Short Takes: Guardians of the Galaxy, Lucy & more

guardians-galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy- The best way I can think of describing James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is dropping Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video games into the Mass Effect universe.  As is almost always the case with the endless bombardment from the Marvel film juggernaut, I also find myself trying to focus on the things that make this slightly different from its many siblings.  Guardians is marketed as the black sheep in the family, but its knowing digs at superhero movies don’t compensate for the fact that it is basically a completely formulaic superhero movie with a fantastic soundtrack.

Chris Pratt turns his leading man charm up to 11 as Peter Quill, but Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s script sometimes focuses on it to an annoying degree (hence the Uncharted comparison). Marvel’s latest sensory assault is aided by the fact that it delays its conventionally filmed and edited Final Battle Sequence in favor of protagonists that aren’t completely generic. (The villains are very generic).  Bradley Cooper is especially great as the voice of Rocket Raccoon, and the movie could have benefited from giving other inspired turns from Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close more screen time.   Grade: C-

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Lucy- There is a great scene in Luc Besson’s Lucy, one of my favorites of the year, actually.  In it, the title character (Scarlett Johansson) calls her mother to talk about the strange wave of sensations flooding over her now that a drug has unhinged her brain’s capability.  It’s a masterful sequence shot in an unnervingly close proximity to Johansson’s expressive, increasingly other-worldly performance. (It’s her second one of those this year, by the way.) 

The rest of the movie, sadly, is an onslaught of occasionally memorable images and half-baked ideas that don’t stick. Lucy is a thrilling character to watch discover herself, but the directions the movie stretches her don’t carry much weight because it seems like a sprint to the finish.  I got the impression that Besson got to make the movie he wanted to make but not enough of it, and that with a little more time the preposterous conceit at the story’s center would have been taken to more exciting metaphysical extremes than the ones that are here.   Grade: C

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Obvious Child- Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is a kind of revolutionary fluff, a love story with many typical rom-com moments that’s also a rambunctious corrective to movies like Juno and Knocked Up. (spoilers ahead) Jenny Slate gives one of the year’s great breakout performances as Donna, the New York comedian who gets pregnant and expects everyone to attack her for wanting an abortion.   Knowing most mainstream depictions of abortion in film and TV, she has a reason to fear for her life, though the movie is daring because it depicts it as a viable option that allows Donna to go on without trauma or death.

Slate’s performance is lively enough to counteract some of the script’s weaker scenes, like an unnecessary, surprisingly unfunny encounter with an older comedian played by David Cross.  She excels at spitting Robespirerre’s venomously funny dialogue while subduing the story’s gooier center.   The movie heralds the arrival of a sharp comic voice and excels even more because of her energetic, hilarious screen presence.  Grade: B-

life-itself

Life Itself- I’m sure I’m not the only one who went into this knowing that I would cry.  As Werner Herzog puts it in the movie, Roger Ebert was such a “soldier of cinema” that his enthusiasm about the movies he really loved remains contagious.  He was a prolific, honest writer about movies and, especially in his later years, about a great deal of other things as well.

Life Itself, directed by Steve James and based on Ebert’s memoir, is a loving but not overly adoring tribute to the critic.  Judging by the frankness in his personal writing, I think he would have liked that the movie doesn’t shy away from his struggles and others’ criticisms of him.  James constructs Ebert’s life story around his decline, interspersing standard talking head and archival footage with painful depictions of how the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer spent his final years battling thyroid cancer.  The movie doesn’t lean too hardly on those health problems, though.  The segments that focus on his two greatest relationships, with his wife Chaz and his on-screen sparring partner Gene Siskel, are both heart-warming and very funny.   Grade: B+  (Thumbs Up)

 

 

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REVIEW: Under the Skin

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Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Walter Campbell (screenplay),  Michel Faber (novel)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson 

In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays a wolf that doesn’t quite know how to wear sheep’s clothing.  She is an alien prowling Glasgow and the surrounding Scottish countryside in a white van, seducing and luring unsuspecting men to their death.

Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, based on Michel Faber’s novel, is a gender inverse on a fairly common horror/thriller premise.  The story is told in long, bleak stretches, the camera accentuating the way the creature attempts to move and act human.  Johansson’s performance is crucial to this strategy.  She nails the way the alien flips an “on” switch to turn a dead-eyed stare into a warm, welcoming woman when she spots prey.  Glazer hints at an eroticism with his camera movement that the actress deliberately pushes away.

The most sexually tinged scenes are the bloodless killings.  ScarJo’s victims, blinded by lust, pursue her into what transforms into a totally black stage.  They each leave a string of clothes as they lurch across it, but the men sink into the floor and become trapped.  The rest of Scotland isn’t much more colorful save for a reliably flashy night club.

Despite the color palette, this is Glazer’s most visually accomplished and altogether thrilling film to date.  When I watched it I had no idea that many of the interactions that the alien has with men were filmed using civilians and a hidden camera.  There is a cool, confident stillness to the images that rejects that often on-the-fly filmmaking aesthetic.  The performances, on the other hand, seem unforced and genuinely spontaneous.

Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell capture the alien predator’s bizarre point of view by making it clear that she is trying to fit in but can’t.  The result is an odd uncanny valley effect that Johansson’s star power only enhances.  This is evidenced in fairly standard alien movie scenes, like when she tries to eat human food and vomits it up, but also in her everyday movement and posture.  Under the Skin would be nothing without her blank yet inquisitive stares.

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The alien eventually begins to unravel during this vague man-harvesting mission.  In one of the most haunting and moving scenes I’ve seen in recent months, she stops to talk to a very deformed, quiet man on a rainy night.  She treats him as she does any of the other victims, but the script lingers on their interaction more.  She asks him if he gets lonely, then grabs his hand and caresses her face and neck with it.  The man’s darting eyes and nervous, muttered reactions are heartbreaking.

After this interaction, she lets the man leave her den, naked and wondering where he is.  He’s eventually collected and (presumably) killed by one of the undeveloped, motorcycle-riding henchmen who (presumably) clean up after her.  After that she wanders and begins trying more and more human things, including eating, riding the bus and sex.  The movie rejects any notion of redemption or change, though. It bounces humanity and their emotions off its central character instead of forcing her to become one of us.

Grade: B

REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America Winter Soldier 2

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Written by: Christopher Maruks and Stephen McFeely (screenplay), Ed Brubaker (story), Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (comic book)
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford

Even with an admittedly heavy case of Marvel fatigue, I enjoyed the second installment in Captain America’s part of the franchise.  There was an edge and spontaneity to both the story and its telling that made it feel like more than just an obligatory stepping stone to another Avengers.  Hell, I enjoyed this one more than The Avengers. 

The Winter Soldier centers on an internal struggle involving mass surveillance and gigantic drones.  None of the characters are who they initially appear to be, except of course the good Captain (Chris Evans).  He is the one consistent element in a story with twists that are often obvious but never obnoxious.  (Spoilers) Yes, a major character who dies didn’t actually die.  Yes, with just seconds left, the world is saved again.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Her

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Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara

Her is a beautifully realized and often moving story of an impossible relationship.  It’s not just about a man who falls in love with his operating system, but instead uses that premise to springboard into a vast array of heady topics.  Spike Jonze dares to imagine an absurd romance with sincerity and depth of feeling, and in doing so makes the physical world of the future seem like a limited if beautiful place.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) at first seems like a typical protagonist in a modern male-centered romance like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State.  He is a sensitive writer whose skills with women demand a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to set things right. His new fully aware OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) seems to be that “girl” but instead becomes a sly critique of the archetype.

Samantha’s worldview transforms so thoroughly beyond Theodore’s comprehension by the end that her “human” traits and relationships are a miniscule part of what she is.  At first he is her window into the world, as he carries her around in his dress shirt pocket and lovingly answers her every question.  She is not a real woman, though, just like the women in those other previously mentioned movies.  However, Samantha is intangible not because of the male flimmaker’s narrow vision but because her intelligence is very nearly limitless and far surpasses the limitations of humanity.

A fully-functioning and feeling AI is right at home in the movie’s glossy take on future Los Angeles.  This is a place where computers can effortlessly copy penmanship and every interior looks like a modern art museum.  It’s also a world where relationships, conventional or not, don’t work.  Theodore buys the OS seemingly out of the blue.  He’s going through a divorce, and when his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) finds out about Samantha, she doesn’t hesitate to stick the knife in.

“You always wanted a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real, I’m glad that you found someone” she says through her teeth.

Her movie

And yet, for all its gentle lecturing, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is more emotionally and sexually charged than in most movies where you see both parties.  Many on-screen romances, largely because of the audience-friendly PG-13 rating, rarely bother with actual sex.  Her is rated R, because even though the sex scene is told from Samantha’s point of view (black screen), you can hear everything.

It’s impossible not to see Scarlett Johansson when she’s talking as Samantha.  It’s a sly joke to cast the woman who is so often used as eye candy (ahem, The Avengers) as a sexy Siri.  Her voiceover, which she nails, is so crucial to the movie’s success, as is the chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an off-kilter, emotionally rich performance in the lead.  Amy Adams is also excellent as Theodore’s supportive friend.

Jonze starts to tread water with the premise in the last third of the movie, and though the theme “only humans can be human” is beaten to death in science fiction, it doesn’t feel stale in such a funny, moving film like this.  The future he and his crew have created is also far and away one of the most optimistic I’ve ever seen in a movie, a far and welcome cry from the generic dystopian nightmares that seem to be released every weekend.

Several changes of scenery don’t completely save the monologue-heavy screenplay, though.  I have a feeling if Jonze had again collaborated with Charlie Kaufman and have him run away with this idea, it would have been a masterpiece. That’s not to say what’s here is even remotely close to bad, though.  This is a perceptive, engaging and completely sincere romance, a rarity in American movies before you add on its amazingly realized near-future L.A.

Grade: B

REVIEW: Her

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Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara

Her is a beautifully realized and often moving story of an impossible relationship.  It’s not just about a man who falls in love with his operating system, but instead uses that premise to springboard into a vast array of heady topics.  Spike Jonze dares to imagine an absurd romance with sincerity and depth of feeling, and in doing so makes the physical world of the future seem like a limited if beautiful place.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) at first seems like a typical protagonist in a modern male-centered romance like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State.  He is a sensitive writer whose skills with women demand a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to set things right. His new fully aware OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) seems to be that “girl” but instead becomes a sly critique of the archetype.

Samantha’s worldview transforms so thoroughly beyond Theodore’s comprehension by the end that her “human” traits and relationships are a miniscule part of what she is.  At first he is her window into the world, as he carries her around in his dress shirt pocket and lovingly answers her every question.  She is not a real woman, though, just like the women in those other previously mentioned movies.  However, Samantha is intangible not because of the male flimmaker’s narrow vision but because her intelligence is very nearly limitless and far surpasses the limitations of humanity.

A fully-functioning and feeling AI is right at home in the movie’s glossy take on future Los Angeles.  This is a place where computers can effortlessly copy penmanship and every interior looks like a modern art museum.  It’s also a world where relationships, conventional or not, don’t work.  Theodore buys the OS seemingly out of the blue.  He’s going through a divorce, and when his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) finds out about Samantha, she doesn’t hesitate to stick the knife in.

“You always wanted a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real, I’m glad that you found someone” she says through her teeth.

Her-Movie-siri-operating-system-ftr-1024x640

And yet, for all its gentle lecturing, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is more emotionally and sexually charged than in most movies where you see both parties.  Many on-screen romances, largely because of the audience-friendly PG-13 rating, rarely bother with actual sex.  Her is rated R, because even though the sex scene is told from Samantha’s point of view (black screen), you can hear everything.

It’s impossible not to see Scarlett Johansson when she’s talking as Samantha.  It’s a sly joke to cast the woman who is so often used as eye candy (ahem, The Avengers) as a sexy Siri.  Her voiceover, which she nails, is so crucial to the movie’s success, as is the chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an off-kilter, emotionally rich performance in the lead.  Amy Adams is also excellent as Theodore’s supportive friend.

Jonze starts to tread water with the premise in the last third of the movie, and though the theme “only humans can be human” is beaten to death in science fiction, it doesn’t feel stale in such a funny, moving film like this.  The future he and his crew have created is also far and away one of the most optimistic I’ve ever seen in a movie, a far and welcome cry from the generic dystopian nightmares that seem to be released every weekend.

Several changes of scenery don’t completely save the monologue-heavy screenplay, though.  I have a feeling if Jonze had again collaborated with Charlie Kaufman and have him run away with this idea, it would have been a masterpiece. That’s not to say what’s here is even remotely close to bad, though.  This is a perceptive, engaging and completely sincere romance, a rarity in American movies before you add on its amazingly realized near-future L.A.

Grade: B

REVIEW: Don Jon

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Don Jon
Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Written by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza

For the first half of Don Jon I was prepared to write it off as a gross, occasionally charming debut feature, but the destabilizing element introduced in the second half (Julianne Moore) throws the movie completely off the beaten path in the best possible way.  Before Moore’s character Esther enters the picture it came dangerously close to reveling in the kind of misogyny that it attempts to send up.

At first, there is just Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and, as he says, his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls and his porn.  The flashy montages of gyrating asses and blowjob lips quickly show which of those takes precedence in his life.  And, like the main character of (500) Days of Summer’s misreading of The Graduate, he is woefully misguided about the reality of the situation (he thinks it’s real).

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If they were in television… Michael Bay

Notable Films: The Rock, The Island, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Transformers series. 

Famous for: Explosions, great action sequences, narrative incoherence, military propaganda, the decline of mainstream American cinema, shooting women like he is filming porn.

Hypothetical title: The Colony

Hypothetical premise: Focuses on the first station in space to host private citizens from Earth.  It starts off peacefully enough, but soon enough the mixed cultures start feuding, and in order to keep order, the station’s AI turns on them and begins killing anyone who starts a fight.  This doesn’t sit well with the nearby military installation, who begin planning to rescue everyone with the latest military technology.  The series rotates between a couple brave American soldiers and a witless but charming protagonist on the colony, his shallow love interest, and over-bearing but comical parents.

Cross between: The Island, The Rock, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Wall-E, and Transformers.

Likely to bring: Some Bay regulars are Ben Affleck and Shia LaBeouf, so why not cast them in the two lead roles?  You can place pretty much any attractive super model in the love interest role, but why not take an exceptional actress like Scarlett Johansson and drain her of life?  For the parents, why not add in Patricia Clarkson (she’s a mom in everything now) and John Turturro. 

Likeliness of this happening: 4/10.  Bay couldn’t make enough money in television and explosions don’t look nearly as good on a small screen.