The Gift

Creepy and suspenseful, The Gift is filled with people and actions that are not what they always appear to be. As secrets are revealed, outcomes remain in question.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a married couple who have just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. For Simon, it’s a return to his former stomping grounds. They encounter one of Simon’s old high school classmates, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), while shopping. Gordo begins dropping off a series of gifts at the couple’s front door.

Simon is dubious about Gordo’s aggressive gifting but Robyn is welcoming. The couple invites Gordo over for dinner. Gordo drops by during the daytime when Simon is at work. Robyn invites him in for tea. When Gordo invites them to his place for dinner and steps out for a moment, Simon teases Robyn about her supposed attraction to Gordo (and his to her).

As some of the couple’s past difficulties are revealed and their relationship with Gordo stumbles, tension builds. Robyn jogs, she reaches out to neighbors, she works from home, she attempts normalcy, but there’s an underlying unease.

One source of unease is the couple’s ongoing difficulty having a baby. When Robyn becomes pregnant, there’s relief. But more revelations and troubles lurk nearby.

An uncredited character in The Gift is Simon and Robyn’s hillside home where most of the film’s scenes take place. It’s a cool mid-century modern house, with lots of glass and great views. Despite the home’s appeal, it’s not the ideal abode for a woman who has Robyn’s concerns.

Joel Edgerton not only stars as the creepy Gordo, he also wrote and directed The Gift. He was crafted a movie that works, keeping the anxiety at a low simmer with occasional crescendos of distress. Like Shrek says about ogres and onions, The Gift has layers, as do its characters.

Because you won’t just dismiss it, but will talk about it later, this film is (to use the old radio spot cliché) The Gift that keeps on giving.


Transcendence is a mess. When producers pay Johnny Depp $20M (+ a percentage), as has been reported, one expects a significantly better product.

Will Caster (Depp) is a computer geek working in the world of Artificial Intelligence. He is shot by anti-tech activists who oppose his mission. He survives the wound, but the bullet is coated with materials that lead to his gradual demise.

His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max (Paul Bettany), who work alongside him, transfer his intellect to computer drives. When Will communicates via computer screen following his death, the plot begins to unfold.

Sadly, the story is weak and poorly told. None of the characters in the film, including Will, are worth caring about. Transcendence lasts just over 2 hours but seems much longer.

For all the philosophical questions about the ascent of technology the film purports to raise, the framing of those issues is muted by a lack of basic film making skill. Yes, it has many cool images and some nice effects but they’re not sufficient to make the film compelling.

The name Johnny Depp will sell enough tickets to justify his huge paycheck. The name Christopher Nolan as a producer may attract fans of Inception and Memento into movie houses. The fact that rookie director Wally Pfister has worked as Nolan’s cinematographer may also lure fans to the box office. But Transcendence is not a good movie.

For the past 20 years, any Johnny Depp movie was, for me, a movie I wanted to see—just because his onscreen work has been consistently entertaining. Even films like The Tourist and The Rum Diary were made worthwhile by his presence. Now, after last year’s Lone Ranger and this new release, a Depp film is no longer a “must see” for me.

Transcendence is not the worst movie of 2014. But it is the most disappointing so far.



Closed Circuit

Ever had a friend (or a comedian) tell you a joke with a great setup? One that gets you ready for a big payoff? And then… the punch line is not that funny?

Closed Circuit, though not a comedy, is a bit like that. The setup is tremendous but the payoff falls way short.

The film’s clever opening sequence presents an increasing number of security camera views of a busy London market. When the number of images onscreen hits fifteen, a terrorist bomb explodes. Coming just four months after the Boston Marathon bombing (in which suspects were identified from security footage) this film initially appears to be particularly timely.

When a suspect is brought in, Martin (Eric Bana) and Claudia (Rebecca Hall) are chosen to work as defense counsels. Actually, Claudia is a special advocate and Martin is a replacement defense attorney. At this point, the setup gets muddied with rules regarding the case. Supposedly, Claudia and Martin cannot share information with one another. Here comes another potentially interesting wrinkle: they are ex-lovers whose breakup was acrimonious.

Because of the complex rules regarding the case, which is being tried behind closed doors, and the fact that the government is sharing details with these two on a severely limited basis, they are forced to seek information on their own. But the British government is keeping an eye on them as they try to figure things out.

Despite all these contrivances, the potential for a strong finish still remains until the story seems to lose its mojo. Its resolution may be an accurate depiction of real life, but this is a fictional narrative that might’ve benefited from a different wrap up.

James Broadbent, who sometimes seems to be in every movie set in Britain, appears as the UK Attorney General. He usually plays a nice guy, but here his AG is a bit devious. Bana’s voice sounds amazingly, distractingly like Liam Neeson’s in many instances. Hall, a statuesque beauty, displays great mobility in high heels. (Or was it her double?)

Closed circuit video is used admirably in other parts of Closed Circuit after the great opening. Director John Crowley makes the point that our lives are being observed by others. That’s not news to most of us.

Closed Circuit coulda been a contender. Instead it gets a one-way ticket to Palookaville.