Transcendence opened today. Not quite with a thud but almost. Johnny Depp has little to do except think, dream, die – and  once that’s done, then the whole process begins again. Think of the fact of men, machines, and God; then roll them into one entity – as in sort of a new wave trinity, then upload this new being to the Internet, and you have a transcendental event or the theme of this film.

Now this film may sound as something provocative, or important, or even worthy of your time, money, and consideration. But really it isn’t. While not quite as numbingly bad as Depp’s turn as The Tourist in 2010, this is a film with little action, so-so dialogue, and a lot of philosophizing about the current natural order of things, and a new way to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Depp’s character Dr. Will Caster is not quite saying – We have met technology, and now we are technology. But that’s what the film is about. You see, as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Artificial Intelligence, Caster is set on building the ultimate Siri. Only he’s not talking about a mobile phone – instead he’s filled with terms like nannites, neural networks, AI, and more of the same.

Of course there are opponents. To wit, an anti-technology faction with Kate Mara as the Queen Bee called Bree. She’s not the least bit like a physical bee,  but don’t be fooled, she can surely sting as she’s the head of the opposition.

Now Caster has his allies as well. One of which is his wife Evelyn, played nicely by Rebecca Hall, another is Max Walter played by Paul Bettany, and a third is a think tank buddy/colleague/fellow scientist called Joseph Tagger and Morgan Freeman has the role.

So as the film begins we find the earth is mostly powerless, and since this is the case – we are back in the dark ages literally. We are told that Denver and another city have some power, but that is it Quickly we flash back five years and Dr. Caster is about to present his findings to an august body of some sort, or at least a packed auditorium, as opposed to a few guys at a corner pub.

He gives his speech and hallelujah, we all should embrace his benevolence and ways and means of not only protecting us from our own follies, but also, by doing so, we, along with AI, shall save the world. As he puts it, Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology; in a short time, its analytic power will become greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world.

He means that all of that intelligence would now be available to us, and would now be at our finger tips, or actually he means a keyboard.

But then, those bad folks, those anti-technology folks, gun him down in the lobby of the auditorium while he’s signing autographs – yes, geeks have groupies in this film. He doesn’t die of the gunshot. But that bullet was actually a very small projectile that might also be considered a dirty bomb. He’s given four or five weeks to live before he will die of radiation poisoning.

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Public Enemies

Tell Billie for me. Bye, Bye Blackbird…”

So ended gangster John Dillinger‘s life. According to Special Agent Winstone, Dillinger uttered those words with his dying breaths and asked the agent who shot him (one of a several FBI agents who had a hand in gunning him down) to pass them on to Billie Frechette. The fact that this, the closing scene of the Michael Mann film, Public Enemies (2009), was totally fictional shouldn’t bother you as a viewer, After all, that was an elegant tear that fell from Billie’s eye. Billie, of course, was portrayed by Marion Cotillard.

Mann has fashioned a gangster film wrapped inside of a love story. Here, the gangster is neither demonized or glamorized. For certain, Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is not a heroic character. He may be mythic in the sense that in real life, Dillinger took on the G-Men, when the country was in dire shape. But that is different from heroic.

The Michael Mann / Johnny Depp take on Dillinger was that he was fearless. He didn’t fear confrontation with the FBI. Nor did he expect to be turned down by Cotillard’s Billie, which she did at first.

When Billie protested that she wasn’t going to run off with a man she barely knew, Dillinger laid out all his cards as well as a brief summary of his life so far …

I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?

So Dillinger and friends robbed banks, just like Bonnie and  Clyde.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Jerry Bruckheimer and the Walt Disney outfit have just opened their 4th release in their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, this time with Rob Marshall at the helm. This one is called On Stranger Tides. While I won’t suggest that Marshall, and Bruckheimer et al be made to walk the plank for unleashing a rusty bucket of a film on us, I can say that as you leave the theater you won’t be saying anything at all like – I can’t wait for the next one.

Yes, I’m sad to report they’ve gone about as far as they can with these buccaneers. Simply – the film is too big, too long, too repetitive, and worst of all – too familiar. It is also structured or built around a ticking clock with the main scene types repeated again and again. Which means that each leer by Johnny Depp’s Sparrow, or each pout by Cruz, or each menacing statement by McShane’s Blackbeard, are not only expected, they arrive with regularity as if on a schedule, and each loses some value the farther into the film we get. Just as we know Depp won’t lose in an early duel, we are certain he won’t perish as he leaps from a window, a boat deck, or even off a cliff

We’ll have Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow being devilishly charming, witty, wily, and almost lewd. Then a chase, an escape, and then a slashing sword-fight or duel. Characters are added in as needed, and the fights get bigger then smaller, then bigger, then smaller and you get the idea.

The three main stars other than Depp, are Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, Penelope Cruz as Angelica, and Ian McShane as the evil Blackbeard. They’re all quite good in their roles, and the writers have given them plenty of screen time.

The story we watch on-screen centers around the quest and search for the Fountain of Youth. Which is fine. There’s a good number of folks who want to find it – Captain Jack Sparrow and Angelica, Blackbeard and Angelica, Captain Barbossa, who this time around is working for King George of England (spectacularly played by Richard Griffins), and the heads of the Spanish Armada.

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The Tourist

Take two of the biggest names in the film world – Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, and set them down in two of the most beautiful and most visited cities in the world, Paris and Venice, and you’ve got two of the most important ingredients for a successful movie. Now if you also have a great script, top-notch acting and direction, then you’re going to have a hit on your hands.

But if all you have is pretty faces and beautiful locations, then you end up with pretty pictures and not much more. Instead of a hit, you have a mediocrity. Or in this case a derivative mediocrity.

Having visited Venice once upon a time I knew what the place was all about. As for Paris, I’ve been there multiple times, and am always eager to see it again. As recently as 6 weeks ago I was aboard a train exactly like the one that Depp and Jolie rode into Venice. There’s much to be said about the Trenitalia which is the name of the train system in Italy. So you might say that I was not only in the mood for a clever thriller, but that I was also very much on familiar turf.

I went in expecting something like North By Northwest with Venice subbing for Mt. Rushmore. I hoped for a film that might approach a bit of cinematic heaven like Charade, which was a cheeky romp in Paris with Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and Walter Matthau, and was directed by Stanley Donen. But the closest we came to ‘cheeky’ were the Jolie cheekbones. This film was sold as a Hitchcockian style European romp, but it wasn’t even close to being in the same league as old Alf. Not even on one his bad days.

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