Trailer: “Lucy”

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What if we put Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman in a highly stylized action sci-fi that looks like “The Matrix” met “Limitless” and “Crank”? Interested? How about if Luc Besson was behind the wheel?

The basic premise of “Lucy” (by the way, Luc Besson apparently has a thing for turning people’s names into titles) is as follows: A girl (Scarlett Johansson) wakes up to discover that somebody has surgically inserted a bag of drugs inside her abdomen. Accidentally, some of that drug gets into her bloodstream and makes her uber-powerful to a point where the only thing that’s missing is Laurence Fishburne standing in the background saying ‘she’s the one’. It might not be the freshest idea ever, but – still – if there’s anyone capable of shooting aciton in a compelling way, it’s Luc Besson. And that makes me feel a bit excited, or even titillated…

“Lucy” kicks behinds on the 8th of August in the US and on the 22nd in the UK.

“Now you see me”, now you wish you hadn’t…

Riddle me this: is it enough to get a bunch of popular names together, put them in front of a camera and have them poke each other verbally to make a good film? Hold on, not all at once… Of course not. A good film needs much more than flashy names, special effects and dynamic camera work, although people behind some of the recent superhero blockbusters might disagree. In short, a good film needs everything that “Now you see me” cannot possibly offer and here’s why.

Ok, before I say anything else, here’s what the film is all about. We are introduced to a bunch of (almost) completely unrelated illusionists: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merrit (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco), who make their living by tricking people into believing that magic exist through card tricks, hypnosis, escape artistry, or bending spoons with one’s will. One day, however, each of them receives a mysterious-looking tarot card that brings them all together. One year later they are an already established team of professional magicians working in Vegas, where their final magnificent trick involves teleporting a random audience member to his own bank, and teleporting him back along with the contents of the vault – thus effectively robbing the bank. Since the illusion actually involved having the money disappear from a French bank, ‘The Four Horsemen’ (that’s how the magicians refer to themselves) manage to draw attention of an FBI agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who is assisted by an Interpol agent Dray (Melanie Laurent) and a professional debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). The group with each new show successfully steals more and more money from unsuspecting institutions and/or millionaires and nobody is able how they’ve done it and – more importantly – why.

Believe it or not, but coming up with this last paragraph took a lot more effort than I would have hoped, because in essence “Now you see me” is one gigantic chaotic mess of a story with jagged linearity, obnoxious pacing and seemingly complex plot with major twists that need to be explained every other 20 minutes by one of the characters in meticulously placed soliloquies… only to retain a shred of consistency. The story really looks like it has been written by a team of highly-trained typist monkeys, because apart from frequent one-liners and witty comebacks, there’s nothing that makes this story compelling at all.

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“Now you see me” looks to me as yet another excuse of a movie attempting to trick the audience into buying a ticket, just because there’s a gazillion high-profile names in it. Well, it’s not enough especially when the aforementioned ensemble cast is doing nothing at all to make an effort here. If you remember Jesse Eisenberg as this arrogant loudmouthed prick of a character he played in “The Social Network”, well then, this is what you’re getting here. Harrelson is being himself there as well with his awkward charm and snappy comebacks, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine act to an absolute minimum with the former having a five minute narrative part as well, just because he can, why not…

Now that I think about it, I find it difficult to pinpoint the most annoying thing about “Now you see me”, so I seem to be jumping from story to acting, to what-have-you exactly the way the film itself jumps between scenes, plots, action sequences and arcs (at some point you’d probably expect the characters to break into dance). So in the interest of consistency I shall address these issues one by one. I think I have covered the acting performance pretty exhaustively. Only to sum it all up I might add that the overall bland character of all actors in “Now you see me” didn’t really make my job as a viewer any easier and as a result I struggled to follow the film all throughout. It was just a string of allegedly snappy dialogue and one-liners with no substance to it. The very (!!!) dynamic pacing of the film didn’t help me either, so in the end I felt no attachment to any characters I saw on the screen and I couldn’t care about anything that happened on it. Literally, if all of the characters died in a violent twist of fate (and they don’t), I wouldn’t even go as far as to shrug my shoulders – that’s how much I cared. This is what you get when you let actors be themselves and fail to give any depth to the characters they are supposed to portray.

The story in “Now you see me” is tragically dumb and it seems to me that whoever penned the script (all five of them) should maybe enroll in an online course in elementary logic, because the gaping holes in the logical development of the story make it nigh impossible to get me engaged in it. Really, I was just sitting there in my chair throwing my hands in the air (figuratively) every other minute asking myself, how any of this is making any sense at all. Between car chases, explosions, disappearing money, complex tricks and explanations thereof there is really little time to stop and actually follow the plot. And that’s a good thing, because if you stop and have a look at the story from a distance, there’s nothing in it (and I think I have written it already). All that is pumped and jacked up by a loud, bombastic score by Brian Tyler that would turn a scene where Jesse Eisenberg is having a sandwich into an epic experience. Add to that the fact nearly all the shots are ridiculously dynamic and at no point in the film the cameraman has a chance to stay put, and you’ve got yourself one blurry string of explosions, witty jokes (that get increasingly tiresome by the minute) and leaps of logic.

 

Whoever thought it would be a good idea to take everything that sells during the summer blockbuster season, mix it all up and serve it in a tall glass to the unsuspecting public should be ashamed of himself. This is not how the game is played and everyone knows that (well, almost everyone. Shane Black, I’m looking at you…). Seriously, if you walk into a bar and look at the cocktail menu, you will never see a drink that has all kinds of crap in it. There are rules and regulations to everything and “Now you see me” would make a stunning example of how not to make entertaining summer blockbusters.

I might actually sit down and write something more on the subject at some point in time, but for the time being, a good popcorn-muncher needs a good story to make a good revenue. Special effects, music, pacing, car chases, explosions and everything else needs to be appended onto it. If a film cuts the story out and covers its lack with the flashy crap, then no-one should be surprised if the net result is nothing more than a shameful stinkbomb. And sadly, “Now you see me” comes very close to that level of cinematic experience. On the plus side – I didn’t feel the need to demand my money back. After all, there was a couple of jokes that actually made me laugh… a bit…

“Olympus Has Fallen” – and it got right back up…

A solid actioner is truly a rare sighting these days. With all the “G.I.Joe’s”, “Fast & Furious” and various comic book adaptations being proliferated ad infinitum vomitum, it would seem that action films that do not overdose on adrenaline (and in its stead rely on the characters’ charisma and interesting story) are all but extinct. On top of that, after a raging disaster “A good day to die hard” turned out to be, it was only logical of me to be somewhat sceptical when I rolled up into the cinema to see “Olympus Has Fallen”.

This new baby of Antoine Fuqua’s (“Training Day”, “Tears of the Sun”, “Shooter”) is a film depiction of Bin Laden’s wet dreams – a day when The White House with its precious contents get taken hostage by bloodthirsty terrorists.  It may seem a bit inappropriate for some to be watching films like that in the wake of the Boston Bombings; however I don’t share that belief. In fact, “Olympus Has Fallen” is a fantastic example of how powerful Hollywood can be in conveying the ideas of Uplifting American Patriotism (I believe that it deserves its own little place in the dictionaries, because no other nation on Earth can display affection to their homeland in such an unhindered and positively proud manner). Maybe even a bit too powerful, but I will get to that later on.

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Anyhow, in “Olympus Has Fallen” we meet Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a Secret Service agent who used to work as security detail to the American President Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhart). After a horrifying accident that claimed the life of The First Lady (Ashley Judd) Mike was relieved from the Secret Service, and the next 1.5 years he spent riding the desk in the Treasury Department (some sort of purgatory for the seemingly disgraced pariahs of the US officials). Then, the unthinkable happened. A bunch of North-Korean-looking baddies launched a full-frontal assault on The White House exactly on the day when The US and South Korea were supposed to discuss security measures against the growing threat from the North. The terrorists succeeded in taking over the White House and were holding The President with his entourage hostage in a bunker underneath it. It also turned out that the only person left alive in the building was our man Mike Banning, who – although he wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place – dashed towards The White House the minute the attack started to help defend it. You can figure out the rest. One man to face them all and all that jazz…

I don’t really understand the whole idea of calling “Olympus Has Fallen” the ‘Die Hard in the White House’. I mean, I do see where those who claim that are coming from, but I think they are simply wrong. If anything, “Olympus Has Fallen” would be a successful mash-up of “Commando” meets “Die Hard” in the White House, but this is as far as I can go. First of all, it’s not Christmas. Secondly, Mike Banning is not your every-man caught with his pants down in a crisis situation. He’s a well-trained killing machine ex-special ops bad-ass who knew exactly what he was getting into. But… On the other hand, he bled like a human would and as the old adage goes: ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it’. He also had a wildly inappropriate sense of humor that he displayed in a good amount of one-liners and, holding John McClane as example, he had a thing for displaying all manners of disrespect towards his superiors. So take it as you want it, I don’t see this film as “Die Hard” in the White House. “Olympus Has Fallen” is good enough to stand on its own two feet, thank you very much.

Now, don’t get any stupid ideas that this movie is genre-redefining or anything to that effect. If you go to the cinema with that in mind, you’ll leave seriously disappointed. What it is, is just a solid no-bulls**t action movie. It’s got almost everything a fella could need in an action flick: a charismatic protagonist (Gerard Butler really did his job here), good amount of violence, strong language and one-liners, Morgan Freeman, explosions, rapid pacing, and did I mention Morgan Freeman? It was simply pleasant to watch. Of course, I have my usual set of drawbacks to point out, most important of which would be the lack of boss fights. Normally in an actioner (especially from the 80’s and early 90’s) the protagonist would have to plow through a sea of thrash opponents and defeat a couple of bosses – usually main baddie’s lieutenants (the blondie from “Die Hard”, the let-off-some-steam-guy from “Commando”) – in order to face the final guy. Each of the boss-characters would have some sort of special trait that preferably exploits some of our hero’s weaknesses, but not the biggest one. The biggest weakness is always reserved for the main baddie to use. Not in here though. Maybe if I squinted my eyes, I could point out one such boss fight… but not really. Not to worry though, this little drawback didn’t really spoil the show for me, because Banning kept me busy in different ways.

 

Staying on the subject of drawbacks, you can spot the usual lapses in logic, i.e. the cowboy general and his decision-making fiascoes  the attention to detail when it comes to programming the user interface for military software, or the ease with which protocol is breached in critical situations (taking extra people to panic room structures in places like The White House would most likely never happen). But those are always present in action movies and in some weird way are responsible for the specific atmosphere commonly associated with an action flick.

All in all, “Olympus Has Fallen” managed to maybe not as much as reinstate my hope for action movies in this day and age, but at least give me a glimmer of hope that there are people in Hollywood who want to make action movies ‘the old way’. Well, ish… It’s nearly two hours of high-octane entertainment filled with blood and f-words. If anything, the movie would have been a tad better had it not been for the very ending. If you leave the cinema 45 seconds before the end, then “Olympus Has Fallen” ends with a cheesy one-liner. If you stay, you’re in for some patriotic flag-waving. It’s OK if that’s your cup of tea, but I would personally prefer the one-liner and fade to black. But you can’t have it all.

“Oblivion” – That is where this movie belongs…

Either I have become increasingly cynical lately, or we’ve been having a profound problem with creativity in screenwriting in recent times. I realize I might have been rather critical when it comes to what I’ve recently seen in the cinema, but now I’m pretty sure that we’re just about scraping the bottom of the pot of creative ideas. Thus, every other movie that hits the screens seems to attempt to recycle ideas, dress them nicely and shove them down my throat without so much as a ‘how do you do’. I wrote before about that phenomenon and intend to do some more on the subject, but the way I see it, things are looking pretty grim. I know certain genres are sort of exempt from that trend (like horror, which I will get to in some time as well) because the apparent lack of freshness serves them well, but when it comes to Sci-Fi, a creative script is of a paramount importance for the movie to be successful.

Now, there are several kinds of Sci-Fi:

– instant genre-defining classics,

– good Sci-Fi that while not breaking new grounds offers an interesting take on things and/or is very visually pleasing,

– mediocre Sci-Fi that blatantly borrows and copies used up ideas and tries to sell them as new after having garnished them with something pretty,

– eye-stabbingly terrible Sci-Fi that is so poor that you really wish you hadn’t spent money on, as you fear you’d develop some sort of paranoid repulsion towards Sci-Fi in general.

Quite frankly, “Oblivion” fits right into the ‘mediocre’ pigeonhole, no doubt about it. It has a couple of things going for it, but generally speaking, my experience with “Oblivion” can be described with one word – indifference.

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First things first; if you saw the trailers to this film, you probably already know too much about the plot (it is one of the most mind-boggling cases of revealing too much about the plot in 2.5 minutes). Anyhow, imagine that in not too distant future the Earth is a wasteland. It was attacked by an alien race of Scavengers (or Scavs, as the protagonists refer to them romantically) who destroyed our Moon, let the nature weaken us by destroying our cities through tsunamis and the like, and then proceeded with a full-blown invasion. Worry not, though – we won the war, yet a Pyrrhic victory it was – the Earth post-war became uninhabitable, therefore the remnants of the human race fled to Titan (understandably so, as it is the closest object to Earth that contains water on its surface) leaving behind only a handful of technical teams. These are responsible for managing and security of energy-harvesting rigs that use water to produce fuel cells crucial for the survival of humans in its new extra-terrestrial home.

Right, so the Earth is a nuclear wasteland guarded by ping-pong ball-like drones and aforementioned tech teams who maintain the drones. This is where we meet Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a technician paired with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) who spends his days patrolling his grid, repairing drones, fighting the Scavs and visiting landmarks. By the way, I would like to point out that someone might be interested to have a look at the materials used to build well-recognizable monuments. It is not the first time I see The Washington Monument, or the Brooklyn Bridge to survive major apocalyptic events in movies. Maybe there’s something about the quality of these materials that could be utilized for our benefit; maybe we should start building everything from the materials used to erect landmarks – we’d be safe for eons… Sarcasm over.

 

Where was I? Ah, yes. Jack spends his days patrolling the grid and stuff, getting off-com to kick back in his little shed he built and subsequently filled with memorabilia collected from various iconic places, and admiring the world that is no more in anticipation for his departure to Titan (which by the way he feels reluctant about, for some reason). He spends the nights hanging out with Victoria naked in a swimming pool, eating ready-made food with futuristic silverware, dreaming about the past world he has never seen and talking to himself… I mean, to us – the viewers… A lot…

Jack’s routine is brutally severed when a series of unforeseen events transpire in close succession. First, a seemingly routine operation of repairing two failed drones gets Jack nearly abducted by the Scavs, who had captured one of said drones. Then, one of the harvesting rigs gets blown to pieces by the rebellious Scavs, and finally a strange object falls down from the sky (literally) whose contents will make Jack question everything he had ever known about the world – as the capsule that fell down from space carried humans in it.

This is just about enough that one can say about the plot of “Oblivion” without spoiling too much. After all, most of it is in the trailer. Ok, I should probably start off by applauding the visuals “Oblivion” is sporting. The landscapes are shot very well, the Earth looks nice and ravaged… Well, maybe not the Earth, but our civilization (or what’s left of it) is presented in a breath-taking manner. Also, the score complements the photography in a powerful way. In fact, now that I think about it, the music is the strongest card in “Oblivion’s” deck. Even when you take into account the fact that Joseph Kosinski did not venture far enough from his comfort zone that he set in “Tron – Legacy” when it comes to the style of photography and the atmosphere set by the score – “Oblivion” still remains a sensory delight. It’s simply nice to look at.

Other than that, it was really painful to watch as the plot unfolded to reveal old ideas one after another, chewed up and dressed up in fancy uniforms without even a shred of respect to the classics of Sci-Fi it borrows from. Tom Cruise could not carry the weight of his character, as I think he’ll never be seen as a hero. His character lacked charisma and I didn’t get to develop a connection with him – or maybe I didn’t want to, because – as I said – Cruise fails in playing a stellar hero character. On top of that, you can smell a badly written script from a mile away, when Tom Cruise needs to keep explaining s**t to you off-screen. Even “I am legend” was done better in that regard and Will Smith didn’t have anyone to talk to besides his dog. The movie is basically a string of monologues bundled together with mildly entertaining action in beautifully rendered settings. Someone should maybe inform the director that some facts can be either omitted altogether, as they do not bring anything to the table besides noise, while other can be explained without resorting to having Tom Cruise read me a bedtime story. Even if they had Morgan Freeman (who also stars in “Oblivion”, but I shall stop now before I say too much) read the off-screen remarks, the film as a whole would still remain a lost cause. I mean, if you need to explain things to me, be smart about it. If you need, you can shove it into a dialogue and pace it better. In fact, there is a dialogue just like that in “Oblivion”, but having sat through Cruise’s prior soliloquys, it almost seems redundant at this point. And it really could have been a better film than that. As it stands now, the film is anti-climactic, predictable and flat, and even the striking visuals, music and Morgan Freeman wouldn’t save it.

In summary, “Oblivion” was a disappointment. It almost seemed forced and by the end (and it is quite long) I really couldn’t wait for the credits to roll. Now that I think about it, it sure looks to me as if Joe Kosinski was approached by the producers after his debut “Tron – Legacy” hit the screens and was asked to make it once more. But different. With Tom Cruise. And Morgan Freeman. If you look at “Oblivion” having Kosinski’s debut in mind, you’d find way too many similarities for it to be considered coincidence. I realize that it might be Kosinski’s style that has crystallized here and we just need to deal with it, but I’m sure as hell, you shouldn’t stuff everything you have onto the same stencil. It makes “Oblivion” look more derivative than it originally was. In the end, the movie’s title ended up its doom. It is better for all of us if we simply forget “Oblivion” ever existed. On second thought, maybe we should keep it in our memory as a reminder that  Sci-Fi needs to be about more than just looks.