[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.
Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, TheUndergroundMan, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.
Transcendence(Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, Cable VOD) marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Oscar-winning cinematographer to Christopher Nolan. His visual intelligence, however, doesn’t transcend the dead weight passing as a script in this confused science fiction thriller starring Johnny Depp as a computer science genius whose mind is uploaded to an experimental computer program with the potential capabilities of artificial intelligence. Sure enough, once the program loads, the intelligence is off and running through the interwebs, escaping the lab and making a fortune in the markets, enough to fund a secret site in the middle of the desert where… well, this is, after all, a film that opens with the end of the world as we know it, a technology dead zone where the human race becomes squatters in the husks of desolate cities, and flashes back to the events that brought us to this point.
Rebecca Hall stars as Depp’s nearly-as-brilliant but more socially-adept wife who embraces the cyber-Depp, whose voice seeps out of every corner of the wired world and whose digitized face emerges from screen, as if Depp 2.0 is still her husband but in digital form, not really taking over the world, just trying to fix it up to make her dreams of a better world come true. If that’s the case, you gotta give the guy points for going the distance to impress a girl. But the film itself isn’t so much ambiguous on the AI’s real’s identity and motivation as simply sloppy and lazy, straddling flat cliché and unconvincing sentiment without making either convincing. This virtual being of seeming unlimited power, which can sends bazillions of nanobots into the atmosphere and pull the strings on dozens of enhanced human soldiers in a guerrilla war, is faced with a dilemma that confirms that the screenwriter ran out of ideas early on in the screenwriting process. Pfister provides some really arresting imagery as the revolution is fought with nanobots and human drones and technology so advanced that it looks like magic to us, yet fails to make any of it interesting, let alone compelling. Even a solid cast – Paul Bettany as the best friend and nominal point-of-view figure, Kate Mara as the possibly mad anti-technology terrorist, Morgan Freeman as the Morgan Freeman character – can’t make us care what happens to anyone here. Suddenly, the idea of just shutting it all down and starting all over again doesn’t sound so bad.
Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “What is Transcendence?” and “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision.” The Blu-ray Combo Pack adds two addition featurettes (“Guarding the Threat” and “The Promise of A.I.”) and three viral videos, and includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies. Also available on Digital and VOD.
Sabotage (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) is strange creature, a violent cop thriller from David Ayer that combines the gritty urban sensibility and revenge-movie doom of Ayer’s excellent End of Watch with a high-concept corruption plot and a clumsy star-vehicle lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is tasked with playing a papa bear leader to a team of adrenaline-junkie specialists in a DEA tactical unit with military skills and firepower. Their discipline ends when the mission is over, which makes them dangerous and unpredictable. And not particularly likable either, though Mireille Enos is awfully fun to watch as the team’s sole female warrior and most out-of-control element. The rest of the team members are less memorable despite the casting of such genre veterans as Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard and Max Martini, and they are certainly less memorable as characters than murder victims.
The film opens with them making off with a drug lord’s fortune during an official police raid and soon afterwards the money disappears and the team members get hunted down and murdered in splattery fashion. This isn’t the spectacular, oversized kind of violence of “Red,” where everything is just a little tongue-in-cheek or at least comic-book unreal. This is all about the meat left behind a death-by-train, the spatter of a bullet wound, and the spewing exit viscera of a head shot, all of it photographed in dripping detail. It all gets pretty numbing, just like Schwarzenegger’s one-dimensional performance. And that love scene with Olivia Williams? I hope she got hazard pay for it.
Blu-ray and DVD with a short, promotional-style “Making Sabotage” featurette, deleted scenes, and two alternate endings. The Blu-ray also includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies. Also available on Digital and VOD.
I’ve seen enough TV pharmaceutical commercials to diagnose symptoms when I see them. And I can confidently say that no one involved with Sabotage is suffering from “low T.” This is a very high-testosterone movie. The female characters score especially strong on that scale.
In the early going, the hyperactive macho joshing and intense gun-fondling threaten to wreck Sabotage completely. But writer-director David Ayer builds something sneaky along the way, and the movie turns into a smarter action flick than it first seems.
The obnoxious idiots at the center of the action are, I’m sorry to say, on our side.
This time it won’t be just ’80s nostalgia fueling ticket sales. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have gotten themselves into a decent 21st-century movie.
Not a minute too soon, as recent solo vehicles Bullet to the Head and The Last Stand tanked badly earlier this year. This team effort is called Escape Plan, a straight-ahead prison picture that lets the two stars do their thing.
Stallone is a jailhouse escape specialist — yes, that’s his business — in consultation with prison systems about making their facilities stronger. But when he is placed in a fearsome secret prison called the Tomb, he’s cut off from his usual support system. It seems somebody wants him out of the business.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Bob Rafelson’s two previous films, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens,were both unequivocally downers as far as the types of characters he chose to depict—uprooted failures, emotionally crippled losers—and their respective destinies on bleak, severely shrunken horizons are concerned. Nicholson’s wasted vitality in Five Easy Pieces and pathological introversions in Marvin Gardens are equally invested with a sense of the respective characters’ inabilities to cope with their problems, as well as suggestive of some unredeemable souring that arrested the maturing processes in their once-promising lives. If I didn’t exactly find anything of value about the characters in those films, I could at least pick up vibrations of a congealing, somehow consistent vision in the rather morbid cynicism that informs, especially, The King of Marvin Gardens, wherein Nicholson plays a withdrawn, late-night radio monologist whose hopelessly illusion-bound perspective gives the film’s spiritual and physical landscapes (the wasteland of Atlantic City in the winter, habitation not of beautiful women in bathing suits but of lowdown gangsters holed up inside ramshackle houses on the outskirts of some caved-in suburban tract) an unsettlingly tentative and dissolute quality.