Sunday, July 27, 2014


LUCY - Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, directed by Luc Besson (89 min.)

Humans only access about 15% of our brain's capacity on average, so naturally the idea of using more is an interesting idea for science fiction, or in this case, action.  Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro starred in Limitless a few years back, where Cooper's character took a drug which opened up more avenues of his cerebellum and allowed him to finish novels, dominate the stock market, and become rich and powerful.  It was a slight film, but entertaining and edgy in its execution.  Which brings me to Lucy, another "what if" film about the human brain.  Only this movie doesn't much care about any philosophical implications or logical steps when dealing with a person whose brain suddenly increases to 100% capacity; we're here for the action.

Scarlett Johansson gives it her all in the title character, a ditzy American partying in Taiwan with a shady cowboy.  When that shady cowboy handcuffs a briefcase to her hand and forces her to deliver the case to some Asian gangsters in a hotel, you know things aren't going to go well for her in the long run.  The gang is led by Mr. Jang, played by Min-sik Choi, the talented Korean actor made famous in Oldboy.  Jang is evil and all those sorts of things in a very one-dimensional, uninteresting way.  After a harrowing reveal of what's in the case, the plot jumps off its cliff of absurdity.  Inside the case are four bags full of blue granules, drugs which apparently make its customers wildly unhinged when taken in small doses.  It is called CPH4, and has the ability to open up avenues in the brain while apparently killing its human host ever so slightly each time.

Lucy, along with three other saps, is knocked out cold and one of the bags is sewn into her stomach.  She is forced to mule this drug to the States, but before she can even get out of Taiwan she is attacked when in custody, kicked right in the stomach where the bag is (who are these fools?), and the bag hurts open.  The granules flood into her system in some hyper-stylized moments of computer animation.  Next thing you know, Lucy's brain capacity goes from 15 to 20%, then 30%, and so on.  There are a handful of interesting things Lucy can do now, like see cellphone traces into the sky, hear from long distances, access computers, and even control objects through the manipulation of matter.  Too bad the film wants to be about her exacting revenge for the most part.

Lucy turns into a badass fighting machine.  She can't feel pain because that's just a blocking impulse in your brain and, well, there's nothing blocking anything anymore.  Interwoven in the plight of Lucy is Professor Norman, played by Morgan Freeman who must have some sort of agreement to star in no less than fifty movies a year.  Professor Norman has written books about the human brain, and Lucy seeks him out for his help.  For what, I'm never quite sure.  The action scenes pop up and dissipate while Norman is giving a speech in Paris, and eventually the two stories meet.  But I couldn't muster the energy to keep paying attention by that point.

I didn't expect Lucy to be some sort of film neurologists would show their students in the future, but I expected it to be fun and fresh.  By the third act, reality in any way, shape or form has abandoned the story.  Lucy has basically turned into a combination of all the X-Men with her ability to change her hair in seconds and pin gangsters up against the ceiling with her brain.  At the end, once Lucy reaches full brain capacity, she turns herself into some sort of computer and figures out ways to travel through time and space.  I was lost.  All the while a shootout occupies the lobby of the building where she is becoming a computer, a shootout with no point or consequence when it comes down to it because, well, Lucy is everything and everywhere?  I'm not sure, because I was ready to get out of the theater.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, directed by Matt Reeves (130 min.)

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is not only a sequel that enhances and improves upon the origin story from 2011, it is one of the best films of 2014.  That seems silly to say about a film revolving around CGI Simians and their fight against desperate humans, and it very well could have been that way.  That is the magic of the film, the way it manages to counter what could be a campy premise and could easily devolve into corny farce with real, raw emotion, great performances (both human and ape, though the latter dominates here), compelling narrative threads, and thrilling action in perfect harmony with moments of important and patient development.  I was blown away.

The “first” film in this series, Rise of The Planet of The Apes, was a prequel set up to bridge the gap between what happened in the present day and what Charlton Heston found in the true first film in the franchise, the 1968 classic.  The success and quality of that picture leads us to Dawn, and ten years after the apes stormed the Golden Gate Bridge and disappeared into the forests of Northern California.  In this near future, a virus – labeled the “Simian Flu” – has spread among the humans, nearly wiping them off the planet except for a few pockets of desperate survivors immune to the disease.  Meanwhile, the ape society that fled into the Redwoods has evolved even further, speaking more, thinking more, developing into a primitive tribal society in the foothills of the region.  They have a caste system reminiscent of the original Planet of The Apes where the Gorillas are the muscle, the chimpanzees common society, and the Orangutans the educators and philosophers. 

This raw societal dynamic is still led by Caesar, the focal point of the first film who has grown into a strong and respected leader of the apes.  Caesar is, by virtue of the testing from Rise, the most evolved and thoughtful of the apes and is also a family man with a… wife?... a young impressionable son and a new baby boy.  Caesar still has some fond memories of the humans while his second in command, the scarred and bitter Koba, holds nothing but hatred.  None of these apes, who communicate through sign language and sparse dialogue, have seen a human in two years.  So when a ragtag group of explorers pop up on the outskirts of their village, the society is upset and becomes somewhat divided.

The humans come from downtown San Francisco where a few hundred survivors have collected.  This broken society is led by Dreyfus, played sparingly by Gary Oldman.  The explorers who stumble upon the ape village are simply trying to get to a nearby dam to see if they can use its power to restore downtown Frisco.  The de facto leader of this group is Malcolm, played with fantastic gravitas by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke.  He, along with his son and his girlfriend (both lost their significant others in the plague), Ellie (Keri Russell),  and a few more humans must talk their way through Caesar’s society in order to get the power they need.  The relationship works, tentatively, at first.  Caesar and Malcolm develop trust with one another, and learn about each other.  But there is distrust and dissention among the ranks in both the human and Simian camp, and soon a double cross leads to an all out war between the two sides.

It is amazing to me the way director Matt Reeves and the screenwriters and effects crew are able to construct this film to work on so many levels.  Not once are the apes farcical or goofy, they are completely believable.  And not only that, even though the human actors are wonderful in their roles, there is an honest and undeniable emotional attachment to these apes.  Caesar and his family are paramount to this incredibly engaging journey.  There are deep philosophical elements to the story about trust and even xenophobia, and stories about friendship and what it means to lead.  The action is paced perfectly, with enough time in between the big set pieces and shootouts to truly engage with characters both human and CGI.  There are moments here, and shots from cinematographer Michael Seresin, which invoke the awe and wonder of early Spielberg fantasy films, especially a lovely musical moment in the forest at an abandoned gas station lit up among the greenery.

As good as Rise of The Planet of The Apes was, Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is that much better, in virtually every way.  The characters are smart and soulful, and there are sequences that engage us more than any summer blockbuster should do.  This is an example of perfect balance in a film that is bigger than most, and could have suffered from the bloat and noise and annoyances of a certain robot franchise.  Naturally these prequel films will be, at the least, a trilogy, and the set up is in place for a third entry.  Bring on Battle of The Planet of The Apes.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014


SNOWPIERCER: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, directed by Joon-ho Bong (126 min.)

Just when the postapocalyptic sci-fi landscape in film has started showing rust and staleness, along comes Snowpiercer, a wild and unhinged action thriller with a crazy setting and even crazier characters filling the screen.  The premise is intriguing, if not a little silly when you sit and think about it.  But that's the thing, don't think about it.  Director Joon-ho Bong has achieved what many sic-fi directors cannot these days: he has created a world so unique and so Gonzo that one cannot help get caught up in the plight of these characters, no matter how much reality eludes the story.  Snowpiercer is a one of a kind film I did not expect to see when the lights went down.

The setting is 2031 seventeen years after the world, for all intents and purposes, has ended.  In 2014 the governments of the world, in an attempt to bring down the planet's temperature, released a chemical compound into the atmosphere.  This never goes well.  In no short time the temperature of the planet falls through the floor and the world is frozen solid.  Nearly everything and everyone dies, except those lucky (or unlucky) enough to board a train which rockets around the earth on a vast track crossing all continents.  The train is long and whisks over the tracks and through the frozen landscape, run by a never-ending mysterious engine invented by the leader, or God, of the new world, Wilford (Ed Harris).  For seventeen years this train has been circling the earth, and the path takes a calendar year which is a handy tool to mark off time.

Within the train, a harsh class system has evolved between the haves and the have nots.  Those kept in the tail of the train are poor and crowded, dirty and disheveled, fed only gelatin-like protein bars for every meal.  This lower class are guarded heavily from getting to the front of the train, where the rich live in lush cabins and spend their time drinking and dining and enjoying nightclubs and free dental work.  Occasionally, Mason (Tilda Swinton) makes a trip to the impoverished to dole out disturbing and creative punishment and set the rules straight once again.  Swinton wonderfully chews scenery like she never has before, embellishing some nice idiosyncrasies in the Mason character which would fit well in a Terry Gilliam movie.   This very divided system is the New World, but of course with such a divided system, revolution is never far away.

The de-facto leader of the tail society is Curtis, played by Chris Evans in a brilliant performance.  Curtis has a plan to move his people through the security and fight through the guards to get to the front.  With the help of his sidekick, Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the wisdom of the old man, Gilliam (the great John Hurt), Curtis scratches and claws his way through the security and the journey begins to reach the upper crust and confront Wilford.  But this is a long train with many important life-sustaining cars, and there are several stops and detours for our hero along the way, including picking up a couple of interesting prisoners to assist the efforts.  I could go on, but let's keep the plot specifics a secret because the things which unfold I never expected.

No matter how bizarre or violent Snowpiercer gets, it never dumbs itself down to appease audiences.  Things are unclear for a long time, explained only as they would organically happen in conversation.  There is no outsider standing in for the audience to get the whole story, so attention is necessary.  And this world aboard the train and the increasingly wacky circumstances and situations build and build and deepen the film with every car.  There are clever and electric action sequences, but I found myself more involved with the kooky story between these violent outbursts.  These characters grow more important the closer they get to their goal, and each and every member aboard this train is compelling in their own right.

The supporting cast of Harris, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt are wonderful.  Kang-ho Song as a drug addled prisoner who also happens to be a former security engineer is intense and soulful, perhaps the second most important character in the core.  But this is a Chris Evans film, and there are moments from him that help support a little theory I have been rattling around in my own head for a while.  There is something more to Chris Evans than meets the eye.  He deserves all the credit in the world for turning Captain America into one of the better superhero franchises to date, but here Evans is given more opportunity to show range I have seen only in glimpses in lesser films.  There is a confession from Curtis near the end of the film that is the pinnacle of Evans' acting career to this point.  He is brilliant.

Snowpiercer is not a film for everyone, only a certain faction of sci-fi fans looking for a fresh take on a stale premise.  I wasn't sure what to expect going into the picture, but what I saw was most certainly not on my radar.  It is a pleasant surprise in every weird and oddball way imaginable.