entered his body was treated in some way to cause him radiation poisoning. He has only a short time to live. Before he dies, though, he will “upload” his consciousness into the computer system, providing the missing element of self-awareness that has hitherto been lacking. His fellow researchers, Evelyn and Max, are complicit in this plan. Evelyn sees it as a way for Dr. Caster to live on after his physical body has died. Max is more skeptical.

So, Dr. Caster is dead but his intellect and consciousness live on in the sophisticated, highly advanced artificial intelligence computer system. His wife is delighted at first that she can still talk to him and interact with him, but after a couple of years she sees where the whole thing is headed: he has a god complex. He believes he is so far superior to “simple organic” life (meaning humans) that he comes to see himself (the computer system) as the future and the human race as a thing that is completely unnecessary. He is sort of a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein in that he ventures into an unknown place where man is perhaps better off not to go.

Transcendence is engaging enough (more in the first half than in the second) for what it is, but there’s nothing unique about it. It’s in the cookie cutter mold of American movie making. There are other movies with the same look and feel. Now that summer is coming on, there will be lots of them because they make a ton of money and then are quickly forgotten until they turn up on TV.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Oculus ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Oculus

Oculus ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

An antiques-loving yuppie couple purchase a quaint, old, full-length mirror that hangs on the wall. The couple don’t know it, of course, but the mirror has a history, going back four hundred years, of bringing about violent death to its owner. An evil spirit resides in the mirror and this spirit protects the mirror from destruction as if it (the spirit) and the mirror are the same.

The couple, the Russells, have two children (Kaylie, age 12 and Tim, age 10). The father of these two becomes withdrawn and secretive. He won’t let anybody go into one room in the house that he calls his office. (It’s the room where the mirror is kept.) Kaylie, when she and her brother are playing in the yard, sees a strange woman embracing her father through the window, when she knows there is nobody else in the house except her parents. The man’s wife, the mother of the two children, becomes suspicious of her husband’s activities and begins doing some investigating on her own. This, as one might expect, leads to tragedy. Kaylie and Tim make a vow to each other that, when they are grown, they will do whatever they can to find out exactly what happened and to clear their family of wrongdoing.

Eleven years later, Tim, age 21, is being released from a mental institution, where he has been since he was 10. Kaylie, his sister, is now 23. In the intervening years, she has discovered the history of the mirror and is determined, with the help of Tim, to make good on the vow they made to each other 11 years earlier.

Oculus is an acceptable horror movie with a cast of unknown (at least by me) actors. While it doesn’t have the chills of Insidious or Mama, it’s intelligent and well-made with a few tense moments. It isn’t junk or schlock. If you are a fan of good horror films, like me, you will like it. If you try to dissect it too much, though, you’ll expose the holes in the plot, so just enjoy it without getting too analytical.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Noah ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Noah

Noah ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The long-awaited Noah is finally in movie theatres. Russell Crowe plays the biblical patriarch for whom God has assigned a special task: build a gigantic wooden boat, an ark, and place on it (or, according to the movie, allow them to come voluntarily onto the boat) one pair, male and female, of every animal on earth (everything that crawls, flies, walks or slithers, including snakes because they serve a purpose). Noah has a wife, Naameh (played by Jennifer Connelly) and three sons (Ham, Shem, and Japheth). God is disappointed in man and is sending a flood to wipe out every living thing on earth. Only Noah, his family (including his sons’ wives), and the animals on the boat will survive, the idea being that they will start afresh after the flood waters have receded. God has chosen Noah because he is a righteous man and hasn’t been “ruined by the world,” as, it seems, everyone else has.

Anyone expecting a faithful adaptation of the biblical story of Noah is going to be disappointed by this movie. While it is a slick and well-crafted piece of cinema, it’s a fictionalized account. Not enough is known about Noah to make a dramatic two-hour-and-fifteen-minute movie, so the filmmakers have had to improvise, creating events and people that never existed. For example, the wicked world is represented by the fictional character, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who wants to live so badly that he stows away on the ark and is aided and hidden by Noah’s son, Ham, who is taking revenge on his father for not saving a girl he liked from the trampling hordes who were storming the ark.

While Noah and his family are on the ark, waiting for the flood waters to recede so they can once again walk upon dry land, tensions arise over the question of whether man will continue after Noah and his family are all dead, or if the world will be another unspoiled Eden in which only animals will live without the wicked and evil man to spoil everything. Noah is all for letting man die out with them, while his wife wants their children to live on in their own descendants. When Shem’s young wife, Ila, who is supposed to be unable to bear children, discovers she is going to have a baby, Noah vows to kill the baby unless it’s a boy.

While Noah is worth seeing, it’s not worth taking seriously. It’s entertaining in its way but no more believable than movies about hobbits. When the “Watchers” (fallen angels, who, as punishment from God, have become huge beings made of rock and mud) first appear early in the movie, you know you are in the realm of fantasy and not in a world that anybody is supposed to believe exists or ever existed.

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp 

The Grand Budapest Hotel ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

The Grand Budapest Hotel was directed by Wes Anderson and is based on the works of author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). It concerns M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious mountain hotel that, even in 1932, was the symbol of a vanishing age. New to the hotel is a “lobby boy” named Zero, a wide-eyed “refugee” whose family was murdered and who is smarter than he appears to be. He becomes M. Gustave’s trusted friend and confident and is always by his side in whatever situation he finds himself.

Among the wealthy patrons of the hotel are one Madame M. (Tilda Swinton), an eighty-four-year-old grande dame who enjoys the attentions and even the sexual favors of M. Gustave. (Bedding rich old patrons is something he doesn’t seem to mind doing.) When Madame M. dies, she bequeaths to M. Gustave a priceless painting called Boy with Apple. Her villainous son (Adrien Brody) and her three strange daughters take exception to this bequest, of course. Her entire will, in fact, is so confusing and has been changed so many times that nobody can figure it out. M. Gustave takes the painting that Madame M. wanted him to have and eventually winds up in jail, where he manages to pull off an ingenious escape through a sewer with several of his fellow inmates.

If you are familiar with any of the directorial efforts of Wes Anderson (The Fabulous Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, among others), you know that he has a distinctive visual style that must be seen to be appreciated. It incorporates elements of the fantastic with whimsy, irony, and subtle humor. The Grand Budapest Hotel is an art film that is not for everybody and will probably not be playing at the multiplex theatre in your neighborhood that shows only mainstream movies. Various adjectives that might be applied to The Grand Budapest Hotel are “quaint,” “eccentric,” “charming,” “unusual,” “quirky.” I know people who would also call it “weird” and “far out” and would be completely flummoxed from first frame to last. If, however, you are one of those who likes things a little off-kilter and oddly tilted and, let us say, “outside the norm,” then you should probably get in line to buy your ticket.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

300: Rise of an Empire ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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300, Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

In 300: Rise of an Empire, the Persian god-king Xerxes, who we first met in the 2006 movie 300, is still intent on taking control of the city states of Greece. In 300, King Leonidas met the Persian army at the famous battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, with 300 Spartan soldiers. The outnumbered Spartans were badly defeated by the Persians, although they put up a valiant fight. Concurrent with the Battle of Thermopylae was the naval battle at Artemisium, led by the Athenian general Themistocles. 300: Rise of an Empire is the story of the battle at Artemisium, which had a different outcome for the Greeks, who were fighting for their freedom and for democracy (a new concept at the time). The story of the two battles is interwoven in 300: Rise of an Empire, which is more another chapter of the same story than a sequel to the earlier movie. The “third act” of 300: Rise of an Empire is what came about after the two battles.

The main character and the hero of 300: Rise of an Empire is the Athenian general Themistocles (played by Sullivan Stapleton). He has a toned body as did King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) in 300 and looks good in leather underwear. In fact, all the Greek soldiers, whether Athenians or Spartans, appear to be at the peak of physical perfection. There’s not a flabby gut in the bunch. Immodestly attired as they are, they are able to give the Persian army a run for its money. Maybe conquering Greece wasn’t such a good idea after all.

There are two strong female characters in 300: Rise of an Empire. Queen Gorgo, the recently widowed wife of the heroic King Leonidas, takes on the roll of warrior queen after her husband’s death. She engages in battle with the Persians the same as the men do. Artemisia is a Greek-born woman who, because she witnessed her family killed at the hands of a Greek army, has gone over to the Persian side. She is an advisor to King Xerxes, something of a military commander, and wants nothing more than to see Greece defeated at the hands of Persia. She cuts men to pieces as easily as she breathes. During a sexual encounter with Themistocles, she offers him a job with her if he’ll come over to her side. He refuses, of course, since he has devoted his life to Greece and to making the army strong.

300: Rise of an Empire (as 300 was before it) is based on a graphic novel and has a kind of other-worldly beauty (a world that exists only in the imagination). There’s lots of action, stylized violence—severed heads and limbs—and a generous use of slow motion. The battle sequences, especially the naval battle, are impressive and engaging. The pounding music score really stood out for me. If you are a fan of 300, as I am, you won’t be disappointed by 300: Rise of an Empire. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp  

Son of God ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Son of God

Son of God~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

When I first saw the trailer for Son of God, I expected it to be a parody or something other than what it appears to be. There are so few movies on biblical subject matter that when one does come along you can hardly believe what you’re seeing. It’s been ten years since The Passion of the Christ and, while that movie was a huge hit (over $600 million in world-wide box office receipts), moviemakers don’t seem to be interested in repeating its success, for whatever reason.

Son of God, as the title implies, is a rendering of the life of Jesus Christ, focusing mainly on the last years of his life when he traveled around with his disciples, making himself known by teaching the word of God. People who witnessed the healings and other miracles had no doubt that Jesus was who he said he was. He had a small but loyal band of followers that grew larger every time he spoke. People, tired of Roman rule, hungered for the kind of message that he was delivering. Are things that much different today? We have a greedy, corrupt federal government that lies to us, attempts to take away more of our liberties at every turn, and takes far too much of our money in taxes, an alarming amount of which is wasted by incompetent politicians whose only aim is to maintain the status quo. Jesus promises a better world for those who believe in him. It is still an appealing message.

Son of God is reverent and respectful, without irony or condescension. It is in no way an attempt to revise or modernize the story or make it politically correct by today’s standards. It’s a literal interpretation of the Bible. Either you embrace it or you don’t. Nonbelievers will have plenty to tear apart and scoff at. Isn’t that what they do? Isn’t that the way it has always been?

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp 

Philomena ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Philomena

Philomena ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

In 1950s Ireland, a teenage girl named Philomena Lee has a baby out of wedlock. Her family shuns her so she goes into a Catholic home for unwed mothers. In exchange for the nuns taking care of her and delivering her baby, she must stay in the home for four years and work like a slave, seven days a week. (The nuns believe the unwed mothers should suffer and do penance for their sins.) Philomena is allowed to see her baby, which is kept in another part of the home, for one hour a day. When the baby, whom she has named Anthony, is about two years old, the nuns adopt him out (in other words, “sell” him for a thousand pounds) to an American couple. Philomena has nothing to say about Anthony’s adoption and isn’t allowed to even see him before he goes.

Fifty years later, when Philomena (Judi Dench) is an old woman, she talks about Anthony for the first time and reveals the heartbreak she has endured in silence because of him. A journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) hears about her case and decides he will do a “human interest” piece on her because he has recently been fired from his job and doesn’t have much else to do. When Martin and Philomena go to the home for unwed mothers, called Rosecrae, where Anthony was born, they are told that all records of adoptions were lost in a fire and there is no way of knowing what happened to Anthony. And, anyway, they remind Philomena, she signed a contract stating she would never attempt to contact Anthony or try to find out what happened to him. Martin is immediately suspicious, pointing out that, while all records were lost, the contract severing any connection between mother and child remained intact through all the years. As Martin and Philomena are to discover, the nuns deliberately throw up a wall of deception to keep Philomena from learning the truth about her son.

With Martin Sixsmith’s help, Philomena embarks on an odyssey, eventually to America, to try to meet the son she gave up for adoption, to find out what kind of a man he has become and to ask him if he remembers anything about her or the country of his birth. Discovering Anthony’s adopted named, Michael Hess, eventually leads Martin and Philomena to the truth, and that truth leads them back to where they started from in Ireland. As Martin says, quoting T.S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Philomena is based on a true story. Seventy-nine-year-old Judi Dench is superb, as always, as Philomena. It’s a fine movie, with an ending that is completely satisfying, though not a happy one. As we are told at the end of the movie, there are thousands of women like Philomena who try to reconnect with the children they gave up decades earlier. Many times what they uncover they would probably have been better off not knowing, but the truth, for them, no matter how terrible, is better than knowing nothing at all.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Pompeii ~ A Capsule Movie Review

 Pompeii

Pompeii ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

In the 79th year of the Christian era, the town of Pompeii, on the Italian Mediterranean not far from Naples, was destroyed and covered over by volcanic ash, mud and lava when scenic Mount Vesuvius erupted, and it wasn’t “re-discovered” until the late 1700s. Today it’s the most popular archaeological site in the world and is visited by two million people a year. The fascination never wanes.

The new movie, Pompeii, has a fictional story attached to a real historical event, as other movies, such as From Here to Eternity and Titanic, have done effectively in the past. Cassia (played by Emily Browning) has just returned to Pompeii after a year in Rome. She is the daughter of wealthy parents (they live in a magnificent seaside villa) but she seems wise beyond her years and is plenty capable of standing up for herself. A muscular slaved named Milo (Kit Harrington) catches her eye when he comes to the aid of an injured horse. As her servant girl, Ariadne, says, Cassia didn’t show that much interest in any of the men of Rome.

Milo has not had a happy life. He was from one of the “horse tribes” of Britannia and saw his parents slaughtered by the Romans when he was a child. Seventeen years later he is a slave, a “gladiator” who must fight and kill or be killed by others just like him for the amusement of the sporting crowd. He is naturally bitter against Rome and Romans. He has every reason to hate Cassia and all she represents but is drawn to her as she is to him.

The villain (isn’t there always at least one?) is one Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland with a faux British accent), a snarling bastard who claims to be interested in financing improvements in Pompeii but is more interested in making Cassia his wife. Understandably, Cassia wants nothing to do with Senator Corvus but she may have no other choice but to comply with his wishes since he has threatened to kill her entire family. He personifies all that is vile and corrupt about Rome and its new emperor, Titus.

Looming over everything is the “higher power,” in this case, Mount Vesuvius, which is about to erupt. The people of Pompeii have heard the rumblings coming from the mountain and have felt the earth shake, but, as one character says, “Sometimes the mountain speaks,” so the people have apparently grown complacent and don’t believe the volcano represents any real threat. They are about to find out differently. What fools these mortals be!

There isn’t much depth to Pompeii. The story is simple and you won’t have to strain your powers of deduction to know what’s going on. It’s not Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw. It’s fast, escapist entertainment with plenty of action and a so-so love story that plays out as expected. The real star of the movie is death-dealing Vesuvius as it spews balls of fire, billowing smoke, and enough lava to bury an entire city, rending the earth and making the ocean turn back on itself as people try to escape by boat. And, as always when it comes to death and destruction, the good people suffer the same fate as the bad.  

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Winter’s Tale ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Winter's Tale

Winter’s Tale ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Winter’s Tale is a story that spans a hundred years. In 1895, a young immigrant couple is kept from entering the country because the young man has pulmonary disease. (I take that to mean tuberculosis.) They decide to leave their baby boy behind in America when they are forced to return to their native land. Twenty-one years later, in 1916, the boy, Peter Lake (played by Colin Farrell), is grown into a man and he isn’t living a good life. He is a thief working for a demon named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) who takes his orders from Lucifer. (Yes, it’s a fantasy.) Pearly once liked Peter Lake but now is trying to kill him because he apparently believes that Peter has turned on him. When Pearly and his henchmen have Peter cornered and are going to kill him, a magical white horse appears on which Peter escapes. That white horse plays an important part in Peter’s life and helps him to fulfill his destiny.

When Peter is robbing an imposing New York mansion in the daytime, he stumbles upon a girl named Beverly Penn who lives in the house with her younger sister and tycoon father. Beverly is twenty-one years old, is ill with consumption, and probably has only a few months to live. She should be afraid of Peter, seeing he has a gun, but she isn’t. They are inexplicably drawn to each other, as if it was always meant to be. Peter believes that the one miracle he has in him, that will come about only when he meets the person for whom the miracle is intended, is to keep Beverly Penn from dying. What we then expect to happen with Beverly doesn’t happen.

The story jumps almost a hundred years into the future, to present-day New York. Peter Lake looks just as young and as startlingly handsome as he did in 1916, even though he is about 121 years old. (Remember, it’s a fantasy.) For what reason has he been kept alive all those years and looking just the same? He has been waiting to discover his true purpose in life, to meet the one person who will allow him to fulfill his destiny.

Winter’s Tale is based on a massive novel by Mark Helprin. It’s a movie for the romantics in the audience. The terribly sophisticated among us won’t be able to suspend disbelief enough to be able to appreciate it. Isn’t suspending disbelief what going to the movies is about? I for one don’t want to see movies about real life and real people with their cell phones and their four-letter words (you know which one I mean). I’ve had enough of them already. Take me someplace I’ve never been before, to another time and place. Let me escape.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp 

The Monuments Men ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

In the final months of World War II, a small group of “art experts,” mostly middle-aged men who are as far from being soldier-like as you can get, are tasked with going into the midst of war in Europe and retrieving art masterpieces, mostly paintings but also sculptures, that the Nazis have plundered in their conquest of Europe. (Two pieces that play a prominent role in the movie are the Altarpiece of Ghent and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child sculpture.) The idea is to make sure the art works are safe and return them to their rightful owners when the war is over and Hitler and Germany have been defeated. Hitler had other plans for the stolen plunder, however. After winning the war, he planned to build a “Fuehrer Museum” in his hometown of Linz, Austria, where the works would be displayed. It was all part of his plan for creating a “Thousand-Year Reich.”

The “art experts” (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville), labeled “the Monuments Men,” are museum curators, academics and architects. They get into some harrowing situations but remain jaunty and optimistic. They believe they are on a divine mission to save the culture of the world that Hitler wants to destroy, or at least steal. As is emphasized throughout the movie, when people are wiped out, they will return little by little, but when their heritage and their culture are gone, there is no way it can be restored. Cate Blanchette plays a French woman working for the Nazis in Paris who aids the Monuments Men by giving them detailed records she has kept of the stolen artworks.

The Monuments Men is based on a true story. It has an old-fashioned feel, aided greatly by the retro-sounding music score, and is definitely “light” entertainment. If you see it today, you’ll probably enjoy it but you might forget all about it by the end of the week.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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