Movie Review: “Transcendence”

Starring
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser
Director
Wally Pfister

With Easter just around the corner, it’s probably no coincidence that just as the furor over “Noah,” a man who had visions from God, has died down, we are treated to Johnny Depp taking the futuristic steps in becoming a god in “Transcendence.” A cautionary tale about the evils of technology by way of artificial intelligence gets the visual treatment by acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception,” the Dark Knight trilogy) in his directorial debut, but this is more than just a big budget version of “Siri Goes Wild.”

Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, the leading scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence. He’s brilliant to the point of being a bit bored with the non-scientific world, not that his flock of geek groupies seems to mind. (Eat your heart out, Reed Richards). Keeping him tethered to people, places and things is his loving wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). She’s more than Will’s diplomatic arm candy, though. She’s arguably his intellectual equal.

While Will charges down the road towards creating sentient machines, his best friend and part-time conscience, Max (Paul Bettany), reminds him that just because you can play god doesn’t mean you should. Apparently, he’s not the only one who thinks society should pump the brakes on giving Cortina cyber synapses to work with. The anti-tech terrorist organization R.I.F.T (Revolutionary Independence from Technology) – led be Kate Mara’s Bree – subtly voices its opposition with a coordinated attack targeting the Casters’ former mentor, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), and killing his entire staff in the process. But Will isn’t spared when the group attempts to kill him as well, and they pull it off… somewhat.

After he’s poisoned by R.I.F.T. and given only days to live, Evelyn does the unthinkable and transfers Will’s mind into his living computer P.I.N.N. (You can’t have science without a couple good acronyms), the Physically Independent Neural Network. As Will tells a crowd before he’s shot, “Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology.” And he does just that, initially to the delight of his grieving wife Evelyn and the shock of his pal Max. Will is more than just a ghost in the machine, however, using his near-infinite knowledge to help change the world, effectively becoming a god. Yes, connecting to the internet can make you a god, but the Casters come to find that being a diety power couple comes at a price.

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Movie Review: “The Lone Ranger”

Starring
Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper
Director
Gore Verbinski

It’s no secret that the key to the success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies was Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, so you can understand why Disney would be so eager to build another potential franchise around the actor. They’ve even brought back director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio in an attempt to recapture the success of those films. As a result, some people might be tempted to describe “The Lone Ranger” as “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets the Wild West, and quite frankly, they wouldn’t be too far off. Disney’s big screen adaptation of the classic radio serial is like the “Pirates” movies in many ways, and unfortunately, that includes the bad along with the good.

The year is 1869 and the first transcontinental railroad is nearing completion. As Texas-born attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer) travels home from college, his train is attacked by a band of outlaws who have come to break their cannibalistic leader Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) out of custody. John joins his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and the rest of the Texas Rangers to track him down, only to be ambushed by Cavendish in the desert and slaughtered like cattle. Left for dead, John is nursed back to life by a Comanche Indian named Tonto (Depp) – whose life he saved earlier on the train – at the behest of a white spirit horse. Both men want to bring Cavendish to justice for their own reasons, so they decide to team up, with John donning a mask to hide his identity. But on their quest to take down Cavendish and his men, the pair uncovers a larger plot involving railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) that could spell trouble for the native tribes.

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10 Under-appreciated Roles from Johnny Depp

Unfortunately, the new “Dark Shadows” film is terrible, but Johnny Depp shines as usual.

And then, there but for the grace of God, is Johnny Depp, who commits to the role of Barnabas in a way that redefines Method acting. He had to know before they had finished shooting that “Dark Shadows” wasn’t working, but Depp refuses to give in to the material’s inherently campy nature and plays Barnabas bone-straight and dead serious from beginning to end.

It’s too bad Depp’s talents are wasted here, but there are plenty of old gems you can rent or stream to appreciate his talent. Several years ago we listed 10 under-appreciated roles from Depp. One of my favorites was “Blow.”

It would take a hell of a film to wrest away the title of “Best Use of Cocaine in a Motion Picture” from “Scarface.” Frankly, “Blow” – Ted Demme’s final directorial effort – isn’t that film. But while it may not offer any lines as instantly memorable as “say hello to my little friend,” it is a well-made drama that flows along nicely, finding Depp wearing a variety of wigs as he plays real-like cocaine smuggler George Jung over the course of several years and hairstyles. The supporting cast is also particularly strong, with Ray Liotta and Emma Griffiths portraying Jung’s parents, Penelope Cruz and Franka Potente as his love interests, and Ethan Suplee, Paul Reubens and Bobcat Goldthwait turning up as some of Jung’s associates (i.e., fellow dealers). What keeps the film from standing alongside its higher-profile coke-centric brethren, however, is that, as Jung, Depp comes across as pretty lethargic. Maybe that’s what the real Jung was actually like (given Depp’s tendency to lose himself in his roles, we’re willing to bet that it was), but the end result is a film with a character who manages to experience countless outrageous moments in his lifetime without coming across as all that exciting himself.

So don’t bother with “Dark Shadows.” Check out this list and rent a much better film.

  

Drink of the Week: The Gimlet

gimlet cocktailIt’s the start of another July 4th Weekend, but we are forgiving folk here at Drink of the Week central. In fact, we’ll be big about our little armed disagreement that began in earnest back in 1776 and choose a drink that highlights the U.S./English special relationship. We’ll get into the whys and wherefores in a bit, first the drink itself.

The Gimlet

Two ounces gin
1/2-1 ounce of Rose’s Lime Juice

Pour contents into a shaker with plenty of ice. Shake as vigorously and as long as you can stand, and pour into a chilled martini glass. Make a toast to English/American friendship and sip at will.

Since Rose’s comes pre-sweetened, there’s no need to add any sweetener. However, if you have a huge sweet tooth, you may demand that you have an older version of the drink — equal parts gin and Rose’s. When we tried it that way, we found it a bit excessive.

Now, usually, drinks made with fresh juices are going to be a lot better, but the gimlet appears to be rare exception. We actually tried it with 1 ounce of fresh lime juice and a teaspoon of sugar, but it wasn’t as good as the version with Rose’s.

Now, the history: The source of the name of this very refreshing, very summer-appropriate, cocktail may be one Sir Thomas Gimlette, an English Royal Navy surgeon who eventually rose to the rank of Surgeon General in the early 20th century. It’s possible that part of what got him to that esteemed post was that, back in the later 19th century, he had popularized the anti-scurvy properties of Vitamin C-rich lime juice among his fleet by encouraging the men to mix it with a bit of London gin. Thus, he helped begat the not-so-flattering term “limey” for English sailors and, eventually, English people in general. Of course, the gimlet might also be named after the hand tool used for drilling holes, but we don’t find anything particularly refreshing about that.

Whatever its origins, the gimlet wormed its way into American culture and, perhaps because of the dry, warm weather, found some notable fans in our native metropolis of Los Angeles, a city that many notable limeys Englishman have called home over the years. One famed Angeleno gimlet fan was British-American mystery writer Raymond Chandler, the creator of detective Phillip Marlowe, who mentioned the drink at some length in one of his greatest novels, The Long Goodbye, which is also the widely quoted source of that original 50/50 gin/Rose’s recipe we mentioned above. (If our memory is correct, the drink isn’t featured in Robert Altman’s equally great 1973 movie quasi-adaptation. Nothing is perfect.)

Much, much lower on the artistic scale than anyone we’ve mentioned, Edward D. Wood, Jr. of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” was another gimlet hound. Wood, who drank even more in real life than he did in the Tim Burton-directed biopic starring Johnny Depp, apparently liked gimlets made with vodka so much that his “adult fiction”-writing pen name was Telmig Akdov.

As for variations on the Gimlet, we’ve already mentioned that it can be made with vodka, and we’d argue a rum gimlet might actually be superior to one with gin. One variation we’re not so found of, however, is that tendency to sometimes serve this drink on the rocks. Earlier this week, we tried a high end ($15.00!!!) version made at an ultra-glam Hollywood-area hotel. Despite the inclusion of both Hendrick’s Gin (possibly our favorite) and cucumbers, which always seems to improve cocktails made with that particular brand, it was a disappointment taste wise. We were not asked first if we would prefer it “up” and it was one option we should have been given. One more reason to cherish really good bartenders when you find them.

  

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