REVIEW: Lucy (2014)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

2014 saw the release of two films dealing with the concept of a post-human being: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which depicts the technological-based post-human concept of whole-brain emulation, and Luc Besson’s Lucy, which goes for a more preposterous premise for its titular transcendent being and uses her to tell a very spacy and heady action movie.

It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy’s body undergoes unimaginable changes that begins to unlock her mind’s full potential. With her new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting back at her captors, receiving invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).

Like many of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy is a frothy-sweet mixture of pseudo-intellectual ideas and impeccably-staged action, centered around a strong female lead who can kick some serious ass. This time around, that lead is Scarlett Johansson, and her ass-kicking is the product of her unlocked mind. Embracing the tired old myth that human beings only use 10% of their brain mass, or “cerebral capacity” as Professor Norman calls it, Besson uses the hypothesis in a somewhat convoluted setup to a frenetic and stylish action flick that actually manages to make up for its narrative deficiencies.

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Before I go on to sing Lucy‘s praises, I must address the elephant in the room. As I already mentioned, Besson’s take on the mighty psionically-powered superhuman is fundamentally flawed from its base within the 10% brain usage myth. Simply put, it’s complete rubbish. We use every bit of our brains, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. Digging deeper into the premise of this “hypothesis,” mostly told through scenes of a lecture by Professor Norman and later by Lucy herself, only reveals the massive holes in Besson’s logic. Lucy’s ever-expanding cerebral capacity reveals dormant abilities in the human brain: complete control over her own body, over others, over electromagnetic signals, and finally, time itself. So why does she need a massively powerful synthetic drug to access it? Why do any of us? How exactly does a simple flesh-and-blood organ exert control over space-time? Besson tries his best to explain, but his best isn’t enough to ever come off as believable.

Luckily, he is very skilled at crafting a hell of a violent good time. Beginning with Lucy as a scared college student at the mercy of Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi as a typical-to-form slimy Besson gangster, the film weaves an intricate drug mule plot that intercuts with both Norman’s lecture and some very on-the-nose shot sequences of predators and prey. It’s classic Besson, and provides suspenseful opening that eases the viewer into the more metaphysical remainder of the film, which starts with the bag of CPH4 rupturing in Lucy’s abdomen, exposing her to an overdose of the superdrug.

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From here, Johansson carries the film in a performance that it truly doesn’t deserve. Going from a terrified young woman, authentic in every way, the CPH4 transforms her into a relentless killing machine with very little humanity left. It’s a very tall order for any actor to have to play, but Johansson toes the very fine line and succeeds brilliantly, appearing sufficiently creepy with just the right amount of her previous identity to anchor the character. Min-sik echoes her creepy factor as Jang, and Amr Waked rounds out the main players as a French detective caught up in Lucy’s quest to acquire more of the drug in order to stay alive. And of course, Morgan Freeman is God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman.

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Heavy on CGI visual effects, Lucy nonetheless electrifies visually, appearing as a clean and colorful digital slate punctuated by images of the changing innards of Lucy’s body and the powerful manifestations of her new abilities. Action scenes are handled with care, either with a tactful mind to cutting or with John Woo-style slow motion that allows us to savor every gunshot, every pounding hit.

When it comes down to it, Lucy likes to play around with very interesting and profound ideas about human perspective and the boundaries of perception and reality, with a character that has truly transcended all of it. Whether it does that well seems to be up to interpretation, given it’s horribly wrong method of presenting said questions. Lucy is blue pill entertainment; meant to be consumed, not savored, and while I can’t quite turn my brain fully off to avoid complaining about the perpetuation of pseudo-science at its worst, that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend the film for what it is: hella fun.

REVIEW: No Country for Old Men (2007)

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Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Based on the Novel by Cormac McCarthy
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Stephen Root

Adapting a novel by an unconventional novel for author Cormac McCarthy into an equally unconventional film for themselves, the Coen Brothers show again how real dual filmmakers get the job done with this uncompromising thriller.

In rural Texas, welder and hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers the remains of several drug runners who have all killed each other in an exchange gone violently wrong. Rather than report the discovery to the police, Moss decides to simply take the two million dollars present for himself. This puts the psychopathic killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), on his trail as he dispassionately murders nearly every rival, bystander and even employer in his pursuit of his quarry and the money. As Moss desperately attempts to keep one step ahead, the blood from this hunt begins to flow behind him with relentlessly growing intensity as Chigurh closes in. Meanwhile, the laconic Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) blithely oversees the investigation even as he struggles to face the sheer enormity of the crimes he is attempting to thwart.

The Coen Brothers have always been known for quieter films that, while by no means boring or tame, definitely know how to understate things eloquently. While other, lesser filmmakers go straight for the jugular with deafening blasts of celluloid, the Coens are a markedly-different beast of American cinema, combining the silent soundscapes of a French filmmaker with the uniquely American flair for violence. No Country for Old Men probably does this violence better than any Coen Brothers film.

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Beginning with a short but important and even poignant voiceover by the laconic and grizzled Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country quickly turns brutal with the introduction of its most memorable element, the psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurh. Only described in the book as a “man without a sense of humor,” he becomes a central fixture of the film’s themes of nihilism the uncertainty of human society, and in the Coen Brothers’ repetoire of memorable characters, despite their well-known reliance on dry humor. Instead, the laughs are left mostly with Bell as he stays firmly three steps behind the other two leads.

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The main action of the story line consists of Chigurh’s pursuit of a satchel of Mexican drug money, now in the possession of a retired welder and Vietnam vet named Llewelyn Moss. Moss, despite played as resourceful and determined as can be by Brolin, is simply no match for the invincible Chigurh, who at times appears almost robotic, or perhaps demonic, in the capable hands of Bardem, who’s incredibly creepy voice and thousand-mile stare keep the audience on guard.

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For a film so quiet (and I mean quiet–vast swaths of the picture allow the soundtrack, music and sfx, to drop away completely), No Country is incredibly adept at creating tension, as most of the Coens’ output is expected to be. The difference here is that while in most of their other films the suspense is punctuated by comedy or melodrama, here, it is firmly rooted in reality, juxtaposing everyday 1980 environments with a brutality that would be enough to shake any war vet watching.

The film is not without some signature Coens’ humor, however, mostly exemplified by Bell, but also allowing for Moss and Woody Harrelson’s assassin character Carson Wells to get their laughs in as well. But this film being more of a drama, it mostly excels in the tragedy displayed, presenting a truly shocking turn of events that lead to several twists in the final 40 minutes of the film that lead to perhaps one of the greatest final scenes I’ve ever encountered in all my years of movie watching.

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Even this far into their careers, the Coens’ display a silent confidence with this film, making a suspenseful thriller with minimal action into an end-of-the-year gem that became a formidable presence in the awards circuit. As the years go by, its reputation will only be further cemented as its themes and characters are debated and analyzed.

REVIEW: Predator 2 (1990)

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Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas
Starring Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Rubén Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, Bill Paxton, Robert Davi, Adam Baldwin, Kent McCord, Morton Downey Jr., Kevin Peter Hall

Predator 2 has an interesting reputation both inside of the Predator fanbase and out of it. At once regarded as enjoyable but a letdown, this sequel failed to recoup it’s budget yet became something of a cult classic in the years to follow. So how does it hold up against its predecessor? Not quite as well, but its legacy is a little more complicated that that.

Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover), a brash policeman who is fighting drug lords in a decaying L.A. finds that the criminals are being killed in a very odd fashion. The federal authorities keep telling him to stay out, even though his own men are also being killed. His instincts are right when he discovers that the person behind the murders is none other than a human-hunting alien out to collect macabre trophies. Finding himself in the middle of a government attempt to capture the hunter, Harrigan is in the fight for his life.

Taking place in the then-future setting of 1997, the film presents to us a Los Angeles in the middle of a heat wave with temperatures reaching 109 degrees, and writhing under the throes of a vicious gang war between competing drug lords. We open with a loud, exposive gun battle between police and Colombian drug runners, which sets the stage for Danny Glover’s Riggs-style police officer, Mike Harrigan. He shouts and swears through his scenes, blowing away any violent opposition with firearms that I’m sure are not standard police issue. His police team, consisting of Blades, Alonso, and later a riotous Bill Paxton, are all of a similar ready-aim-fire persuasion, definitely fitting the Hollywood peace officer stereotype with just heart to at least raise a chuckle.

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Oddly, considering the first film’s over-the-top bunch of macho badasses, this film’s set of characters seems even more outlandish and unrealistically one-dimensional. Not that they aren’t enjoyable; everyone here most certainly is, especially Paxton, who crafts a slimeball of a detective who nonetheless is easy to root for. And what can be said about Gary Busey other than he is definitely Gary Busey. He’s an actor that is fun to watch even as he utterly craps all over the floor, and in this film, he cleans up quite nicely; as the chief government agent out to capture the Predator, his raspy voice uttering frankly hilarious threats really upped the entertainment value of the picture.

But let’s be honest, here: the real star is the Predator, once again designed by Stan Winston and performed by Kevin Peter Hall. The “City Hunter” is just as deadly and crafty as his jungle counterpart, yet subtle differences introduced by both Winston and Hall set him apart and expand Predator lore probably more so than any other film in the franchise. The City Hunter seems to be more daring, attacking large groups at once instead of picking them off one by one, and he rarely relies on his plasma gun like his predecessor, instead preferring to tangle up close with all sorts of bladed, gore-spewing weaponry. In Predator, the main draw was the suspense of the unseen hunter; Predator 2, having to deal with the fact that you know who is doing the killing, eschews suspense for red-blooded thrills and copious amounts of gore.

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After the first film’s success, Dark Horse Comics began publishing a monthly series, delving into a new expanded universe for the Predator. Predator 2 borrows heavily from that mythos, and as such established much more of what we know as the character of the Predator than even the previous outing. From this film, we are given the other iconic mask design, a more coherent sense of their code of honor (as witnessed by its refusal to kill the unarmed, children, or pregnant women), their engineering and architecture, and of course, more Predators in the final scene, which sheds light on their hierarchy and society. Predator 2, even if it couldn’t have believable human characters, really nailed its portrayal of the so-called Yautja race.

On a technical level, the film excels as well, serving up several great action pieces, and lots of bloody slaughters by the Predator. The film rivals the first two RoboCop entries in its brutality, a fact that tends to turn a sizable portion of possible audiences off. But if blood and gore is your thing, there is lots of it here, and some of the best early ’90s visual effects to offer, rivalring Terminator 2 in the scope of its techniques and the skill with which they’re handled. Alan Silvestri also turns in another masterful score, blending the original Predator themes with heavy Latin and African tribal beats, effectively painting the urban jungle around the title monster.

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Predator 2 sits in a not-so-happy medium between greatness and mediocrity; its characters teeter on the edge of blandness while its title beast reaps the rewards of an expanded portrayal. It’s loud, explosive, bloody, and well-paced, yet it doesn’t seem memorable unless, like myself, one grows up with the film or has an undying love of the Predator universe itself. I, for one, like the film. It doesn’t live up to its mighty progenitor, but it’s an enjoyable and fun way to waste an afternoon, and in the end, what more can one ask for?

REVIEW: RoboCop 2 (1990)

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Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by Frank Miller and Walon Green, Based on Characters Created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Tom Noonan, Belinda Bauer, Robert DoQui, Galyn Görg, Gabriel Damon

When a film like RoboCop is such a runaway success, there will always be a sequel. Even if it takes decades. RoboCop 2 reached theaters 3 years after the first film, which is par for the course when it comes to sequel-making, but perhaps it should have taken longer.

After a successful deployment of the Robocop Law Enforcement unit, OCP sees its goal of urban pacification come closer and closer, but as this develops, a new narcotic known as “Nuke” invades the streets led by God-delirious leader Cain (Tom Noonan). As this menace grows, it may prove to be too much for Murphy (Peter Weller) to handle. OCP tries to replicate the success of the first unit, but ends up with failed prototypes with suicidal issues… until Dr. Faxx (Belinda Bauer), a scientist straying away from OCP’s path, uses Cain as the new subject for the Robocop 2 project.

Director Irvin Kershner is best known, ironically, not for any of his own pet projects, but as the filmmaker who directed for George Lucas one of the greatest films of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. Here, he takes on a similar role, however the script isn’t exactly the vision of any single man. After a script by original writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner was rejected, comic book writer Frank Miller was hired to produce a draft, which soon was called “unfilmable.” Now, I don’t know if that means the visual effects shots were impossible at the time or if his script was in bad taste, but the final film surely has Miller’s fingerprints all over it. It’s mean-spirited, overly violent, bloody, and chock-full of story points that would be difficult to swallow for anybody more conservatively-minded. Even more so than the first film, RoboCop 2 is brutal.

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For example, probably one of the most complained-about characters is Gabriel Damon’s Hob, a 12-year-old boy heir to Cain’s drug empire who swears and kills with the worst of them, effectively acting as Number 2 in the Trade of Death. It is not pleasant to see for the weak-spirited, and at times annoying for the more hardened. This and every other bit of extreme brutality is very much in line with the original film, but it seems to be missing Verhoeven’s trademark sense of humor. This is not to say the film isn’t funny at times, but the more physical comedy that Verhoeven saw in the most inappropriate times just isn’t here. Kershner tried his best, and I can tell because the tone and feel of the world of RoboCop is still there, but this lack of tongue-in-cheek fun can be a little distracting, even during RoboCop 2‘s well-filmed action sequences.

It also doesn’t help that the film feels much too episodic to work as a seamless narrative. The script is incredibly inefficient at introducing and following through on new ideas. RoboCop himself is first introduced as the automaton he was in the middle of the first film, with now recognition of the humanization he gained by the end of that film. He then confronts his wife, suddenly human again, but he sends her away to spare her the emotional turmoil, and his humanity and identity are never addressed again. This happens too many times in RoboCop 2, from the subplot of RoboCop’s “nice guy” programming by OCP to the Cain Nuke cult. Each of these tangents is also given the entire screen for whole acts, meaning the main characters sometimes disappear for whole swaths of the runtime. It’s a bad way to watch a film, and I’m not sure if these problems were inherent to Miller’s original draft or Walon Green’s revision.

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One more con: the musical score. Basil Poledouris’ score from the first film was pretty much perfect: brassy and thumping in action scenes, cybernetic and emotional in the quiet moments. Leonard Rosenman’s score is, well, adequate. It’s not bad for the most part, until a choir of women begin chanting “ROBOCOP!!!” I’m not kidding, and I’m not amused. It would have been better to just reuse Poledouris’ old score and leave it at that.

All of this doesn’t mean that RoboCop 2 is without its own charm. As said before, Kirshner was very adept at maintaining a consistent worldly feel in sequels to original films, and Phil Tippet’s work on the RoboCop 2 cyborg is probably the pinnacle of stop-motion animation, producing a lifelike robotic villain that for once actually feels big, overcoming the most common weakness inherent to the artform. And the film’s progression of the Delta City scheme by OCP is rife with social commentary on the wholesale takeover of American lives by big business. There’s still a lot to appreciate in RoboCop 2.

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Growing up, I usually watched this film, owing to the fact that I owned it and not the first one. Now, I’m more likely to choose the first, but RoboCop 2 is still worth a watch every now and then. Just be warned, it is no classic.

 

REVIEW: RoboCop (1987)

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Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui

For a film so firmly rooted in its own time, RoboCop has certainly held up much better than anyone involved in its making ever dared to imagine. Part of that is obvious: it’s violent, heroic, and funny all at the same time. The other part is, well, not so less obvious, but certainly less pleasant to realize.

Detroit of the future. Omni Consumer Products (OCP) has bought out the Detroit police department, planning to build the new Delta City where Old Detroit stands, even as a crime wave tears the metropolis apart. Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) gets transferred from Metro South to the West, where he and new partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) track down a group of criminals led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Unfortunately, Murphy is mutilated and killed by Clarence’s gang. Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), one of OCP’s employees, transforms Murphy’s barely cold corpse into RoboCop. RoboCop’s tests are successful after several trial runs in the city, but it soon rediscovers the memories of Murphy and now knows he has to find and arrest Clarence Boddicker.

Paul Verhoeven must be a sick little man deep inside. I don’t say this as an insult–actually, its more of an intimate compliment. Sometimes storytellers must be able to go to extremely dark places in order to do their thing. The Grimm Brothers certainly did, so it stands to reason that this quality sould be shared among filmmakers as well. Sadly, I see this quality somewhat receding in recent mainstream films, and that’s a shame. It’s part of the big lure of RoboCop. Neumeier’s and Miner’s script is no-holds-barred; it viciously attacks American capitalism, drawing blunt parallels between the suits in the OCP boardroom and Boddicker’s gun-toting gang of drug pushers, right down to both groups using the same vague catchphrases. “Good business is where you find it,” indeed.

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The script is heavily steeped in satire, a time-honored device that more often than not is misused. That isn’t any issue here, thankfully. RoboCop effortlessly pivots between tongue-in-cheek humor attacking American society and balls-to-the-wall bloody violence that seems just as much a parody of the ole Red, White, and Blue. That’s where Verhoeven comes in: being a Dutchman, he was keenly invested in outsider commentary on the national identity of the USA, and what did he come up with? The second coming of Jesus, sci-fi style. Murphy is gruesomely blown away, piece by piece, by the Boddicker gang’s shotguns, seemingly portraying an even more violent adaptation of the Christ’s Passion. He dies, and is resurrected by the power of corporate America to reshape the world in their image, i.e. to clean up Old Detroit before Delta City begins construction. This is a brilliant vantage point for Verhoeven to take on. While America may be the “land of the free” where all are (supposed to be) welcome, it has undeniably been a white, gun-shooting Christian man’s nation for 241 years. Verhoeven’s take on this fact is courageous and hilariously downbeat, as our savior’s second coming is as a bastardized Frankenstein, doomed to only react to evil by blowing it away with its big hand cannon.

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Peter Weller was the relatively-unknown actor who got to wear the bulky metal suit, and boy, did he make it his own. Rob Bottin’s design is iconic, but half of the legend is owed to Weller, whose robotic twists and walk are now firmly rooted in science fiction lexicon. Most certainly partly inspired by Arnold’s Terminator, Weller eschews a sleek efficiency of motion, instead bulldozing slowly through his criminal opponents like a human tank. It’s quite a thing to realize that some of the best gunfights in American cinema come from this film, and the hero gunslinger is essentially just strolling through the carnage with no regard to actual technique.

The other delights of the film are Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker and Nancy Allen’s Officer Lewis. Boddicker is rude, cunning, disturbingly evil, and he does it all in thick glasses that make him look fatherly. It’s as if Whitey Bulger was revealed to have been Red Foreman before turning to crime and loving it. Lewis, on the other hand, is the quintessential feminist action hero: she’s tough, smart, and definitely a good guy, yet she isn’t weighed down by weepy diatribes or romantic tension. She’s a cop who happens to have a vagina. So what? That’s how you do feminism. It’s such a shame that the remake changed her into a man, and a useless one at that. I mean, good God, if 1987 could get it right, what in the hell happened to us?

I think the answer to that is obvious: we continued being the laissezz-faire society that RoboCop depicted. While we may not being reading in the news about how an ED-209 turned a company board member into Swiss cheese in a failed test (a still-incredible stop-motion effect by Phil Tippett, just saying), but we are seeing people literally get hurt by their overheating and exploding cell phones. We have seen Detroit go bankrupt and erode into the hellhole of the film. And lo and behold, the President of the United States reminds me a little too much of The Old Man for comfort. Such is the nature of prediction, I guess. It makes for great storytelling to know human nature, but it certainly doesn’t help one’s sleep. Oh well, I guess that means it’s time for another late night showing of RoboCop. I’d buy that for a dollar.

NOTE: RoboCop has been released in two versions: the original theatrical cut and an unrated Director’s cut, which adds about a minute of more violence and gore. As of this writing, the current blu-ray release of RoboCop only includes the Director’s Cut, but honestly, the differences are additive and so little that there isn’t anything missed by not seeing the theatrical version.