Coming Attractions

Processing soon: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
For fun: Upcoming gear grinder on modern day music in period films and an opinion piece on
actors playing the same person.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lucy

Comparing the subtleties and nuance of Scarlett Johansson's latest starring role and her April 4th release of "Under the Skin" is like the difference between a freight train crashing into a building and a raindrop. Luc Besson, a director perhaps most recently famous for jump starting Liam Neeson's action star career with 2008's "Taken" and his recent slew of "dime-a-dozen" action films, is the director, screenwriter, and producer of "Lucy". Clearly this film is his baby and therein lies the problem.

The film literally opens with one of our earliest human ancestors, who just so happens to have been nicknamed Lucy by contemporary paleontologists (get it?). Clearly Beeson is trying to make the point that this isn't going to be another one of his competent but mostly mediocre action films, he actually is trying to show this movie has something to say. After this brief and basically nonsensical scene (that only has a tenuous callback at the end of the film) we then cut forward to a city in Taiwan with our modern day Lucy. It's quickly established via in your face cutscenes (that actually wreck the movie before it even begins) that Lucy is a party girl. Then, in perhaps one of the most bizarre cinematic choices in recent memory, the entire introductory scene is intercut with shots of a cheetah hunting gazelle on an African savanna. This takes place while Lucy argues with her very recently met boyfriend about delivering a suitcase to the inside of a hotel. If you haven't caught on yet, yes Lucy is the gazelle and her boyfriend the cheetah. Sigh.

Before we even get to the "punchline", it's worth noting just how bad this movie is at delivering exposition and subtext. Lucy's boyfriend literally brings up the fact that one of the first human ancestors was nicknamed Lucy. Because yes, every time I meet someone who's first name happens to be the same as someone or something famous, that's what I want to say to them (and apparently Beeson REALLY wants us to know the first shot was of one of our earliest ancestors). Soon enough you can guess what happens to our "gazelle" and she's forced to deliver the suitcase directly to a penthouse hotel suite. We are then treated to the only set-piece that actually works in this film and feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie.

Seriously guys, the only part of the movie worth watching.

In perhaps one of this years most intriguingly terrifying introduction scenes for a "big bad" since the Mimics in the infinitely better science fiction film "Edge of Tomorrow", actor Choi Min-sik (star of the original 2003 "Oldboy") nonchalantly appearing in an expensive suit wearing blood spattered safety goggles after stepping over bodies in a hotel bathroom is truly chilling. The entire scene with Min-sik's character using a hotel concierge via speakerphone as a translator between himself and Scarlett Johannson shows that despite Beeson's shortcomings in the rest of the film, he really knows how to do tension (and phone calls). Sadly, from this promising point in the movie things only get worse. After Lucy gains her abilities, which really isn't a spoiler for anyone who's viewed even 30 seconds of the massive amount of trailers for this movie on television, we are treated to one of the worst uses of exposition I've ever seen.

Apparently, Beeson thought that merely showing Lucy's abilities and via giant text stating the "percentage" used by her brain at that point in the film (because SUBTEXT) wasn't enough. We also must have her call her mother and say some of the most asinine and bizarre things you can imagine while apparently her mom just "okay sweeties" it. Seriously, what normal mother wouldn't become instantly worried and/or freaked out when their child said "I remember tasting your milk"?? We are then treated to a number of disconnected scenes that more or less serve as a choose your own adventure style of writing where they lack any coherence and apparently don't affect the scenes proceeding or following themselves. I'm looking at you dissolving Scarlett Johansson scene on the airplane. Perhaps the most egregious scene in the garbled mess that is this movie, is the neutering of the only compelling character. By the end of the film, our "big-bad" Choi Min-sik is made so hysterically ineffectual that it would be like if Lex Luthor decided to try to take out Superman in a fistfight without kryptonite. 

The director of this movie has been quoted as saying that this is a film very focused on visuals and that "the beginning is "Leon: The Professional", the middle is "Inception", [and] the end is "2001: A Space Odyssey." A particularly apt quote, if only Beeson actually knew how to apply it to his latest film.

...we don't know anymore than the dog who watches the moon.
  • Great introduction scene of Choi Min-sik's character. This entire bit feels like it's pulled straight out of another movie which is a very good thing.
  • The extremely poor execution of this film did bring some positives to light: namely it reminded me of an excellent short story by Ted Chiang titled "Understand". This is a story that touches on similar concepts explored in "Lucy" albeit in a much more satisfying way. It can be found online here for free.
I remember tasting your milk.
  • The director, producer, and writer of the film could seriously use a lesson in how to use exposition and subtext. This film features some of the most ineffectual uses of it since the latter seasons of Showtime's "Dexter".
  • Was there an actual reason for Morgan Freeman to be in this movie? Seriously, he would have worked just as well as a "disembodied voice". As an aside, Freeman was also in another sci-fi disaster from April. A little film called "Transcendence". Coincidence? I think not!
  • A confusing use of quick cuts between an African savanna and the opening scene is a gimmick that is quickly dumped early on in the film. While this is more or less a good thing it certainly doesn't do us ADHD sufferers any favors.
  • A multitude of story threads are picked up and immediately dropped throughout this movie that lead up to a nut-job ending that's completely unearned. 
  • Taking the only interesting character and pitting him up against someone that can hilariously overpower him pretty much negates any menace he may have shown at the beginning of the film.
  • If you're looking to see a movie chock full of so many ideas that it ends up saying and meaning nothing look no further than "Lucy".
Verdict: An intriguing enough premise ends up being swallowed into an abyss of bad exposition and poor narrative drive. "Lucy" is a movie that tries to cram in everything it can think of, but ends up nowhere. 

Do we really only use 10% of our brain? Check out the video above.

The companion review this week comes from Adam Riske over at F This Movie! (a site that also has an excellent podcast with over 200 episodes). Based on his assessment, I wish this had been the movie I saw. Check out his wildly different take on the film and what I seriously consider to be one of the worst scenes of 2014 here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Snowpiercer

"Snowpiercer" is a film taking word of mouth by storm. Case in point: not only was I literally told in person by someone else to see this, all you really have to do is go to Google and type "snow" and see what auto-fills. The fact this film was involved in what equates to a temper tantrum thrown by Harvey Weinstein (owner of the North American rights of the movie) that forced it as a limited release (which is an interesting story unto itself), is a testament to just how popular this movie has become.

Directed by South Korean born Bong Joon-ho, "Snowpiercer" is based on the graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" by Jaques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. The film features one of the more unique settings of science fiction films in that it takes place solely on a train. Indeed, the only other movie of this genre that features a similar setting is the under-appreciated but wildly contrasting "Source Code" from 2011. The basic premise of the film involves an environmental disaster that turned Earth into a frozen wasteland. The only remaining fortress of humanity is an endlessly running train that circles the globe once a year. Featuring a rather ragged looking Chris Evans (of Captain America fame) as the quasi leader of a ragtag group at the tail end of the train, the first quarter of the film is punctuated by a bleak and grimy view suggestive of a POW camp. The plan? Get to the front of the train.

Terminator 5: Off the Rails... er wait Snowpiercer. 

A simple enough premise, but the visual splendor that accompanies you on the journey to the front manages to more than make up for any lacking narrative. So many things come to mind when talking about the visuals: the aquarium car, the greenhouse section, even a functioning night club all serve as a dazzling view into this world. As you may have noticed I tend to avoid plot spoilers in these reviews, but for perhaps the first time giving away too many details about the visuals and action set-pieces seems like ruining the experience. I will say that this is clearly a South Korean film, one scene in particular is strongly reminiscent of a now (in?) famous scene in 2003's "Oldboy" (the original, not the mostly meh American remake). Not surprisingly and as I just discovered this is clearly no accident as "Oldboy" director Park Chan-wook was a producer on "Snowpiercer". The film has abrupt tone changes which works with the flow of the film considering how different each train car is. You'll eventually even find yourself in a scene the seems pulled straight out of a Tarantino film, but somehow it all works amazingly well.

As far as the remaining cast, we have Tilda Swinton as a member of the leadership in the front of the train that has more quirks than a James Bond villain. John Hurt also stars in what serves as his second supporting role this summer (which are perhaps more similar to each other than they appear on the surface) and has a decent performance that gets the job done. Also starring is Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer of "The Help" fame, but doesn't really leave much of an impression. The film also features famed (at least in South Korea) actor Song Kang-ho who has a mostly silent but important role. The story and characters ultimately end up seeming almost ancillary to the visuals and the film comes off more as an experiment for the director to flex his considerable muscle for detail and flourish. Which is surprisingly not a bad thing.

Joon-ho's first English language film shows a director with a much bigger future ahead of him and I'm truly excited to see what he does next.

It's a closed ecosystem...
  • Visuals, visuals, visuals! This is one of the most unique films out there this year in terms of unique and intoxicating visuals. Seeing is believing!
  • Despite the relatively simple story, it should be applauded based on the number of ideas and subjects worth pondering it touches upon. The ultimate quest to find the "man behind the curtain" at the front of the train continues to remain an effective plot device.
  • Abrupt tone changes actually end up being the films greatest strength and fit in perfectly with the train car aesthetic. 
  • Action scenes work well within the film and one prominent set-piece takes advantage of the unique shifting environment that can only be offered by gigantic, moving train. 
  • The costuming and the practical movie sets used are particularly impressive and make you actually feel the differing sections of the train.
Size ten chaos!
  • Lead Chris Evans neither adds nor detracts from the enjoyment of the film. One monologue near the end by his character, while competent, feels unearned and forced as an almost excuse for him simply say, "Hey look at me! I can act!"
  •  One bizarre scene manages to nearly derail (pun intended) the picture, but somehow pulls through at the last minute.
Verdict: "Snowpiercer" is a film that lives up to its hype. Despite a rather simplistic plot, the less is more approach to the story is more than covered by the provocative visuals. This is a film that stays with you.


Check out this short prequel to "Snowpiercer". The visual aesthetic alone is more than worth a watch.

The companion review comes from Katherine Monk over at O Canada and can be found here. It's only fair to hear some criticism...



Saturday, August 2, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

"Guardians of the Galaxy", the next entry in the ever expanding Marvel cinematic universe, is a film that gets a lot of things right but also suffers from some jarring blind spots.

Instead of plastering the Marvel logo everywhere, director and co-writer James Gunn wisely chooses to go the cold open route reminiscent of Fringe or The X-Files. In fact, give the first 5 minutes a dingy coat of mid-nineties television paint and add in some moody music and you have something that would have easily been worthy of a classic Mulder and Scully investigation. I suppose if you were to really think about it a cold open makes perfect sense because this more or less is yet another episode in the series that started with 2008's "Iron Man".

This film begins with a nine year old version of the main character Peter Quill (played as an adult by Chris Pratt) just before he is mysteriously abducted by a pretty impressive looking spaceship. Unlike "Thor" and its sequel "The Dark World", "Guardians" thankfully (finally!) keeps away from Earth and commits to depicting and staying in actual other worlds. The only connection we have with Earth is a pretty effective take of viewing, for the lack of a better term, alien situations through the lens of someone raised by 80s pop-culture. An especially memorable scene is the movie "Footloose" being retold in a pretty hilarious way. Which is where we come into the humor aspect- this film is chock full of it. Aiming for humor was really the best way to go in a film that features both a talking raccoon and tree. Something must also be said about the music used in the film as well which is heard mostly through Peter Quill's walkman and is his only remaining connection to his home planet. Juxtaposing his mix-tape (yes, an actual cassette) of 70's classics with the onscreen action works surprisingly well and is a character unto itself.

Following Quill's abduction, we are immediately brought to the present day and possibly one of the best spectacles of the entire film. The world we are shown is beautiful and windswept and coupled with the allure of an abandoned civilization reminds you just how much fun space odyssey movies can be. "Guardians" succeeds where I feel the recent Star Trek movies failed in that we actually get to live and breathe in these worlds and not just see them as glorified cameos or pointless filler (*cough* Vulcan and Kronos *cough*). Which isn't to say that "Guardians" pulls this off flawlessly as one important location plot wise is just barely fleshed out and really makes you wonder why we even care about it needing to be saved.

The actual "Guradians"themselves work well especially with Chris Pratt at the center. He is definitely one of the most charismatic of the Marvel lead's since Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. Walking the fine line between Captain Kirk's playboy and Han Solo's rugged adventurism is pulled off to great effect by Pratt. Rounding out the group is the always competent Zoe Saldana as the green skinned Gamora, Dave Bautista as the impressive looking but kind of lame in the end Drax the Destroyer, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Disel as the voices of Rocket and Groot respectively. Pulling off animated main characters is always difficult in films that feature mostly flesh and blood actors but by making Bradley Cooper's talking raccoon and Vin Disel's talking and walking tree strong characters in their own right, you end up buying their role relatively easily. However, once we move outside the main cast the biggest issues start to stack up.

We are treated to yet another barely fleshed out or understood villain named Ronan, played here by Lee Pace (who showed a much strong presence in last year's "Desolation of Smaug"). It is very easy to allude to Christopher's Eccleston's baddie Malekith in "Thor: The Dark World"when talking about the new villain Ronan. Both have unclear motivations and lack any nuance other than simply serving as the "purely evil" antagonist. Considering that Marvel has arguably created one of the greatest and most interesting villain's in comic movie adaptation history with Tom Hiddelston's Loki, it's hard to understand why they would keep throwing such ineffectual and boring villains at us in the other films. The problems with Pace's Ronan however go far beyond the problems with Malekith in the Thor sequel.

One of the hardest things to pull off in films is exposition, something that is nearly non-existent in the first half of "Guardians". We literally have no idea why Ronan is angry, who his people are, or where he even comes from. At least "The Dark World" had the benefit of some sort of prologue and while its easy to see why this wasn't possible to do in this film, some clever way to throw in a backstory of some kind would have been a great benefit. In that sense "Guardians" suffers the same problem that the original "Captain America" film had. One gets the feeling that we are simply going through the motions, or running through a checklist to quickly establish a new group of characters and then move on to bigger and better things. Additionally, we are treated to a mostly pointless return of Benecio Del Toro's Collector (last seen post-credits of "The Dark World") and a bored Glenn Close as the apparent ruler of planet Nova (which yes, I'm still unclear if that's the planets name or the civilization that controls it).

I can agree that it's great when a movie doesn't hold your hand to tell you in plain words what's happening at any given moment (see this year's abysmal "Maleficent"), but when you can barely grasp who the people and places are outside the core group- it creates some issues. The oddest thing about the first half's lack of exposition is the fact that the second half has so much of it. Throwing in cringe worthy lines about Peter Quill's possible parentage near the end sticks out like a sore thumb and clearly learned its lack of subtleties from 2012's Prometheus. In the end, it feels like the actual story beats were written by a group deeply divided between giving no and too much exposition. A nice balance would have been appreciated.

I dunno... twelve percent?
  • "Guardians of the Galaxy" finally drops the Marvel clingy-ness to keep things on Earth and presents us with a truly impressive looking universe that outshines most of this year's blockbusters.
  • The choice of Chris Pratt as Peter Quill was truly inspired and he fits the role perfectly. 
  • Wisely choosing to go the humorous route, "Guardians" will put plenty of smiles on your face with some genuinely hilarious lines.
  • The animated characters of Groot and Rocket work well and actively contribute to the "assembled team".
  • The mishmash of classic 70's hits with space opera works to great effect and even has some emotional weight to it. 
I'm pretty sure the answer is "I am Groot".
  • "Guardians" greatly suffers from a slew of boring, one-dimensional, and ineffectual villains. We're going to need another Loki... and soon!
  • Outside of the "Guardians", none of the characters seems to serve much purpose other than being "there". Featuring a bored Glenn Close, a too distracting John C Reilly, and unremarkable Djimon Hansou adds little to this film and leaves you wondering why you should really care about any of them (apart from the main characters anyway).
  • This is a movie that was in sore need of some more in depth explanations as to who these ancillary characters and civilizations really are.
  • Does literally everyone in the Universe speak English??
Verdict: "Guardians of the Galaxy" boasts some truly amazing visuals, interesting locations, humor, and fantastic use of music that will whet any space opera fan and casual viewers appetite. However, the one note villains, incredibly boring side characters, and weak and confusing story mar what could easily have been one of the better films in the Marvel franchise. Ultimately, you need to see this movie for the spectacle- just don't go for an endearing story or interesting villain. 

P.S. For the Mass Effect fans out there: did Knowhere remind you of Omega? I definitely felt some Mass Effect vibes coming from this film- which is a good thing! Also,the after credits scene is... less than interesting. Check it out online instead. 

Check out one of the many awful ads that led up to "Guardians" release. Pretty much undercuts the other pretty great official trailers. If you're bored, see if you can find the cringeworthy Subway tie-in or even the abysmal karaoke one. Bust out your Taco Bell cups!

This weeks companion comes from the clever reviewers over at Dear Cast and Crew. The premise of the site is that the "reviews" themselves are actually open letters written to various participants in the making of films. This particular letter is addressed to none other than the legendary Stan Lee from site correspondent Christopher Redmond. As an aside, you may have noticed this particular review doesn't necessarily disagree with my assessment. This was for two reasons: the first being that I think the concept of Dear Cast and Crew is just too good to not share with you and the second being because "Guardians" is currently sitting at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. A couple of alternate views can't hurt!