LUCY Review: Free Your Mind and a Mess Will Follow

Lucy PosterJust past the halfway mark, 2014 has already been a terrific year for two cinematic forces. Force One is science fiction.

Over the last six months, Hollywood has offered a wide variety of entries (some good, some not, and some somewhere in between depending on who you ask), ranging from non-franchise material like Transcendence and Edge of Tomorrow; franchise reboots and sequels like Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; and Young Adult adaptations like Divergent. The latter half of the year holds promise, too, with late-year releases including YA adaptation/franchise The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, starring Jennifer Lawrence; and non-franchise Interstellar, the latest vision from director Christopher Nolan.

One other 2014 sci-fi entry – art house dazzler Under the Skin – stars Force Two of 2014: Scarlett Johansson. The talented actress, already coming off a great 2013 (having starred in indie darling Don Jon and the Oscar-winning Her), has had one of the best years in the business. In addition to her brilliant performance in Under the Skin, she appears in indie fave Chef and plays a key role (as her MCU recurring character, Black Widow) in the new best entry in the MCU, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Can ScarJo and sci-fi do it again and keep both 2014 streaks alive with Lucy?

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The title character, as played by Johansson, is a woman in Taiwan whose new boyfriend tricks her into delivering a locked briefcase to mob boss Jang (Min-sik Choi).  In the case are large packs of a new synthetic drug set for global distribution.  The packs will be surgically inserted into Lucy (and other nameless mules) and later extracted when everyone arrives at their various international destinations.  On her trip, Lucy’s pack breaks and her body absorbs a large quantity of the drug, opening her mind well beyond the standardly-accepted 10% of mental power that humans supposedly utilize.  Gradually, Lucy’s awareness of self expands to awareness of environs around her and, ultimately, awareness of all (universally speaking).

Lucy’s self-appointed mission is to find Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), a leading authority in the field of human mental capacity, so that she can share with him the knowledge she is gaining as her brain power grows.  She also wants to stop the other mules from reaching their destinations, and for assistance with that she recruits French police detective Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).  Looking to recover his drugs is Jang.

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Writer/director Luc Besson puts himself to a considerable test with Lucy by attempting to integrate a high concept and a deep theme within the framework of a by-the-numbers action flick, all within a 90-minute runtime.  Besson, although he tries, is never up to his own task.  What shows up on screen is a scattered mess of a film, although not without some positives.

Besson stumbles out of the gate in two ways, really.  First, he juxtaposes two specific events in an overt effort to draw a comparison between man and nature.  As Lucy finds herself in deeper and deeper trouble at Jang’s office, Besson cuts to a gazelle in its habitat, unknowingly being stalked by a cheetah.  As Jang’s men close in, (cut) the cheetah gives chase to the gazelle, eventually slaying the beautiful creature (cut) just as Jang’s men detain Lucy.  I understand the intent, and the footage of the animals is nice (although not anything better than you might watch on a NatGeo program), but it disrupts the action in the human world and dismantles any tension therein.  This connection to nature is made repeatedly throughout the film, and then ultimately extended to the universe and along the timeline of the universe’s history.

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Second, Besson spends a considerable amount of time early in the film on Freeman giving a lecture on the human brain and its capacity.  It’s interesting enough, but this particular filmmaking choice is emblematic of what hurts the entire film the most: the depth of the theme is too great to be smoothly integrated into an action movie.  This film is sold (via trailers) as High Concept + Action.  It isn’t that; at least, it isn’t only that, and the parts that aren’t that are far too deep for what the rest of the film is trying to do.

Or, you know, vice versa.  So much time is spent on the mind’s possibilities once its power is expanded beyond 10% (Lucy’s incremental increase is shown as effectively shocking, gigantic title cards … 40% … 50% … 60% … and so on), the action that takes place disrupts any type of “educational” flow.  But, since we were sold on ScarJo being drugged and kicking ass, this film must be viewed as a high-concept action movie first, but one with an overreaching cerebral component.  I know I’m in line with the chorus when I say I want movies – even summer popcorn fare – to be smarter, but this thing tries too hard to be the über-nerd at the cool kids’ table.

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This lack of focus takes a considerable toll on the action in the film, which is pedestrian at best.  As stated before, the early scenes are interrupted, and once Lucy can drop a room full of men with just a thought, there isn’t much else to film.  And even when there is – like the Lucy-less gunfight that occurs between Jang’s men and Del Rio’s squad – the sequence is lifeless.  It’s as if Besson knew he needed the scene and simply got it done so he could check that box.  There is also a car chase in the film, and it too is the victim of both uninspired check-box direction and woefully clunky editing, also by Besson.

The special effects Besson and his team employ are quite good, though.  Not only are there some mind-bending moments involving Johansson, there are grand effects including time-travel (yes, time-travel) and visions of the universe; personal effects involving the things a heightened Lucy can see and hear (that regular people can’t); and effects at the molecular level within Lucy’s body and mind.  These are all quite dazzling, and the effects that occur in concert with characters are seamless and believable.

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The actors playing the four primary characters are a mixed bag.  Freeman is fine, but he basically plays the Freeman character – erudite and wise, but still reverent of things greater than he.  Choi is so disappointingly underused.  I’ve seen his work in Asian films (most notably 2003’s Oldboy,2005’s Lady Vengeance, and 2010’s I Saw the Devil) and the guy can deliver.  Sadly, his Asian baddie character here is presented through Hollywood’s white filter, and he never dreams of making it past two dimensions.  Surprisingly, Waked is quite good as the French police detective, despite being anther flat character in a limited supporting role.  He has a natural charisma, and while I don’t think he could carry an American action film, he’d be a welcome addition to a larger cast.

And then there is Johansson, who is simply amazing.  She elevates a film fraught with problems and carries it for most of its 90 minutes, making us believe in something we have no idea about.  No one knows what it would be like to have that kind of brain power, and the actress plays it not crazed or megalomaniacal, but with sensitivity and tenderness, and a resolve that the end might not be good for her.  Johansson’s shining moment comes as Lucy’s brain capacity is in its early stages of expansion.  She calls her mother in the States and relives a collection of childhood memories that reach back to her infancy – things like the feel of a cool hand on her feverish forehead or the taste of her mother’s breast milk.  Johansson delivers these memories with a stunning combination of nostalgia and regret, simultaneously happy to remember them but sad that it has taken such an extreme measure to appreciate life’s little things.

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I went into Lucy hoping to see a film that would be the third entry in the ScarJo Sci-fi Trilogy, along with Her and Under the Skin.  This film is nowhere near as good as those, but Johansson’s performance is.  In fact, her performance as Lucy is a perfect blend of the best parts of her portrayals of Her‘s (faceless) Samantha and Under the Skin‘s (mostly silent) nameless entity.  Besson may have failed at his ambitious attempt to give us a smarter summer movie, but Johansson saves the day with a sublime performance worth paying to see.

2half stars


LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON Review: Father Knows Best

Like Father Like Son PosterReading that a film has a “switched at birth” plot usually doesn’t inspire one to clamor for the remote. That theme has been around a long time and invokes thoughts of melodramatic made-for-TV fare or silly switcheroo comedies. But when the “switched at birth” premise is coupled with “Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize Winner,” clamoring for the remote becomes a necessity. But once you start Hirokazu Koreeda‘s sublime Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru), you can put the remote down because for the next two hours, you will be mesmerized.

Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a driven and successful architect working in modern-day Japan. He leads a very comfortable life with his beautiful wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and their adorable 6-year-old son Keita (Nonomiya Keita).  Their life seems to be a happy one until they learn that the child they thought was theirs is actually the child of another couple, and that that couple has the Nonomiyas’ biological child.

The hospital where both children were born, eager to clean up their mess, brokers a meeting among the two sets of parents. This is where the Nonomiyas meet father Yudai and mother Yukari Saiki (Lily Franky and Yôko Maki, respectively), blue-collar parents with two other children in addition to Ryusei (Hwang Shogen), the son that was switched.

Given that six years have passed, the parents decide to gradually integrate the children into the opposite family’s life, with the long-term goal being that the children will permanently live with their biological parents. That turns out to be a more difficult road to travel than originally thought.

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In the hypothetical situation I placed myself in (especially as a parent) while I watched Like Father, Like Son unfold, it seemed instinctive – even easy – to me that the solution to the problem was clear. The Nonomiyas created life. The Saikis created life. Each should lay claim to (a terrible phrase to apply to children, but apt given the circumstances) that which they each created.

And yet.

Through Koreeda’s perfectly paced screenplay and his patient and engaging (yet never intrusive) direction, the solution is not that easy … and really, the solution isn’t necessarily that important.  While narratively impactful, the switched-at-birth angle is mostly a plot device designed to introduce the deeper examination of Ryota’s struggle with nature-versus-nurture and his approach to parenthood and the journey it takes him on.

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Koreeda first establishes an overt dichotomy between the fathers – white collar vs. blue; meticulous vs. messy; prompt vs. tardy.  This approach not only gives the characters clear differences viewers can quickly connect with, it broadens the nature-versus-nurture debate by giving it a socioeconomic facet.  This is something that drives Ryota from the opening scene of the film, which shows the Nonomiyas being interviewed by the board of a prestigious elementary school that the parents hope will accept their son.  This is emblematic of Ryota’s approach to parenting – provide.  Provide the best schooling, provide strict rules concerning piano practice and video game time, provide, provide provide … which means, of course, that Ryota works – a lot – to provide.  But this is how he sees his role as father.

Conversely, Yudai is self-employed and what he cannot buy for his children he more than makes up for in physical presence.  His is an approach built on forging bonds during the children’s formative years, from flying kites to bathtime silliness.  Emblematic of Yudai’s approach is a terrific scene that occurs at the end of the first weekend when the boys swap homes.  Keita has a booboo on his hand, the result of a fall while playing.  The Nonomiyas are mortified (and at such a tiny thing), but Yudai simply rolls with it, brushing off the scrape as nothing more than a battle scar of a fun childhood.

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Koreeda’s shrewdest move is allowing the events to play out over the course of months.  Rather than simply swap the boys and be done with it, the families slowly break them into the notion of their “other” family.  This completely neuters any chance of overwrought, reactionary drama and gives Ryota plenty of time to struggle with the notion that how he has been as a father, while not wrong, might not have had all of the best elements a father can have.  It also allows him the opportunity to learn how to better express his feelings beyond the materialistic, too.

Through clever storytelling structuring, we learn that Ryota knows his way around nature-versus-nurture better than we think, having been raised by a father who holds sacred the notion that blood-ties trump all, yet by a stepmother who is the very antithesis of that.

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This film is so rich with little details like this.  My favorite is the difference in professions of the two fathers.  It isn’t enough that Ryota works at a large architectural and design firm and that Yudai owns his own electronics repair shop.  It’s that the former is a vocation that requires great specificity and pinpoint measurements to be successful, while the latter thrives in impromptu tinkering and finding comfort in drawers full of parts and piles of bits of things.  Their work encapsulates their unique spirits so perfectly.  Still, not one to let a chance go past, Koreeda even uses the differences in professions to create one of the more devastating moments in the film, when Keita tells Ryota that Yudai can fix his toy; Ryota is suddenly hit with the notion that providing for and doing for are two very different things.

Delivering for their director is a collection of actors who give top-notch performances all around, along with a pair of adorable child leads.  But once Koreeda quickly settles in, the show belongs to Fukuyama, who gives a command performance as a father who, through circumstances completely out of his control, finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew so well.

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It’s hard to fault any filmmakers who approach a switched-at-birth tale with melodrama or humor in mind because the situation is ripe for either.  That Koreeda deftly avoids it is a testament to his skills as both a screenwriter and a director.  That’s not to say there is no drama; there is plenty of it.  But it’s delicate and nuanced and looks deeper into parenting than the shock/reaction/aftermath approach of lesser films.  Those lesser films are meant to be simply consumed; Like Father, Like Son is meant to be savored.


DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review: Monkey See, Monkey Do

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes PosterDawn of the Planet of the Apes, which begins ten years after the end of the action in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, finds humanity all but wiped out.  The “Simian Flu” (as the man-made virus came to be known) took a devastating toll on the world’s population, including San Francisco, which now is comprised only of the hundreds of people who have a natural immunity to the virus.  Their survival has been hard and is getting harder, as resources are dwindling.

Leaders Malcolm (Jason Clark) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) have a plan to change that by restoring a nearby power-generating dam that will supply them with electricity.  The only thing standing between them and that goal is a redwood forest full of highly evolved apes.  The apes – who aren’t even sure if humanity still exists – have established a large and peaceful community entirely cut off from the humans that helped evolve them and tried to eliminate them.  They have not only survived, but have thrived, with a new generation of apes coming into their own, a fully developed sign language, and a leadership hierarchy, atop which sits Caesar (Andy Serkis).

When Malcolm leads a small group of humans to the dam, the group finds itself in the apes’ territory.  A brief but violent confrontation occurs, which creates a divide within the simian community.  Caesar, who was raised by a human (James Franco‘s Will Rodman in the first film), wants to help; Koba (Toby Kebbell), who was viciously tortured by humans, does not.  There is also a divide in the human community.  Malcolm knows how evolved the apes are and wants to work with them, while Dreyfus believes their evolution to be overstated and sees the apes as subservient and a hinderance to restoring electricity.  A power struggle ensues that reaches a conflicted and violent climax both among and between the two groups.

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The opening set-piece in Matt Reeve‘s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is sensational.  It is an electric and fluid showcase of apes in habitat, doing everything from battling natural enemies and giving birth, to communicating via sign language and recognizing an established leadership hierarchy.  It sends a clear message: 10 years after the events of the previous film, nature has restored order.

Enter man, who tries like crazy to screw it all up.  And it’s when man enters the picture that the open’s promise of an amazing filmgoing experience turns into just another action flick, albeit one posing as a message movie, with two-dimensional characters and, you know, with apes.

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Man is represented by a small group of people who meet minimum character requirements and little else.  Malcolm is the Human Protagonist and wanter of the peace.  Dreyfus is the Human Antagonist who disagrees with Malcolm’s ape relations policy.  Ellie (Keri Russell) is the Obligatory Woman in Malcolm’s life, and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the Future Generation (Malcolm’s son from his deceased wife).  Rounding out the ragtag core are Hothead Carver (Kirk Acevedo) and Other Guy Foster (Jon Eyez).  And there’s your humanity, save a couple hundred nameless seat-fillers.

Assigned to man (as a collective) are base societal attributes – an air of superiority, a dependence on technology, a love of guns – all of which are superficially presented and used only as an excuse to create conflict; there is no great or deep meaning to these.  Apes are the enemy the way Russians are the enemy in many 1980s action movies.  Technology is the goal because improving life is always the goal (barring the need to run a gauntlet to get from Point A to Point B).  And guns are the weapons they have always been, but their presence here is so overt as to be almost laughable.  This is a group of people who, after a decade, haven’t figured out how to make the most of their “new” lives, yet they have amassed an army’s worth of firepower – including tanks.

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The apes are deeper characters, but “deeper” is a relative term simply because it means the apes have the history of the first film behind them (there are no human character carryovers).  Without that history (read: judging this film on its own merits), Caesar is essentially Malcolm’s counterpart, Koba is Dreyfus’ counterpart, and so on, right down to love interests, children, obligatory others, and seat-fillers.  There is an added dimension of a power struggle between Caesar and Koba, plus a rift within the ape community, throwing a little Shakespearian heft their way.  The humans have nothing remotely close to this.

The apes are in defense mode – be it by peace or war – so the only issue that really flares up for them is the gun issue.  Again, overt is the keyword here; Caesar hates guns and wants them destroyed, while Koba … not so much.  It is interesting, though, how guns play into the apes’ lives as an extension of their accelerated evolution.  Man loves guns, man comes from apes, apes love guns.  I thought this was a rather clever addition to that evolution.  Their bodies are still simian, but their minds are even more human than ever.

Without intricacy of plot, complexity of character, or depth of issue, all that remains is conflict, be it us vs. us, them vs. them, and/or us vs. them.  Thematically, it’s all been done before, and better.  Visually, once you get past some legitimate WOW moments regarding how the apes look (particularly charging through fire on horseback), you realize the action has been done better, too.

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What has never been done better before is the presentation of the apes.  The looks, the sounds, and the movements are remarkably real.  This is, of course, a testament to Reeves and his creative team, but without the actors “beneath” the FX – Serkis, Kebbell, Judy Greer, and so many others – this film simply doesn’t happen.  On the human side, the only actor worthy of note is Clarke.  This is no shot at the others, who make the best with what little they are given.  Clarke, as the film’s human lead, has a little more to work with and makes the most of it.

On a technical note, I had the great privilege to screen this film in a theater equipped with a Dolby Atmos Sound System.  It was like nothing I had heard before (and I’ve heard sound on that system numerous times).  Ambient noise – apes making sounds in the distance, trees swaying, at one point in-scene music – sounded like it was actually going on the auditorium, not on the screen.  Great credit should be given to the film’s sound department for a magnificent aural presentation.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film loaded with ideas, and good ones.  It has good ideas about themes.  It has good ideas about characters.  It has good ideas about messages.  But those themes and ideas and messages have all been done before, and not only better, but fuller.  Once this film sets up its initial framework, it ignores better and fuller and instead relies on its VFX and apes the hollow action films that have come before it.