Transcendent Man

What Jesse said:

Back in my electronic music days I used some gear by a company called Kurzweil. Turns out that the guy who started that company is a fascinating (and rather sad) human being named Ray Kurzweil and there’s a documentary about him called Transcendent Man. The topics covered are quite profound and reminded me of Her starring Joaquin Phoenix. Go watch Transcendent Man. It’s one of those rare movies that manages to be uplifting and depressing all at once. I liked it a lot.

Mike’s verdict:

I’ll agree with Jesse on one point for sure: Raymond Kurzweil is a rather sad human being. Transcendent Man isn’t so much a documentary as it is a biography. It presents the story of a man who, after bearing witness to the slow and all too foreseeable death of his father, becomes terrified by his own mortality. As if that isn’t bad enough, Kurzweil is an engineer – he’s used to thinking about ways to solve problems – and (because he’s an engineer) he doesn’t realize that death is not a problem he can just engineer a solution for.

Kurzweil has spent the better part of his life looking for ways to ensure that the he lives forever. He takes somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 pills each day – basic supplements and vitamins as well as his own brand of ‘anti-aging’ chemicals. He also has his blood tested every few months to check on his progress. To be fair, at one point Kurzweil was diagnosed with Type-2 Diabetes – definitely a condition to take seriously – and he managed to reverse it. Whether or not he beat diabetes because of his daily drug routine is very much open to debate though.

Of course, Kurzweil doesn’t limit himself to the traditional remedies of medical science. He is, after all, an engineer – and he has been looking at technological advances as the next step to defying death. He’s spent decades inventing and researching in a broad range of fields and he’s witnessed first-hand the way that technology has exploded over the last 50 years. He thinks of the world he was born into, compares it with the world he lives in today and imagines the world he’ll experience in another 50 years. Kurzweil has convinced himself that, within his lifetime, technology will advance to the point that death will no longer be a concern – he just needs to live long enough to make use of the technology.

As a response to his fears, Kurzweil has prophesied a pseudo-religious utopian future where humanity and machines intertwine such that there is no way to distinguish between the two. First science will advance nano-technology to fix everything, then it will advance convergence technology to bridge the gap between mind and machine. Then we will travel the stars.

Eventually, we will be sentient machines and as we spread the universe will ‘awaken’ as a single entity.  He calls it The Singularity but there are corollaries found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Bahá’í, Buddhism, and nearly all other religions.

As it happens, Kurzweil isn’t just another crack-pot with a vision – he is actually a brilliant engineer who is responsible for, among other things, the CCD flatbed scanner and text-to-speech synthesizers. He is a director of engineering at Google.

And that’s why his story is so sad. Technology is moving at blistering speed, but it’s not going to continue fast enough to save Kurzweil. You know it, I know it, his doctors know it. And on a certain level Kurzweil knows it too. But he lives in a world that wants his delusions to be true – and is constantly recognizing him for his very real accomplishments. Everyone knows he’s crazy, yet despite his delusions he is helping people. His delusions are riding the coat-tails of his otherwise brilliant career.

I would have like to see more dissenting opinions in this film – particularly from technology experts who could speak to the validity of Kurzweil’s beliefs. The producers chose to include interviews with two people who questioned Kurzweil’s prophecy but they were clearly straw-men – one’s argument was lost in his own completing religion while the other came across as the caricatured cold, unsympathetic scientist.

Overall, the film was interesting – I hadn’t ever heard of Kurzweil before and now I know a great deal about his life. But it was slow in parts, and it became clear that the producers didn’t have a lot to work with in terms of presenting Kurzweil’s imagined future. Just as with any other religion, it’s impossible to provide real evidence to justify his utopian predictions so the producers had to rely on clips of his impassioned speeches – entertaining, but ultimately empty. What I would have liked is a documentary discussing the (im)possibilities of the technology he imagines rather than a biography of the man. I’d like to know more from biologists, chemists and other engineers.

I guess that’s a different film though.

6/10


Interstellar

What Jesse said:

… before he watched Interstellar:

Dude, we should go see Interstellar. Everyone and everyone’s monkey and everyone’s monkey’s dog is saying that it is fantastic. My brother and my cousin and my neighbour and my wife’s hairdresser’s pet saw it and they all say it’s awesome. They also say it’s the kind of movie we definitely need to see in IMAX. It is a space movie after all. Seriously, it’s going to be great. Plus it has Matthew McConaughey – he’s not as dreamy as Brad Pitt but he’s a close second.

… after he watched Interstellar:

Dude, please don’t review this movie. I don’t want people to think that I would recommend this – it will be devastating for my reputation as a movie-watcher and human-being. Please, please, please don’t tell people I made you and our respective significants pay $17 + taxes to see this in IMAX. Please. Let’s just forget this night ever happened.

Mike’s verdict:

I’ve decided to review Interstellar because even though the recommendation was both premature and formally rescinded, in the end I saw this movie because Jesse suggested we watch it: as far as I am concerned, that’s pretty much the definition of a recommendation. The fact that Jesse didn’t have his facts straight before he made the recommendation is irrelevant. Besides, there is already precedent for this type of situation: Black Dynamite.

There’s a lot wrong with Interstellar, but let’s start with the good because it’ll be quick. The atmosphere is great. This movie doesn’t have quite the same feeling of vastness that Gravity has – which is significant given that I watched Gravity on a comparatively tiny 8-foot screen rather than IMAX – but it still does a very good job of expressing the distance and emptiness of space. There is even one scene where I had a twinge of agoraphobia. I also really liked the stark difference in soundtracks between scenes on earth, in space vessels and in open space. You could really, really here the silence when it mattered.

And that’s it for good points.

My first complaint is that every major plot point is obvious – including the big twist. It’s not just obvious from the point of view of the spectator watching on the outside either – the characters themselves definitely should have seen it coming. The only parts of Interstellar’s plot that were not obvious were the ones that lacked any tie to actual science. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan took the liberty of using fantasy to fill in where science stops. In some sense this is fair, unfortunately I felt that the fantasy they invented was too silly. I really enjoy learning about the theoretical science behind space travel and this movie started off really well (at least to my non-specialist eyes). But it takes a bizarre tangent at the point where the science runs out.

Next, the characters. There is one interesting character in this movie; he gets all the best lines and is the only one you will feel for when there is danger. The entire rest of the cast is just there to ensure that the plot moves along – and I was never invested in any of them. In case you are wondering, the one good character isn’t portrayed by McConaughey, nor is it  really a central character in the strictest sense – in fact it isn’t a real person. I hope Bill Irwin is given the credit he deserves for bringing some entertainment to this movie. As far as the real characters are concerned, McConaughey was the same gritty-but-well-meaning character he is in every movie; Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine had suitably adequate performances but nobody is going to remember them for this movie. Matt Damon‘s role is less forgettable, but his performance isn’t really notable. I did like how Topher Grace and Casey Affleck were unceremoniously thrown in like extras though.

Overall, I think most of this movie was okay. I was basically entertained most of the way through until fantasy took over near the end. But it isn’t a good movie and it doesn’t deserve anywhere near the critical praise that it’s been getting. It’s also not worth the money to see it in a theatre – much less IMAX. I wish I’d waited and watched this at home.

4/10


Homefront

What Jesse said:

Alright, I’m gonna give you a break for once and recommend a movie that is not a documentary about something that happened 30 years ago or requires reading subtitles! I want you to put down your “Hipster Life” magazine and go watch Homefront starring my favorite British ass-kicker Jason Statham and thespian extraordinaire/academic powerhouse James Franco. Statham does his usual amount of knee-capping in this flick, and the plot is fairly straight forward, but Franco is just creepy enough to make this a pretty fun ride. Oh yeah, almost forgot, you’ll get to see Winona Ryder doing her very best impression of a bad girl doing bad things… I had a blast (pun intended) watching this one. Get yourself a large bucket of popcorn and settle in for some good old-fashioned hollywood violence!

Mike’s verdict:

This movie sucks; not because the characters are stupid – which is true – or because the plot is nonsensical – which is also true. No, this movie sucks because of its failure to adhere to the core tenets of action movies.

The first half was the worst. It definitely had a bit of the knee-capping action that Jesse was blinded by, but it was wasted. The narrative spent time trying to force emotional investment in the characters and in doing so neglected aspects that draw viewers to Statham movies in the first place. Nobody watches this kind of movie to have their heart touched. It’s almost as if the writers thought they needed to prove that the protagonist was a good loving father – as if anyone cared. By the halfway point I felt like stopping, not because the movie was so bad (it was!), but because I was annoyed at having been tricked. It’s too bad too – the beginning seemed particularly promising with Izabela Vidovic stepping up as a possible rival to Chloë Grace Moretz‘s Hit-Girl. Unfortunately, five minutes later she was just a lame little girl again. The writers completely missed an opportunity to redeem her later in the movie too.

The second half got a little better as the action picked up, but it was too far gone to recover. I was no longer subjected to the family movie sub-plot but by this point it was just too late. With every new ridiculously unfortunate coincidence, I found myself waiting for the explosions that Jesse alluded to. Incidentally, on my original reading of Jesse’s recommendation I was left with the inference that Winona Ryder was going to be blown up. Even to the last minute I held on believing that my patience would be rewarded. The anticipation was immense and probably would have saved this review if not for the heart-crushing disappointment felt when the credits rolled and I finally realized that Ryder’s character wasn’t going to be obliterated.

Positives: The characters are believable as their characters. James Franco definitely comes across well as the backwoods thug – in spite of the lame actions written for him. I also liked the almost-crooked-but-mostly-just-lazy town Sheriff, and all of the rednecks were sufficiently dirty.  Of course both Statham and Ryder feel natural as well – they play themselves, so how could they not?

I’m both surprised and disappointed with this one. I knew I wasn’t going to get award-winning performances, but I expected a decent smash and bang action movie. Homefront is not that. It’s not enough to have bad guys with unlimited ammo and protagonists that can rig whole houses to explode. A proper action movie needs to be able to insinuate that the good guy probably has deep connections with the people he saves, without wasting precious viewer time trying to show it. Every minute Jason Statham acts like a good father is a missed opportunity for him to headbutt someone.

If you’re looking for a good action movie and have your heart set on seeing Jason Statham hurt people, forget this one – watch The Mechanic instead.

3/10


The Fault in Our Stars

What Jesse said:

So I get dragged out to watch a chickflick with the wife and as it turns out… not a bad movie. It’s called The Fault in Our Stars and it stars Shailene Woodley who I thought was fantastic in 2013’s The Spectacular Now. The movie has a decent balance of funny and sad moments and the performances are pretty tight. Go watch it.

Mike’s verdict:

Subsequent discussions have left me with the distinct impression that Jesse was not so much “dragged” to this movie, and he thinks more of it than the ‘not a bad movie’ comment suggests. I mostly agree with him – it’s not a bad movie. It’s not a great movie either.

Woodley does an ‘okay’ (you’ll get the pun later) job here, and she definitely fits better in this movie than in the universally mis-casted Divergent. (There’s no review of Divergent because Jesse still refuses to admit that he was first in line to see it.) But there’s nothing remarkable about this film. It’s the kind of movie that my mother recommends to me because she caught most of it on TV on a Sunday afternoon in between trips to the laundry room.  Some things happen to two kids who only know each other because they both picked the short straw when life was handing out healthy bodies. And those things teach the kids about life.

In one sentence: this movie is The Spectacular Now for kids with cancer. But where The Spectacular Now felt real, this one just feels like a movie. Yes, the kids are plain but everything else is Hollywood – every character is good or bad, every problem is simple or impossible. There’s not enough grayzone.

I really liked Willem Dafoe in this though – his character was by far the most interesting and he was completely believable as the cranky old man trying to escape humanity. I haven’t read the book, but I’m willing to bet that Peter Van Houten is better developed in it, and I’m disappointed the writers of the film didn’t take him further.

One thing that really bothered me was the poorly chosen ending. By about half way through the story you realize that there is exactly one way the story has to come to a close, and unfortunately director Josh Boone failed to notice it. Maybe he thought it would be too obvious. I think he just didn’t fully understand the message.

Either way, The Fault in Our Stars is adequately entertaining, non-controversial and benign, but you’re going to forget about it as soon you turn it off.

5/10

p.s. If you’re curious, Woodley didn’t let Miles Teller ride her coat-tails into this movie – they must have been having an off week.


Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape

What Jesse said:

Another cool documentary for you. This time it’s about how in the early 80’s the powers-that-be in the UK thought that a list of about 80 mostly crappy movies referred to as The Video Nasties, was going to corrupt an entire generation of British kids. Complete with hilarious stories of UK Parliamentarians sitting around one day to watch these low-budget horror movies (some became physically ill and most couldn’t take more than a few minutes…), or how because of the confusion of not knowing which exact movies were on “the list” police officers were confiscating titles such as Apocalypse Now or other definitely non-nasty or even critically acclaimed films from the shelves of corner store video shops in England. There were video “burnings”, and some shop owners even did jail time for stocking some of these titles! Nothing like a good moral panic to get the old juices flowing…Crazy doc. Enjoy.

Mike’s verdict:

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front – I am totally, utterly and completely against censorship. I don’t believe that the state should attempt to block the expression of ideas whether they are in print, video, audio, stone tablet or the voice of the crazy guy yelling on the corner. Governments should be free to pay experts to publish information, but they should not block non-experts from publishing as well. That’s not to say that I think most people have valid opinions. They don’t. And I certainly don’t care to actually listen to most people’s opinions. I’m also not under the delusion that everyone has some inherent ‘right’ to be heard, and I don’t think that spilling blue paint on a sidewalk constitutes ‘art’.  What I do believe is that everyone has a responsibility to ignore the opinions they find disagreeable. Don’t like that TV show? – change the channel. Don’t like what’s on the radio? – learn to play the guitar. Don’t want to see naked people killed by chainsaw-wielding maniacs? – don’t rent the video. Don’t want your children to see naked people killed by chainsaw-wielding maniacs? – don’t let them rent the video either. I’d like to live in a world where people think of their interactions with others as governed by personal responsibility – not personal rights.  What’s that? You think you have a right to be heard? Great. The best part of my worldview is that I don’t need to argue with you. You can stand on your soapbox all day – I’m going to get a sandwich.

That being said, I thought this movie was mostly a waste of time. It’s terrible that a group of almost-parliamentarians were allowed to create a panic that allowed corrupt police to put video store owners in jail. Seriously, that is terrible. But I didn’t need to watch endless interviews cut with unpleasant video clips to reach that conclusion. Granted, before watching the documentary I had no idea that this particular moral panic had occurred. But there’s really no difference between this panic and any other that has led to censorship. The film-makers here could have made a 60 second public service announcement and got most of their point across.  This is particularly true now that we have the internet to show us all the unpleasant video we can stand, and nobody able to censor it.

Two and a half decades ago, someone should have stepped in to stop what was obviously unfair treatment of video store owners. And this should definitely go into the history books as one more example (in an extremely long list) of why state censorship is a terrible idea. But there was no need for this lesson in 2010 – nobody was then or is now in any danger of having their ‘right to watch gross movies’ taken away.

I’m pretty sure the film-makers just wanted an excuse to watch all the movies their parents warned them about.

3/10 – But only because I learned a bit of history.


Bottle Shock

bottleshockWhat Jesse said:

I got another awesome movie for you to review. It’s called Bottle Shock and it stars Chris Pine (the new Cpt. Kirk) and one of my favorite badass (and unintentionally funny) actors of all time, Alan Rickman!

Rickman is absolutely perfect with his low-key off-beat performance as a wine-pushing guy just trying to make a buck. Yes, the movie’s title does have something to do with wine and the wine industry but the plot is really about people and their obsessions with trying to prove that their stuff is the best. Nothing tastes as sweet as being proven right and these characters’ agendas start to become more and more obvious as the story unfolds… enjoy.

Mike’s verdict:

I feel like there are actually three movies here, and the one represented by the title actually gets the least screen time.

First, there is the snobby wine guy movie. It’s not bad – but it sort of feels like Wes Anderson and Woody Allen came together and the best parts of both of them cancelled each other out. There’s always this feeling like something ridiculous and fantastic is about to happen, but at the end I realized that the anticipation was all I would get. I’m not really sure why this part of the movie got naming rights – the storyline begins and ends the film, but is almost completely absent in the middle.

Next there is the lost boy needs to grow up / serious dad needs to chill out movie. This one was pretty tired. It’s been done many times before and everyone knows that it will end with both men understanding each other and themselves a little better. Bla. Bill Pullman‘s character doesn’t even make sense – I don’t think that a guy who walks away from being a lawyer to start making his own wine would really need to be told to chill out. And I won’t even get into Pine’s character looking completely out of place wearing the Kurt Cobain costume.

The last movie is about a Mexican vineyard worker who wants to get out from underneath the prejudice that surrounds him. I think this would have made the best movie if it had not been buried within the other two. I really liked Freddy Rodríguez‘s character Gustavo, and his storyline could easily fill a feature-length film. 

I had hoped that Bottle Shock would live up Jesse’s hype. I really like Alan Rickman and looked forward to his deadpan disdain for life coming through in every scene. Unfortunately, there was so much of the movie that had nothing to do with his character that by the time he finally came back I had forgotten the movie was even about him.

If you want to learn about the California wine scene in the 70s, I’d skip this and find a documentary. If you like seeing Alan Rickman, I’d skip this and watch pretty much anything else that he’s ever been in. If you want to see Bill Pullman have a melt down, I’d skip this and watch the first 2 minutes of The Grudge. But if you like the feeling of anticipation followed by the emptiness of disappointment you should definitely watch this.

I’m going to rate this 3/10, but only because I really like Alan Rickman.


Oldboy (2013)

What Jesse said:

Oldboy was just “icky” kinda like Happiness.

Mike’s verdict:

Oldboy is the Spike Lee remake of Chan-wook Park‘s Oldeuboi, which I’ve previously reviewed. I did not find it icky, nor is it anything even remotely like Happiness.

I gave the original film an 8/10 because I thought that it managed to break through the language barrier well and was entertaining. But looking back I mostly remember it being a little slow, so that likely set the stage for my expectations with the remake. Not surprisingly, the fancy-Hollywood-Spike-Lee version, complete with Samuel L. Jackson, was in no sense slow. This film has all the action and tension that come standard with a Lee film, and it does a very good job of keeping the best aspects of the original. There’s even a rather lengthy homage to some ridiculous scenes in the original that betrays the film’s Korean roots. Without having viewed the original, this particular set of fight scenes will probably feel out of place. But anyone that did watch Oldeuboi first will appreciate them.

There are also a few gruesome scenes that come standard with any Lee film. I covered my eyes for them – I much prefer the Korean style of allowing the viewer to use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

My biggest complaint with the original was that I thought the final twist was too obvious and I worried that this would be the case again. Clearly, I had no hope of being surprised by the remake so I tried to keep this in mind while I was watching. As it turned out, my fear was unwarranted. I think that Lee did a much better job of hiding the twist. Had I not known all along what was happening, I don’t think I would have guessed before the big reveal.

The acting was sound, the settings kept the feel of the original really well, and this version is definitely more accessible to people in North America.

8/10 like the original.


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