Thursday, July 31, 2014

Get On Up Review

In “Get On Up”—the new James Brown biopic—thirty two year old actor Chadwick Boseman embodies the legendary funk singer in just about every way. He’s mastered his voice--not just singing but also Brown’s normal energetic speaking voice-- and he’s mastered the moves. Every time he’s on screen, which is basically the entire movie, he doesn’t just demand our attention, he grabs us by the collar and commands our attention. It’s a performance that goes beyond imitation, Boseman doesn’t just make us care about James Brown, he makes us passionate about him, excited about him. He makes us just as excited about James Brown as James Brown was about himself.

Here was a man who was simply high on life. (Although later on he was high on other stuff.)  A man who came from a poor upbringing and yet—for the most part—never let the world get him down. During the movie there’s a scene where a reporter asks him what kind of music he sings and Brown responds that he sings James Brown music. It’s a hokey line for sure but Boseman sells the hell out of it. It’s one of many moments he’s able elevate himself above the rest of the movie.

It’s an amazing performance, easily one year’s best and the rest of the performances from the likes of Nelson Ellis as Bobby Byrd (Brown’s long time friend and band member) and Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s manager in “Get On Up,” all do their part in support. It’s too bad the rest of the movie is so clumsy and messy. It’s not like my expectations were very high; after all, “Get On Up” is directed by Tate Taylor who also did “The Help” and “42” (also with Boseman) so it’s not like I was expecting a challenging and defining biopic but I was expecting at least a coherent movie.

Things get off to a confusing and muddled start as it jumps around between about five different time periods in Brown’s life; one minute he’s complaining at random people because someone took a shit in his personal bathroom, then he’s in Vietnam flying to a concert in a plane with one of its engines on fire. Before we get a chance take those scenes in the movie jumps to a press conference—first of many press conferences—where Byrd is asked how he and Brown met. And finally, the movie jumps back to when Brown was a young boy, living in a shack in the woods with his abusive parents.

This is—more or less—the nature of “Get On Up,” jumping back and forth through time to key moments in Brown’s life. Taylor wants to forgo the traditional narrative structure but at the same time he wants to keep a chronological timeline, by flashing dates and subtitles on the screen. However, without warning he abandons that timeline and skips back or forward to another time period, confusing the narrative. To complicate things even more he throws in the tired “addressing of the fourth wall” gimmick, and half assed at that. If you’re going to have you’re characters talk to the audience, make it consistent.

It feels like a combination of bad scripting, directing and editing. Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth the screenplay lacks any kind of cohesion, while Taylor’s direction is somehow tedious and snappy as the picture makes its way through Brown’s massive event filled life. In general, most of the scenes fail to make any real impact. There may be a few sassy one-liners but nothing real substantial. It’s not just a matter of covering too much material—a common trap biopics fall into—it’s that filmmakers don’t know what to do, don’t know what things to highlight and which things to omit. Important events and plot points—the fact that Brown owes a bunch of money in back taxes, his abusive nature towards his wife, his stint in jail, the death of his manager—are glossed over. One minute he’s talking about getting married, and in the next he’s married to his second wife and has three kids. Tonally, “Get On Up” is a disaster, being silly one minute and melodramatic the next. The only thing that’s consistent are the musical performances and as enthralling as they may be they start to get repetitive after a while.

Perhaps most egregious about “Get On Up” is the editing. The movie cuts and swerves in and out and around Brown’s life like a drunk driver; there’s no consistency or even much continuity. Like the direction it’s both laborious and quick. The worst example of the editing is when Brown is in his dressing room after a show. He’s informed that his mother Susie (Viola Davis) is here and just as Susie is about to enter the room and have a heart to heart with her son, the movie cuts to some other event and for the next forty minutes or so—this is not an exaggeration—his mother isn’t even addressed and instead we see other parts of his life. During this lengthy aside, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking: “ah shit, we still have to circle back around to see the rest of the dressing room confrontation.” And by the time it does finally come back the film’s been going on for two hours (of the two hour and eighteen minute run time) so we’re too exhausted to really care about the scene. Another example: there’s a scene where one minute Brown and his family are happily giving out dollar bills to kids during Christmas and the next he’s slapping his wife out of the blue, because I guess now he’s an abuser?

In the end it’s all a shame because Boseman is truly great in the role. I know it’s common in biopics for there to be a great lead performance surrounded by a not so great movie but in the case of “Get On Up” we have a great performance surrounded by a bad movie. I understand Taylor was trying to avoid linear storytelling but the power of the performances would have easily made up for that. And besides, linear storytelling is better than no consistent structure whatsoever. If it weren’t for Boseman, “Get On Up” would be completely worthless and probably make my annual worst-of list.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

The best thing about James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”—the latest Marvel universe picture—is that it introduces a new universe and a new set of characters. And even though it’s inevitable that there will be a “Guardians/Avengers” crossover in the near future, this first installment remains an isolated affair. There are no cameos from other superheroes and there aren’t even any mentions of Tony Stark or Bruce Banner in passing. If you’re like me then this will be a relief. I know I can’t be the only one who’s tired of all the interconnectivity of the Marvel movies (for the sake of this review, I’m only talking about Marvel Avenger movies, not Spiderman or X Men).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to bring together multiple superheroes but Marvel has treated the whole affair as a big budget television show rather than a movie franchise.  Most of the “movies” serve the sole purpose of teasing the next episode. I’d argue that we didn’t really get a complete movie until Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” in 2012. And now, with “Avengers 2” on the horizon and Marvel into Phase 2 (with movies like “Thor: The Dark World,” “Iron Man 3” and “Captain America: The Winter Solider”) we’re back to where we were. Each new movie just another episode. There are good things to be found in some of these episodes. “Iron Man 3” and “Captain America” are competently made movies but there’s just nothing that memorable about them. They follow the same watered down superhero template; there aren’t any major surprises because Marvel has everything planned out until far in advance.  

 Anyway, getting back to the movie at hand. I hope Marvel explores the universe set up in “Guardians” as an isolated incident more in the future as opposed to quickly mating with The Avengers’ universe. Gunn’s movie feels more like “Star Wars” than a previous Marvel flick. It takes place in a galaxy far far away (presumably) and the viewer is plopped down right into the middle of an intergalactic struggle between the Nova Corps and the evil Cree forces (essentially, the Rebel Forces vs. The Empire). From there we’re exposed to an array of colorful alien characters from a variety of different worlds, with goofy names and elaborate costumes. And of course, there are the Guardians themselves, the intergalactic misfits and outcasts that have to put aside their differences and fight the empire.

First up the leader and sole human member Peter Quill aka Starlord, (Chris Pratt) a laid back outlaw who’s a cross between Andy Dwyer and Han Solo… though he’s basically Luke Skywalker. Next, there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green skinned alien orphan who’s the adopted daughter of the main baddie Thanos. Then there’s Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a loud-mouthed mutant raccoon that doesn’t take crap from no one. He’s like Han Solo if, instead of being frozen in Carbonite, Darth Vader had spliced his DNA with a raccoon’s. Then there’s Rocket’s trusty sidekick Groot, (voiced by Vin Diesel) a mutant tree whose arch nemesis sadly isn’t an intergalactic lumberjack. To bring it back to “Star Wars”, he’s a less intelligent and less compelling Chewbacca. He’s a tree that can only say his name. The only “Star Wars” characters not here are the droids C-3PO and R2-D2; in their place is… Drax The Destroyer (WWE wrestler Dave Bautista) who’s essentially Dave Bautista painted blue, talking in pidgin English.

Speaking of weirdness—did you not just read the previous paragraph? --“Guardians of the Galaxy” is probably the weirdest Marvel superhero movie to date. I mean we’re talking about a team of heroes that consists of a talking raccoon and a talking tree. That makes a character like Thor look like Agent Colson. And that’s not even all of the weirdness. For example, there’s also a blue skinned alien bounty hunter played by Merle Dixon from “The Walking Dead” that has a flying arrow weapon thing he can control by whistling. As ridiculous as all of this may sound, it works heavily in ”Guardians” favor. I was never bored during the entire movie. The sheer bizarreness of the world and the characters kept my attention for the full two hours. This is something I can’t say about the other recent Marvel Avenger movies (“Thor 2,” “Captain America 2,” I’m looking at you).

Granted, it can get messy and convoluted. Unlike “The Avengers” we weren’t separately introduced to the Guardians and instead of easing us into this new strange universe Gunn just sort of pushes us into the lake. It’s messy and a little disorienting, but at least it’s watchable. At least it strives to shake things up. To get away from “Star Wars,” it was like watching Andrew Stanton’s underrated “John Carter” in 2012.

I haven’t talked much about the plot and that’s because it’s the worst, most forgettable part of the movie. The central conflict involves getting a special orb that contains a special stone that can either save or destroy the universe. It’s always about getting some kind of object; even in “The Avengers” everyone was after a special staff. Aren’t there any other conflicts or MacGuffins out there? This would be more tolerable if the central character interaction was better but The Guardians, as nutty as they may be, don’t have the same chemistry down that the Avenger’s had and since we’re being introduced to them for the first time their development throughout the picture remains fairly weak.

Part of this might also have to do with the acting, which ranges from forgettable to hammy to flat out terrible. Not surprisingly, the WWE wrestler gives the worst performance but even seasoned actors like John C Reilly or Glenn Close in minor roles--done up in goofy costumes and makeup--turn in really hammy performances, while talented actress Zoe Saldana is nearly forgettable as Gamora. Pratt is the only one that stands out and even he tends to overact most of the time. In fact it’s safe to say his character in “Guardians” is just as animated as his character was in the animated Lego movie from earlier this year. He’s fun to watch, especially if you like him on “Parks and Recreation” but he doesn’t quite feel like a superhero franchise lead. At least not yet.

Tonally the movie is extremely silly. Which is saying something considering the general tone in Marvel is already pretty silly. “Guardians” feels like a PG comedy, which is also saying something since the movie’s actual rating is PG-13. There’s a moment where Peter literally dances to eighties music-- F.Y.I., the movie has lot of eighties pop and rock music, from the likes of David Bowie and The Runaways—to distract the main bad guy. I laughed a few times but most of the humor felt directed at people younger than me. Nothing necessarily wrong with that except as an adult I couldn’t get as emotionally invested in the characters and their plight, as a seven or ten year old might. There’s not much weight behind what happens. As silly as it is, I don’t think James Gunn wants the viewer to take it entirely as a comedic work and yet the comedy overpowers all of the attempts at serious emotion. A side story involving Peter’s mom (who died of cancer when he was kid) fails to make any kind of an impression.

Overall, I think “Guardians Of the Galaxy” works well on a macro level but not so much on a micro level. I liked that Gunn throws us into a brand new universe with its own mythology without reference to other superheroes. Narratively however, the movie’s underwhelming but I think that in future installments—assuming The Guardians stay in their own universe—if the world is further explored, the characters are better developed and the kiddie humor is toned down slightly there could be another great or near great Marvel movie (after “The Avengers”).

 Even though I’ve lost interest in most of the Marvel cinematic universe I remain cautiously interested in what The Guardians might do next.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hercules (2014) Review

In “Hercules,” director Brett Ratner really wants you to know that it’s about Hercules. And he keeps letting you know that all throughout. In fact the movie is ninety-eight minutes of people being blown away by Hercules.

Is that Hercules?

Oh my god, that’s Hercules!

Hooray for Hercules!

You can’t stop the mighty Hercules!


Hercules, Hercules, Hercules!

In all seriousness though, “Hercules” is an awful, utterly pointless retelling of the Greek legend and what’s most frustrating about it is that it thinks it’s doing something different. In this new version, you see, Ratner and his crew want to tell us the “real” story of Hercules. Hercules isn’t the son of Zeus; he didn’t fight a super strong lion or a three-headed dragon. He’s not immortal. So then who is he? He’s a common mercenary with a set of really good publicists. He’s mortal. And through storytelling and much much exaggeration he’s been boosted to legend status.

The problem is, when you eliminate the mythology part of Hercules’ character and don’t add any ‘human’ depth to him you’re left with just another “mercenary with a sword” (well in Hercules’ case, a wooden club. Along with his regular non mythological lion hide he looks more like Homo Habilis) that has nothing going for him other than he’s like a good guy and stuff. Ratner eliminates the only compelling and unique qualities the character has. On top of that, Hercules doesn’t need to be a demigod for us to know that he will inevitably kick ass. It’s Hercules! Of course he will destroy everyone that challenges him. So there’s no point in trying to normalize him. It’s similar to what happened when Ridley Scott thought it would be a good idea to show us what Robin was like before the Hood in “Robin Hood” (2010) and ended up making another Sandals and Swords feature in which Russell Crowe played another generic warrior with dirt on his face.

In a not so surprising move, Ratner has cast Dwayne Johnson (with bigger juicer biceps than normal) as the titular demigod—er, I mean, the totally normal every-warrior. It’s perfect casting, therefore bad casting. If you’re going to do a retelling of Hercules than you probably shouldn’t cast the jacked up ex wrestler/human action figure in the lead role. As usual, Johnson doesn’t act as much as just stand there and look tough…and hit men with a club. So basically we’ve got a non actor playing a hollow protagonist. But hey, he has big bulging muscles. And he’s tan. That’s something, right?

As far as the rest of the movie is concerned there’s not much to say. The plot is as generic and unpredictable as it could possibly be. Another good way to retell a story. Friends are made, enemies are made. Enemies become friends, friends become enemies and battles are fought. You better belive battles are fought, in fact there are two big tedious battles back to back to close out the movie. Along with three pre battle speeches delivered by the man himself.

There aren’t any Dragons or Centaurs, however the movie could of used some to liven things up. In addition the picture is populated by supporting characters as bland and one note as Hercules himself, including his merry band of mercenary friends who just think he’s the best guy ever. And finally there’s CGI that goes from mediocre to straight up horrendous looking (a wall of fire that blazes during the final battle and somehow engulfs a stone temple).

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “Hercules” is that it’s not the worst Hercules movie to come out this year. Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules” barely gets that award, only because Ratner’s “Hercules” manages to poke some fun at itself and show self awareness at times (although for some reason near the end it decides to get serious and collapses into unintentional stupidity), whereas Harlin’s decided to take itself completely serious and the CGI is even worse.

Sadly, that’s the only praise I can give Ratner’s picture.

Boy, it’s been a rough year for the muscly super Greek hasn’t it?


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lucy Review

    Scar Jo's entire performance summed up in one screen cap.

Luc Besson’s mildly entertaining “Lucy” is part B action movie and part high concept science fiction about the potential of the human brain. It stars the sexy doe eyed Scarlett Johansson as the titular character Lucy, a young naïve American in China who gets caught up in some shady underworld dealings.

Without boring you with too much plot detail Lucy gets selected as a drug mule for a new drug (a synthetic version of the drug CPH4 which allows someone to use more than ten percent of their brain) and through certain circumstances a large dose of it gets into her body and before long she’s able to harness up to one hundred percent of her cranium. Johansson—who’s been on a roll acting-wise of late, in films like “Under the Skin” and “Her”—gives a perfectly fine performance, though nothing spectacular.

It ranges from huffy and panicky (at the beginning) to robotic and wide-eyed. Seriously, Johansson does a lot of intense staring, you know, because she’s super smart and focused all the time. She does have moments of greatness, like the moments when she’s trying to cope with her newfound abilities and understand them, while slowly losing her humanness.

And this is where “Lucy” is most intriguing. The screenplay by Besson addresses some extremely interesting themes and concepts related to brainpower and human biology. Basically the main theory he puts forth is—delivered by Morgan Freeman as a brain scientist in the form of a Parisian university lecture—that in our current state as humans, we create obstacles for ourselves, obstacles in the form of fear, pain, anxiety, etc. (pretty much all human emotions and qualities) thereby limiting ourselves and our full potential. Being exposed to this drug has caused Lucy to eliminate those obstacles, which is great on the one hand but on the other she loses her humanness. She can’t feel pain or fear, hence Johansson’s robotic performance. It’s a fascinating concept and the greater concept of using more than ten percent of your brain (and the multiple ways it can be explored on screen) is even more fascinating and I can’t help but feel in the hands of a different director (someone like Christopher Nolan) a great sci fi movie could be made. Would it be a good thing for humanity to use one hundred percent of the brain? Would human life and interaction, as we know it cease to exist?

 All of these questions and more are endlessly fascinating. Unfortunately, as interesting as “Lucy” may be, Besson doesn’t really try to answer them in a very compelling way and instead decides to wrap the picture in a derivative B-movie blanket that smothers the picture’s potential to be truly memorable. Lucy essentially turns into another super gal; you can bet that she acquires fist-fighting skills and eventually gets so smart that she can control other humans and matter with her mind. And of course, since this is about an illegal drug, there are a of generic Chinese gangsters and a forgettable French police officer that aids her. Besson’s movie is a peculiar amalgamation of genres; there’s some “Jason Bourne” in there, along with “The Matrix” and a dash of “ The Tree of Life.” That Terrence Malick art film? Yep, that’s the one.

Not that there aren’t any mild B-movie pleasures to still be found. At eighty-nine minutes “Lucy” doesn’t wear out its welcome and Besson keeps the picture moving at a fast pace. Not only that, Besson has some fun with it, the overall tone switching from intense drama/action to sheer goofiness. The way Lucy casually and apathetically kills people or reads and comprehends hundreds of hours of research and data in a matter of seconds, for example. Consequently, this does prevent the audience from really caring about any of the characters but it also makes the movie fun in a pulpy action movie kind of way. As it is, had the film taken itself completely serious it would have been a bust.

There are other issues I could pick out; namely that Freeman’s acting talent is pretty much wasted in a role that’s there solely to explain the plot and cram the high concept sci fi themes into the movie. “Lucy” is entertaining enough but it’s not all that deep which, considering the subject matter is somewhat of a disappointment. Had Besson been more concerned with the intriguing themes involving brainpower and brain usage instead of action movie tropes, “Lucy” might have been great.