Lucy – Film Review

In the world of French film director/writer Luc Besson, the average, everyday normal kind of people take a back seat to a place populated by gangs, thugs, mobsters, hitmen and some really hot women who shoot, maim and kill anyone who gets in their way.

In Lucy, Besson’s new fantasy violent thriller with flurries of science-fiction, Scarlett Johansson plays a young student living abroad in Taiwan.  Of course, this being a Luc Besson film, he can’t have his heroine looking like a real American student overseas, so instead of tee-short, jeans, sneakers and maybe a Steelers ball cap he has her dressed in a leopard skin top, mini skirt, heels and over-sized, dangling earrings while sporting messy, bleached blonde hair.  She’s a fantasy hooker with college on her mind.

 

The bad guys, a bunch of merciless Taiwanese gangsters all dressed smartly in dark suits and black ties, kidnap Lucy and force her to be a drug mule.  They implant a plastic pouch of drugs known as CPH4 in her body, then sew her up and prepare her and three other mules to fly to various destinations around the world in order to get the drugs through customs, unobserved  “It’s a new drug that kids in Europe are gonna love,” the bad guys explain.

But it all goes wrong.  Due to an accident, Lucy’s plastic pouch leaks and the mysterious, new drug seeps into her system.  She suddenly becomes some of kind of ever-evolving superwoman possessing a super brain.  Forget her studies – there’s nothing the local college would be able to teach her – she now has revenge and the meaning of life on her mind.  It’s that old urban myth about how we only use ten percent of our brain to think and function.  In Lucy’s case, the cinematically blue shiny crystals of CPH4 open her mind way past the infamous ten percent resulting with untapped chaos.  Despite the nutty premise, so far so good.  Then things get really weird.

Had Lucy continued on the superwoman seeking revenge route, the film might have been fun, but writer/director Besson has bigger themes he wants to tackle.  He’s actually taking this gobbledygook kind of serious – it’s like someone who tells themselves a lie then believes it – and has his Lucy exploring the nature and meaning of human existence, all while blowing the bad guys to pieces with those trademark guns and their elongated silencers that look so cool on the big screen if you walk around with one in each hand.

 

By the end of the film, Lucy experiences something akin to the visuals astronaut David Bowman witnesses in the ambiguous ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, only where Bowman was floating in infinite and beyond, with Lucy it’s all in her head.  The only way to end this premise once her mind is eventually open to the full one hundred percent is to disappear up her own existence, which, in a manner of speaking, is exactly what she does.

Luc Besson is often referred to as the Steven Spielberg of France, but I beg to differ.  He’s more Quentin Tarantino, which is not the same thing.  The Besson and Tarantino styles and presentation are different, but the worlds they create are the same.  Like Tarantino, Besson’s characters inhabit a parallel universe born not of reality but from images derived from other films.

 

The urban legend of the ten percent brain usage fits nicely into Luc Besson’s fantasies.   He takes this folklore and presents it as fact by having Morgan Freeman play an expert on the subject giving detailed lectures on what might happen if the human brain was unlocked and used to its full potential.

It’s no coincidence that the teaser trailer released a while back made Lucy look potentially great.  That’s what Besson does.  He makes nonsense look great, but what looked fun in ninety seconds isn’t quite the same as stretching it to ninety minutes.  When Lucy brings swift justice to the bad guys with slick though murderous moves, it’s all what the trailer promised, but once she starts developing super telekinesis powers that would make Carrie look like an amateur, then, like Lucy’s drug-addled brain as it continues to expand, the film falls apart.  The action is perfectly fine; it’s just not particularly good sci-fi.

 MPAA Rating: R   Length:  89 Minutes    Overall Rating:  5 (out of 10)

 

Posted in Film

The Purge: Anarchy – Film Review

The solemn, black and white titles during the opening moments set the scene.  The year is 2023.  Unemployment is five percent.  Fewer and fewer people live below the poverty line.  Crime is virtually absent, and the population is kept to a manageable level, all because of … the Purge.  What the titles don’t mention is that it’s also a crock.

The sequel to last year’s action/horror The Purge, now called The Purge: Anarchy differs considerably from the original.  This time we see a much broader picture of what’s happening on the streets of America during the twelve hours when all crime, including murder, is perfectly legal.  “Hope to see you all tomorrow,” says a manager to her waitress staff in a restaurant with just two hours and twenty-six minutes to go.  “Stay safe.”

 

All of our protective services such as the police and humanitarian areas such as hospitals are closed.  All you can do is board up your homes, bolt the doors and stay out of sight in the hope that the crazies who are given a blank check to exorcise their inner demons will pass you by.  Of course, you can also flood the borders into either Canada or Mexico, or if you have the money, get the first plane out of the country and enjoy a week’s vacation in some other part of the world, but logical courses of action like that are never mentioned, and that’s just one of several reasons why it’s a crock.

Unlike last year’s outing, the sequel has no star names.  Last time it was Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey protecting their home and family from neighborhood nutcases.   This year the premise proves that larger salaries are not required.  Like several reasonably low budget horrors of the past, such as the Friday the 13th movies, Saw and even the Paranormal Activity franchise, marquee values names are no longer required.  All the producers have to do is set up a new year, a new night of Purge, and let it rip on a new set of innocent characters who spend the night dodging bullets and machetes until the sun rises.

 

Asinine premise aside, one of the problems with the sequel is that there’re too many characters.  Our innocent protagonists consist of a young couple whose car breaks down minutes before the Purge begins, a mother and daughter who are forced to flee their tenement home, plus a guy called Leo Barnes who is armed and out on the streets in order to seek revenge on a man who accidentally killed his son in a DUI and got off on a technicality.  Well, perhaps Leo’s not an altogether innocent protagonist, but we sympathize with his plight, plus he helps keep the young couple and the mother/daughter as safe as he can, so despite his intentions of taking advantage of the Purge in his own way we’re supposed to like him.

Then there’s: 1) a suspicious group of well-equipped assailants who appear to have the military equipment to bust in to any home they chose: 2) a well-intentioned black militia:  3)  assorted bully-boy crazies wearing scary masks and wielding knives, machine guns and machetes, and finally: 4)  perhaps the worst of all, the cowardly rich who treat the night of purging as a form of entertainment while kidnapping innocents off the street, bidding on who they want to see killed, then watching the murders from behind the safety of bullet proof window.

 

The only real moment of satisfaction during this mess is when the black militia burst in and assists our unfortunate innocents from being murdered at the hands of the wealthy.  Considering there’s no logical reason for the rich to be involved in the purge – what inner demons are they supposed to be exorcising? – watching them shriek in terror after enjoying a night of sadism for their personal enjoyment feels somehow justified.  After all, when you think about it, the reason a situation in our society such as the need for a purge even exists in the first place is because of those like the greedy who have it all at the expense of those who continually have nothing.  Managers, company CEOs and various others who live comfortably while working out ways to keep milking the working stiffs, reducing their hours and taking away their benefits in order to line their own pockets should beware.

I can’t believe you guys went through that stuff,” says one woman to our innocent group of central characters.  “It’s just insane.”  Too true.  The Purge: Anarchy is the single most unpleasant experience you’ll have at the movies since… well, last year’s equally knuckleheaded The Purge.

 MPAA Rating:  R     Length:  104 Minutes   Overall Rating:  2 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Sex Tape – Film Review

The new comedy Sex Tape from director Jake Kasdan runs a little over ninety minutes yet it feels its running forever.  You know you’re in trouble when you spend most of the film thinking of better outcomes to any of the given situations and funnier punch lines to the gags; though to be honest, the script doesn’t call for many actual gags, just situations that never quite conclude.

Cameron Diaz plays Annie who writes an on-line blog about her thoughts and feelings on being a wife and a mother.  “Do you remember the first time your husband saw you naked?” she blogs on her laptop.  Using Annie’s writing as the narration to a lengthy pre-credit introduction we see how Annie and her boyfriend, Jay (Jason Segel) met and spent most of their time while dating – having wild, crazy, cartoon-styled sex not only in the bedroom but in as many public places available while proclaiming repeatedly how much they effing love each other.  Romeo and Juliet they’re not.  Considering that Annie’s supposed to be something of an intelligent writer and wordsmith it’s amazing how most of her regular dialog consists of nothing more than continually dropping f-bombs.

 

Next comes marriage.  “We promised ourselves nothing would change,” Annie writes in her column, though it does in the way that everyday life and grown-up responsibilities get in the way of the daily habits of a couple who themselves haven’t quite grown up.  First comes a child, then a second, then the inability for Annie and Jay to continue their rabbit-like wild and crazy pre-marriage habits.  Horror upon horror, they lose their sex-drive.  “How do you get it back?” she blogs.

When the new i-Pad arrives Segel’s Jay is impressed with its improved ability to record videos and the sharpness of the playback, so what do they do?  They make a porn movie, naturally; a hardcore video that lasts almost as long as Gone with the Wind, though the book upon which they base their three hour homemade blockbuster is The Joy of Sex.  They spend more than three hours recreating every position illustrated in the famous seventies do-it-yourself manual and then film it from every angle.

But next, the worst thing they can imagine occurs.  The video is accidentally downloaded to the cloud network where it can be seen by everyone who’s ever received an i-Pad as a gift from Jay.  Horrified, the couple spends the rest of the night racing around trying to retrieve all of those handy-dandy flat screens from their friends, including Annie’s potential new boss (Rob Lowe), before the epic length video is viewed.

The problem for Annie and Jay and their sex tape – even though there’s no actual tape involved – may be a big one for them but the problem for us is even bigger; we have to watch Annie and Jay race around, shouting at each other like demented idiots on speed for the rest of the film.  Jason Segel has such a likable, good-natured manner about him it’s a shame it’s squandered on strained, raunchy material like this.  It worked in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but it lands with a dull thud in Sex Tape.  Though considering the script was co-written by him, he only has himself plus co-writers Kate Angelo and Nicholas Stoller to blame.

Cameron Diaz, on the other hand, is the hired performer, and Sex Tape is just another resume filler on an ever lengthening line of mediocre comedies.  Considering she made such a big impact in The Mask then followed it with edgy, interesting independents such as The Last Supper and Being John Malkovich, not to mention the nice girl roles in My Best Friend’s Wedding and There’s Something About Mary, being this continually shrill and annoying is doing nothing for her career.  When sitting at the dinner table in the home of her parents she looks radiant and you’re reminded for just a moment of the good work she’s previously delivered, then saddened as you realize that Sex Tape is not going to be among them.

As a couple we’re supposed to warm to Annie and Jay, laugh at their dilemmas and relate to their plight – after all, what they did was in the privacy of their home and not meant for public consumption – but in reality they’re simply a reasonably well-to-do, immature couple.  Yes, it’s just a comedy, and no, you’re not meant to analyze everything quite so thoroughly, but, come on; even though Annie and Jay are presumably meant to be in their late thirties this is really a couple too young in their manner and attitudes to be married let alone inherit the responsibility of raising a family.

If the film had gone in a different and edgier direction and allowed all of their friends, plus the mailman and Annie’s boss, to actually see their homemade porn, then maybe Sex Tape might have been about something.  Instead, what we’re really faced with is an epic-length commercial for the remarkable i-Pad disguised as a big screen sit-com.

 MPAA Rating:  R     Length:  95 Minutes     Overall Rating:  3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Peter Pan – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

Over the years, the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up because he didn’t want to learn solemn things, has become a perennial favorite.  In the past year alone, two large scale productions were produced in the valley; the national tour with Cathy Rigby and a lively production from Valley Youth Theatre in downtown Phoenix.

Now, the high-flying musical of Edwardian manners has landed at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria in a sparkling new re-imaged version.  It’s the same show, but ABT has approached the musical in a slightly different way.  The magic is still there, but the overall production differs from what you might expect.  It’s like going in expecting one thing and leaving with a completely different impression.

 

For one thing, ABT has bucked the trend of casting the lead in the style reflecting the show’s pantomime origins.  Instead of going the traditional route of having Pan played by a female with short, pixie-styled hair, here we have the lithesome David Errigo, Jr. who brings to the stage just the right amount of impish, mischievous quality needed to make Pan come alive.

David’s playful approach and childlike manner as he leaps around and over the sets with boundless energy is genuinely fun to watch, particularly during the athletic flying sequences.  He not only flies across the wide ABT stage from left to right, he leaps through opened windows and even walks down the side of walls, all while singing,  In one particularly effective moment he actually flies out over the heads of the audience then circles back with a smooth landing on stage.

 

The Disney animated feature and the more recent 2003 film version also cast their Pan as a boy, but both had him talking with an American accent making him stand out among the cast of British sounding children.  David employs an English one, though curiously, if you close your eyes and listen to him speak, with his pronounced tone and odd inflection, you’d swear he was literally channeling Cathy Rigby.  The Olympic champion’s style of speech was always considered individual at best and has never truly sounded like a British boy, and here David imitates that same sound and rhythm down to the last syllable.  On reflection, his own voice might have worked better.

Kiel Klaphake does double duty as both the prissy Mr. Darling and the dastardly Captain Hook, and it’s with Hook that Kiel excels.  When playing the colorful and – let’s face it – psychotically murderous captain who wouldn’t think twice about making innocent children walk the plank, there’s only one way to play it; over the top.  Each year at Christmas, Hollywood actor Henry Winkler flies to England and dons the costume of the pirate captain for British audiences where he’s become an annual favorite of intentional over-acting, and here Kiel gives Winkler a run for his money.  There’s no way of over-playing Hook; the louder, the broader, the better, and that’s exactly what happens on ABT’s stage.

Where the musical differs from most productions is in the look.  Scenic designer William Boles makes the sets of Neverland appear like the pages of a child’s oversized 3D pop up book; they seem to assemble before your eyes.  Lit by a practically fluorescent lighting design by Will Kirkham that bathes the set in reds, greens and yellows depending on what character is doing the talking, the whole thing is eye-popping.  It’s only in the opening moments, in the children’s bedroom, where things don’t work as well.

The angled walls giving the impression of space should be effective, yet despite the beds, the furniture and the huge window that will eventually open on its own to reveal Peter Pan, the stage remains empty.  Plus, it doesn’t help that during those initial moments where we first meet Wendy (Sarah Powell) and her brothers the show plods and feels as though it’s lasting longer than it should.  It’s not until later when Peter and the Darlings head to Neverland that the production really takes flight.

 

Like the scenic design, Christianne Myers’ costumes sparkle.  Individual attention has been paid as each character displays something interesting and individual about their look.  Curiously, the Indians are here dressed not in the traditional theatrical garb but in what appears to be grass skirts; they’re less like something you might see posing by a Wigwam on a reservation and more South Pacific.

Despite the first scene, the overall feel to ABT’s Peter Pan is one of enormous fun.  If you have children who have never before seen the musical, then a magical few hours at the theatre are guaranteed.  When Tinkerbell’s light is fading and Peter turns to the audience and asks for its help, the lights on all the dinner tables throughout the theatre momentarily brighten.  Whether it was intentional or not, it’s the single moment in the show that truly reflects the play’s pantomime origins.  When the division between audience and actors is suddenly blurred and the whole theatre becomes one, there’s nothing more magical, and for one glorious moment it happens in this production.

 Thanks to photographer Mike Benedetto and Arizona Broadway Theatre for use of the images.

For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for ABT’s official website.

Posted in Theatre

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Film Review

In the same way that World War Z and the more recent Edge of Tomorrow quickly brought audiences up to date with their settings, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with a montage of TV sound bites from broadcasters around the globe.  The ALZ-113 virus, more commonly known as the Simian Flu virus, has circled the globe at an alarming rate and killed off most of Earth’s human population.  “Maybe this is how it ends,” a TV reporter states as his voice trails off.

It’s a somber beginning, but it sets the tone.  For those who never saw the 2011 series reboot or perhaps saw it but forgot how it concluded, the global TV montage to this new edition works.

 

In this second of the new series – I think most of us have all but forgotten Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot attempt – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up roughly a decade after the last one ended.  The world may be in ruins with a just a few humans remaining who were genetically immune from the virus, but the film concentrates its story within the confines of what is now a San Francisco wasteland and its surrounding forest.  Famous landmarks are either coated in dirt and rubble or merely gateways to ghettos inhabited by what is left of the human race.  If the virus didn’t kill them off, then the lack of basic supplies soon will.

The issue on hand is simple.  If the survivors can get to the deserted power plant and regenerate the energy into working order, heat, light and power could return to parts of the skeletal city, and that could mean all the difference between life and death.  But there’s a problem.  The power plant sits outside of city limits.  It’s in the woods, and that’s where the apes live.

 

While there was a lot to technically admire in the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the film ended in a way that left audiences suitably entertained but not altogether satisfied.  However, if you were to walk off the street with little or no knowledge of any of the previous Ape films and saw Dawn, it wouldn’t matter.  It might be a reboot sequel but it’s an altogether fresh beginning.  As a stand-alone adventure, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is extremely impressive.  It’s difficult to recall where the marriage of special effects, human actors and computer generated imagery has blended together so seamlessly well.

Oddly, director Matt Reeves has chosen to present the film not in widescreen but with a standard ratio.  This makes for a more intimate setting when getting to know the apes on a closer level but for a film that has such an overall epic scope to its story, the grand setting is made to look cinematically somehow smaller.  Still, considering how good the overall production truly is, the size and shape of the screen is a minor gripe.

The motion capture performances of Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar, Toby Kebbell as Koba and Karin Konoval as the enormous orangutan Maurice – a nod to actor Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius the orangutan in the 1968 original perhaps? – are truly exceptional.  In comparison, the human personalities barely register, though it’s good to see Jason Clarke and Keri Russell as sympathetic characters wanting nothing more than to live alongside the intelligent apes while most of their human surviving cohorts, including Gary Oldman, would rather their simian neighbors were dead.  “If you’re not back in three days,” states Oldman to Clarke and Russell before they begin their trek to turn the power back on, “We’re gonna go up there and kill every last one of them.”

Considering that the 2011 reboot merely entertained but offered little to inspire the hope of a worthwhile future series of substance, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes comes as a surprise.  It’s a genuinely enthralling adventure with intelligence that grips, even in the quiet moments.  How rare is that when it comes to sequels?

One amusing observation.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is being presented in 3D on some screens.  The 3D doesn’t necessarily add much to the enjoyment of the film – a regular screen will do fine – but when it comes to the scenes of communication between apes where sign language is used, the required subtitles in 3D hang like tangible objects off screen near the bottom.  You can almost reach out and grab them.

 MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  130 Minutes     Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Venus In Fur – Film Review

If you were lucky enough to see the David Ives play of Venus in Fur, part of the fun of the film is comparing the differences between stage and screen, though truth be told – not to mention good news for those who enjoyed the play – there really aren’t that many.

The set up is the same, only the location and language have changed.  Instead of NYC we’re in Paris, and instead of a rented actors workshop we’re in a cavernous, empty theatre on a stormy evening.  Director/playwright Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric) is trying to cast the role of Wanda von Dunayev for his next play, an adaptation of the 1870 novel of female dominance Venus in Furs, but he’s not having luck.  The problem with Thomas is that women in the modern world can’t seem to live up to his view of how the nineteenth century aristocrat should be played.

 

As Thomas is about to call it a day and shut the theatre, a woman hauling a large shoulder bag walks in to the auditorium out of the rain, unannounced.  She strolls down the aisle towards the stage area – from the camera’s point of view she appears to float – and immediately takes control, apologizes for being late and begs Thomas to let her audition before he leaves for the night.  Her name is Vanda (Emmanuell Seigner) and at first Vanda is everything Thomas dislikes in a woman.  She’s a foul-mouthed tornado of untapped energy, a brazen and sometimes vulgar character who shows no potential when it comes to portraying a woman like Thomas’ Wanda.  Yet the moment she starts quoting Wanda’s lines, something happens.  It’s not that she simply alters the tone of her voice or her pronunciation, in the blink of an eye she appears to embody the character as though the actress who had just entered was now gone and the real aristocratic Wanda von Dunayev was suddenly in the room.

From there, Vanda’s audition begins, a thorough reading and re-enactment of the play with Thomas reading the male role.  What surprises the director is that this woman, who seems to be an unorganized, scattershot mess, somehow knows the play by heart.  When she recites the dialog she’s already off script, plus she’s brought with her a nineteenth century costume perfect for the role and even a smoking jacket for Thomas that just happens to be a perfect fit.

 

At this point we’re suddenly aware that something odd is going on, something even a little supernatural perhaps, made all the more suspicious by the atmospheric thunder and lightning going on outside.   Thomas is mesmerized by Vanda.  Like the male character in his play he falls under her spell.  When Vanda breaks character and momentarily falls back to her natural self in order to mouth an opinion on whether the play is really porn rather than art, the nineteenth century Wanda disappears, but it’s too late for Thomas; he’s hooked, and just like the characters in his play, roles at the audition are reversed, powers are shifted, and Vanda as Wanda assumes control.

After the release of the recent Carnage, based on the play God of Carnage, director Roman Polanski continues he’s recent streak of adapting film versions of American plays with Venus in Fur, and like before he’s cast well.  Vanda is played by Polanski’s real-life wife, and she understands the role perfectly.  It’s not that she simply looks and sounds right in her transformation from an audacious wannabe performer in desperate need of a job to the perfect woman for the role; she also instills a surprising sense of fear that should set off alarms.  When she produces a gun or a knife as a prop there’s a real sense of apprehension in her performance:  This woman might be dangerous.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that actor Mathieu Amalric who plays Thomas bears a striking resemblance to a younger Polanski.

 

As a two person film, Venus in Fur doesn’t satisfy in the way the play does.  In the stage version, Vanda bursts in to the studio the moment Thomas has made his phone call where he complains about the women of today and his myopic view of them.  In the film, Thomas is having that same conversation as Vanda enters the auditorium.  She can hear his narrow analysis as she makes her way to the foot of the stage.  It’s a small change but a significant one.  It means we’re already aware that Vanda knows how Thomas sees women, she’s heard him spell it out, whereas in the play we have no clue what Vanda does or doesn’t know about her potential director until later.

The ending may raise eyebrows.  To explain why is to spoil the surprise, but to say that the early suspicions of something supernatural happening are not only realized,  the movie displays no doubt as to who Vanda really is or what she represents.  The play pulled it back some, and the piece was better for it.

 MPAA Rating:  Unrated       Length:  96 Minutes   Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film