Make no mistake, readers: as Susana Polo pointed out in her review on Friday, Lucy is not a good film and probably not worth spending money on to watch in-theaters (though neither is Hercules, of course). And yet, it made about 1.5 times more than Hercules at the box office this weekend.
Because the titular role is the only significant speaking role for a woman in the entire damned movie. We cannot (CANNOT) settle for this being a movie “for” feminism.
Because the trope of a woman getting psychically violated and used by a group of men is old, reinforces a lot of negative gender stereotypes on both sides, and frankly if you combine Brokedown Palace and Limitless we’ve already had this movie poured into our long-suffering eye-holes.
And because, most importantly, it’s one of the most racist things on a screen right now. The bad guys? Asian men. The entire movie focuses on her need to get out from under the grips of a group of villains who are pretty exclusively people of color…and if that’s not a loaded message, I don’t know what is.
The summer movie you’ve been waiting for has arrived, a joyous space romp that all but explodes off the screen with lots of action and even more charm.
Our recent superheros have been complex, often anguished, even downright tortured. It has been a while since we’ve had a charming rogue with a bad attitude but a hero’s heart. Enter Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who keeps trying to get people to call him Star Lord and who carries with him on his interplanetary space travels the “awesome mixtape” he was listening to as a young boy on Earth back in the 1980′s, when his mother died and a spaceship came to suck him up from the ground and take him far, far away. One of the purest pleasures of the film is the soundtrack of 70′s gems like “Ooh Child,” “Come and Get Your Love,” and “Hooked on a Feeling” (the ooga-chacka Blue Swede version) and some others too delicious to give away, wittily juxtaposed with spaceships and aliens.
In a scene that pays homage to the classic opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and with a personality that owes a lot to Harrison Ford’s irresistible space rogue Han Solo, Quill enters a chamber and steals a precious orb from a pedestal, only to be stopped by Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and some other scary-looking guys with sci-fi gun-looking things. A lot of people want the orb and are willing to take extreme measures. Evil wants-to-control-the-galaxy guy Ronan (Lee Pace) sends the beautiful but deadly green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, who seems to specialize in colorful space characters) to get it. Also interested are superthief Rocky Racoon, a genetically modified procyonid (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his sidekick Groot, an enormous, self re-generating talking tree (voice of Vin Diesel). Groot can only say one existential sentence, but it is remarkably expressive. Then there’s Drax (Dave Bautista), who just wants to destroy pretty much everyone, but especially Ronan, who killed his family. He is completely literal, with no capacity to process metaphor (except when the script calls for him not to be, but no need to get overly focused on consistency here).
This motley crew ends up in prison together, where they form a bond through an elaborate escape plan and a lot of quippy dialogue. The low-key, unpretentious “Bad News Bears”/”Dirty Dozen” vibe is refreshing after so much sincerity and angst in the superhero genre. It hits the sweet spot, irreverent without being snarky. And because it is set away from earth we are spared the usual scenes of destroying iconic skylines and monuments. Instead we get a range of richly imagined exotic settings and wild characters, though Lee Pace is under too much make-up and is stuck with a one-note character as Ronan. It is a shame that the bad guy is not as delightfully off-kilter as the good guys, but with five of them, there is plenty to keep us entertained. I don’t want to get too picky (see consistency note above), but the orb’s purpose and powers don’t seem to be thought through too well, either. I don’t ask for much from a McGuffin, just that it (1) propel the storyline and (2) not interfere with the storyline. This one doesn’t quite meet #2.
But deliciously entertaining it still is, with a long-overdue star-making role for Pratt, who has been the best thing in too many second-tier movies and outstanding but under-noticed in top-level films like “Moneyball” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Director James Gunn, who also co-scripted with first-timer Nicole Perlman, has made the summer popcorn movie of 2014, tremendous fun, and with more heart that we have any reason to expect. Can’t wait for the just-announced part 2.
Parents should know that this film has extended (and quite cool) science fiction/comic book/action-style peril, violence, and action with fighting and various weapons, some characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, some sexual references, and some strong language (two f-words).
Family discussion: What makes this group especially suitable for taking on Ronan? How does this movie differ from other superhero/comic book films?
If you like this, try: “Men in Black” and “The Avengers”
There are a lot of challenges in taking on the life story of James Brown, known variously as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite and others with variations on the term “Funk.” First and foremost, James Brown was one of the most electrifying performers of all time and though he is gone, the memories of his sizzling stage shows are vivid and the evidence is on YouTube.
Second is the conundrum that besets all who want to do biographical stories of well-known people, especially musicians. Is there a life as big as the work they did? We know that those who achieve greatly often pay an enormous price in personal turmoil for themselves and those around them. But those stories are not easy to tell, especially in the structure of the typical biopic, which goes from hardscrabble childhood to big dreams to first discovery by someone who can open doors to triumph, the first recording session where the heard-it-all studio technicians are blown away, the rapturous discovery by the fans, setback, the corrosive impact of fame and money, and then some catharsis and the achievement of legendary status. (I’m looking at you, “Jersey Boys.” Also “Ray,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Walk the Line,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “The Benny Goodman Story,” “8 Mile,” etc. etc. etc. etc.)
Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) makes some good choices addressing these challenges. First, he wisely cast Chadwick Boseman (“42″) in the lead role. Boseman is an actor of exceptional ability and magnetism, and he works as hard as the man he is playing to convey the power of Brown’s stage presence. Second, Taylor, who grew up in the South, has a superb sense of place that helps evoke Brown’s world. And he is not afraid of cinematic touches to evoke what is going on in Brown’s mind, including some asides to us in the audience.
But the film frustrates us with its random swings back and forth as we get so many flashbacks we are not sure where we are. Is this Brown looking back over his life with any insight or regrets or pride? Is the layering supposed to add depth to the story? Are we supposed to make sense of the juxtapositions between scenes of the past and present, sometimes explicitly expressionistic and imagined or exaggerated? It comes across as tricked up and distracting. Boseman is outstanding in the performance scenes but trapped in the rest of the film by Brown’s thick Georgia accent and frequent habit of just not making any sense, as in the very beginning scene when he uses a gun to threaten someone for using his bathroom. It skips over at least one wife and at least seven children, various arrests, and most of the saga of his extended problems with the IRS, without making it clear how what it does tell us illustrates his triumphs, struggles, and motives.
Even more frustrating is that we get so little sense of Brown himself. He comes across as damaged but opaque. What was it that drove him as a performer? What inspired him? We see him berating and imposing fines on his band, but very little of him creating.
There are two moments in the film that could be enough for an entire feature, When he is talking to his manager (a wryly sympathetic Dan Aykroyd) on his private plane, en route to the White House, about the conflict he faces as he achieves the mainstream acceptance he strove for in meeting the President at the same time he is accused of selling out. And then there is the core relationship in the story, between Brown and Bobby Byrd (the terrific Nelsan Ellis), the long-time member of his team who finally could not take the star’s ego any more. A Peter Morgan-style story on either of those conflicts would be far more powerful and avoid the “what happened to that person/marriage/record” that this too-quick trip over a very complicated life can hold.
Parents should know that this is a movie about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, with strong material for a PG-13 with strong language including two f-words, drugs, domestic abuse, child abuse, sad deaths, brief wartime violence, and sexual references and situations.
Family discussion: Why did James and Bobby call each other “Mr.?” How do you “flip” an obstacle? What did it mean when he said, “I paid the cost?”
If you like this, try: watch James Brown’s real-life performances
Woody Allen’s 44th film is an amuse bouche without a meal, a dollop of whipped cream without the dessert underneath. In last year’s film, “Blue Jasmine,” the strength of the performances (especially Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett) and the resonance of its Bernie Madoff-ish crossed with “Streetcar Named Desire” plot line provided a simulacrum of seriousness of purpose that suggested a deeper meaning. But this year’s pastiche has no such pretensions and no such weight as entertainment or as ostensible exploration of one of Allen’s favorite themes, the battle between faith and reason. And of course exploration of his even more favorite theme, the generative power of an adoring young woman in the life of a desiccated and lonely older man. Even without the queasy context of the allegations of child abuse and the reality of Allen’s marriage to the daughter of his one-time romantic partner and co-parent, this theme feels increasingly icky.
The jazz age 1920′s setting among rich Americans on the glamorous French Riviera (the same setting as Hitchcock’s classic “To Catch a Thief”) may resemble a fancy chocolate box, but the candy inside is strictly low grade. Allen’s greatest advantage at this point is that everyone wants to work with him. Two of the hottest stars in Hollywood, Colin Firth and Emma Stone play the leads in this story of a man of reason, empiricism, and proof who is (for a while at least) trumped by faith in things unseen.
Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a magician who performs on stage as a caricature of a mysterious man from China called “Wei Ling Soo.” Not only his tricks are illusions — his very persona is as well. He is abrasive and judgmental and prides himself on being committed to pure logic and debunking those who pretend to do real magic, including mediums with claims of contact with spirits and ghosts.
An old school friend and fellow magician named Howard (Simon McBurney) appears just as Stanley is about to go on vacation with his level-headed fiancee. He has a proposition. Some wealthy friends are being taken in by a young American named Sophie Baker (Stone) who claims to commune with the spirit world, and their relatives want her to be revealed as a fraud. Stanley is enticed less by the prospect of a reward than by the chance to triumph over someone making false claims and the chance to triumph over Howard, who admits he has been unable to find a flaw in the medium’s act. In addition, he will get the chance to visit his favorite relative, who lives on the Riviera, Aunt Vanessa (a superbly vinegar-y Eileen Atkins, who steals the film).
So Stanley and Howard visit the rich widow (Jacki Weaver as Grace) and her son Brice (Haimish Linklater), who is besotted with Sophie, and hopes to win her heart by serenading her with his ukelele. Also in the house is Sophie’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who is interested in nailing down the details of the foundation Grace plans to endow for Sophie.
It’s all pretty jolly for a while, though Stone and Firth have little chemistry as antagonists or otherwise. Stone is utterly beguiling, as always, despite Allen’s inability to situate the camera to get the most from her lovely face. (She is already working on his next film; here’s hoping they do better.) Other than Aunt Vanessa, though, the characters are all thinly, even limply imagined. Even Stone’s natural effervescence cannot give Sophie the necessary depth to make her interesting either as a fraud or as a genuine medium. Linklater and Weaver are both criminally underused.
There are some sharp lines, but the structure is by-the-numbers, including a visit to a celestial observatory for shelter from a rainstorm and a last-act hospital scene to raise the stakes on the faith vs. science debate. The problem is that most of the time, we need access to both, and this film’s shortcomings are proof in both categories.
Parents should know that this film includes smoking, drinking, and sexual references.
Family discussion: Does there have to be an absolute line between reason and faith? How do you decide which is appropriate in particular circumstances?
If you like this, try: “Blithe Spirit,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”
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Our recent superheros have been complex, often anguished, even downright tortured. It has been a while since we've had a charming rogue with a ba
Get on Up
There are a lot of challenges in taking on the life story of James Brown, known variously as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite and others with vari
Magic in the Moonlight Woody Allen's 44th film is an amuse bouche without a meal, a dollop of whipped cream without the dessert underneath. In last year's film, "Blue Jasmine," the strength of the performances (especially Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett) and the resonance of its Bernie Madoff-ish crossed with "Streetcar Nam
Exclusive Clip: Behind the Scenes on "Calvary" Brendan Gleeson gives a magnificent performance as a warm-hearted priest in a sad and damaged world in "Calvary," opening next week across the country. Here's an exclusive peek behind the scenes, featuring Gleeson and Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies Sister Rose Pacatte.
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