Friday, August 15, 2014

Lucy (2014)

Title: Lucy (2014)

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-Sik Choi

They are calling Lucy a “Stoner Film” and I would have to agree, the film does have an emphasis on abstract visuals, sometimes goint into what I like to call “trippy territory”, or what a more eloquent reviewer would call “surrealism”, these are dream like sequences in the film that don’t necessarily adhere to logic or reason. Luc Besson, the French director/producer/writer behind Lucy has always been a very eclectic type of director, and one of my favorites. He’s made all kinds of films throughout his career, for example, just recently he directed Robert Deniro and Michelle Pfiffer in The Family (2013). He’s also done dramatic films like Leon: TheProfessional (1994), which I still think is one of his best. The one film in Besson’s repertoire that made me think he was the right director for a film like Lucy was The Fifth Element (1997) primarily because The Fifth Element is such an effects driven film, and Lucy is most certainly an effect heavy film. The previews for Lucy got me excited because I love it when Besson does sci-fi, he always strives to show us something we’ve never seen before. He takes his imagination to new frontiers in his films, and I love that sense of escapism he infuses in some of them. So did Besson ‘wow’ us once again like he’s done with his previous films? 

Lucy is all about a woman who is suddenly thrust into a world of drug trafficking, a world she knows nothing about. Yet as fate would have it she ends up as a courier, transporting an extremely powerful experimental drug that makes your brain function at 100% capacity. Problem is that the packet she’s carrying burst open inside of her body! Almost immediately the drug gets into her blood stream and it isn’t long before Lucy begins to experiment what it means to have your brain functioning at full capacity. She soon starts learning everything that the mind can achieve when it is in full power! She starts developing these amazing abilities that she didn’t know she had!

So this film has many good things going for it, first off, it’s all about the visuals, Lucy acquires amazing powers and starts using them, with each passing moment she becomes more and more powerful, which offers us these awesome moments where she displays her new abilities. That’s where the strength of the film is at, in the visuals. Lucy acquires amazing powers like telepathy and telekinesis! Also, in Lucy we go back in humanities history, we analyze humanity, where we began, what we’ve evolved into, why have we done what we’ve done with the planet and all that, which was cool, and of course, all these themes lend themselves for awesome effects that brought to mind scenes from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), actually in more ways than one. Sure, there’s the surreal element, but also because it has to do with collecting all of humanities knowledge in one super computer, which immediately brought to mind the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is also a super computer. Lucy’s plot about the experimental drug that enhances your brain brought to mind Limitless (2011) because both films play with the same idea, the only difference is that Lucy goes a bit further with the idea by entering into the realm of time travel and telekinesis.

The only real let down for me with this movie is that since it comes from Luc Besson, the director of The Fifth Element (1999), well, I was expecting something as epic and huge as The Fifth Element, but in reality, Lucy is actually a ‘small film’ with big ideas. As it is, I was expecting for the film to end with a bang, instead it ends with a whimper, and a promise of future films. It has that kind of open ending that leaves you with a huge question mark in your head. But overall, I had a blast with it, it just needed something extra to make it truly awesome. The ending leaves you wondering what’s next? Kind of like the ending for Highlander (1984) where you are left wondering what the main character is going to do with his new found powers and knowledge. What I’m saying a Besson fan might leave the theater feeling underwhelemed, but overall, Lucy’s an action packed film, with car chases, shoot outs, telekinesis, surreal imagery and thought provoking themes. Plus we have the ever beautiful Scarlett Johansson, who continues to amaze with her beauty and as a performer. I’m hoping they do make a sequel, I’d love to see where else they can go from here because I was left wanting more, which I’m sure was the filmmakers purpose from the get go.

Rating: 4 out of 5      


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Benicio del Toro, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close

I understand why Disney and Marvel Studios saw this film as a risky venture, I mean, here’s a Marvel Comic that not many people know about, you see, Guardians of the Galaxy is not a household name like say the X-Men or Spiderman. In actuality, Guardians of the Galaxy has been an on again, off again title in Marvel Comics roster for years. It would get printed, last for a run and then get cancelled. I remember when I first came into contact with the Guardians of the Galaxy comics, it was when Marvel re-launched the comic in 1990. In that version of the group, the lineup of characters were totally different, from that 1990’s version of Guardians of the Galaxy, only the character of Yondu Udonta (played by Michael Rooker) made it onto this new film.  And wow, what an awesome comic book movie this was, for many reasons, all of which I will go into on this review, just to pump you up so you go see this one in theaters, where it deserves to be seen.

First issue of Guardians of the Galaxy (1990) 
From this line-up, only Yondu made it to the movie

On this film we meet a group of totally disparate characters who by pure chance (or maybe destiny?) end up working together to stop a madman named Ronan from destroying an entire planet. You see, he’s one of those mad conqueror types who wants to destroy everything so he can “cure” society and start everything out in his own image. In order to achieve this, Ronan has struck a deal with one of the most powerful beings in the universe: Thanos! The deal is that Ronan finds one of the ever elusive and incredibly powerful infinity gems for Thanos, who in turn, as a gesture of gratitude,will destroy an entire planet for Ronan, so he can then take over it. Problem is that the Infinity Gem in question is in the hands of The Guardians of the Galaxy! Can Ronan and his followers take the Infinity Gem from them? And speaking of the Infinity Gems, I’m ecstatic that the Infinity Gem story line has finally begun. I mean, I read the Infinity Gauntlet (one of Marvel Comics best stories ever in my book) and it really is an epic storyline…and to see it come alive, it’s orgasmic. I mean, to see Thanos sitting on his throne being all magnanimous and evil…wow, I can’t wait for this whole storyline to explode in Avengers 3, you see, reportedly, that’s what this new batch of Marvel movies are setting us up for: Avengers 3! So yeah, be ready to have a nerdgasm in your theater seat. 

If there’s one thing that James Gunn infused into this movie its fun, fun like the kind of fun you’d have watching a movie from the 80’s where characters always say everything joking around, nothing is deadly serious, unless it has to be? I love that about it! These characters are misfits, they aren’t picture perfect examples of what humans should be, they are what we are, jokers, imperfect yet with lots of soul, they are in lots of ways characters that we can identify with. I mean, can you identify with Superman? No, you can’t because he’s this perfect being, but with the Guardians, it’s like they went to high school with you or something. The film has an amazing cast, the core characters are awesome, but then you get all these other great actors filling the gaps like Benicio del Toro, Michael Rooker, John C. Reily, Glenn Close, this film is very well rounded out in terms of characters and performances.

This is easily James Gunn’s best film, and boy has James Gunn come a long way baby. I mean, the guy started his cinematic career writing the screenplay for a film called Tromeo and Juliet (1996) for Troma Films. He went on to direct two Scooby Doo films which were moderately successful, then he went on to direct Slither (2006), a sci-fi horror hybrid (and bonafide box office flop) about alien slugs that turn people into zombies, by the way, I had a blast with Slither. Yet now, here he is, directing a big budget, ultra successful comic book movie for Disney and Marvel. My how the worm has turned! Best part is how audiences have quickly embraced it, I mean, word of mouth on this film is so positive that it shot straight to the number one spot, and I don’t think it will go down soon! This movie is so fun I’ve seen it twice in one weekend! 

The thing about this film is that it never stops, it’s always fun and exciting, the way big budget summer movies should be. James Gunn grew up with these big action films from the 80’s, you know, the kind that put a smile in your face, the kind that had that sense of adventure about ‘em. Guardians of the Galaxy brought to mind the fun I had with the old Star Wars movies or with the Indiana Jones films. You know, that lighthearted spirit of adventure, characters going through these incredible situations, but in the end, you know everything is going to be alright anyways? Even the films musical score will remind you of that time when studios used to put these rousing, adventurous musical scores on films, thank god they brought that back for this movie. Guardians of the Galaxy may be a cutting edge state of the art filmmaking, but it’s got some good old fashion sensibilities about it and I liked that. I mean, here’s a film that has this awesome 70’s soundtrack all through out, we get characters kicking ass and taking names as David Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’ plays in the background you know what I mean? How old school is this movie, well, they actually built sets…which is something amazing. So few sci-fi films today do that, cause you know, now everything around the actor is fake. But not here! The sets are beautiful to look at, of course there’s tons of computer generated images, but there’s a nice balance here between the practical and the cgi. 

Finally, this is a film tailor made for geeks, Guardians of the Galaxy is filled to the brim with lots of little inside jokes and easter eggs hidden all throughout the movie! Keep your eyes peeled for surprise cameos. Lloyd Kaufman (head of Troma Films) plays a prisoner! Howard the Duck cameos! Hell yeah, I said Howard the Duck! Rob Zombie lends his voice talents for a character. Nathan Fillion plays a giant monster. Yes my friends, this film is filled to the brim with pop cultural references, everything from Alf to Footloose (1984) gets mentioned. Visually, this movie is very rich, so you’ll want to look at every nook and cranny on this movie, there’s lots of details and colors up on screen, another asset the film has, visual richness and an amazing color palette. So yes my friends, this is the film to watch. I enjoyed it more than many other Marvel films, like say for example Thor: Dark World (2013). Here’s the thing, Guardians of the Galaxy might have been a risky film for Disney, but watching it, you wouldn’t know it because it seems they gave this film their all, they really made a good movie. They spent many millions on a series of characters that no one knew anything about and it worked like gang busters. This movie feels bigger than films like Iron Man 3 (2013) or even the X-Men movies. Guardians of the Galaxy is epic my friends, Disney/Marvel Studios have the millions to give us the kind of big bombastic movies we want to see, let’s hope they keep making them this good.

Rating: 5 out of 5  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Under the Skin (2014)

Under the Skin (2014)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Starring: Scarlett Johansson

So there are movies out there that divide audiences, Under the Skin is undoubtedly one of them. It will divide audiences who like to go see commercial films, from those who enjoy more artful fare. Films that break with the norm and try different things, different structures. Under the Skin doesn't subscribe to Hollywood formulas, we don’t have a hero trying to solve some problem, we don’t follow a clear three part structure, in fact, we don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. Director Jonathan Glazer gets a rousing shout of approval from this Film Connoisseur.

Under the Skin is the story of a sexy voluptuous alien (Johansson) who goes around town looking for lonely guys she can feed on. That’s really all I can say, you see, this isn’t exactly the kind of film that is overtly complex, yet strangely enough, even though it’s simple in many ways, it also comments on society and the world we live in. Most of all, it comments on how men will do just about anything to be with a woman, to share that amazing moment of intimacy. It speaks about how that desire can blind us and drive us. But also, it speaks about the ugly side of sex, how a man is willing to step into the world of rape and violence to get it, sad but true. It's a tragedy that we still live in a world where rape happens so often. So yeah, a “simple” movie in many ways, but if we look past its apparent simplicity, it actually comments on some very important themes.

Think about this film as an art house version of Lifeforce (1985), because it really is the best way that I can describe it. I know it sounds weird to compare a film like this one with Hooper’s Lifeforce, but both films are extremely similar: female alien goes around picking up lonely dudes, seducing them so she can suck the life force out of them. This is exactly what happens in both movies! The difference between both films is that Hooper Lifeforce is a glorified b-movie, while Under the Skin takes a more experimental route. It’s more artsy, for lack of a better word. But I loved how without realizing it, I suddenly felt like I was watching a movie about a space vampire! Want more similarities? Well, how about the fact that Scarlett Johansson gets naked throughout the entire film? Remind you of Lifeforce yet?  

When I say Under the Skin is ‘artsy’ by that I mean it’s that kind of film that just hovers on a moment so you can really absorb it, kind of the way that Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick. You know, where they will just linger on a vista, or stay on a moment so you’ll really get the feel of being there. It also has these long moments without dialog, in fact, Scarlett Johansson’s character hardly speaks. She only talks when she’s going to pick up a guy from the street. The film also used experimental filmmaking techniques for certain scenes, for example, there’s moments in which the alien walks into a mall, or a nightclub, and the filmmakers used hidden cameras to capture real people going about their business, in this way, the film was successful in capturing humanity in its natural habitat. You know how sometimes you wish you could tape people on the street, because truth is sometimes stranger than fiction? Well, they actually do that on this movie, the result is real, no extras, just real people. 

That the film is so different from anything out there makes perfect sense when we take in consideration that the director is Jonathan Glazer, who also directed Birth (2004), the film in which Nicole Kidman ends up kind of falling in love with a ten year old kid who is apparently the reincarnation of her dead husband, or is he? It was a controversial film when it was first released, I remember seeing it in theaters and being perplexed by it, and slightly shocked, but I also remember being wowed by the beautiful imagery. Under the Skin is not without those beautiful images, in fact, the filmmakers went out of their way to find these beautiful locations, again, Glazer did what Werner Herzog does. He finds these beautiful locations to shoot in, you’d swear they aren’t real. But they are, and they serve as a beautiful reminder of the amazing planet we live in.

While Under the Skin is a different kind of film, Glazer also shows he has many cinematic influences, displaying elements you could find in other directors works, for example you can find the surrealism and symmetrical perfection of Stanley Kubrick in abstract images that seem to come right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can also find that ominous feeling you get from watching a David Lynch film, the beautiful locations from a Herzog film, in other words, Glazer loves many amazing filmmakers and puts a lot of them into his own films, but also, of course, adding his own taste and flavor to the mix. That deadly serious tone that all of his films have. This proves what I’ve always said about films, you can give the script to ten different directors, and you’ll end up getting ten, totally different films. I mean, Hooper with the concept of a female space vampire did Lifeforce and look at what Glazer did with the same exact idea, a refreshingly different film. Take it from me; if you like films that break with the norm, this is a film you should not miss. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 out of 5

Monday, July 14, 2014

Brain Damage (1988)

Brain Damage (1988)

Director: Frank Henenlotter

Cast: Rick Hearst

Frank Henenlotter films have a couple of distinguishing factors about them: they are sexually charged films starring freaks who are frustrated individuals; socially dysfunctional in one way or another. The main characters in Henenlotter’s films are often times social outcasts who have been dealt an ugly card by life. For example, in Basket Case (1982) the main character is a guy who's born with a deformed twin brother stuck to his chest! In Bad Biology (2008), one character has a monstrous penis that can only be controlled with drugs and another character has a vagina with seven clits! And in the film I’ll be reviewing today, the main character is addicted to a drug that is administered to him by a talking worm! Welcome my friends, to the freakish world of Frank Henenlotter films!

Brain Damage is all about Brian, a young man who one night gets a visit from a worm named Aylmer. I call it a worm, but others have described it as a slug, a turd, a talking brain; all of which are correct. So anyhow, Aylmer is a creature that sticks to your neck and injects this hallucinogenic blue liquid into your brain that gives you an incredible high. Problem is that once you get a taste of Aylmer’s juice, you are hooked for life! Ah, but there’s a catch, you also have to feed Aylmer, if you don’t feed him, he won’t give you the blue liquid. The real problem is that Aylmer only eats human brains! So if you want to get high, you have to find Aylmer a victim! Will Brian start killing off people in order to get high? Can he ever stop?

So as you can probably surmise, this film is all about drug addiction. I’ve seen films like this one before,  cautionary tales about drug addiction. Brain Damage brought to mind films like Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Trainspotting (1996), films that are meant to show you the horrors of drug addiction. The difference is that Brain Damage tells its tale through the filter of b-movie magic, with a talking slug as an allegory for drugs. Imagine if Heroin or Crack could suddenly personify themselves and talk to you, this is what you’re going to see in Brain Damage. The film is crystal clear with what it wants to say, and even though it is about a talking turd, the message it sets out to give is a very truthful one. Brain Damage goes step by step through the kind of things that you can expect to go through if you ever became addicted to hard drugs like say, heroin. Brain Damage depicts the alienation, the euphoria, the obsession and the degeneration that follows. Brian goes through it all to the point where the blue liquid is the only thing that matters, going as far as not caring about anything in life, family, relationships, nothing matters except the next high. 

What is awesome about this movie is how Aylmer, the talking slug, personifies drugs and talks to Brian telling him things like “I own you know, you are mine” “I want you to beg for it now” and “Let’s see who cracks first”, I think that was just a brilliant idea because it shows us exactly how drugs end up dominating your life, taking over it. Aylmer tells Brian “This is the start of your new life Brian, a life full of colors, music, lights and euphoria, a life without pain, or hurt or suffering” I think this is with a doubt Frank Henenlotter’s best film because not only does it give us entertaining visuals, and gross out moments to boot, it also has something to say. Since it is a film about drugs, it also speaks about the big attraction that drugs have. Why exactly is it that people crave them even though they are obviously harmful to their bodies and lives? This is something that the film also explores because whenever Brian takes a bit of the blue liquid, we get to see what he sees, and this is when the film goes on these visual trips. Brian obviously enjoys the enhanced state that the blue liquid puts him in, colors are more intense, life is amplified somehow and he wants that all the time. Every time Brian takes the blue liquid, the film goes on these visual trips that are one of the highlights of the film.

But what would a Henenlotter film be without some gory, gross out moments right? Brain Damage goes all out in this department, we get some of the grossest, most shocking moments on any Henenlotter film, and that’s saying a lot! There is one scene that was so graphic and shocking that some of the crew members actually walked out of the set as it was being filmed! You’ll know it when you see it, but it involves fellatio, that’s all I’m saying! On the downside of things, the acting is sometimes not the best, but I guess that goes fine with the whole b-movie vibe, honestly I don’t mind bad acting in this kind of thing, it makes the film more entertaining somehow. And some of the lines on this movie, wow, they’ll have you rolling! Here’s an example, at one point, Brian goes on a killing spree but doesn’t remember what happened and Aylmer fills him in on what happened, then he tells Aylmer: “You ate her brain?!” followed by “Is she DEAD?

So what we got here my friends is an anti-drug film that explores every single aspect of drug addiction, through the lense of a gory, graphic, loud b-movie. I love it how this kind of film can go deep, as opposed to what a lot of people think of b-movies, which is they are tripe, banal things. Well, most of the time they are, but in Brain Damage’s case, I say b-movies can be deep and profound without losing what makes them b-movies. So hurray for Brain Damage, undoubtedly Frank Henenlotter’s best film.

Rating: 4 out of 5   

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars (1986)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Cast: Karen Black, James Karen, Louise Fletcher, Laraine Newman, Bud Cort

I have a lot of love for this movie because I grew up watching it. When this film was released, I was about 11 years old or something, I didn’t even know it was a remake back then. I just knew that I loved those goofy aliens. I guess I just watched this movie at the right age and time, I connected with the little kid in the movie and his feeling of paranoia, after all, who doesn’t feel that there’s sometimes something slightly ‘off’ about the world they live in right? Hell, I still feel that way today! Weird thing is that as time passes by, I like this movie even more! Last night I screened it, and the crowd stayed glued to it all the way to the end, I guess that says something about the kind of spectacle that Tobe Hooper created with this film.

Invaders from Mars is all about David Gardner, a little kid who actually sees an alien spaceship land on the hill, just behind his house. Is his mind playing tricks on him? Did he dream it? Soon after that, David noticing that people are acting weird all over town, even his mom and pops are talking in this weird tone and doing weird things like putting tic-tacs in their coffee and eating burnt bacon. What gives with everyone in town? Are they all being controlled by Martians like David suspects? Can David stop the Martians from taking over his town?

So yeah, this is that kind of movie. The kind in which everyone in town starts acting strange, as if they were all telepathically connected in a hive like mentality, not unlike the plot we can find in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) which has an extremely similar structure. If we take in consideration the type of atmosphere that Americans were living back in those days, it makes perfect sense that films like these were being made. You see, back in the 50’s, Americans hated and feared communism. Communism was like this decease that had to be eradicated from society. This mentality bled into films such as these, as mentalities often do. We can easily say that they Martians in the 1950’s version of this film represented the fear Americans had for communism and the fear that this mentality might spread somehow. In the film, Martians were secretly gathering and plotting against the humans, the same way Americans thought that there were communists amongst them secretly gather and plotting against capitalism and the American way of life. Of course, it’s the American military that saves the day in the film! The film makes a whole lot more sense when we see it from that perspective don’t it? Suddenly, it’s not just a film about an alien invasion. Fast forward a few decades and here comes the 1980’s version of the film, did it still hold the same meaning it did in the 50’s? Would this remake still be about the fears of communism?

The way I see it, Hooper's remake takes a slightly different route with its meanings. Now it’s not so much about communism, to me it’s more about the evils of the powers that be controlling the masses with lies. The leader of the Martians is called the “Supreme Intelligence” and it is essentially a giant talking brain. The Supreme Intelligence injects a needle into the brains of humans in order to control them and use them for world dominating purposes, so while yeah, it’s still about plotting against the humans, it’s also a plea against controlling the minds of the masses. It’s a film about letting the people think for themselves, about letting people make their own choices in life instead of manipulating their perceptions with lies. In one pivotal scene David Gardner actually begs the aliens not to control people. It’s wrong, he tells them, they never did anything wrong, he pleas. This film actually has something to say as opposed to what a lot of people might think about it, it isn’t as empty as you might think! The beauty of the film is that it delivers these deep themes through an awesome and entertaining spectacle and an otherworldly story about Martians wanting to take over our minds, and our planet.

This remake pays its respects to the original film with a few homages here and there, while still offering welcomed new elements. For example, there’s a scene in which two cops come over to David’s house because he files a complaint, well, one of the cops is the original actor who played David Gardner in the original film! As the cop inspects the hill, he says “I haven’t been up here since I was a kid”, which is true of course. The update on the Martians is a welcomed element, they were designed by the great Stan Winston, and trust me, they are a real highlight of the film, The Supreme Intelligence is an awesome creation that looks alive, it pulsates, it breathes! It’s so refreshing to see creatures that are actually physically there and not computer generated, I miss this kind of physical effect on films. Finally, there’s this sense of wonder throughout the whole film because we see everything through the eyes of a child, everything happens because of this kid, and for once the adults actually listen to the kid! This is one of those '80’s Kid Movies', where the pre-teens are the main characters of the show. Sadly, the only weak link in the film is the kid himself, played by Hunter Carson. Still, it’s about the only bad thing I can say about this film. In an interesting turn of events, Hunter Carson the kid who played David Gardner was actually acting next to his mom, actress Karen Black, who plays the nurse in the film. It’s interesting to see them acting side by side. And speaking about the acting, I’d say it’s Louise Fletcher the actress who plays Mrs. McKeltch, the evil teacher whom the Martians take control of, that steals the show, she plays a memorable villain here.

Ultimately, what we get with Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars is a loving homage to the original. This was one of Tobe Hooper’s favorite films, he says that the original film burned holes in his memory. This was obviously a film that made an impression on him when he was a child. What Hooper did with this remake was recreate some of the images that the original director William Cameron Menzies had created in the original film, by using the original film as a very definite foundation, but embellishing the classic imagery, making  it bigger, flashier. Hooper took the classic film and amplified it. I’d say he achieved this quite well because the remake feels familiar, yet more spectacular in a lot of ways. It’s certainly flashier and louder than the original; the visual and make up effects were obviously improved upon. It was Stan Winston’s intention to create aliens that didn’t feel like a man in a suit. The design of the aliens surpasses anything we saw in the original film by leaps and bounds. So this film comes to us from a crew of people who really loved the original film and wanted to pay their respects to it by keeping what worked so well in the original, while improving the effects and visuals, that makes it, in my book an excellent remake.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Tobe Hooper (extreme left) on the set of Invaders from Mars (1986)


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