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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.

A-

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Out in Theaters: CHEF

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I regret to say that my mom was never a great cook, even good cook would be a stretch. And while my stepmom whipped up a mean scallop pasta dish every once in a while, the fabled variety of “home cooked” meals on that front were pretty few and far between. No wonder that I found such affection in the arms of my girlfriend’s parents back in my formative years. Those stay-at-home moms sure knew how to plate up an amuse bouche that would amuse my bouche (if you know what I mean.) And in those meals, I found magic, and a love for food that has expanded my waist-size by an unmentionable amount (I blame you too beer.)

A good home cooked meal is like nothing else. No fancily plated, truffle-shaven, Emerill Lagasse “BAM!” chow can really touch a good meal cooked with (oh god, I’m gonna say it) love. And even though Jon Favreau has a tendency to indulge in Food Network levels of food porn, he cooks up this good-natured story with an abundance of love. On the surface, Chef is a movie about food, family, and forgiveness but the undertones of artist’s passion are equally raging.

Favreau’s passion is movies. He spent his formative years in the warm embrace of indie comedies as a writer/producer/director, crafting such cult classics as Swingers in the bosom of Hollywood’s furtive underbelly (where the meat is fattiest and most flavorful). Quickly earning himself a name around 90027’s water coolers, Favreau become a hip name and he was handed increasingly larger projects (including Elf and that movie no one saw, Zathura.) The one consistency through his admittedly checkered career was his unchecked fervor for the movies.

His passion even extended to the first Iron Man movie (still regarded as one of Marvel’s greatest hits) but there was a dimness to Favreau’s beady eyes after the studio-domineered, ultimately lumpy Iron Man 2 and the unfairly reviled Cowboys & Aliens. Chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, his creative tank had made its last round in the 100 million dollar tentpole ring. And all for the best.

In Chef, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a chef stifled by his boss’s gluttonous need for consistency. Once regarded as a revelation to the world of trend-hungry foodies, Casper’s settled into the “high-stress” epoch of LA living, complete with gaudy farmer’s markets, high-rise villas (and armies of maids) and the 21st century equivalent of the invisible hand: social-media-mania.

When Oliver Platt, as Anton Ego-type food blogger Ramsey Michel, announces he’ll be reviewing Casper’s restaurant, Casper dreams up a whole new menu to wow his would-be critic. Enter old white man in a suit and tie, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), waving his dollar bills around and demanding that nothing changes (EVER!!!) Riva even tugs at Casper’s ego, mustering up memories of adoring patrons and telling him to stick to “his greatest hits.”

Dumping the buckets of fresh food nuggets he’d scooped up at the farmer’s market (with his shaggy-haired, iPhone-poking kid in tow), Casper plays the hits and the esteemed critic all but gags. In his review, he blasts Casper for his uninspiring cuisine, calling him a fallen star, a comfortable hack, a five-star lackey. Then he sneaks in a jab alluding to Casper being fat. Low blow. Casper takes the review with all the grace of Mel Gibson getting pulled over and proceeds to sully his name via the magical powers of social media. Ignorant to the fine working of Twitter, he lands himself in hot water like a lobster in a Maine July (mmm lobster.)

With his reputation in tatters, Casper takes to the food truck business, abandoning the high brow pretense of Zagat-rated dining for the salty allure of grilling up badass sandies.

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A fresh coat of paint and four wheels later, El Jefe’s- a namesake taken from the tats on Casper’s knucks (not shown, his apparent jailhouse stay) – is Casper’s artistic expression reborn. There may not be anything inherently artful about a mean Cubano but he unloads passion into that pork sandwich like a man with 20-years of blue balls.

His faithful line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) joins his quest as does his estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony), making way for some great comic dynamics and tactful “let me show you, son” dramatics. What follows is a surprisingly funny and heartfelt journey through the bowels of homeland America as Favreau’s Casper earns back his good name.

In a way then, Chef is autobiographical. It’s Favreau’s comeback, his gravestone dance, his rightfully derelict musings on his own Hollywood arc, all spelled out in tasty, food-based metaphors. What could be more delicious?

The five-star restaurant forcing him to replicate old menus until it’s tasteless and tired is the recklessly antiquated studio system, the taco truck the creativity-stoking warmth of independent film. In this reading, Chef is sneakily subversive. It’s about the extinction of dinosaurs, about bull-headed industries beckoning their own collapse. It’s a big ol’ middle finger to the studio system.

Sure, Sofia Vergara is impractically hot to play the pudgy Favreau’s ex-wife and lil’ Emjay Anthony may be a scrubbed-out, impossibly dimpled, angelic stereotype of “perfect white son” but it works. It works well. Between serving up a healthy dose of  masturbatory chow as centerpiece, Favreau crafts an indelibly personal story. Armed with a bitchin’ chef’s knife and an apron for a plate of armor, his pot shots at “the man” are clean and clear but the familial saga will leave you strangely fulfilled. This is feel good dramedy for adults, a rarely served platter of real heft, spiced up with zesty gags that will leave nothing short of a good taste in your mouth.

Hoffman’s suit of a boss likens Casper to a Rolling Stones show; “Imagine if you paid for a ticket and they didn’t play Satisfation?” Well, Favreau’s film slyly retorts, had Mick Jagger kept playing Satisfaction, the Stones would have never released Sticky Fingers. Chef is Favreau’s soulful Sticky Fingers.

B+

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Out in Theaters: HER

“Her”
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Comedy, Drama, Romance
120 Mins
R
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Spike Jonze has made a career out of thought-provoking eccentricity, strange tenderness, and powerhouse performances. Her is no change of pace. While both Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation found brilliance probing personal identity, infectious longing, and the delicacies of the human experience, Her strips back some of the junky, heady aspects (that comes hand-in-hand with working from a Charlie Kaufman script) to explore similarly heavy themes in this streamlined and entirely esoteric masterpiece.

In Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in the not-so-distant future of Los Angeles, a place where human interaction has nearly become obsolete. As Theo bumps through any given crowd, the many commuters he passes each have next-gen devises stuffed in their ears, reciting emails, updating global news, and dishing out the latest gossip scoop. For Theo, these future ear-products (which will likely be marketed in the next decade or so) are about as exciting as hanging out with your iPhone is nowadays, but it’s just about the only contact he’ll have all day.

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Rather than paint him as a pathetic bumbleite, Jonze allows us to find ourselves in Theo. His crippling loneliness is an invention of instantaneous “contact” as the new highest order. Instead of bringing us closer, all this connectivity has led to a devolution of what it means to actually connect. When people become as dismissible as closing out of a browser, what it means to connect with someone has fundamentally changed.

A scene where a sleepless Theo voice “connects” with an equally restless vixen named SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig) sees a distant, instant voice embarks on a cat-based sexual tirade, get herself off, and bail out of the conversation. It’s evidence of a society that has ceased to be such. Society quite literally means “a group of people involved with each other through persistent relations.” [Wikipedia] This is no society. We need look no further than our own social media culture to see that this era of emotional distancing and the end of society is already upon us.

By day, Her‘s Theodore occupies himself working at a custom, hand-written card agency where he drafts letters “from” his clients to their loved ones. When an anniversary comes around, a husband pays a premium price for Theo’s handiwork. Christmas time? Theo’s writing thank you cards to Grandma. At that high school graduation, it’s not Dad who’s penned the heartfelt and tender note but Theodore Twombly, sitting in his cubicle. Theo’s got a preternatural knack for emoting warmth and his outpouring of caring sentiments put those buying Hallmark cards to shame. How tragic though that he’ll never meet these people he’s writing to. Almost worse is the fact that his clients need rely on him at all. Everywhere he looks, Theo faces a society that has come so far as to outsource emotion.

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Enter her. She isn’t really a she though. She’s an advanced operating system (like Mac’s OS X or Windows) specifically designed to match Theodore’s needs. Imagine Apple’s Siri except everyone had a different one customized to their personal preferences. Voiced to perfection by Scarlett Johansson, this OS takes the name Samantha after “thumbing through” a book of baby names (a feat achieved in a mere microsecond) and begins to evolve beyond her wildest dreams, all the while stoking an accidental romantic relationship with Theodore. 

Having closed himself off to the world after lifelong lover Catherine (Rooney Mara) set the scene for a divorce, Theo is a man halved. In relationships, Her reminds us, we pour ourselves into our counterpart and when that union ends, we lose something of ourselves.  In the aftermath, we’re left haunted by these ghosts of lovers past. But as Theodore begins to unexpectedly fall for his OS, his haunting memories of Catherine change their tune. The melancholy melts away and the future becomes an opportunity rather than a sentence.

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The early Sam is like a child, reaching out and trying to understand the many unexplained mysteries of life. Each day, her self-awareness and curiosity grows and she soon discovers the many wonders “surrounding” her. In Sam’s perpetual bewilderment and glowing enthusiasm, Theodore begins to rediscover his own love of life.

The romance that unfolds between Theodore and Sam may prove difficult for members of older generations or those with limited imaginative capacity to grasp (“He’s fallen in love with a computer?”) but for those willing to stretch their minds and let in something new, they’ll find an entity surprisingly earnest and exceptionally affecting. When this bi-species couple “consummate” their new relationship, the screen goes black and we’re left with a scene unspeakably powerful. Theo and Sam let each other, with moans of belonged need and physical desire, with such palpable love and affection that it’ll warm and break your heart simultaneously.

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As she grows, Her gets more complex and begins to dig into some deeper issues of what it is to love and be loved. How much of love is about holding on and how much is letting go? With a cast spilling with talent, standout performances flow from everyone. Phoenix and Mara perfectly encapsulate the trauma of evaporating passion, while Amy Adams and Chris Pratt provide the necessary shoulders to lean on. Even Olivia Wilde as a nameless blind date turns in a quick but potent performance. But amazingly, the tippiest of the tip of the hat goes to Johannson as her performance here is a career best. Showing a range of emotion unthinkable for a limited performance of this nature, what Johnasson communicates with her voice alone provides some of the most commanding work of the year.

Anchored with a cast this talented that are each putting their all into each and every scene, Her is lightning in a bottle. Instead of feeling like this future world is strange, it feels entirely practical, a slightly scary yet peculiarity hopeful fact. And however weird the concept of falling in love with an operating system seems, when we’re in heat of the moment, it never feels weird. It just feels right.

A+

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First Trailer for CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER

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The first trailer for Captain America: The Winter Solider has arrived and, unsurprisingly, it’s looking pretty solid. Following Chris Evan‘s Steve Rogers as he acclimates to living in the 21st century and adjusts to his new position working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the real question is whether this can stand out among the pack if it will just be another solid effort from Marvel. At this point, the studio has a formula for success that’s been working wonders for them. However successful that initial campaign is though, they’ll have to switch gears sooner rather than later if they want to keep proceedings interesting. 

The official synopsis reads:

After the cataclysmic events in New York with The Avengers, Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” finds Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, living quietly in Washington, D.C. and trying to adjust to the modern world. But when a S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague comes under attack, Steve becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue that threatens to put the world at risk. Joining forces with the Black Widow, Captain America struggles to expose the ever-widening conspiracy while fighting off professional assassins sent to silence him at every turn. When the full scope of the villainous plot is revealed, Captain America and the Black Widow enlist the help of a new ally, the Falcon. However, they soon find themselves up against an unexpected and formidable enemy—the Winter Soldier.

Captain America: The Winter Solider is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and stars Chris Evans, Frank Grillo, Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Cobie Smoulders, Emily VanCamp, Dominic Cooper, and Toby Jones. It hits theaters on April 4, 2014.

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