Monthly Archives: July 2014

Lucy Review

Scowling contest! Starting…NOW.
                                                          Scowling contest! Starting…NOW.

Lucy is a mixture of a number of familiar elements from other movies. There’s a lot of Limitless (2011), The Matrix Reloaded, Transcendence (which I admittedly didn’t see, but its clear from those trailers that there are similarities) and just a dash of John Travolta’s Phenomenon (1996). The basic plot, of which I will not reveal any more than the trailers, is about a young woman who involuntarily becomes a drug mule and has a package of drugs sewn into her abdomen. The drug in question is CPH-4, which is a synthetic version of–oh, hell with it, it’s just like the drug in Limitless, okay? While in captivity, she’s kicked in the stomach by a henchman, causing the bag within to leak the drug into her body, embuing her with god-like powers. Which begs the question, why did the henchman, who I assume knew she had the bag in her stomach, kick her in the stomach repeatedly?

Besides the fact that Morgan Freeman seems to playing the same character here as he did in Transcendence as well as the theme of becoming enmeshed in technology, I noted that Lucy had much in common with The Matrix Reloaded and Limitless. The problem is, although Lucy’s central story is strikingly similar to Limitless, it doesn’t crib enough from that film’s fun, exciting, heady moments and unfortunately steals way too much from the turgidity of The Matrix Reloaded. Remember the scene when Neo meets the Architect, who proceeds to engage in the most boring incomprehensible exposition in the history of cinema? Lucy has a lot of scenes like that. Well, not nearly as bad, but it’s full of exposition that becomes tedious. At the beginning of the film, we see Morgan Freeman’s Prof. Norman lecturing at a symposium about the nature of man, Darwinism and the capacity of the human brain. This is intercut with scenes of Lucy being coerced into delivering a package to a drug kingpin by her boyfriend. Both elements go on way too long. Johanssen’s opening scene with the boyfriend goes on forever until the viewer is like, “Please, either do what he’s asking or just walk away!” And Freeman’s lecture becomes an interminable diatribe. It becomes clear that the film wants to be a grandiose thesis on how humankind is failing to live up to its potential, and Freeman’s monologue sets the stage for what turns out to be an inert lesson in humanity’s shortcomings in reaching evolutionary perfection.

When Freeman’s not lecturing about this topic, we’re forced to hear it repeated over and over again in dialogue or voiceover as the movie goes along. Every time I thought I was clear on what the film was trying to tell me, the script never hesitated to beat it over my head yet again. The film does attempt to break up the monotony of Freeman’s exposition with allegorical footage of wild animals and Mother Nature at her worst. As the boyfriend, who’s obviously a scumbag, corrals Lucy into delivering the briefcase, the movie cuts whimsically to footage of a cougar hunting a gazelle (or some mammal of prey). I thought this was indicative of a filmmaker who had a unique, quirky vision; it reminded me of when I first saw Tom Twyker’s Run Lola Run. But Twyker knew when to stop. This technique goes past its expiration date when Freeman gets to lecturing about climate change and we see footage that we’ve seen many times before on the Weather Channel.

There are some great action sequences in the film; there’s an energetic car chase (Hollywood must have mandated that any and all car chases must involve the protagonist driving the opposite way into one-way traffic) and a stunning scene in a hallway where Lucy is outnumbered by bad guys with guns. As Lucy’s powers grow more and more implausible, the metaphysical dialogue becomes more burdensome and we begin to care less about the main character. I know my suspension of disbelief was pushed to the limit. Had I been allowed to get to know Lucy a little better, I may have been more invested as she grew more powerful. I may have been willing to stick with Lucy longer than I did. But we get virtually no background on the character. The story is off and running before we get to know her as a person, so it’s difficult to empathize with her as she becomes less of a person. For me, the more compelling story was that of the drug mules who are rounded up and forced to courier the drugs. I was curious to learn more about them than anything else that was happening onscreen. Their terror is palpably convincing, partly because of how brilliant Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) is at playing the sociopathic drug lord Jang (yes, a significant portion of the film takes place in Taipei, since Hollywood knows where the money is to be made). It’s immediately clear once we meet Jang that Lucy and the other mules are in serious trouble. I also found Amr Waked compelling as Inspector Del Rio, a guy just doing his job and trying to make sense of what’s happening around him.

The conclusion is nearly incomprehensible. I won’t give anything away, but it involves a lot of CGI, animation and mind-effing. As unbelievable as Lucy’s powers become, the denouement tops that with a “WTF, that’s IT” resolution, that is to say, the movie doesn’t really bother to answer or even speculate on the questions it raises. I don’t mind ambiguous endings; Lost In Translation, also starring ScarJo, is an example of ambiguity done right. I was so vested in those main characters, I didn’t mind filling in the blanks as pertains to her whisper into Bill Murray’s ear. After all the lofty platitudes and preaching Lucy throws at us, it thinks it can provide answers with effects razzle-dazzle when it fails to provide a fully fleshed out main character with which I can identify. That’s the biggest mind-eff of all. 2/5 reels

P.S. I’ll say this much for Lucy: having seen the trailers and thinking that the titular character was just a derivative of Scarlet Johannsen’s Black Widow, I was purged of that notion about a third of the way into the film. There’s no resemblance between Lucy and Natasha Romanoff. Funny thing is, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Maybe a little more fighting with fists and high heels instead of with her mind would’ve given at least one more cool action scene.



Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes Review

"Yo, chill, dude, we just monkeyin' around."

“Yo, chill, dude, we just monkeyin’ around.

I was never a huge fan of the Planet Of The Apes franchise. I think I was just too young to understand the 1968 original. I do recall enjoying a children’s book adaptation that came with an actual vinyl 45″ record that you played and listened to voice actors reading the dialogue from the book, which was at most, ten pages long. I lost interest as the franchise chugged along, what with the Conquest and the Beneath The Planet, nuclear bombs and mutated humans, etc. It got a little weird. Then Burton’s 2001 film came along (has it really been that long ago?!) and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get onboard with this popular property at the ground floor of a new series. I was much older, and the idea of the world being dominated by intelligent apes was intriguing to me. But the movie just didn’t deliver. Then came Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which was a nice effort, great battle scene, but it left me a little cold.

So when I saw the trailers and promos for this film, I once again got excited. A post-apocalyptic setting where humanity is on the brink of extinction–it seemed as though the franchise was moving forward to a world similar to that of the 1968 film, a world where we get to see a truly simian society, with humans reduced to slavery and fodder for brutal sport. Again, such was not the case. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes not only continues as an origin story, but we’re not allowed to see the human devastation of the simian plague. The exposition of  the pandemic is all summed up before the opening title and the sum total of mankind’s plight in this film rests on whether or not Malcolm (Jason Clarke of Zero Dark Thirty); Ellie (Keri Russell); and Alexander (The Road‘s Kodi Smit-McPhee), all of whom are immune to the virus, can get the Bay area dam up and running to provide San Francisco with electrical power. That, and brief flashes of photos and videos of loved ones who didn’t survive the outbreak. Perhaps showing us some of the human tragedy would’ve enabled us the viewer to identify and empathize with the humans in the film. With the exception of the four or so main human characters, and Gary Oldman as Dreyfus, humanity is reduced to a faceless crowd that provides no emotional impact for the human viewer. The apes offer more insight into human nature than the humans do.

But maybe this was the intention. Caesar and his band of merry simians are compelling to watch, far more than in the previous film. Andy Serkis out-Gollums himself in a performance that is deeply human. His Caesar is clearly a moral and righteous leader who commands and deserves the respect of his fellow apes. We see his “humanity” early on as his mate gives birth to their second child (Cornelius, anyone?). We know from the previous film that he was raised by humans and the movie suggests that this may lead to his undoing. These computer-generated apes are able to emote as effectively as any of the human actors. And the actors that are cast to play humans are pretty good, too. I’ve never seen Jason Clarke before; I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty but I’ll definitely give it a look now. Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and a grown Kodi Smit-McPhee all give good performances. The CGI is light years ahead of ROTPOTA. The movie is visually breathtaking.

The problem begins with the plot. What started out with so much promise quickly devolves into a banal storyline where, once again, we have apes and humans fighting each other for hegemony. In of itself, that’s not so bad, but whereas in Rise, the apes were fighting for liberty, which provided that battle scene with high stakes; here, the apes are living in a monkey paradise and they are clearly dominant (the main characters discuss over a campfire how the apes have certain advantages). The stakes are high for the humans; they just want to power up the dam. And those stakes would have felt much greater  for the viewer were we allowed to identify with the humans at least as much as we’re made to identify with the apes. At the least, showing us the effects of the pandemic in an extended scene would have been helpful in achieving that. What could have been an epic tale is reduced to “humans want electricity, must fight distrusting apes to get it.” Which leads to the other problem in the film.

The movie wants to make a grand pronouncement that humans are not so much different than chimps. Well, given that a chimpanzee’s DNA is 98% identical to ours, is this a revelation to anyone? Beyond that, however, the film hits us over the head with this mantra by intercutting scenes of apes fighting apes and humans fighting humans amidst the larger battle of apes fighting humans. Yes, it’s a bit convoluted. But the most egregious error is in the film’s sociopolitics that makes the actions of the humans against the apes virtually free of consequence, whereas there is a grand betrayal fomented by a rebellious ape against the ape hierarchy. In essence, although humans are the true enemy, the apes are so untrustworthy that they will betray their own. Given how the struggle between human and ape could symbolize so many conflicts in our society, it borders on offensive to suggest that the formerly oppressed race would resort to betraying its own kind to achieve an end. I don’t want to reveal too much more, but I thought humans got off a little too easily in this film, which dilutes the message of the two species being so similar. The original POTA franchise was all about the apes as allegory for the evils of the human race. Here, Caesar and the filmmakers seem to want to let humans off the hook.

Admittedly, there are some amazing scenes that take place. The battle scene is epic. I’m hard pressed to say whether it’s better than the Golden Gate bridge sequence in Rise, but if you’re willing to buy that chimps can ride horseback while brandishing machine guns in both hands, you’re in for a treat. Another great scene centers on Malcolm attempting to retrieve medicine from the human compound to aid an injured Caesar; in one long, unbroken camera track, he ducks and dodges apes who are running roughshod over the compound, until he is cornered by an ape with a rifle. It’s a riveting scene up until that point, where a predictable outcome undercuts the suspense we just experienced. We also aren’t shown ultimately how Malcolm escapes the compound. The power of editing puts all that aside. One simple cut and Malcolm is safe and sound outside the compound. It’s one of many missed opportunities in the film.

Essentially, this is a 45 minute film padded into two-plus hours. Scenes which should have a quick resolution do not, and are later repeated. Take for example, when Caesar and the entire ape village descend upon the human compound to peacefully but assertively confront the humans. He warns Malcolm not to return to the forest. The humans simply want to power up the dam to provide electricity for San Francisco. Does Malcolm make that request then and there? No. Why? Because it gives the writers an opportunity to throw in another scene where Malcolm has to convince Ellie that he must go to Caesar’s village to request passage to the dam. And of course, Ellie and her son must come along. And then we see Caesar and Malcolm confront each other yet again, when all could’ve been resolved in the prior scene. The writers are guilty of this sin on at least two other occasions. Also strange is how the writers abandon Ellie and Alexander with no resolution whatsoever in the third act.

This is a film with great visuals and some great scenes trapped within an overly simple and derivative plot with a political message on the level of Animal Farm Cliff’s Notes. I’m hoping the next film will leap ahead a few decades and give me a planet where the apes have established a comprehensive civilization, similar to the original franchise.  But given the conclusion of this film, looks like I’ll have to sit through a few more films before it comes to that. First was Rise, followed by Dawn. Next, I suppose will be Shower Of The Planet Of The Apes, First Cup Of Coffee On The Planet Of The Apes, Rush Hour Traffic On The Planet Of The Apes and so on. Just wake me when OK, No Bullshit, This Is Really A Planet Of The Apes is in theaters. 2.5/5 reels

1 reel = poor

2 reels = fair

3 reels = good

4 reels = great

5 reels = excellent

Life Itself Review

Critical thinker

Critical thinker

Life Itself, based on Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoirs, feels like three movies rolled into one. The first movie consists of a generic tableau of the early life of Roger Ebert, with sporadic moments of real insight into the man’s persona. I say sporadic because throughout the first third of the movie, I’m reticent to say I found myself somewhat…bored. Sure, it was interesting to learn that Mr. Ebert was a recovering alcoholic. As a fan, I was surprised to learn this for the first time watching the film. It was also interesting to learn how he came to work for the Chicago Sun-Times, what his friends thought of his taste in women, how he came to write the screenplay for Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, particularly the motivation for his involvement in the Russ Meyer production: “boobs.” All this is great to discover, but I felt oddly removed, it all seemed rather antiseptic, that there was something missing which didn’t allow me to truly connect with the person. One would think that the story of Roger Ebert, a personality so large in a field that I am also passionate about, would hold me glued to to the screen. But the first third of this movie fell somewhat flat for me.

Perhaps it was the jumping in time from Mr. Ebert’s early years to the last years of his life. Perhaps it was the glossing over of his family life as a child (we don’t learn much about his parents). Perhaps it was the jarring mixture of the electronic voiceover narration from his computer (which Ebert used to communicate after his thyroid surgery) combined with the live voiceover from either Ebert himself (or from an excellent voice imitator) and the director Steve James (Hoop Dreams). Perhaps the filmmaking technique wasn’t interesting to me. Perhaps it was the dearth of interview footage with Ebert; the few clips of him being interviewed in his prime are captivating. What I can say with certainty is that the film almost does a disservice to Mr. Ebert by segueing into the second act/film and sparking to life once Gene Siskel enters the picture. Of course, there’s no way around the fact that Siskel played a prominent role in Ebert’s career, ensuring that Siskel had to be featured in the film centering around Roger Ebert. There’s an abundance of behind the scenes footage which had me riveted. I had seen some You Tube clips of the two critics bickering with each other both on camera during their iconic program as well as behind the scenes, during the taping of program promos, seemingly loathing each other, one step away from wringing each other’s neck. We see Siskel’s wife in an interview who sticks up for her husband when she speaks of the battles between the two critics. Then we see shots of the two of them appearing on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and all is well with the world. And inevitably, we see the passing of Gene Siskel and learn that despite the rivalry between the two, they considered themselves brothers to each other.

The film then moves into its third act, where it settles solidly on Mr. Ebert’s travails battling thyroid cancer. This final act is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking. Although we’ve seen footage of Mr. Ebert post-surgery in the first two acts, we see it resolutely here in the conclusion. The camera is unflinching at revealing the devastating nature of the disease which robbed Mr. Ebert of his lower jaw, his speech, his ability to eat solid foods. We the public saw the positive spirit of Mr. Ebert during this traumatic period, but the film brings home how truly courageous he was and how unpleasant the multiple surgeries were. But the star of the third act is, without question, Chaz Ebert. Once she appears onscreen, she takes the narrative in a direction for which even the word ‘inspirational’ is too inadequate a description. Watching her, listening to her speak about her husband, it struck me what was possibly missing from the first act–Chaz Ebert. Although she obviously wasn’t in Ebert’s life early on, I would’ve nonetheless loved to have heard her talk about Ebert’s early life. Of course, he would’ve shared stories from his past with her during the couse of their marriage; the passion in her voice would’ve trumped hearing an electronic vocal facsimile or a vocal imitator (if in fact it was an imitator delivering Ebert’s quotes). The love between the two of them is palpable. We would all be lucky to have a Chaz Ebert in our lives.

I was afraid that the film would seek to manipulate me and my fellow viewers by focusing on the struggle of the disease. I went in desiring to see a complete portrait of a man whose work I admired, but that I knew very little about. I’m not sure that this film delved deeply enough into who Roger Ebert was as a person, outside of all the accolades and the success as a critic. It goes without saying I walked out of the theater knowing more about him than when I walked in. His alcoholism spoke to troubling times in his life, and there were tender subtle moments: giving a positive review to a young African-American female filmmaker who felt “safe” handing her film over to him; the promise to a young filmmaker that he would screen his film, with the stipulation that he might not like it; the handing down of a prized possession to said filmmaker. I wanted more depth in areas where the film skimmed the surface and I wanted more of those personal moments early on. And while it was satisfying (and necessary) to see the real relationship between Siskel and Ebert, in the end, I was most moved by seeing his courageous battle with cancer and the strength of his wife and family. I was saddened but sympathetic to his eventual surrender to the disease. James puts some of the actual text messages onscreen between him and Ebert to illustrate their conversations during his illness; one text message in particular hit me, and I’m sure everyone else, like a ton of bricks. But, unlike many of the films Mr. Ebert reviewed in his latter years, I never once felt manipulated. 3.5/5 reels


Screen Shot 2014-07-06 at 1.47.33 PM

Prior to moving to Philadelphia, I made the acquaintance of Craig Johnston, my next door neighbor while I was living in New Jersey. Although I had moved to Philly, I had a client in Jersey, which meant I had to commute weekly back and forth. On one occasion while in Jersey, preparing to drive back to Philly, Craig and I decided to grab dinner and catch up.

At some point while living next door to each other, I mentioned to Craig that I worked in video and he mentioned to me that he was from South Africa. Both of these revelations came into play at our dinner. Now, I’ve known Craig for about eight years, but at our dinner, out of the blue, he preceded to tell me stories about his youth in South Africa during the era of apartheid that had my jaw hanging open. He told me about how all South African youth are obligated to serve some time in the military and he told me about some of the things he saw perpetrated on the black population in the townships. Of course, I was aware of the apartheid oppression, but Craig’s stories were detailed and specific, which made it all the more astonishing.

Then he told me about a radio station called Capital 604. He told me how, despite the overwhelming censorship of the South African government and the propaganda the government was disseminating over the SABC airwaves, Capital 604 was able to rise to cult status by broadcasting the truth, playing the music that was banned, telling the truth about the oppression of the black population and thereby playing a part in the groundswell that led to the demise of apartheid and the democratic election of Nelson Mandela, who listened to Capital 604 from his Robben island cell. Craig informed me that he had all the archival footage and contact info of many of the people who worked at Capital 604 (visit the Capital 604 Facebook page). He asked me if I thought that would make a good documentary. I said, “Hell, yes.”

That dinner took place not too long prior to the death of Mr. Mandela. From that time, Craig and I went back and forth on how to go about getting the idea started. And then we decided, despite the well-known adage that you never spend your own money, why not either fly to South Africa and get some interviews or fly one of the guys out here? Well, our schedules at the time dictated that we couldn’t fly to SA, as well as it being somewhat cost-prohibitive. Alternately, we decided to invite Mr. Anthony Duke, former Capital 604 program director out to Philadelphia; Craig paid for his flight, I paid for his hotel, Craig drove down to Philly from Jersey, I gathered up all my video equipment, set everything up in the hotel room and got an interview for the ages. Anthony was understandably jet lagged from his 20 hour flight to New York’s JFK International airport, then a four hour drive down to Philadelphia, but he gave us a great interview.

This trailer is just a sample of the story we hope to tell by way of a full-length documentary feature. It’s the story of a few men and women who wanted to be liberated from the censorship of the South African government, who felt that apartheid was wrong, and who realized that the general public had a right to know what was going on under their very noses. As we speak, Anthony Duke is visiting friends and acquaintances here in the U.S. who may be able to help get this off the ground. The trailer is rudimentary and much of the footage is borrowed. Again, it’s our hope we’ll raise the “capital” (no pun intended) which will allow us to acquire all the footage we need, hire the staff we need and move forward to launch this important story.

Please take a look, leave your feedback, your suggestions, your recommendations, your referrals. It is all greatly appreciated!