Film Review: Lucy

It isn’t often that the roller coaster metaphor holds up with action movies these days. With the overreliance of CG stunts and explosions, Inception-esque foghorn swells turned up to the 11th power and typical running times strolling nonchalantly past the two-hour mark, the adventure picture experience in American cinema has become more akin to spending your lunch break at the carwash: the lights go down, the slap, splash and whooshing is served up in high order but it’s an altogether divorced event that takes you nowhere fast, somehow leaving you feeling a little dirtier—a slice off your billfold and the change from your pockets is all it cleans you of.

Enter Lucy, the latest from French director Luc Besson, whose auteur status seems singularly constructed around his persistent use of visual hydraulics to move his stories forward, sometimes past the bounds of logic, but never losing sight of the interlocking mechanics of the medium: moving pictures.

We pick up on the steps of a lavish hotel in downtown Taipei, Taiwan, where Lucy (played by Scarlett Johansson), a 25-year-old American university student clad in a leopard-print shirt and little else argues with her boyfriend of one week—his greasy appearance capped by a knockoff Stetson, playing second fiddle in what is a delectable duel of bad taste—over whether or not she can do him a solid and deliver a mysterious briefcase to the front desk for a Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). It was never going to end well for either of them, and seemingly before the Stetson hits the ground Lucy is already pondering the bandages covering a fresh incision in her lower tummy, a plastic pouch of a blue synthetic superdrug pressing, unprotected, against the stitches.

If Besson is to thank for just how tightly the picture follows Lucy and her rapid evolution into a hyper-supreme being of limitless ability, Johannsson deserves praise for pushing back against the constraints of the genre, most of which Besson smartly disguises with harmless defiances of logic—just watching Lucy recall the taste of mother’s milk during a phone call home hints at an unquantifiable sum of energy fizzing at the edges of the frame.

Lucy goes from a good action film to a great one in the unexpected moments we find ourselves in reflexivity with it. One such instance sees Morgan Freeman’s classic wise character, here a prominent figure in neuroscientific research, confronted with Lucy at 20 percent of her power. As she details the extent of her developing nature, manipulating the various electronic appliances outfitting his hotel room for show, a look of wondrous bewilderment dawns on Freeman’s face.

I shared that look with him. And as an audience member, you can’t fake that.

Film Review: The Giver

If I went in for this sort of thing, I’d probably find complaint with The Giver for the simple fact of it being yet another young adult film adaptation about a dystopian society on the brink of revolution. Though this version certainly adheres to the strict rules of conduct set by the likes of the Hunger Games and Divergent series, the familiar tale of an extraordinary teenage figure upsetting the seemingly fair and balanced establishment is secondary to the film’s more compelling aspects, all of which are rooted in its own sort of revolutionary idea: show the audience the beauty that still exists within the boundaries of an oppressive system.

The setting is future, where a small human population resides in what is called the Community, a meticulously designed campus (a la Google or Apple) built atop a flat top mountain perpetually surrounded by clouds (lending it obvious island-like connotations). The encroaching clouds are thanks to the Community’s “climate control,” which is but a small part of its strict efforts to stabilize every facet of the life of its citizens.

During the Ceremony, at which children are assigned their lifetime occupation and are thereby deemed adults, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) stands out when he is selected to become the next Receiver of Memories, a position that promises to bring him something new and unfamiliar: pain. Jeff Bridges plays the Giver, a Community elder tasked with passing on memories of the Community’s deep past to Jonas.

The film shines in these master-apprentice moments, where an experience like riding a sled in a snow-covered forest flashes in Jonas’ mind, awakening him to the splendor of a life beyond his station. Thwaites plays it straight and proves surprisingly sympathetic in instances when all he is asked to do is react, a tough task even for a seasoned actor (his young castmates, in stark contrast, don’t fare as well). Bridges, a warm and somewhat ironic presence here, if only because the role so exactly suits his brand of dispensing bits of garbled wisdom, is the one who really lends the film its emotional weight.

The pieces put in place by an impressive cast (among which is a woefully uninteresting Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder) and the universal appeal of its source material suggest that The Giver was drained of its promise from the inside out. It’s pathos The Giver gets wrong, something its contemporaries seem to revel in. When it comes time for Jonas to receive painful memories, the fabric of the film starts to tatter, showing just how flatly director Phillip Noyce employs clichéd visual figures to illustrate complex concepts—one particular memory of war ends up looking less like Platoon and more like the Battle of Endor from Return of the Jedi as a result.

The Giver should be commended for its earnest desire to tell a familiar story beautifully, but outside those key moments it’s damned by the sameness of it all.

Film Review: The November Man

The November Man waits until just before the very end to explain how Peter Devereaux, an ex-CIA operative on the warpath (played by Pierce Brosnan), earned his chilly nickname. The explanation doesn’t matter—it’s not a very smart epithet anyway, drawing the obvious and correct conclusion that Devereaux is one cold mother.

Regardless, outmanned and outgunned, we, along with Devereaux, have to suffer the most perfunctory sort of bad guy monologue before we inevitably escape with our lives. If only just.

If The November Man is a spy thriller, it’s not my kind of one.

Set almost entirely in Belgrade, Serbia, the movie converges on a corrupt former general Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski) and his potential ascension to the Russian presidency. Seeking to clear any evidence of the atrocities he committed during the Second Chechen War, Federov targets an old flame of Devereaux’s whom the CIA also has a vested interest in. Devereaux himself comes out of retirement only in time to witness her catch a bullet through the windshield of their getaway vehicle.

Luke Bracey plays Mason, a killing hand employed by the CIA who also happens to be Devereaux’s former protege. At one point in the film Mason is praised for his reliance as a “weapon,” but I contend his ‘80s action movie haircut remains by far the most reliable thing about him.

Also mixed up in the proceedings is Olga Kurylenko as Alice, who aptly captures the panic of not being able to process things as quickly as those around you, which is a pervasive feeling instilled by The November Man. The plot is nonsensical stuff, its mechanics blunt and stunted as if someone copy-pasted dictionary definitions of stale beer tropes like “gritty,” “edgy” and “morally ambiguous” directly into the screenplay and called it good.

Good, this ain’t.

The movie outstays its welcome early on—while the body count is still in single digits—and if by the end you aren’t begging for it to stop you’re certainly not wondering what it all means.

“They knew the risks,” Devereaux grumbles when confronted about his recently-deceased colleagues. “We all did.”

Reflective of Devereaux’s too-cool-for-spy-school posturing, The November Man doesn’t care what I think of it. In fact, it would probably prefer I didn’t have any thoughts at all.

If only it would leave me alone about it.

Film Review: Boyhood

“Show them life,” Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky once said, addressing the misguided desire of his fellow filmmakers to directly communicate their ideas to the audience, “and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.”

Boyhood can very much be defined along these lines. Shot intermittently over a 12-year span, the film casts Ellar Coltrane as Mason, a boy who is, at the beginning of the film, just starting school in Texas.

There is no inciting incident—Mason’s parents (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) are no longer together but their split occurred long before the beginning of the story, and his older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelai, is equal parts ally and tormentor in the confounding but typical way only siblings can be.

Instead we find Mason lying on the grass, reposed inside narrative frame (he frequently plays the role of observer, but writer-director Richard Linklater smartly doesn’t constrict him to it). Even as he grows up before our very eyes, we never lose the essence of Mason, and it’s in large part thanks to how un-navel gazy the gazing is here—occasionally the camera catches a certain look on Coltrane’s face that recalls the moment we first saw him gazing upward, guessing at what life might bring, the gaps in time closing in such a way as if to affect the disorienting wishfulness of time travel.

In a scene between Hawke and an 18-year-old Coltrane about to embark on his college journey, the men have a heart to heart, reflecting on lost love and the meaning of life. Neither of them draw any discernible conclusions, thankfully, but we feel the weight of their search.

“The good news is you’re feeling stuff,” Hawke says.

Boyhood brims with moments like this, the stuff of life.

(Originally published in Colorado Mesa University’s The Criterion, on August 26, 2014)

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Perhaps the most overlooked character in the vast universe of the latest, great Marvel experiment Guardians of the Galaxy is that of Peter Serafinowitz’s Denarian Saal, a high-ranking officer in the armed forces of Xander (a planet that looks to have been designed in California by Apple), who hits it right on the nose when he remarks about the titular characters, “What a bunch of a-holes.”

In that moment, he is overseeing the processing of our five unlikely heroes—three of which are mostly human while the remaining two certainly walk and talk (and kill) like humans but are in fact more of the raccoon and tree persuasion—before they are to be transported to what is effectively a high-security space prison. Of course Denarian becomes the butt of the joke later in the climactic battle when he sneers, “I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a hamster.”

In this way Guardians of the Galaxy delights in being old school—which is to say it has a sense of humor about itself. Obviously, it’s getting a lot of help from its source, a 2008 comic book reboot of an original run of comics from the ‘60s featuring a different, but equally zany, lineup of alien heroes. In this quadrant of the galaxy, there are no scowling dark knights or laser-eyed, neck-snapping men of steel with messiah complexes, and that’s just the way Marvel likes it (and that’s fine by me). Plenty of dead role models still, but more on that later.

The leader of the Guardians is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), whom we first see flying solo as a space-faring scavenger and self-proclaimed outlaw. Abducted from Earth as a child in the ‘80s, Quill is caught in an amusing suspension of cultural development, enacting the cool-guy personas inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones and Kevin Bacon’s character from Footloose—“You may know me by another name,” he offers as he is cornered by armed mercenaries, “Star Lord,”—a particular brand of campy bravado that is antiquated even by yesterday’s standards. (Another relic of Quill’s childhood, a walkman, is wonderfully interwoven not only into the story of his character but how we experience the events of the film).

Following his recovery of a sought-after artifact known simply as the Orb, Quill is forced to forge an uneasy truce with the other would-be Guardians. Rocket is a genetically enhanced raccoon with a penchant for weaponry and tech (Bradley Cooper provides the voice). Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is Rocket’s own personal homegrown enforcer and surprises as a remarkably emotional presence despite only being able to speak three words, a recurring joke that somehow doesn’t become tiresome. (This makes it so that when he finally utters a fourth its significance is potent enough to make a tree weep, as it were). Zoe Saldana’s stony, green-skinned assassin Gamora and Dave Bautista’s tank-like Drax may be the most undersold of the team but thanks to invested performances they still provide some of the film’s punchier character moments while retaining the pathos of their respective backstories.

While the Guardians find a common enemy in an interplanetary warlord known as Ronan—a nothing villain whose imposing silhouette is at least given some heft by an unembarrassed, scenery-chewing turn by Lee Pace—it is their struggle with personal loss that sifts through to the forefront. Here writer-director James Gunn proves himself perfectly suited for the job, already having shown a deeply effective and unsettling take on loss and revenge with Super. That Gunn manages not only to make these characters pop in their own right but also have them come together with a clearly defined understanding of each other’s pain and motivation puts Guardians of the Galaxy above and away from clunky, fan-pleasing fare like The Avengers

With all the prerequisite bluster of a summer blockbuster, all of which the film handles exceptionally well for that matter, the staying images come from the moments when these characters reach out to give, or grasp, a helping hand. Even the final confrontation becomes less about defeating an external threat than healing an internal one—a crucial detail that made the last Batman and Superman movies fall so flat. There’s nothing flat about Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe excepting the villain, but then you know he’s just there to be the butt of the joke. And how old school is that?

Film Review: Transcendence

Transcendence opens with a bookending present-day sequence depicting the post-technological ravages of Berkeley, California. Here, the denizens silently walk the dusty downtown streets and shopkeepers run military-guarded trade posts where keyboards serve as doorstops. Emerging in a neighborhood dormant with overgrowth, Max (Paul Bettany) narrates vague, expository stuff about mankind’s “inevitable collision” with technology as he makes his way to an empty house once belonging to Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall).

The movie then flashes back to the day Will, a prominent researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, is shot by an agent of a terrorist group called R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology, a name loudly indicative of the level of writing on show here), which has simultaneously staged attacks on multiple of Will’s research teams. Though he survives his initial injuries, the bullet that struck Will was laced with a polonium isotope that will kill him in a month’s time, which spurs his wife Evelyn and friend Max to upload his consciousness into the remnants of an existing artificial intelligence framework called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network—again, the writing).

Wally Pfister’s directorial debut (he made his name as Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, dating back to the Memento days) is not so much a mess of big scientific and philosophical concepts as much as it is lifeless procession of those concepts. Much of the problem derives from the proliferation of big-name actors (Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara) playing characters who exist on a logical plane that solely works in favor of the clunky plot. (In response to Will’s developing godlike powers of cell regeneration, Murphy’s FBI Agent Buchanan leads an bafflingly small special forces team in an attack on the underground facility housing Will’s AI while the other characters just look on.)

On a smaller budget, Transcendence at least couldn’t afford calling so much attention to its shortcomings. What’s here shows that Pfister, on his own, is not a long form storyteller. In fact, everything that happens in Transcendence is so incidental, I’m not even sure he’s seeing the page for the words written on it.

Film Review: The Raid 2: Berandal

At a runtime of 150 minutes, The Raid 2: Berandal takes a while to get going, and that’s a strange thing to say about a film that opens with an execution.

We pick up hours after the conclusion of 2011’s staggeringly action-packed The Raid: Redemption with not-so-rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais), still bleeding from the ill-fated raid on a 16-story drug lord stronghold, delivering the crooked police lieutenant Wahyu to Bunawar, the head of an internal affairs unit. In order to weed out corruption in the highest ranks of Jakarta’s police force, Bunawar convinces Rama to go undercover as a common prison thug, arresting him for the brutal beating of a politician’s son with the eventual hope that Rama ingratiate himself with Uco (Arifin Putra), an overambitious crime boss’ son serving time. 

The Raid 2 spends its first hour setting up a vast, entangled web of characters whose motivations and alliances are rarely immediately clear. Returning writer-director Gareth Evan’s handling of such a large scope both works and doesn’t. To his credit, the film never overtly explains the significance of each narrative thread, relying instead on blink-and-miss-it visual storytelling. It can be a lot to take in at times, especially if all you’re expecting is more of the relentless, bone-crunching fight sequences from the original. It is a welcome addition, though, that rewards its audience and in turn makes every action set piece feel earned (and boy, there are many, and they are incredible). 

There are moments, however, when the lack of explanation translates to the film abandoning its primary narrative in favor of fringe characters whose most significant traits are defined by their respective weapons of choice (see: Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man). Evans the Action Director more than justifies the presence of these characters—Evans the Director of Drama, not so much. (A troubling example of this is when Rama disappears for almost 45 minutes in service of a subplot featuring a sad, machete-wielding homeless assassin with baby issues that never ends up affecting the plot as much as the time devoted to it would suggest.)

For its unevenness, The Raid 2 nevertheless lands the big hits with surgical accuracy, rightly focusing its attention on the impossibly well-choreographed action. For The Raid series going forward, I take it as a good sign that, even with bits of broken teeth lining their throats, these characters have a lot more to say.

Film Review: Need for Speed

Need for Speed 2 

As yet another film based on a lucrative video game franchise looking to print money on the silver screen, Need for Speed doesn’t exceed the speed limit by any means.

Aaron Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, an automotive mechanic who moonlights as a street racer when he isn’t just standing around wearing leather jackets. Behind on a loan payment on his garage inherited from his recently deceased father, Tobey accepts a commission to build a car for rival racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who went pro and subsequently stole Tobey’s girlfriend (Dakota Johnson), promising Tobey a quarter of proceeds of the car’s $2.7 million price tag. Putting it all on the line in a street race in a lame display of macho stupidity, Dino cheats Tobey out of the winnings and frames him for vehicular manslaughter to boot.

Never mind that Need for Speed is a hackneyed revenge flick that fails to do anything remotely new or interesting in its two-hour-plus running time. Present in full force are the expected schlock and awe machinations of a script that consistently mishandles every interaction that doesn’t directly involve rubber meeting asphalt.

Played for laughs is Imogen Poots’ character of Julia Madden, a British high-end car dealer whose first three meetings with Tobey consist of alarmingly outdated girls-don’t-know-guy-stuff gags made all the worse when it turns out she’s supposed to be Tobey’s love interest (you spend the rest of the film increasingly upset at the pairing as the unbelievable romance inevitably blossoms).

Paul brings none of the charisma that made him famous on Breaking Bad, dialing in a vacuous performance for an exceedingly dumb character who mistakes brooding for substance. Poots is naturally funny and injects the film with some much-needed humanity, but her charms are too frequently deafened by the exhausting supporting cast, the most egregious example of which is Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi’s military pilot, whose incessant wise-cracking ought to land him an indefinite prison sentence on the Disney Channel.

Need for Speed’s sole point of recommendation is its well-executed race sequences. As lovingly as the growl, screech and crunch of the various supercars are conveyed, though, it’s a drag when they turn out to be more articulate than the film itself.

1.5 Star

Music Review: St. Vincent - “St. Vincent”

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Since her collaboration with David Byrne on Love This Giant, it seemed that Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, had set a new course, departing her musical curio shop of porcelain melodies and corroded guitar underpinnings for a style that would remain subversive but within a pop context.

Where she went feels dangerously like a retread of the outsider anxieties characteristic of Byrne’s musical persona, nods to which are pervasive in “Digital Witness,” the fifth track and first single from St. Vincent’s eponymous LP. “This is no time for confessing / I won’t bother your mind,” sings Clark, as if acknowledging by omission that she is indeed dressed in the “big suit” made famous by Byrne in Stop Making Sense. Whereas with Byrne the suit was little more than a sight gag played for satirical laughs, for Clark it’s a second skin, and the comfort with which she wears it is bewildering and enthralling.

St. Vincent is a confident album because it is so directly imitative of its influences. The opener “Rattlesnake” quicksteps with a crunchy, digitized amalgam of bass, guitar and keys reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” while “Huey Newton” is so firmly situated in the R&B stylings of the early ‘90s that you half-expect R. Kelly to step in for a verse or two.

Modern pop acts such as Snow Patrol and Metric can likewise be traced in “Regret” and “Psychopath,” both unabashedly optimistic songs offering unhinged perspectives on failed relationships and new love. Like peers past and present, Clark draws on the same ubiquitous well of pop sensibilities, which by all other accounts appeared completely tapped, producing catchy riffs and big choruses with her penchant for twisted tonal digressions and uneasy synthesized chords spruced throughout. (“Bring Me Your Loves” is potent example, the strings of the guitar sounding as if caught in a blender while falling down a set of stairs.)

For as showy as St. Vincent is on the surface, its charm lies in the subtlety with which it appropriates familiar elements without falling subject to them. Though she is most compelling on the album highlight “I Prefer Your Love,” a synth-driven slow dance ode to the strength we draw from the love of others, Clark almost achieves the same success with the album closer “Severed Crossed Fingers.” It’s a lament of lost love (evoking Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” in another moment of mimicry) in which she describes waking up “puddle—eyed, sleeping in the suit,” noting that “the truth is ugly. Well, I feel ugly too.” Wearing that big suit, the truth according to Clark is as hypnotic as it is strange.

3.5 Star