movie reviews Aug 2014

And so it goeslucyguardians of the galaxyboyhoodthe hundred-foot journey


Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

  Visit the Reel Reviews ArchivesVisit the Video/DVD Reviews



For more reviews,
go to

iloveblackmovies.com

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The journey in director Lasse Hallström’s latest film is much longer and more meandering than the title implies. Based on the best-selling novel by Richard C. Morais, the story follows the Kadam family’s emigration from Mumbai to England to the south of France, eventually settling on son Hassan (Manish Dayal), a talented family-taught chef, and the family restaurant’s rivalry with Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the proprietrix — her picayune well-deserving of the suffix -— of the Michelin-starred restaurant across the street. Were that all, it would certainly be enough, but the screenplay by Steven Knight continues on to Paris, where Hassan has become a celebrated chef unable to enjoy his isolated success.


Anyone still rooting for a decent movie from Hallström based on his early work, My Life as a Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in particular, will remain disappointed. Since Chocolat, it seems that the Swedish director has traded in his particular brand of quirky-yet-heartfelt dark comedy for an unrelenting yet shallow earnestness. His recent movies can be categorized as either romantic comedies or dramas, depending on the weight — usually a Cliff’s Notes version — he gives to the issues, which range from prudery to terrorism.

The Hundred-Foot Journey contains lessons in racism and acceptance, but isn’t very interested in delving deep into either. In a voiceover, Hassan is revealed to be unusually naïve, describing the political violence that forces his family to flee Mumbai as “some election or other.” And the rest of Hassan’s opening speech sounds more like the romanticized idea of Indian life than actual Indian life. Sea urchins that “taste of life” and metaphorical life lessons handed down from mother to son over a simmering mulligan.

Racial conflict, when played for laughs, is allowed to go on scene after scene. Sweeping cultural generalizations are made: Aren’t Indians so colorful and loud? Aren’t the French so buttoned-up?  But when hooligans in town take this to a more serious level, those previously in opposition to their new neighbors rally around them. So instead of allowing these tensions to provide real drama or any emotional heft, the filmmakers quickly resolve it and distract the viewer with sleight of hand by offering up a love story in its place. Or rather, two love stories.

The camera switches its gaze between wide-eyed sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and slow close-ups of cooking, particularly when done by Hassan, which it exoticizes to the point of fetish. Despite his poring over Marguerite’s French cookbooks, or using Madame Mallory’s hands as his own, the only food he manages to make — even when reinventing the trendy world of molecular gastronomy in Paris — is an Indian-French fusion, as if Knight and Hallström, by extension, are claiming that this is the only food he can make. It’s wholly unappetizing. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/21/14)


Boyhood
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The most remarkable aspect of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is that it works at all, much less that it creates one of the most engaging portraits of growing up in America ever put on film.

Casting Coltrane, who also appeared in Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, was one of several gambles Linklater made that pay off handsomely. In many cases, cute children prove to be awkward once they’re actually called upon to act instead of coasting on their youth. Thankfully, Coltrane is consistently unaffected and matures almost imperceptibly.

Linklater hits a lot of familiar beats but his laid back Lone Star State approach to filmmaking makes these moments feel more genuine than clichéd. Blink and you might miss a computer monitor that isn’t a flat screen or a topical reference that seems either prescient or dated depending on history played out in the real world.
It’s also intriguing to watch how the performers age throughout the story with only minimal adjustments for makeup. It’s refreshing not to have to settle for suspension of disbelief because the filmmakers have settled for facial prosthetics that look like facial prosthetics.

When Mason enters the world in the early ‘90s, he and his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the writer-director’s daughter) wind up being torn between his estranged parents. Their mother (Patricia Arquette) is trying to get through college, while their dad (Ethan Hawke) shows up at awkward times because his various blue collar gigs don’t seem to work out.

While she proves to be a decent student, Mason’s mother finds a series of men, including an alcoholic professor (Marco Perella), who make Mason’s dad seem like a catch. To be fair, as time passes dad takes his responsibilities more seriously even if he has already remarried and started another family. At least he eventually gives up his stillborn musical career, just like so many wannabe Mick Jaggers before him. Yes, that’s Hawke actually trying to carry a tune.

Throughout his early years, Mason contends with broken promises, abrupt moves to other cities, unexpected changes in technology and people who aren’t quite what they seem. Linklater manages to juggle making Mason’s journey as specific as it is universal. Mason learns religion and firearms like a lot of Texas youngsters, which makes the tale more believable. Lesser films often play down the regional setting, but hearing authentic accents can actually help viewers get grounded in a story and gain insights into characters.

Boyhood could have collapsed at any point during its long gestation. For example, Lorelei Linklater reportedly grew tired of being on camera but had to be coaxed by her dad to continue because her character’s demise would have been jarring. Nonetheless, Boyhood proves what can be lost by not taking chances (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 08/08/14)

Haiku
Boyhood

Linklater makes 12
years pass more quickly than all
of Into the Storm.


Guardians of the Galaxy
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

The real secret weapon of Marvel's disarming Guardians of the Galaxy is not the much-sought-after power orb that drives the film's plot, but something much more mundane — an ‘80s Sony Walkman containing a single cassette, hand-labeled, "Awesome Mix Vol. 1."

In a very un-Marvel-esque opening, young Peter Quill hides from the reality of his dying mother by burying his ears within the lush harmonies of 10cc's consummate statement of denial, "I'm Not in Love." Forced by his dad to face this reality and say goodbye, the kid bolts from the hospital and, in a sudden flash, is scooped up by a huge alien vessel.

Twenty-six years later he's trekking across a desolate landscape that looks like something out of Heavy Metal, wearing a maroon leather duster and a metallic mask with glowing red lenses that animate the spectral images of people and buildings that once filled this wasteland. The moment is sobering, the sense of loss palpable … until Quill disengages the mask, hits "PLAY" on his Walkman, and begins busting some dance moves to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love."

The incongruity is laugh-out-loud funny and could easily be dismissed as a cheap joke. But director and co-writer James Gunn, the writer behind the canny remake of Dawn of the Dead and writer/director of the gory-funny horror homage Slither, knows his character.

Peter Quill is older, but not grown up. He's still play-acting. Raised by the interstellar outlaws who abducted him, Quill is a misfit playing the part of intergalactic raider, space cowboy, ladies' man — anyone but Peter Quill. Chris Pratt brings a large dose of his Parks and Recreation character, loveable doofus Andy Dwyer, to the part, and it's that goofiness that constantly reminds us that this is the same traumatized kid from that first scene.

Not surprisingly, the mix tape is his most prized possession. The only memento of his mother, it is literally the soundtrack of his life, and "Awesome Mix Vol. 1" becomes the movie's soundtrack, underscoring and undermining the action in equal measure. A prison break occurs to Rupert Holmes' "Escape (Pina Colada Song," and the fate of a planet hinges on Quill's rendition of The Five Stairsteps' “O-O-H Child."

Granted, little of the plot is new or even comprehensible. Apparently, this orb contains a cosmos-crushing power yet every explanation devolves into standard sci-fi gibberish — a nod to the MacGuffins that propel so many superhero sagas.

Once Quill gets a hold of the orb, though, he's on everybody's most-wanted list. In the resulting tussle for possession, he winds up in jail with four other orphan misfits: bounty hunter Rocket, a genetically-altered, wise-cracking, bipedal raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper); his muscle, an anthropomorphic tree that communicates with only three words, "I am Groot" (Vin Diesel, reminding folks that his excellent voice work in The Iron Giant was no fluke); a green-skinned female assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana); and Drax, a mega-muscled soldier with skin like tooled leather.

All selfish opportunists, they reluctantly band together to keep the orb out of the wrong hands. Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman are at their best when they let the small talk and petty squabbling speak for itself, the characters sharing their wounds and insecurities amid raunchy jokes and put-downs. Like a sort of intergalactic Island of Misfit Toys, these jailbirds know they're misfits yet as they discover trust and sacrifice, they find heroism within themselves.

Most of the plot details are unimportant; in fact, the film is dullest when it expands its scope to the attack and defense of a peaceful planet. In these scenes, it begins to feel like just another impersonal Marvel blockbuster, but when the Guardians take center stage and the mix tape plays, Gunn is in his element.

All the better then that the soundtrack is not, for the most part, meticulously curated hipster musical gems (a couple are a bit suspect: Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" and The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb"). These mix tape songs are misfits, too, the kind of pop once ubiquitous on AM radio that gets ridiculed as empty and disposable.

Ultimately, this film isn’t about the galaxy; it's a about the Guardians, about friendship despite flaws and the way a song can move you even when you know it's "just a pop song." (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/04/14)


Lucy
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Director Luc Besson is fond of stories of female empowerment, routinely portraying women who rise above the violence and chaos of their surroundings through intervention of some kind, whether that be a mentor (Leon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita), alien intelligence (The Fifth Element), or even God (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc). In each, Besson presents a sort of female superhero origin story as a marginalized, underestimated woman discovers who she is and what she is meant to do.

With Lucy, Besson takes all this a step — no, make that one giant leap — further, reflecting on what humans are and what we are meant to do. Working from the repeatedly debunked yet inexorably embraced notion that humans only use 10 percent of their brain capacity, Besson considers what a human could do — or be — running at 100 percent brain power. Awkwardly wedding stylish action film moves to sophomoric philosophy and a surprising amount of stock nature footage, Lucy stumbles under the weight of its own lofty intentions (or pretensions).

First-name-only Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), an American college student in Taiwan, gets tricked by her low-life boyfriend into delivering a mysterious silver briefcase to sociopathic drug kingpin, Mr. Kang (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik). As it turns out, the case contains several bags of a new Superdrug, CPH4, a synthetic version of the chemical that allegedly develops embryos in the womb that apparently does crazy things to fully developed humans.

First using her as a guinea pig, Kang then forcibly recruits Lucy as a drug mule, having a bag of the stuff surgically implanted in her stomach. When a brutal beating ruptures the bag inside her, Lucy absorbs the chemical in large doses, which begins increasing her brain function.

Oddly, the initial consequences of expanded brain capacity include levitation, as well as sudden expertise in ju jitsu, escapology, and automatic weapon use. From this point on, title cards identify Lucy’s increase in brain capacity (20%, 50%) as powers continue to emerge, such as instant comprehension of foreign languages, telepathy, the ability to “read” and control communication signals, and telekinesis. In other words, Lucy seems to be transforming into a god(dess).

So what does a human with godlike abilities do? 1) track down more of that CPH4 and 2) get revenge on the jerks who hurt her. Despite Lucy’s levitation and telekinetic abilities, however, these pursuits end up requiring a lot of car and plane travel. And how does a god dress for travel and revenge? A miniskirt and Louboutins, of course.

Although Kang and his henchmen spend the remainder of the film in hot pursuit, it’s hard to fear for a god. A look, a wave of the hand, and these guys are dead meat.

Besson brings in Morgan Freeman as a world-renowned brain expert in an attempt to ground all this nonsense,  but even Freeman’s considerable gravitas fails to make sense of the ridiculous action on screen.

Meanwhile, the drug is not only affects Lucy‘s abilities, but opens her doors of perception. We know this because she begins spouting pseudo-philosophical malarkey such as, “Sounds are music that I understand — like fluids.” By the end, the film goes completely off the rails in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink homage to the Star Gate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001.

All of which might be fine cartoonish high jinks if Besson, himself, didn’t seem to take it all so seriously. At the same time, he severely underestimates his audience, a deadly combination.

Time and again, Besson suggests a point or connection, only to have characters or action then make it explicit. A movie called Lucy that opens on a humanoid ape at a stream would seem to have made its point. But not for Besson. Lucy’s boyfriend incongruously informs her that he has visited a natural history museum and learned that the earliest humanoid skeleton shares her name. Scenes of Lucy bringing the briefcase of drugs to Kang are intercut with shots of a mouse in a trap and gazelle being hunted by cheetahs.

Johansson, for her part, does what she can with the part, but the more empowered Lucy becomes, the less human she seems, leaving Johansson with little to do but stare blankly as events unfold around her. A god? Maybe. An interesting character? Decidedly not. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/03/14)


And So It Goes
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Just once a director should be allowed to dirty Diane Keaton again. Recently, the actress has made a career of skimming the surface, delivering performances as starchy and stiff as the crisp white linen menswear she’s been donning off-screen since her breakthrough role as Annie Hall, and has particularly clung to as part of her on-screen identity in the last two decades. So it’s especially aggrieving that in his latest romantic comedy director Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, American President) allows Keaton to give more of the same phony hysterics and false warmth.


The screenplay, written by Mark Andrus (As Good As It Gets), may have been tailored for Keaton. It certainly doesn’t push her performance. She plays a lounge singer who can’t get through her act — standards she warbles out in that voice that fits a former choir teacher more than any kind of seasoned performer — without breaking down into overemotional sobs supposedly inspired by grief over her late husband. Her congenial surroundings, forcibly populated with neighbors chosen solely to provide local color and so lacking in dimension that Reiner may as well have just used paper dolls, are interrupted by an unpleasant new neighbor and his unwanted granddaughter.

Michael Douglas, in his version of a crotchety old man, plays a greedy, racially insensitive Connecticut realtor. He’s also been affected by the death of his spouse, but thankfully instead of mawkish tears, he resorts to mean-spirited power plays and biting comebacks. His position is hardly groundbreaking, but Douglas, that famous inherited chin pointed right at his intended victim, can still deliver a barbed zinger. Of course, underneath all the bitterness is a sugary story about nursing his terminally ill wife, a former drug-addicted son (Scott Shepherd) going to jail on trumped-up charges and the granddaughter (Sterling Jerins) he never knew he had.

The inevitable change of heart happens, but what Reiner has failed to recognize in Andrus’ writing is that the focus he embraced and directed as a series of sitcom-like situations, even including an obligatory birth scene, was the wrong choice. It’s not Douglas’ character that required an overhaul but Keaton’s high-strung, neurotic who gloms onto the granddaughter like a person afraid of drowning.

It’s supposed to be a treat to watch Keaton performing onstage in the film, trotting out the hit parade in her thin, uncertain voice. Reiner makes a cameo as her toupee-topped piano player and Frankie Vallie makes an appearance as a nightclub owner. But the cache of goodwill bestowed on Keaton just for playing this iconic version of herself, or whomever it is that she’s playing, is running out. It’s time she gets back to acting. (PG-13)  Rating: 1 (Posted on 08/03/14)

 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

Click here to buy movie posters!
Click here to buy movie posters!