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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Since we first noticed her in ‘Ghost World’ (2001) and her breakthrough role opposite Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s wistful ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003), the lovely and talented Scarlett Johansson has proven that she’s a rising starlet to keep an eye on.  That certainly isn’t difficult considering her classic good looks and a sultry sexiness that many women would kill for, but beneath the veneer is a skilled actress who can impart any role she plays with believability, intelligence and heart.
 
Her formidable acting skills are put to the test in French director/producer Luc Besson’s latest femme fatale sci-fi action thriller ‘Lucy,’ a head-trip of a movie unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory.  In some ways ‘Lucy’ is as refreshingly different, subversive and revolutionary as Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' or the Wachowski Brothers' ‘The Matrix’ were in their time, challenging us to look at the world and our lives through fresh eyes.  Yet the movie can also be maddeningly frustrating at times in its total disregard for logic and continuity, forcing us to take great leaps of faith due to its sheer implausibility.  Then again, that's par for the course for Luc Besson.
 
ScarJo is her usual charming and charismatic self as Lucy (last name unknown), a young woman who was swept into a web of intrigue beyond her control in Taiwan after she’s kidnapped for the purpose of smuggling a smart drug called CPH4 into Europe.  The drug accidentally enters her bloodstream and she became not only super smart like Bradley Cooper in the similarly premised 2011 movie ‘Limitless,’ but also more powerful and ethereal.  If you can accept the movie’s outlandish conceit that when we achieve the ability to access 100 percent of our brain power, our sentience becomes not only omni-present but also omni-potent without the need of a corporeal body to contain it as if we're reading some dime store sci-fi novel, you will enjoy ‘Lucy’ for the summer popcorn diversion that it is, even as you grapple with the inconceivable notion of Ms. Johansson existing without her delectably delicious physical form.

Grade: B+
 
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Hercules! Hercules!

Director Brett Ratner (‘X-Men: The Last Stand,’ ‘Rush Hour 3’) brings Hercules back to the big screen starring former WWF/WWE and Disney superstar Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.  'Hercules' (formerly titled 'Hercules: The Thracian Wars') is the second movie on ‘the son of Zeus’ released this year, following director Renny Harlin’s critically panned box office bomb ‘The Legend of Hercules.’  Poor Renny, after making a name for himself with such blockbusters as ‘Die Hard 2’ and ‘Cliffhanger,’ the Finnish director hasn’t been quite the same since the critical and commercial flop that was ‘Cutthroat Island,’ a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean swashbuckler starring his ex-wife Geena Davis nearly 20 years ago. 
 
Fortunately I haven’t seen Harlin’s version, so I will not be comparing/contrasting the two Hercules treatments.  Brett Ratner’s approach de-mystified the man/demi-god behind the legend and depicted him as a mere mortal and laid-back leader of a not-so-merry band of mercenaries who fight for money, as that is what mercs reputedly do.  This isn’t to say that these men and woman are without honor or conscience, of course, as it becomes clear in the movie’s final act.  Despite the detractors who thought him ill-suited for the role, I thought Dwayne Johnson did just fine, as did his supporting cast including Ian McShane as the fatalistic seer Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as the pragmatic Spartan Autolychus, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as the tough but beautiful Amazonian archer Atalanta, and Aksel Hennie as the quiet-but-deadly Tydeus of Thebes.  Adventure, intrigue and betrayal follow our mercenaries when they took on a job from King Cotys (John Hurt) of Thrace to check the ravages and depredations of an army of ‘centaurs’ led by the ruthless Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).
 
The visual style of ‘Hercules’ is more ‘The Lord of the Rings’ than ‘300,’ which is welcome since I’m growing somewhat weary of the latter.  The movie’s plot and setting may be a bit familiar and predictable (that is to say, ‘formulaic’), but ‘Hercules’ delivered what fans expected in the historical fantasy genre, and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself in our era of lowered expectations from Hollywood.

Grade: B+



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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Going Apeshit

From the movie's opening close-up shot of Caesar's angry, hate-filled eyes to its last, where those very same eyes have taken on a decidedly softer and more compassionate cast, 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' draws us irresistibly into its richly drawn post-apocalyptic landscape and timeless tale of survival, mutual distrust and conflict.  Director Matt Reeves' sequel to 2011's 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is bigger and more action-packed yet maintained the same depth and emotional punch as its predecessor.  DOTPOTA is proof that Hollywood can make a successful summer blockbuster bristling with spectacular visual effects without dumbing it down.
 
Picking up 10 years after the events of ROTPOTA, civilization is in shambles because the ALZ-113 (simian) virus had wiped out most of mankind, leaving only a handful of scattered survivors who were immune to it.  Inevitably humans come into contact with ape nation again and mutual distrust and conflict ensue.  Can humans and apes co-exist peacefully after years of scientific experimentation and oppression?
 
Just like the relationship between Caesar and Will (James Franco) in ROTPOTA, what makes DOTPOTA so compelling are the interactions between Caesar and a group of sympathetic humans in the guises of Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  There is a timeless familiarity to the screenplay written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, but that doesn't matter because the movie has intelligence, verve and humanity to spare.  Andy Serkis and the FX team did a great job in making the apes 'more human' than the humans themselves and the connection between Caesar and Clarke's Malcolm seems genuine and heartfelt.  DOTPOTA is an entertaining thriller about hate and war, but like its predecessor its ultimate message is also one of love and hope for a brighter future.  Then again, maybe not.
 
Grade: A

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Know Your Place. Accept Your Place. Be a Shoe.

At a time when Hollywood is known for churning out reboots and sequels, playing it safe and avoiding originality like the plague, a gem like ‘Snowpiercer’ comes along and restores our optimism and faith in humanity.  Well, not exactly, since (a) movies like this are the exceptions and not the rule, and (b) it’s technically a product of South Korea rather than Hollywood, but who’s complaining?
 
Based on an obscure French graphic novel called ‘Le Transperceneige,’ ‘Snowpiercer’ is the 'Polar Express from hell' and Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian 'steampunk' sci-fi masterpiece, eclipsing his previous big budget creature feature ‘The Host’ (not to be confused with the critically panned 2013 adaptation of the Stephanie Meyers novel by the same name).  A post-modern parable couched as a mapcap post-apocalyptic thriller which oozes with bloody violence, a unique visionary style and black humor throughout, ‘Snowpiercer’ is reminiscent of the early works of Terry Gilliam.  Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the movie's characters is named after the Monty Python alum.  'Snowpiercer' also boasts some well known actors, including Chris Evans (fresh from Captain America), Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt as the aforementioned 'Gilliam' and a bespectacled Tilda Swinton as the magisterial and gleefully twisted Minister Mason who resembles one of those classic stern English head mistresses and gave us the memorable quote of this review's title.
 
The underlying poor-stepped-on-by-the-rich undercurrent of ‘Snowpiercer’ is a recurring one in the sci-fi genre, most recently in ‘Elysium,’ ‘District 9’ and the ‘Total Recall’ remake, but the movie avoided the pitfalls of being preachy or heavy handed.  The movie is entertaining and stylish, offering a fantastic vision we've never seen before.  ‘Snowpiercer’ also differs from other movies in its numerous twists and philosophical dilemmas that lend the movie its unpredictability.  With a certified ‘fresh’ Tomatometer rating of 94% (97% among ‘Top Critics’) and an average audience rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, critics and moviegoers agree that ‘Snowpiercer’ is an intelligent and spectacular sci-fi thriller well worth seeing.  So what are you waiting for?
 
Grade: A

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Tamara & Louise

I try to stay away from Melissa McCarthy movies whenever possible because they’re all basically the same character: an overweight, foul-mouthed, obnoxious, middle aged white trash who drives people nuts on a road-trip.  It doesn’t matter if she’s annoying the hell out of Jason Bateman in ‘Identity Thief’ or 'chumming it up' with Sandra Bullock in ‘The Heat,’ she just has to stay in character.  She somehow managed to combine the grating qualities of Rosanne Barr with the well meaning irksomeness of John Candy in ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’ except even John Candy had some redeeming qualities about him.  Melissa is just so maddeningly irritating.
 
So even though I passed on ‘Identity Thief’ and ‘The Heat,’ I decidedly to give ‘Tammy’ a look just to see what makes former Playmate of the Year and ‘The View’ co-host Jenny McCarthy’s rotund cousin so popular in theaters.  My conclusion is this: people who watch her movies are stupid morons.  Case in point, there was an annoying person (a teenager no doubt) sitting a couple of rows behind me who shouted ‘Penis!’ or ‘Vagina!’ at random times more than once during the movie, even though ‘Tammy’ is pretty tame in sexual content for an R-rated comedy.  I guess Beavis (or Butt-head) must be disappointed. 
 
‘Tammy’ is basically Ridley Scott's 'Thelma & Louise' redux as a buddy roadtrip comedy.  While it elicits a few chuckles, the laugh-out-loud moments are notably absent.  McCarthy’s Tammy is rude and obnoxious, which I expected, but also unfunny, which I did not.  Susan Sarandon pretty much stole the movie as her alcoholic ‘Bad Granma’ Pearl, whose ill-behaved dispositions irritated an exasperated Tammy more than she annoyed granma.  Say what???!!!  Her fat chick schtick must be getting old.
 
Grade: C
 
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Deliver Us from Banal

Director Scott Derrickson  ('The Exorcism of Emily Rose' and 'Sinister') and producer Jerry Bruckheimer attempt to reinvigorate demonic possession movies with the rather tepid and predictable ‘Deliver Us from Evil.’  The film is inspired by, as opposed to ‘based on’ the real life accounts of self-proclaimed NYPD paranormal detective Ralph Sarchie in his 2001 book ‘Beware the Night,’ which usually means in Hollywood-speak that the screenwriters took so much liberties to 'spice up' the story that it probably retained little of its source material. 
 
‘Deliver Us from Evil’ stars Eric Bana as detective sergeant Ralph Sarchie, who’s drawn into the realm of the paranormal when he investigates a series of strange and satanic acts perpetrated by a former Marine named Santino who was possessed by an evil spirit while clearing a cavern in Afghanistan.  A detective with a ‘gaydar’ or sixth sense for the supernatural, he’s joined by a young Spanish priest named Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) who specializes in such phenomena but indulges in decidedly un-priestly vices such as smoking and drinking, not to mention he confessed to knocking up a woman whom he exorcised previously and hence broke his vows of celibacy.  Although the movie tries to humanize Ralph and Mendoza by giving them inner demons (no pun intended) to wrestle with and portraying them as flawed characters tested by faith, it failed miserably in avoiding the usual tropes we see in such movies.  Moreover, everything in the movie was been-there-done-that predictable, whether it’s the death of Sarchie’s too-hip detective partner Butler (Joel McHale of ‘Community’) because his considerable knife fighting skills is not quite up to snuff against the demonically possessed, the movie’s inevitable happy ending when Sarchie rescues his wife (Olivia Munn) and kid, the pervasive rain and darkness that provided the movie's constant backdrop, or Sarchie’s own ultimate spiritual redemption.  Never mind that the movie’s short on truly scary moments, because the movie offered nothing new in the character or storytelling department either.
 
One memorable scene in the movie did stand out that’s different and provided some suspense and tension: the one where Sarchie finds himself in the lion’s den at the zoo while pursuing Santino.  But other than that there is little to recommend this latest rote exercise in rebooting the exorcist subgenre.
 
 Grade: C

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