Out in Theaters: ‘BEN-HUR’

Before he was ever accosted by apes, Charlton Heston galloped to Oscar gold for his performance as a Jewish prince turned slave in the 1959 historical epic Ben-Hur. The film was the most expensive of its time and yielded great financial and critical success to the tune of 11 Academy Award wins and label of second-highest grossing movie to date. It was a remake.

Many fail to acknowledge that their celebrated Ben-Hur is not in fact the first of its ilk. Rather, it’s a “remake” of a not-so-proliferated 1925 silent film, which was in turn a “remake” of a 15-minute film fiasco from 1907. But all this “remake” business seems a big hogwashy once we peel back some layers. I mean seriously is 2016’s Ben-Hur really to be thought of as a remake of a remake or a remake? Remake has become an ugly and ubiquitous term, one that depending on the circumstance can be thrown with the bathwater if we merely interpret the phrase. After all, how does one delineate “remake” from “adaptation”, particularly when we are discussing films that have been adopted from novels? Read More


Out in Theaters: LUCY

Watch enough movies and they all start to look the same. Prescribing to an Ebertian view, that’s because they are the same, just with the details swapped in and out. Stereotypes and movies seem to be kin in this way: they’re developed from commonality. Like it or not, there’s a lot of bad smelling French folk, and it’s hard not to find a recent sci-fi movie that doesn’t stink.

Transcendence was borne from a growing fear of technological advancement and artificial intelligence. Really, it asked the right questions. The only problem: Wally Pfister was the one to raise his hand. Somehow he turned a good concept into I Spambot, a joke of a movie. Johnny Depp transforms into a computer and subsequently takes over the world. From nothing, he grows tentacles and conquers death, quite literally reviving people from the grave, even at one point building himself out of dark cyber-matter. The whole “is he a computer?” question hinged on figuring out whether Captain Crack still had any emotions. Except, no one really gave a shit. Whatever Pfister was going for, he failed miserably. Transcendence was so monumentally bad that no one could figure out who the joke was on.

Neil Burger’s Limitless wasn’t bad; it was just a nothing film. A mansion built on an eroded mountain slope is set to crumble. Anyone who’s ever opened a Psych textbook knows that 10% brain theory is a crock of shit fallacy. So … Bradley Cooper can take a pill that makes his brain more effective? College kids have a name for that: Adderall. At least he didn’t grow any tentacles. Limitless, just like its premise, was limited from the start. What happens when a human can use 100% of its brain? Well, apparently, Transcendence.

Lucy is a Luc Besson lucid dream. You don’t realize it isn’t real until halfway through. At the start it’s more of a nightmare.

The French director decided to expand the transhumanistic concept Transcendence garroted with a desk chair. “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%,” reads Lucy’s tagline. When they’re so blatant about a putrid concept like this, it’s tough to figure out if they can access their brain at all.

For what initially seemed like a brainless film, Scarlett Johansson felt like a good fit. The jury’s still out on whether she’s any good as an actress. As the eponymous Lucy, she goes from dumbfounded to unbounded in spurts. Her green eyes are a window into what appears to be a great big void. Caught in a massive scheme, she’s accidentaly drugged by Asian drug lords with “CPH4,” a brain-activating powder the kids are going to love, her mind starts to explode and her eyes circle the color wheel. Besson loads her brain like a phone charging: as she gets access to more and more brain power, her percentage flashes on screen.

She goes from 0-100 like Jason Statham in Crank. When her body intakes the drug, she starts seizing up. Besson throws in insert shots of cells splitting and blue energy surging through her bloodstream. Then she starts to float. All of a sudden she’s on the ceiling, tweaking out. None of it is remotely possible, though it’s made not to feel surreal.

Reprising his exact role in Transcendence, Morgan Freeman serves as Lucy’s resident cerebral professor. At the podium, he waxes about the cerebellum like he’s unveiling a new iPhone. What happens when the brain reaches 20% usage? 100%? Freeman, concerned, says there’s no way to tell.

With movies like Transcendence and Limitless getting more and more common, common sense seems to be going out the window. Things explode because they have to, else why would anyone care? Humans are given unfathomable powers—impossible even. Unnatural is made out as normal as an excuse to throw in big effects. Characters have endless capabilities. Don’t think about it. Eat your popcorn and be entertained by crazy CGI and bad writing. When did we turn into Androids?

I’m not sure quite when it clicked that I’d been duped. Besson’s got the uniquely weird French sense of humor that lends well to the satirical. Les Français always seem to be good at making fun of themselves, but they’re way better at making fun of everyone else. Lucy’s a truly awful adventure/sci-fi film. Seen through the lens of a bizzaro comedy though, it’s the funniest film of the year. It might just be the best superhero movie in years. Lucy is 86 minutes of eloquent parody.

Lucy’s powers quickly become insane. With a frenetic, hectic pacing, Besson fits in references to ET, Transcendence, Limitless, Inception, Planet of the Apes—basically any sci-fi movie that’s ever hit the big screen. She reads minds, steals memories with one touch; feels no pain; mind-controls German Shepherds; stops time and speeds it up; hacks into every cell phone, TV, computer; detects cancer and travels at the speed of light. She is limitlessness embodied, everything Transcendence should have been.

By the end, she’s swiping her way through time like she’s on an iPad. This movie has dinosaurs. At one point, she witnesses creation itself. None of it coheres, but it looks gorgeous. Nonsense platitudes about life and death are thrown in like the shots of zoo animals humping tossed in for fun. Freeman and Johansson babble about ones and twos and science—complete gibberish. ScarJo de-materializes and turns into a pseudo-Tomb Raider. Then she turns into a computer. A character asks what she’s doing and Freeman replies that she’s “searching for life and matter.” Obviously. Besson’s film is the Condescendence to Pfister’s Transcendence.

Lucy is a masterpiece of mockery and wit, made Hollywood by gorgeous, over-the-top CGI and Johansson’s and Freeman’s hilarious self-depricating work. With a first act that’s egregiously terrible, Lucy is one big trap that never fully lets you in on the gag. Shot in Taipei, Paris and New York, Lucy is stunning, unpredictable and laugh out loud funny. All of this packed in at less than an hour and a half, you leave the theater refreshed and giddy. What a shocker: a French guy made a movie that doesn’t stink.


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Out in Theaters: TRANSCENDENCE

Every once in a blue moon an unsung talent breaks out of their wheelhouse to extraordinary results.  Quentin Tarantino famously emerged from a video store, learning his craft at the film school of VHS rentals. Ron Howard was a can-kicking child actor before stepping in to direct acclaimed films like Apollo 13, Rush and Academy Award winner A Beautiful Mind. Even Japanese auteur and samurai-lordship himself Akira Kurosawa trained as a painter before ever stepping behind a camera. The lesson is: great directors can come from pretty much anywhere. Wally Pfister, longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan (another cinebuff who did not receive formal film school education) and head hancho of Transcendence, has spent the better part of two decades behind a camera. But this is the first time he’s sat in the black foldout chair etched with the word “director.” In this 100 million dollar dry run of his, he’s all but sullied the name.

Pfister directs Transcendence with the style of a National Geographic cinematographer. He looms on intimate nature shots – drops of water claim close ups like they’re signing off Sunset Boulevard – before casting panoramic crane shots of jumbled mountains cloaked in forest or tumbleweed-kicking stretch of desert lit up by solar panels as far as the eye can see. Pfister’s settings are beautifully lighted and wonderfully scenic but they still feel like the work of a DP showing off in full masturbatory fashion. Any certifiable director would have slashed wasted minutes lingering on Kodak moments without blinking.

While Pfister flexes his eye for topography, the story beats from screenwriter Jack Paglen quickly become the biggest point of contention. Paglen’s plot follows Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant scientist on the verge of breaking new ground on AI technology that will forever change the world. Talked into a presentation to secure grant money by wife and partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will (Paglen’s cipher) brings up some interesting questions about our relationship to technology. Since SkyNet, we’ve had a general distrust of technology overtaking their human creators. The threat lies in supremacy. While human minds are capped by biological limitations, machines face no such boundaries (a theme that Spike Jonze‘s Her explored in much simpler and yet more compelling and grandiose terms). This goes on to become the central theme of the movie: can we trust technology that outgrows us?

As one might expect, not everyone in Paglen’s tale thinks an all-powerful machine is a good thing so anti-technology, terrorist network Rift, lead by an inexcusably bleach blonde Kate Mara, are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent a future that involves Terminators, the Matrix, and whatnot. Cue an assassination attempt on Will that proves slowly successful (radiation poisoning FTW!). Will’s ticking clock leads Evelyn to take the next step in their research by “uploading” Will’s consciousness into the existing model of AI, code name PIMM. While his body withers and dies, his “self” is transferred into a super computer. Colleague and trusted friend of the Crasters, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), says that the thing in the computer ain’t Will no more but Evelyn just won’t hear it. Like Joaquin Phoenix, she’s seduced by Depp’s Him.

And speaking of Depp, can we all just finally own up to the fact that he’s just not a good actor? He depends on hairdos to express his emotional status (also, why does every movie scientist need at least one scene with frazzled bedhead?) and not caked in makeup or prancing around a Tim Burton set, he’s just dull to watch. Even without the weird, he’s still oppressively meh. It doesn’t help that his lines and those of his co-stars sound like they were scrawled into a napkin hours before shooting. Some of Paglen’s philosophy masks itself as high concept but with dialogue this trawling, Paglen reveals his cupboard isn’t filled with China. Pfister, likewise, proves inept at directing his actors, a cast that by all means ought to bring more to the table than they do. As things are, they’re like the guests who all cheaped out and brought baguettes to a wine party.

Pfister’s begged and borrowed a cast from cohort Nolan only to have nothing to do with them. Morgan Freeman only seems here to give a brief voice over (that adds nothing to the film). Otherwise, he looks confused and is always a few minutes behind the other characters. He looked more engaged in his infamous Now You See Me interview than he is here. Cillian Murphy, on the other hand, just has absolutely nothing to do. He might be an under-appreciated talent but not so much that he would sign off for such a flat and lifeless role ad nauseum. Are production re-writes to blame or was Pfister cashing in favors across the board? I guess we’ll never know.

Act one and two have their issues but are by-in-large competently compelling bites of fiction, especially in the context of the ghastly third act. When Pfister, Depp and Co. round the bases and start the journey to home plate, everything gets totally sacked. Rome wasn’t build in a day but it sure could burn in one. Like Will’s late stage admission that “There’s not enough power!”, the internal logic of the film goes haywire in a thoughtless ending that I still can’t make heads or tails of. Instead of offering up an earned and earnest conclusion, Pfister and Paglen eschew explanation like a student who’s “dog ate their homework”. It’s as unsatisfying as one pringle, as tasteless as a whole wheat bun.

Plot mechanics are omnipresent and omnipotent until the script demands it not so, characters unfold incompatible reveals without satisfying explanation, and by the end… well it’s hard to even say how the thing even ended but I’m pretty sure the Apes won? It’s like if Inception had forgone the spinning top for a closing shot of a grinning Leo clone. Keep the WTFs in the can of worms please. Pfister’s shown he can replicate Nolan in broad strokes but, like an AI’s inability to prove its self-awareness, he misses the inexplicable piece that makes a story feel human… oh, and good.


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Out in Theaters: THE LEGO MOVIE

“The Lego Movie”
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie
Animation, Action, Comedy
100 Mins


Dripping with commercial appeal and name brand recognition, The Lego Movie could have easily joined the ranks of previous toy-turned-tale blockbusters. With the likes of Transformers and Battleship, studios have established a shady history of leaning on bankable properties to churn out flimsy showcases that add up to little more than an audio assault and visual fireworks, a cheap attempt to capitalize on audience familiarity and earn a quick buck. While those movies sifted our childlike glee through a filter of blue-toned, sensory bombardment, attempting to twist our arms in hopes of nostalgic forgiveness and financial reward, The Lego Movie goes the completely opposite route and awards those hankering to see their favorite childhood toys onscreen with a gleefully told story of epic Lego magnitude. Irreverent and hyper-self-aware, this adaptation takes everything we loved about the buildable blocks and seamlessly weaves it into a startlingly awesome and fully engaging narrative about creativity, imagination and encouragement, resulting in the best animated movie since 2010’s Toy Story 3.

At the center of the Legoverse, lovable goof Chris Pratt voices Emett, a run-of-the-mill construction worker figure who tries his darnedest to assimilate with the uber-chipper Lego society marching in perfect formation around him. In Emett’s city, uniformity is the bee’s knees. Everyone loves the same song (“Everything is Awesome”), watches the same TV show (“Where Are My Pants?”) and has the same water cooler conversations day in and day out.

It’s a society structured around structure, a sociopolitical climate that’s laid out with instruction booklets (*wink*) and enforced with hive mind mentality. And no matter how hard Emett tries to fit in, he’s just so extraordinarily ordinary that people hardly remember his face (well that may be the result of everyone’s face being composed of same shade of iconic yellow, plastered with a smile and bulbous black eyes.) So when Emett stumbles upon a coveted brick and is mistakenly identified as “The Special”, he goes along with it. He allows new ally Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to believe that he’s a world class master builder because it’s the first time anyone has ever recognized potential in him.

Behind the scenes, President Business (a perfectly wacky Will Ferrell) secretly runs the show, cunningly steering the fate of the city’s inhabitants, hell bent on a maniacal scheme to unleash the ghastly Kragle, a weapon so devastating that it will forever glue the world into its proper place With Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) at his every beck and call, Business is out to destroy creativity as well as Emmet, the supposed harbinger of prophecy, and his fellowship of master builders.

Backed by enough voice cameos to keep you wracking your brain and a solid heap of characters pulled in from nearly every imaginable franchise, Lego is overflowing with talent. You’ll find the likes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day as an 80’s astronaut, Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett as Batman, Will Forte, Jonah Hill, Nick Offerman, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Jake Johnson and even Morgan Freeman‘s sultry tenor all giving rock solid voice performances that aid the laughing stock The Lego Movie becomes.

With Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind the first Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the recently rebooted and well-received 21 Jump Street, at the helm, the project has just as much focus placed on the comedy as the storyline and stylish animation. Accordingly, the jokes fly a mile a minute.

But beneath it all is a genuine heartbeat. Emett’s journey is a common hero’s quest but his goofy antics and self-sacrificing ways provide an emotional basis for our ongoing investment in his arc. Driving home a message that everyone’s special may be a little pear-shaped in the age of the Great Recession but there’s something intentionally ironic behind all the hackneyed encouragement. Maybe The Lego Movie would like to tell us we’re all special but that’s a message that only lingers on the surface. Beneath that, Lord and Miller reach out and say “We know that’s not true, but that’s still cool.”

The film is loaded with irreverent, double entendre moments like this, a self-aware meta angle that makes the experience just as much rewarding for adults as it is for kids. The screenwriting duo even take potshots at the lesser regarded Lego properties to great comic effect. Rarely taking a break from tongue-in-cheek mockery of Business, who for all intents is a place holding satire of the very company footing the bill for this movie, their voice is strangely misaligned with the lousy money-grubbing staples of the industry. They preach thinking outside the box while the inevitable accompanying merchandise will deal in exactly this kind of box-set salesmanship. Just eat up that irony.

Going back to the kids, those sugar-stuffed Ritalinites are sure to just eat this up as the partially CGI, partially stop-motion visual style is mind-boggling enough to make even a surly old man’s jaw drop much less a wide-eyed youngster. Cross the delectable ratio of genuine belly laughs with the crafty visual palette and Miller and Lord deserve a hearty pat on the back. Congratulations guys, you’ve made the best animated film in years.


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Out in Theaters: LAST VEGAS

“Last Vegas”
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Starring Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco
105 Mins

A kind of Expendables for Viagra-popping retirees, Last Vegas throws Hollywood golden boys Michael DouglasMorgan FreemanRobert De Niro, and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Kline at the screen amongst a scourge of dilapidated “We’re old now” jokes. But instead of slipping in old catchphrases and nods to their former glory, the narrative hones in on a periodic nostalgia existing outside of the collective careers of these (re)tired bunch of 70-odds.

Arguably better than it has any right to be, Last Vegas dodges expectations of “phoning it in”with half-heartfelt performances from these behemoths of the silver screen. But try as hard as Douglas and crew do to make something with surface-level sincerity, cheese-ball direction from Jon Turteltaub preaches to the lowest common denominator of moviegoers as the ill-conceived script from Dan Fogelman begs for laughs like a dog for scraps. Like a spritz of water to your furry friend’s face or aged bowels spontaneously releasing themselves, it’s often embarrassing to behold.

Dressing death up as a catalyst for living while you can, we meet Douglas’s Billy – a man with the orange-tinted tan of an Oompa Loompa – at his business partner and close friend’s funeral where, in the heat of the moment, he proposes to his 30-something girlfriend – a woman far too young to be marrying him for anything other than the inevitable life insurance payout. However much you expect this generation-gap relationship to be a goldmine for gravedigger jokes, this comedy-rich quarry isn’t touched with a ten-foot pole. It’s as if the producers all glanced at their own wives and nixed all wily commentary on marrying young. Instead, the movie uses this marriage-to-be as a window into the psychology of an older man trying to escape into his more formidable years. What follows is not unlike a plausible synopsis for American Reunion: We’re Retired Now. 

Life long friends Archie (Freeman), Sam (Kline), and the ever-reluctant Paddy (De Niro) join Billy for one last stint in Vegas as a formal send off to the man about to seal his fate in his first marriage. It’s strange to think that these four performers have never shared the screen before as they actually have an ample amount of chemistry together, even though their relationships are built on a thin foundation of lazy writing.

Along the way to the alter, Paddy and Billy feud over past betrayals. A growing rift in their friendship, begat by Billy skipping out on Paddy’s wife’s funeral, promises to tear up the group before the “I do’s” have a chance to be spoken. They bicker like old crows until Diana (Mary Steenburgen) – a lounge singer who becomes the recipient of both of their affections – takes the stage and their hostility turns to competition.

As it turns out, their tug-of-war over the same woman is par for the course of their friendship, as both had eyes for the same sweetheart back in their youthful days, a malted milkshake lass named Sophie. Sophie is the same woman that Paddy eventually married, the same woman whose funeral Billy stood up. In a revamped version of Sophie’s choice, her decision to saddle up with Paddy has always left an unspoken dent in their friendship. Just as these more meaningful ideas of love and friendship begin to be explored, they’re quickly abandoned. Anything worthy of thoughtful consideration is ultimately left examined with the finesse of a kid with a magnifying glass toasting ants. In such, nothing genuine survives the scorching melodrama of Turteltaub’s touch. 

Much like a granny that confuses a nickel for something of actual worth, Turteltaub fails to understand Last Vegas‘s value. Rather than treat his audience to a pat on the head, he could have left us with something weighty, or at least a lump in our throats – something worthy of dealing with friendships that end in funerals. But his fundamental misunderstanding of the film’s purpose quickly becomes his own downfall. Crafting a story around the framework of coping with age has proved successful in the past – just take a look at the resounding success of last year’s admittedly grim Amour. The success of that film, like this one, depends on a sense of stakes and what higher stakes are there than dying slowly, alone and isolated?

In Last Vegas though, these ideas are mentioned but never actually experience. Consequently, there are no solid ramifications for anything that takes place. It’s all just an act in front of a curtain. Every issue becomes a performance of reaction, a cookie-cutter replica of tropes of past aging journeys. As it goes, everything feels like a carbon copy of a copy of a copy – three layers removed from any real feeling.

But judging Last Vegas on the terms of a serious drama isn’t quite grading it on a fair rubric because it was never intended to be a serious drama. Through and through, this is a fluffy star-laden romp intended to steal laughs rather than tears. Never masquerading as something of deeper intent, Last Vegas is happy to churn along and snag a smile here and there. Still, giving it a pass for having low ambition is an equally miscalculated way to sum up the film.

Regardless of its intention, any film with staying power hopes to tap into something universal; a reaction typically gleamed from a true emotional response. But with Last Vegas, any real emotional response is second-tier to sigh-inducing knee-slappers.

Following suit, Last Vegas is fast food entertainment for the elderly. Lacking anything of substance, this is an easily digestible stencil of a comedy that flushes right through your system, causing little more than a fading smile, all the while making you a little worse for the wear. The host of talent may look pretty being passed through the filter of a camera lens and crammed into a trailer’s two minute time frame but once Last Vegas has trudged through its entire arsenal of hardy hars, you’re unlikely to remember anything about the experience and would surely flush it out of your mind to make room for something better.

But Last Vegas‘s greatest crime comes with its relentless pursuit to pitch to a younger crowd, the most egregious of which involves mixing a wiener-shaking AWOL Nation gag amongst a torrent of ED jokes. Even though the film clearly skews towards the majorly slim 70-plus demographic, disingenuous attempts to win laughs from the younger crowd come across as misguided. The two generations irreparably clash, stripping the film down to its uninspired core and revealing the mess underneath. Like getting a pair of socks for Christmas, it’s not really a gift at all.



LONDON HAS FALLEN To Film in 2014 With Original Cast


It seems the studios want Gerard Butler to be John McClane. Unfortunately, Bruce Willis is already John McClane, so the Diehard rip-off, Olympus Has Fallen, will be getting a sequel, set in London. The title is, you guessed it, London has Fallen and Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman are set to reprise their roles. Also reprising their roles will be Olympus screenwriters, Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger. No director has yet been chosen.

The new film will follow Gerard Butler, as he attempts to foil a terrorist plot set to trike London during the Prime Minister’s funeral, along with his sidekick, Aaron Eckhart as the president of the United States (because who else is more equipped to personally handle terrorist threats) and an English MI6 agent.

Shooting begins in London on May 5, 2014, so this one is still a little ways down the pipeline, but it promises to be just as absurdly huge in scale as the first. The production deserves much applause for actually planning to film in London, as opposed to a green room. Practically solidified by this news are plans for London Down, much to everyone’s eventual confusion. You heard it here first.

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