Friday, July 25, 2014

Luc Besson’s LUCY: Over-The-Top Yet Still Underwhelming

Opening today at a multiplex near you...

 (Dir.Luc Besson, 2014)

It’s too bad that Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel Universe co-star Samuel L. Jackson isn’t here to exclaim “check out the big brain on Lucy!” PULP FICTION-style, because Luc Besson’s new sci-fi thriller keeps asking us to do just that.

Johansson’s Lucy is an American student in Taipei, Taiwan, who gets forced into being a drug mule for an evil Korean crime lord (Choi Min-sik). But the colossal catch is that the drug the bad guys implant in our protagonist is a powerful synthetic called CPH4 (which looks a lot like the bright blue crystal meth from Breaking Bad), which increases one’s control over their mind rapidly bit by bit until it reaches 100% brain capacity.

This gives Johansson hyper-intelligence, superhuman strength, and the ability to change her metabolism, but this alteration in her body’s chemistry means she’ll need more of the drug within 24 hours or she’ll start decomposing. So Johannson travels to Paris to track down the other drug mules and confiscate their CPH4 with the help of Amr Waked as a grizzled French cop.

Morgan Freeman is on hand as a neuroscientist who first appears in cutaways from the main action lecturing a college classroom his theories about the brain’s untapped potential. These bits capture Freeman in narrator mode (when is he not in narrator mode?), and, mashed with cuts to nature footage, and time lapse cinematography, serve to visually sucker punch us with heady imagery and lofty conceptual themes.

This makes for some watchable eye candy especially when it comes to the fun of seeing Johansson kick lots of ass with her mind, but all the pseudo intellectual posturing that all the collective conscience of all humanity contains the entire history of the universe and ‘wow, what if we could tap into that?’ seems purposely aimed to shoot way over the heads of most movie-goers so they’ll think the movie is way smarter than it is.

Johansson beautifully builds upon the emotionless alien persona she exhibited in Jonathan Glaser’s UNDER THE SKIN earlier this year largely because we get to witness her invested transformation from college party girl to atomic super-heroine. Unfortunately as the climax approaches, Johansson literally gets absorbed into the surreal set pieces – i.e. she morphs into a black tentacle mass of squid’s limbs taking over a computer lab – as her presence becomes less and less interesting.

LUCY takes the “Flowers for Algernon”/CHARLY – i.e. everyman takes drug and gets super smarts - scenario, also recently utilized in the Bradley Cooper vehicle LIMITLESS and filters it through the ‘to understand how we live now, let’s begin at the very beginning’ thesis of Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE, which means, yep, there are dinosaurs. There's also a bit of Danny Boyle's time lapsing intros/outros from 127 HOURS happening too. I guess it’s all part of life’s rich pageant as Inspector Clouseau would say.

But for all these influences and/or pretensions, there’s little that’s actually thought provoking about the over-the-top yet still underwhelming LUCY. It tries so hard to be mind blowing, but it keeps coming up short. 

That said, Besson’s film is a vast improvement over THE FAMILY, his misguided mob family comedy last year, and it appealingly harkens back to his late ‘90s cult classic THE FIFTH ELEMENT. I also appreciate that it’s a summer blockbuster wannabe that isn’t a franchise entry, and isn’t in 3D.

However, no matter how much its stylish energy tries to obscure it, LUCY is a silly popcorn picture matinee masquerading as egghead cinema.

More later...

A MOST WANTED MAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art house near you:


(Dir. Anton Corbijn, 2014)

In what’s sadly one of his final performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman looks horrible.

This certainly fits the part, as Hoffman’s character, Günter Bachmann, in this adaptation of John le Carré’s 2008 espionage novel is a pale, sweaty, boozy German mess of man wrapped in a schlumpy, rumpled suit who’s the head of, as he puts it, “an anti-terror unit that not many people know about, and even less like.”

Set in present day Hamburg, which was, as the opening titles tell us, where Mohammed Atta and his fellow conspirators planned the 9/11 attacks. The German port has been on red alert ever since so when a mysterious hooded half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) suspected of being a Jihadist enters the country illegally, Hoffman’s agency tracks him as a potential terrorist threat.

Dobrygin, having escaped a Turkish prison, has come to Hamburg to claim a huge inheritance from his corrupt Russian colonel of a father, with the help of Rachel McAdams as a human rights lawyer.

Caught up in these shady complications are Willem Dafoe as a private banker in charge of Dobrygin’s father’s funds, Robin Wright in a brunette wig as a CIA agent who’s not to be trusted, and Homayoun Ershadi as a prominent Muslim professor, who Hoffman suspects will channel the money from Dobrygin’s inheritance to Islamic radicals.

Being that it’s a sparely paced, gray-toned thriller, A MOST WANTED MAN may put off some movie-goers as being cold and as hard to follow as the last adaptation of a le Carré bestseller, Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, but Corbijn’s take on the material, working from a screenplay by Andrew Bovell, is actually very straight forward, that is, if you pay close attention. I will concede, however, that it is an extremely icy study of the least glamorous aspects of spy work.

At first, Hoffman’s untimely death hovers over the film’s proceedings, but, as a testament to how amazing an actor he was, that fades away. We then only see and hear him as the jaded chain-smoking, hard drinking intelligence operative whose subtle methods are thought of as being redundant in today’s world of counter terrorism.

Hoffman’s scenes with Dafoe, in which the two distinguished actors’ hushed toned German accents duel it out in the shadows of salvage yard meetings, smolder with intensity. Likewise the jarring climax, a superbly shot sequence that’s as haunting as hell.

This fine follow up to Corbijn’s excellently artsy 2010 George Clooney vehicle THE AMERICAN is obviously elevated because its Hoffman’s last completed film as the lead, but it's still well worth seeing regardless.

Hoffman himself is always worth seeing because he would completely become his characters. And here his character is the character of the film – weary, depressed, deeply cynical, yet still ideally determined to try to “make the world a safer place.”

More later...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Monty Python: Older, Fatter, But Still Funny As F***

Last weekend, on Sunday, July 20th, my wife and I attended and laughed a lot at a live broadcast of “Monty Python Live (Mostly),” featuring the legendary British comedy group’s final performance ever (or so they claim) before a sold-out audience of 15,000 at The O₂ Arena in London, England.

The event, the last of a 10 show run, also sold-out at our venue, North Hills 14 in Raleigh, N.C., and from what I hear, at many of the 2,000 theaters around the globe that carried the broadcast, indeed proof that Python still has powerful pull even at this late date.

Despite some annoying sound glitches at the beginning, it was a hilarious delight seeing the surviving members - John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin – on stage together for the first time since their Hollywood Bowl concerts in 1980, energetically perform a revue of such classics as “Nudge, Nudge,” “Spam,” “Argument Clinic,” “Parrot Sketch,” “The Lumberjack Song,” and, of course, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” on a massive set with an orchestra (conducted by longtime Python collaborator John Du Prez) a couple dozen dancers, giant video screens, and, at one point, during the “Every Sperm is Sacred” number, candy-striped penis-shaped cannons that spewed confetti all over the audience.

The show’s tagline “One Down, Five to Go,” refers to the sad fact that sixth member Graham Chapman died in 1989, but Chapman’s presence was felt throughout the three hour program in the form of footage mostly from their classic BBC program Monty Python’s Flying Circus used to link the live segments and songs, and in lines like “He’s gone to join Dr. Chapman” added to “Parrot Sketch” with the audience’s roaring approval.

Much of the material presented was similar to that immortalized in the 1982 concert film MONTY PYTHON LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL – including the use of the filmed “Silly Olympics” and “The Philosophers’ Football Match” bits from the rare German episodes of Flying Circus – but there were several routines from their last motion picture, MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE, that had never been publicly performed before.

Those included an expanded version of “The Penis Song” sung by a cheeky as can be Idle, the aforementioned “Every Sperm is Sacred,” “Galaxy Song,” which is capped off by filmed cameos by physicists Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking (an audience shot afterwards showed Hawking in attendance), and “Christmas in Heaven,” which begins with an excerpt of Chapman singing from the original film.

Sketches that I was pleasantly surprised to see: “Vocational Guidance Counselor,” “Anne Elk's Theory on Brontosauruses,” and “Protestants Can Use Condoms” (also from THE MEANING OF LIFE).

I was also elated that actress Carol Cleveland, who’s been there since the beginning appearing on Flying Circus as well as all of the Python’s movies and stage shows, was there to reprise her pivotal parts. Guest appearances by Eddie Izzard, Mike Myers, and Warwick Davis helped liven things up as well.

Since I, and most watching, knew every line, it was funniest when the Pythons went off book. While quips about Palin’s “boring” travel shows, and Cleese’s multiple marriages were scripted, Cleese’s asides about bad reviews in the Daily Mail in the midst of the “Parrot Sketch”/ “Cheese Shop” mash-up apparently weren’t planned as they amusingly sidetracked, yet still didn’t sabotage Palin’s quick on his feet performance.

Having disliked many previous repackagings of Python, such as Idles’s musicals “Spamalot,” and “He’s Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy),” and the animated biodoc of Chapman: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, I was so happy that “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” was a cringe free 45th anniversary celebration as well as a fitting send-off to the greatest, most influential comedy group of all time.

Older, fatter, but still funny as fuck, the Pythons put on a Hell of a last performance that I’ll definitely purchase when it inevitably gets a Blu ray/DVD release, with hope later in the year.

For those who can’t wait, however, “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” will be re-broadcast at many theaters on Wednesday, July 23rd and Thursday, July 24th. Click here for more info.

More later...