Friday, July 29, 2016


A relatively incoherent film (in substance), Transcendence (dir. Wally Pfister, 2014) explores the dangers of technology and artificial intelligence.  When he is attacked by anti-tech terrorists, scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) suffers a wound from a radioactive bullet and as a result has only a few weeks to live.  He and his wife decide to upload his mind to a bank of computers.  When he dies, his mind lives on and, once connected to the Internet, has access to computers and databanks all over the world.  As the film would have it, this information makes him nearly omniscient, and he and his wife build a huge complex in the California desert where he engages in research and begins to expand his power.

At a certain point, the film substitutes dazzling special effects for logic.  It also commits a number of logical fallacies, non sequiturs.  Does near omniscience give one the ability to manipulate matter? Does near omniscience mean that he can heal all diseases and control the minds of other human beings?

In addition to its warnings about technology, Transcendence also explores what happens to a romantic relationship when the husband becomes a non-physical mind residing in a computer bank while the wife remains physical.  In other words, lovers can’t have sex when one of them is a computer.  The film dances around this question without addressing it directly.  It also infers that the loss of the body leads to a loss of humanity.

In the end, the showdown between Dr. Caster and those who want to stop him is on the same level as a B-level super hero film.

It’s interesting that when scientists and military men realize what is happening with the complex in the desert, where Caster is moving towards taking over the world, the best they can do is to haul in what appears to be a World War II era cannon to bombard the solar arrays that give energy to the complex.

A far more interesting film was Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015), which at least maintained control and understanding of its message to the end.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Coleman Barks: "auroral aliveness, powers, hilarity"

See the summer 2016 issue of The Georgia Review.  This short essay can be found at

Redemption Road

John Hart’s novel Redemption Road (Thomas Dunne Books, 2016) is well written, but it’s formulaic and I guessed the serial killer’s identity well before the book revealed it.  The book as a whole is melodramatic.  Each major character has some mysterious secret or trauma from the past, and I found myself wincing with increasing intensity as new mysterious secrets and complications were revealed.  The book strives for social relevance with its emphasis on violence against women, corrupt prison wardens and law officers, and religious extremism.  But its use of violence against women works both ways—there’s a prurience to this aspect that was unsettling.  The pacing is off as well, which is a problem in a crime/suspense novel.

The principle character, a female detective, is (unknown to most of her colleagues) a rape victim, and the trauma of that event back in high school has disfigured her life.  When she discovered she was pregnant as a result of the rape, she had an abortion, which has significant later consequences.  She’s also been traumatized by the conviction and imprisonment of a police officer for a murder she’s convinced he didn’t commit. It just so happens he prevented her from committing suicide just after the rape and that ever since she has nursed a romantic attraction to him.  Guess who is paroled shortly after the present-time action of this story begins? Much of the novel is driven by the main character’s desire to protect a teenage girl who herself is a rape victim. But the girl is hardly what she seems. No one is. The one character in the novel who doesn’t have a dark secret past is the prison warden. He is just a mean old bad guy.

Black Mass

Black Mass (2015, dir. Scott Cooper) weaves a web of lies, deception, betrayal, and intrigue in its story of Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang.  The trouble is that this story has been told often enough, in fictional, documentary, and cinematic form, that it really isn’t particularly interesting anymore.  The most notable fictional version of the story (with much fabrication) is Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), with Jack Nicholson playing Frank Costello, a character purportedly based on Bulger.  In Black Mass Johnny Depp plays Bulger.  He’s a fine actor, and he does well with the role, but not well enough.  The script lacks energy, pacing, and momentum.  When things begin to pick up in the film’s last quarter, it is too late.  We already know where the narrative is going.
Makeup is a serious deficiency. Depp looks heavily made-up, especially as an old man, and his hair, what there is of it, is decidedly artificial and unconvincing. Other characters are similarly unconvincing.
The film focuses on FBI agent John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, who grew up in the Irish neighborhoods of North Boston.  He was childhood friends with Bulger and his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). As an adult FBI agent he meets with Bulger and suggests that he give inside information on the activities of the Mafia in South Boston.  In return the FBI will provide him with a degree of protection so that he can go forward with his own activities.  The result is that Bulger, free to flourish as a mobster, becomes an FBI informant and also the leading crime boss of Boston.  Connolly, whose initial proposal was suspect to begin with, becomes more and more involved with Bulger, until he’s implicated in the crimes.  Although Bulger escapes Boston and is free for the next 12 years, before his capture, Connolly goes to jail for 40 years.
Friendship, national loyalties, personal ambition, whatever the motives for the connection between Connolly and Bulger--we’ve seen them before.  Even so, Bulger as a famous crime boss, along with his extensive activities in Boston, should have made for a more entertaining film than Black Mass proves to be.