Lucy (2014)

LucyTalked into delivering a locked suitcase to an unfamiliar businessman, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is abducted on arrival and surgically implanted with an untested drug. She and four others are then given twenty-four hours to transport their cargo to destinations across Europe, their families threatened should they not comply. Before she is dispatched, however, Lucy is punched in the stomach for spurring the sexual advances of her captors, and a large quantity of the drug is absorbed into her system. She finds herself able to control her body in new and unprecedented ways, and with the added assistance of scientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) and police officer Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) uses her abilities to track down the man responsible: Mr Jang (Choi Min-sik).

It was obvious from the get-go that Lucy was going to be preposterous. The trailer alone propagated the myth that humans only utilise 10% of their brains, or cerebral capacity as Freeman puts it, and presented a heroine able to change the colour of her hair at will, control objects with her mind and read rainbow data streams being emitted vertically from mobile phones. Witer-director Luc Besson has previous with the implausible, obviously, but even taken on its own Lucy looked to be a particularly feverish offering.

As ready as you might be to dismiss it out of hand, however, Besson for once seems to be one step ahead. Choosing to open not with Scarlett Johansson but an early hominid, the director is likely to have even the most unassuming of audiences on the back foot. What’s more, these early scenes show promise; Johansson’s introduction is inter-cut with an array of apparently arbitrary scenes — early life and a mouse approaching a trap, to name but two — and you find yourself unexpectedly engaged as you work to connect the dots. Surprisingly apt, really, for a film about neural networks and inter-cellular communication.

As convincing as the illusion of intelligence might seem, however, there’s not really any denying that Lucy remains an assault on sense and reason. Besson isn’t making leaps of logic so much as leaving it behind altogether — the last twenty minutes make for some of the most incomprehensibly narrative of the year so far — and moments of lucidity or only few and far between. That said,  it is so enthusiastic and ultimately harmless that you can’t help but be somewhat disarmed by it. Johansson is great, particularly during an early phone call to her mother, and the rest of the cast are pretty decent too. What’s more, Besson continues to surprise throughout, and when violence so quickly gives way to discourse you have to give him his due.

Lucy‘s every bit as ridiculous as you might expect, but it’s so mind-numbingly daft that it might just convince you that there is also the merest shadow of intelligence to it. It may be unintelligible, but that doesn’t mean it’s unwatchable.

2-stars

 

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The LEGO Movie (2014)

The Lego MovieEmmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) — an inconspicuous, conscientious construction worker — follows instructions to the letter. He’s a model citizen, particularly in the eyes of the megalomaniacal President Business (Will Ferrell), who wishes everyone was just as respectful of the rules. Everything changes for Emmet, however, when he happens across The Piece of Resistance, a mythical relic sought after by the rebellious Master Builders, gifted individuals capable of redesigning the world around them. He is dragged into an ongoing conflict between order and chaos, suppression and expression, and — with the help of Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and Batman (Will Arnett) — begins to realise his true potential.

The main problem with Battleship, the last plastic plaything to be adapted for the big screen, aside from the wooden acting and terrible special effects, was that nobody involved in it understood or respected the game it was based on. Unconvinced that audiences would flock to a nautical war film that eschews explosions for tactics in the numbers necessary to justify production, the studio added aliens for no reason other than to boost profits, twisting the film into something that bore almost no resemblance to the game. Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy similarly mistook the appeal of the toys of the same name, instead producing a film for teenagers that was about pixels and inappropriate posturing when it should have been a children’s movie about toy robots.

The LEGO Movie makes no such mistakes in terms of theme or demographic, as directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller clearly understand the attraction of brightly coloured building blocks. Theirs is a film about imagination, creativity and doing big things with little pieces. The master builders — sort of alchemist Jedi — are fighting for the freedom to express themselves against a tyrant obsessed with order and perfection. Building from the instructions was always fun, and undoubtedly has its place in play, but what makes LEGO so popular and enduring is its versatility. Fans are invited to use the prescribed plans as a springboard, to mix things up and create something new and unique; something only that particular individual could have created.

With its heart in the right place, and by employing a premise that perfectly embodies the brand values of the product, then, the filmmakers are free to have as much fun as they desire with their box of bricks. The LEGO brand has branched out in recent years, into video games and other media, and it’s great fun to pick out the various subsets and other licensed properties; still, the relative newcomers are not allowed to overshadow proceedings, and the focus remains very much on the archetypal LEGO figurine, as well as with the animals and building blocks that are ubiquitous in all collections, past and present; familiar to all children, big and small.

The voice cast are wonderful — without exception — and Chris Pratt leads the lot as an everyman who may or may not be The Special. Morgan Freeman is a delight as Vitruvius, a blind wizard and leader of the rebellion, who gets many of the film’s best lines. The supporting cast (and assorted cameos) are great fun as well, with a number of real stand-outs: Will Arnett is hilarious as Batman, poking fun at a character who is all too often held up as the model of po-faced seriousness, while Liam Neeson excels as Good Cop/Bad Cop, a play on the actor’s kick-ass persona and possibly the first role to truly reconcile his non-threatening demeanor with his altogether more menacing voice. The film even rights the wrongs of Transformers, albeit unofficially, with a shape-shifting pirate (with a shark for an arm) who has as much personality as he does pixels.

The film, then, is hysterical, has an inspired plot and boasts a cast of colourful characters, and yet its successes don’t end there. An uncanny combination of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut‘s facial expressions, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs‘ zany humour and A Town Called Panic‘s manic energy, the crude animation has a charm and depth all of its own, beautifully blending stop-motion and CGI animation. The 3D too is outstanding, with the format’s much-maligned miniaturisation effect facilitating the belief that you are indeed watching tiny figures in action. It’s also gorgeously soundtracked, with both “Everything Is Awesome” and Batman’s ode to darkness likely to stay with you for weeks to come.

It’s only February, but 2014 has already seen its first masterpiece of the year. Everything about The LEGO Movie is note-perfect: the themes, the tone, the animation and the humour are all priceless. Cynics may still see it as one big advert for a global brand (or several, judging by the number of cameos), but this film isn’t for them; it’s for you.

5-Stars

Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See MeA year after they were each contacted by a mystery benefactor, four gifted magicians — J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) — take to Las Vegas as The Four Horsemen. During their first show, the performers invite a member of the audience onto the stage and, robbing a bank of the man’s choosing, shower their audience in stolen Euros. Having attracted the attention of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol’s Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent), the Horsemen evade arrest while trying to impress The Eye — an elite faction of magicians — with one final trick.

Widely dismissed as “The Prestige For Dummies”, Now You See Me was always going to suffer in comparison with Christopher Nolan’s own exploration of magic and the men who devote their lives to it. It didn’t help that director Louis Leterrier cast Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in supporting roles — as ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley and sponsor Arthur Tressler respectively — leading to accusations that the thesps looked bored by the apparently lesser material. (To the contrary: I’d say this is the most fun Freeman has had all year.)

Such criticisms are rubbish, of course, for while Now You See Me may lack the philosophical or intellectual underpinnings of The Prestige it does something entirely different, but equally important: it entertains. Leterrier’s film, quite unlike previous efforts Clash or Wrath Of The Titans, is both thrilling and funny. The opening act in particular is paced just right as each character is introduced in turn, their individual specialties — Henley is an escapologist; Merritt is a mentalist — helping to stave off repetition as they each show themselves to be masters of their own fields. Once brought together, their inter-relationships and rivalries keep them interesting.

But Now You See Me is very much an ensemble piece, and the fact that the script spends as much time as it does focusing on Ruffalo, Freeman and Caine helps it to explore its world of magic in a much more rounded way. Ruffalo’s partnership with Laurent is nicely played, while the ever-changing relationship between Freeman and Caine is sparky and, in the end, oddly satisfying. As such it is often difficult to choose a side in the conflict, but at the same time it’s refreshing to not have the film’s own sense of morality defined from the outset.

Without the need for realism or credibility, Leterrier gleefully makes his illusions as big and complicated as possible. An opening card trick and a later scene involving a disappearing rabbit are still mystifying in their relative simplicity, but for the most part the film’s magic is heavily reliant on leaps of logic and special effects. It isn’t all limited to stages, for once, and one of the film’s most memorable displays takes place in the midst of a fight scene; as Dave Franco’s con artist flees the FBI, he finds himself up against Ruffalo’s agents, utilising various tricks of the trade to aid his escape.

Ultimately, however, it is the final reveal that will colour your perception of the movie. Deemed ridiculous, impossible and patronising by some, the denouement does admittedly require quite a suspension of disbelief — so it’s a good thing the film is about magic. Call me naive, gullible or easily pleased, but I genuinely did not see the twist coming, nor was I at all disappointed with the angle the filmmakers inevitably took. Now You See Me may lack prestige, but the pay off is just the same.

4-Stars

Oblivion (2013)

OblivionWith just two weeks remaining until they ship out to the Tet, a satellite orbiting the planet and a way-station between Earth and humanity’s new home: Titan, robot-repairman Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are continuing to maintain the drones designed to hold back the surviving agents of a past alien invasion that all but destroyed the planet. When a spaceship crash-lands and a woman (Olga Kurylenko) Jack recognises from an impossible dream is pulled from the wreckage, however, doubt is cast on everything he presumes to know about the war. Read more of this post

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Blamed by the citizens of Gotham for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart – in flashback) eight years previously, Batman has been retired from duty while Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) exiles himself in the family manor with only butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) for company. The truth is that Batman is no longer needed, the city’s streets the safest they’ve ever been thanks to the Dent Act, a precursor to peace-time that has left the police growing complacent and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) racked with guilt over the hidden truth behind Dent’s demise. Both are therefore caught off guard by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked monolith who has been rallying an army in the city’s sewers. When Batman is dragged out of retirement by a mysterious cat-burglar (Anne Hathaway), a collision course is set that could spell the end of Gotham once and for all. Read more of this post

Batman Begins (2005)

Blaming himself for his parents’ murder years before, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) bides his time until the man responsible is up for parole and then sets out for revenge. Robbed of absolution when somebody else beats him to it, Wayne forfeits his family’s empire and exiles himself in a Bhutanese prison, where he is eventually courted by Ra’s al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) The League Of Shadows. Trained as a ninja and taught to overcome his childhood fear of bats, Wayne returns to butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and his family’s fortune when the organization’s true intention – to destroy Gotham, ridding it of its evils – becomes clear. With pawn Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow) already in place, the newly created Batman will have to seek assistance from DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) if there is to be much of Gotham left to save. Read more of this post

Dolphin Tale (2011)

Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is flunking school. Despite the best efforts of his single mother (Ashley Judd) and champion swimmer-turned-soldier cousin (Austin Stowell), Sawyer just can’t engage with his school work, preferring instead to sulk in his workshop with a pet-project helicopter. After encountering an injured dolphin, however, Sawyer’s mindset changes as he develops a friendship with the struggling animal, named Winter by the daughter of a local marine doctor (Harry Connick Jr.). With the hospital running up debts and Winter’s injury again threatening her life, Sawyer turns to the prosthetics expert (Morgan Freeman) currently working with his cousin’s leg (he too was injured – this time by war rather than crab trap) and the dolphin’s growing fan base for help.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Dolphin Tale was inspired by true events, the story elements it shares with DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon would be inescapable. As far as the two premises go, the commonalities are uncanny: a young loner with daddy issues befriends a friendly carnivore with tail issues; together they form a symbiotic relationship and impact one another’s lives in unexpected and hugely meaningful ways, leading to the eventual creation of a prosthetic and ultimately a national acceptance and celebration. Come on, all that’s missing are a few horned helmets and a triumphant John Powell score.

Where How to Train Your Dolphin differs, however, is in its undeniably old fashioned method of story-telling. Harking back to the likes of Free Willy and FlipperDolphin Tale feels very much like a throw-back to the 90s’ preoccupation with child/savant animal pairings. It is all very sober, relying entirely on the story’s own charms without feeling the need to riddle the script with child-friendly gags and overwrought morality. While I’m not trying to suggest that this is necessarily a bad thing – far from it –  it is true that aside from some variably successful CGI and a rather pointless 3D conversion, there is very little to distract you from the narrative itself, for better or for worse.

For while Dolphin Tale is affable enough, boasting agreeable performances and a relatively smart script, it is hardly enthralling. For a film featuring both a hurricane and a dolphin under constant threat of death, the story is strikingly devoid of conflict and incident. A disapproving teacher is all but ignored; the hurricane barely impacts at all; and a threat to the marine hospital’s future is written off with that old children’s movie staple: the improbably repentant businessman. There is no clear climax, no contrived but consuming rescue attempt, just an uninteresting and disappointingly undramatic fundraiser. As one character proclaims, it just isn’t enough.

As inspiring as a story about a wounded marine mammal could hope to be, Dolphin Tale is a lovingly made and ultimately charming – if a little ornate – tale of friendship and determination. Though its depiction of true events does add an intriguing extra dimension to proceedings (the footage of the actual 2005 rescue is indeed remarkable), it might not be enough to hold the attention of younger children weaned on Pixar and Playstation. At least is wasn’t in the screening that I attended.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman returns, but he has once again left his comic book beginnings in the closet with his tights and boy wonder sidekick. Picking up where Batman Begins left off, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is on the case of the Joker (Heath Ledger), an agent of chaos who has set his sights on Gotham and its knights: both white and dark. With Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggling to choose between two tie-strewn jawlines, the plot mechanics are left to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is being relentlessly undermined by the corruption in Gotham’s police force. Luckily, the Joker isn’t doing very much, contented at first to kill his fellow antagonists in an attempt to try and find out just what makes the man in a bat costume tick. Oh, and there’s a bit set in China.

Having spent nigh on three years now bemoaning the film’s popularity, I suppose it’s about time I revisited The Dark Knight with fresh eyes. Having refused to buy the film on account of not liking it very much, I was finally afforded the opportunity to give it a third and final chance upon arriving home to my brother’s own, different yet equally extensive DVD collection. And you know what, I’m glad I did. Aside from reaffirming my belief that it is not the masterpiece many believe it to be, this third viewing also let me warm to the film in a way I hadn’t expected to. It might not be brilliant, but it’s certainly not terrible either.

Christopher Nolan’s characters are very good at wearing suits. They parade around office blocks and court rooms and roof-tops completely at home alongside the other finely dressed businessmen and women of Gotham City, saying intelligent things and generally being suave and well groomed. The opening scene depicting a beautifully executed bank hiest smacks of Nolan’s trademark narrative prowess, the entire film an intricately crafted thriller which allows those same suited ciphers to trade machismos (“If you want to kill a public servant, Mr. Maroni, I recommend you buy American”/”No more dead cops!”) and pander to some ideological sermon on realism.

And then there’s Batman, our joyless playboy’s masked alter-ego: a bat-eared relic of a bygone superhero age. The Dark Knight is less an ode to a comic book icon than it is an apology, robbing a once great character of all that once made him super in the blind and boring pursuit of grit. A respectable – if unremarkable – crime drama is trundling along affably when all of a sudden a growly Welshman in a plastic fancy dress costume tumbles on-set with a stiff neck and a larynx full of gravel. At this point Nolan’s worshipers proclaim The Dark Knight to be the greatest superhero ever made, a claim I’d put more stock in if Nolan had the confidence to portray the character in all his bat-nippled glory, and not just the elements which gelled with his own personal dogma.

Don’t get me wrong, there are elements that work; Lucius Fox interjecting with “submarine” before Bruce Wayne can ascribe his sonar technology to the echolocation of bats is a nice touch. I’m not saying superhero movies can’t be well-made and tackle serious issues, but they work best as allegories, rather than locking their more fantastical elements in the closet and interpreting darkness as a less-than-subtle absence of light. X-Men works because it isn’t a lecture on equality, but a story which addresses it subtextually.

It’s as though all involved ploughed their quota of character complexity into Heath Ledger’s outstanding Joker, leaving Batman to shout incoherently, Michael Caine to play Michael Caine and Maggie Gylenhaal to flesh out Plot Point #13. You see, as able as Nolan is to pander to his largely male demographic with cool choreography, moral quandaries and big explosions, the director is less confident with his female characters; clearly viewing his women as a remedy to criticisms over his films’ sterility. Rachel Dawes emotes and swoons on cue, but without evoking very much of anything. The kiss she shares with Wayne smacks of storyboarding rather than any identifiably human affection; he never earns it and she then never alludes to it.

But my issues with The Dark Knight go way beyond its poor lighting and emotional negligence. You may see this as nit-picking, but when you put something up on a pedestal by calling it a masterpiece, any and all criticism becomes valid. I’m not some kind of gravitas-hating sentimentalist, I appreciate that there is a time and a place for a serious and considered approach – I was hardly criticising United 93 for its absence of laughs – but Gotham? If you want to make a serious crime drama then create one, don’t shoe-horn it into a superhero movie, apologetically brushing the titular character aside so you can have serious discussions about the nature of heroism. All I know is that if I’d been 12 and Nolan had made a Pokemon film about institutional reform, I’d be livid. Anyway, my concerns.

Where did Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow go? Considering how much thought has obviously gone into the screenplay, shouldn’t Dr. Jonathan Crane have been on the boat of criminals seen later in the film? I realise that after having recast Rachel and optioned to model Gotham on an entirely new city there was need for consistency, but it is a jarring omission nonetheless. Why “pretend” to kill Commissioner Gordon? It adds nothing to the film, except for yet another unneccessary plot development that ensures The Dark Knight rises is a few minutes short of neverending. What annoys me most, however, are the double standards required by the film’s supporters. So The Dark Knight is so amazing because it is so ruthlessly realistically? What about the flying? The skyhook? The voice? What about the ridiculous mobile sonar device? These things shouldn’t stand out in a Batman film, but they do.

The Dark Knight is perfectly serviceable; but as a crime drama it is undermined by a man in a bat-costume, and as a superhero movie it is heavily devoid of superheroes. It is over-long, one boat-set display of moral high-fibre too many. The character arcs – on paper – sound highly intelligent and complex, but in reality fall flat? The Dark Knight isn’t the best comic book movie ever made, it’s not even the best Batman film. It’s a good movie, an ambitious movie, but a flawed movie. Like Inception it is an idea, lacking the emotional resonance of a work of art. As a great man once said: why so serious?