Friday, September 5, 2014

Bloodsport (1988)

Van Damme got blood in my cheese.

If the Cannon logo right at the beginning isn't enough to give it away, Bloodsport is very much an '80s American martial arts movie. In one of his earliest film roles, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Frank Dux (pronounced "dukes"), an American soldier who deserts his post to fight in the Kumite, an illegal, full-contact martial arts tournament. It's supposed to be super-secret, but everyone he comes across seems to know about it.

The first fifteen minutes or so, filled with abysmally bad acting and dialog--holy crap, is it bad--give the impression of a much worse movie than Bloodsport thankfully turns out to be. Van Damme goes AWOL when his superiors find out he wants to go to Hong Kong to fight in the Kumite. 

Why would he have told them what he was going there for? He was already going on leave, he could have just made something up. It makes no sense. And the fact that Van Damme is the closest thing to a good actor in this scene is depressing.

While he visits the house of a Japanese couple, we go to a flashback of three kids breaking into the same house years earlier to steal stuff, and the acting gets even worse. I know I exaggerate a lot, but these might actually be the worst child actors I have ever seen. Two of them leave when they hear someone coming (they were talking so loud that they probably would have managed to get caught even if no one was home). The third hoodlum is--you guessed it--young Frank. Actually, he looks nothing like Van Damme, so I wasn't sure it was supposed to be him until he talked (and even then, I had to strain to maintain my suspension of disbelief--young Frank sounds more like a New Yorker with a speech impediment than Van Damme).

Maybe they judged his similarity to Van Damme on his acting ability, or lack of. (That's mean, Van Damme's actually not bad in this movie.)

A Japanese man and his young son come into the room, and find Frank holding a katana that the other kids had dropped instead of just running off with it when they were already holding it. Stupid ass kids can't even rob a place correctly. The son immediately runs over and kicks Frank in the stomach, but the father takes a different approach. He tells Frank, "You cannot get katana sword by stealing. It is very special sword. You must earn it." Frank tells him he wasn't going to steal it and the man swings the sword and cuts off the front of his baseball cap.

That black thing is the front of his cap falling off.

When Frank doesn't flinch, the Japanese man tells him he has fighting spirit and that he won't call the cops if they make a deal. Cut to the Japanese man, Tanaka, convincing Frank's parents to allow him to study "martial science" so he can help train his son. 

Suspension of disbelief now broken in half. This kid just snuck into the house to rob you, old man, and couldn't even do it right--you don't want your son hanging around with him! The son doesn't even like him--he calls Frank "round eyes." But then we get a goofy, thoroughly unconvincing scene of Frank defending the son from bullies, so of course they become "like brothers."

Flash back to the present, where Tanaka's son is dead, and Tanaka tells Frank a sob story about how he lost his first family in WWII and now he can't pass on his legacy to a son (boo hoo). Frank tells him to continue training him so he can carry on the legacy. Cue training montage, including Van Damme doing the splits, catching fish with his hands, and fighting blindfolded. I wonder if he'll have to use any of those skills later on in the movie? (SPOILER: Yes, he will.)

For a movie with no real character depth, Bloodsport sure lays on some thick backstory, but it's finally time for Frank to head to Hong Kong. Thankfully, we don't get scenes of Frank packing his luggage, getting on a plane, wandering around Hong Kong, etc. Instead, we just cut to Frank on a bus in Hong Kong, where he meets a big, redneck American guy named Ray Jackson drinking a beer and crudely hitting on an Asian chick who is clearly not interested. A little later he challenges Frank to a karate video game match, which Frank wins. Everything seems set up for an antagonistic rivalry between the two, but in the one sort-of surprise in this movie, they quickly become best friends.

Frank and Ray are escorted by a squirrely Chinese guy named Lin to the Kumite. Lin has some pretty funny lines, and the actor knows how to deliver them. The guys signing everyone up for the Kumite want Frank to prove he is a student of Tanaka by demonstrating the 'Dim Mak' death touch, which he does by telling them to select a brick:

Bolo Yeung isn't impressed:

That's right, Bolo is in this movie too. He plays Chong Li, the previous year's victor, infamous for his brutality. He only has a handful of lines and still gets dubbed for some reason. And to all the people claiming Bolo was fifty years old in this movie: Bolo Yeung was born Some Other Name in 1946. Bloodsport came out in 1988. Let me do the math for you: It don't add up.

Frank and Ray come across a female reporter trying to gain information for a story on the Kumite while some other entrants are harassing her. They cannot fight because they will be disqualified from the Kumite. Frank offers them a bet--if he can grab a coin out of the one guy's hand before he can close it, they will go away. If not, they can have the girl. Frank thinks back to catching the fish and snatches the coin, leaving a different one behind.

What if he had failed? What if instead of catching fish like Frank, the other guy trained by trying to keep people from snatching fish out of his hand? You sure are confident in your abilities, Frank.

Even though Frank could have gotten her raped, flirting ensues between Frank and the reporter, and eventually they bang. Not a surprise. What is a surprise for a movie of this type and era, is that the only nudity in the movie is Van Damme's butt. It's still kind of painful the way the 'romance' is shoved in, but at least it doesn't take up too much of the movie.

By the way, in the butt shot you can clearly see the exact point where they said "action." It starts out with Van Damme standing next to a counter with his underwear half off before he pulls them up, but he stands there for a second like he's waiting to do it. I point it out because it's funny that they had him stand there waiting for the shot just so they could have a glimpse of his ass in the movie only to edit it so unconvincingly. Why not have him just lower his underwear and pull them back up, then edit the shot to start with him pulling them up? Or just edit out that half second in the first place? Maybe they did focus tests and people said there wasn't enough ass in the movie so they actually stuck that half second back in. That's why I hate focus groups. People think they know what's best for the movie, but all they really want are more ass shots. But enough about Van Damme's butt.

Forest Whitaker of all people is also in Hong Kong along with some old guy, looking for Frank so they can bring him back to the U.S. Their reason: The Army cannot risk him being injured because they have put so much of their resources into him. They never explain or clarify this to any extant. It's such a lazy and extraneous plot element, I don't even know why it's in the movie. Surely the tournament offered enough action and story. The only thing of value it adds to the movie is the scene where Van Damme outruns them in the streets, taunting them all the way.

Back in the Kumite, which the reporter sneaks into on her own (talking into her '80s tape recorder right in front of everyone), we see lots of fights between people from different backgrounds, with different fighting styles. It's really cool in theory, but only kind of cool in execution. First of all, a lot of the fighters don't have any personality to them. There are actually a lot that do, but for the other fights, it would help if we cared who won. But the real problem is that none of the fights in this movie are remotely convincing. Almost every single move is super-telegraphed, and the opponents will just stand there waiting to be hit (next time you're doubting yourself, just remember: if your reaction time is under two full seconds, you could have made it at least to the final four in the deadliest, most illegal fighting tournament in the world). There are even times that a fighter will get hit and fall in the wrong direction so that their bloody face can pass in front of the camera. Take a look:


Then there are the superfluous rolls that fighters execute at random times to no strategic benefit. There's even a guy that fights with a monkey style that involves him scurrying around on the ground in such a way that he has to tilt his head way back to even see his opponent. It didn't make sense while I was watching it, so it was no surprise to find out that he isn't using any real-life fighting style. The only reason he lasts as long as he does is because his opponents keep throwing punches at normal head level when he is about two feet below that. It's like watching two people who have never touched a video game before going up against each other in a Tekken or Street Fighter. Actually, that still sounds too legit, let's say Bloody Roar II. And the fact that so many of the hits are obviously not connecting even at normal speed is made worse by the fact that so many shots are in slow motion.

At least Bolo's Chong Li makes for a good villain. Of course, Ray is the first to go up against him, and of course he gets destroyed. Movies always gotta be giving the lead a personal stake against the villain. Ray doesn't die though, he just ends up in the hospital. 

Long story short, Frank eventually goes up against Chong Li. The movie would have been a lot better if Chong Li was an honest fighter instead of a one-dimensional villain, but during the fight he throws a powder into Frank's eyes. I don't know how it's supposed to work though, because his eyes are still open the whole time. When we see things from his perspective, it's blurred but you can still make out what you're looking at. Van Damme overacts, stumbling all around and making faces all the while. 

Oh, and yelling.

It's been a while since he directly called on his training from earlier in the movie, so he finally calms down and remembers that he knows how to fight blindfolded.

As a side note, it's funny the way the reporter and the two guys who were after Frank, all of whom tried to keep him from entering the tournament, are cheering him on from the sidelines, even while he's fighting blind. They act excited and happy, like they are at a real sporting event and not witnessing a potential fight to the death.

If Frank could see, I'm sure he'd regret not letting the reporter get raped.

Frank of course wins the match, forcing Chong Li to say ka-goda.

Frank gets a sword as reward for his troubles, along with a cash prize of...wait, no, that's it. Just a sword.

He goes with reporter girl to give Ray the news in the hospital. And then this exchange occurs:

It's never too late to introduce a gay subplot, apparently.

Van Damme then leans over and kisses him. That's not even a joke, he really kisses him. Not on the lips, maybe, but still.


Forest Whitaker and Old Man are waiting for Frank at the plane to take him back, complaining that he isn't showing. Then he pops out of the plane and says, "Hey." (He says other things too, "You coming or what?" etc.) Then reporter girl shows up. I thought she was going to go with Frank, but I guess she already got what she needed for her story. Bitch.

Before the credits, we get some info on the real Frank W. Dux, the inspiration for the movie, who supposedly "fought 329 matches" and "retired undefeated as the World Heavy Weight Full Contact Kumite Champion."

Not only that: 

Impressive, huh? Well, not so much when you do a little research and find out that he is basically the only person who talks about the Kumite and has exactly zero proof to back up any of his claims. Not only is he full of shit, he's pretty full of himself too: 

The Kumite may not exist, but Bloodsport does, and despite it's numerous flaws, it remains an enjoyable movie. Van Damme isn't bad, except maybe when he decides to imitate Bruce Lee and make goofy faces and yell:

These are the actual captions from the movie.

He also does the splits about 125 times in this movie:

Van Damme pushes his body to the limit. Meanwhile, Ray practices being a fat buffoon who drinks beer, while also trying to figure out how to use a bed.

The reporter is boring and Forest Whitaker and Old Man don't do anything, but Donald Gibb turns in an energetic performance as Ray Jackson. Ray is a gruff moron with no fighting ability whatsoever, and he still manages to be likable. He's also hugely overconfident.

Seconds later:

Bolo is Bolo.

'Nuff said.

One other thing to mention: The music. Not the score, but the songs in the movie. 

It's pure '80s cheeze, goofy power ballads about honor and friendship and shit. Then there's the ending song that just seems to repeat "Kumite" over and over again. That one might get stuck in your head.

Fans of American action movies from the '80s will have probably seen Bloodsport already, but even if you prefer to stick to 'good' martial arts movies, you should give this one a shot. It's not good, true, but enough of it works to make it an entertaining viewing.

I'll leave you with a shot of Van Damme doing the splits while making a face and yelling, right after having punched a guy in the balls.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lucy (2014)

What the hell is this movie?

Lucy begins with Scarlett Johansson in Taiwan. She plays a character named Lucy (I'm going to take this slow, because this movie is whacked out). She says to a guy that is supposed to be her boyfriend that she is a "student." I don't know what language(s) might be spoken over in Taiwan, but based on how she dresses, I'm assuming "student" translates to "prostitute" in at least all of them.

Anyway, her "boyfriend" has to deliver a suspicious locked briefcase to somebody in an office building. He doesn't want to do it himself because they will recognize him, so he forces her to do it instead by handcuffing the briefcase to her wrist and telling her that only the guy in the building has the key. Girls always go for the asshole types.

Actually, wait--the movie starts earlier than that, with a scene of an ape/hominid thing drinking out of a stream in the primeval wilderness. Scarlett Johansson asks me how far humanity has come/what we've made of ourselves/pretentious psuedo-philosophically deep question. The next shots are of skyscrapers and modern cities and the like. I can't tell if I'm supposed to be appalled at what we've done with the world, or impressed that we've come so far. I'm not sure the movie knows either, but we'll get there.

Back to the briefcase scene. Lucy Johansson is pissed, but now she has to go inside, even though she's pretty sure the whole operation is illegal and didn't want to do it even when her boyfriend offered her half of the $1000 he would get for dropping it off. I would have gone straight to the police and dumped the boyfriend's ass, but girls always like the asshole types.

Actually, wait--I'm getting ahead of myself again. While Scarlett Lucy is talking to her boyfriend and he's trying to get her to deliver the briefcase, we briefly cut to a shot of a mouse heading toward a mouse trap. Do you get it? (SPOILER: The trap is the producer's pocket and the mouse is your money.)


She goes up to the reception desk all nervous-like and says she's there to drop off the briefcase. The guy at the desk asks her what her name is and she says "Lucy." Do you get it? (SPOILER: Her name is "Lucy".)

Oh, wait, no, she actually says "Richard." Because "Richard" is the name of her "boyfriend" in this "movie." The guy gives her a look and starts to ask her more questions, like what's in the briefcase, but she doesn't know and just wants to get out of the theater 'cause this movie sucks already--er, I mean, just wants to get rid of the briefcase, 'cause it's chafing her wrist something awful. The guy on the other end of the line tells the receptionist to tell Lucy to wait there. She asks if she can go sit down, but the guy says the other guy said to wait right there. He sounds like an asshole, so she'll probably like him.

Suddenly, her boyfriend, the one who didn't want to be recognized and who has literally been standing right outside the glass doors in plain view this whole time, gets shot. The movie tries to stop us from asking logical questions like "Who shot him?" or "Why did they shoot him?" or "Is the movie going to be this disjointed the entire way through?" (SPOILER: Yes) by distracting us with some armed guys running through the lobby and grabbing Lucy and taking her into the elevator. (I have to mention that the preceding scene is peppered with cutaway shots of cheetahs stalking antelope. That's not some kind of joke, it actually happens. In the movie.)

You've probably seen the trailers for this movie already. You can probably figure out that the briefcase holds bags filled with a blue drug (they keep referring to it as a powder, even though it looks more like aquarium gravel), and that one of them gets implanted in her abdomen, breaks open, and gives her superpowers. You probably also know that it works by allowing her to access the 90% of her brain that according to the movie is just dead weight for normal people (SPOILER: This movie is not remotely based on real life).

What you might not know is that this movie actually manages to make even less sense than the trailers imply. Oldboy from Oldboy plays what passes for the film's villain, the cartoonish drug lord who had the drugs implanted, not only in her, but in three men, to transport the drug (called CPH4) to different countries via commercial plane travel.

Already, I have an infinite number of questions.

-Why did they choose Lucy? They literally just met her--she was just some girl who walked in with the briefcase of CPH4 or whatever, and she clearly was not willing to just go along with things. Doesn't seem like a smart business decision to offer a job to someone you've just met, then hire them even though they say "no." True, she was too stupid to go to the police earlier, but having a briefcase handcuffed to your wrist isn't the same as being cut open and having illegal drugs stuffed into you.

-Why did her boyfriend have the briefcase in the first place? He said he had dropped stuff off there before, but they acted like the CPH4 in the briefcase was all they had. Did he drop off other things before? Pizzas maybe? Why would he be worried about them recognizing him? Wasn't he hired to do that? Maybe he forgot to say 'no mushrooms' the last time and he knows they were pissed, I dunno.

-What were the men in the office doing when they brought Lucy up? We saw some dead/dying people bloodying up the carpet, what was up with that? (I know it's supposed to set a tense atmosphere, but even in context it was more goofy and ridiculous than foreboding.)

-Why did they kill Richard, her boyfriend?

-Why was he dressed like a cowboy? What that supposed to be his disguise? Wouldn't that just make him more conspicuous? 

-Did including a cowboy give the movie more international appeal? Are cowboys a big deal in Taiwan?

-What did Lucy ever see in him in the first place? Why do girls always go for the asshole types?

These aren't all plot holes, but they are still important questions.

To make things even more ridiculous, when they give Lucy the code to open the case, they all stand back behind riot shields before she opens it. They say they don't know what Richard might have done to it. Why would they suspect something? He said they'd hired him to drop stuff off before. How did it get into his hands if they don't trust him? Or are they just worried he forgot to say 'no mushrooms' again?

So this movie sounds goofy as hell already, I know, but what makes it really strange is that everything up to this point feels like it was shot in a very thoughtful way. Every shot feels calculated, nothing feels arbitrary. It all looks so pretty and purposeful, if you were to walk in on any of these scenes thinking the reason nothing made sense was because it was already half over, you might accidentally get the impression that you were watching a real movie.

Anyway, Lucy opens the case, and they test the contents by bringing out a dazed, barely conscious guy from a back room and having him snort some of the drugs. They have to slap him a bunch of times to keep him awake. Again, doesn't seem like a good judge, but when he starts laughing they decide it passed the test. That must have been how they reviewed the script.

That's where they ask Lucy if she wants a job, then knock her out when she says "no." When she wakes up, one of the bags of drugs is in her abdomen, and they give her and the other three guys with drugs in them their passports. The other three guys look pretty calm, so I assumed they were willing mules at first, but then they were told that their families would be killed if they went to the police or anything like that. Could they really not find anyone who would be willing to transport the drugs for money? And I still don't see how that threat applies to Lucy, as they don't know anything about her at all.

They lock her up (I guess they're waiting for a plane, I don't know), and her guards start trying to mess with her. She bites one of them, so he starts kicking her in the stomach. They leave her on the floor, and colorful CGI shows us the drugs leaking out of the bag and getting into her system. She starts spasming up the wall and onto the ceiling (that's not some kind of typo, it's literally what happens).

If it feels like this review is jumping around all over the place, it's because this movie is so incoherent that it's impossible to remember exactly what happens when, but either here or at some other completely random point earlier, the movie jumps sideways into a lecture hall filled with the most attentive students I've ever seen. You know those older people you get in a lot of college classes? The ones who make you feel like an asshole because they seem to be paying such close attention to the instructor while you're just sitting there drawing stick figures performing obscene acts on each other in an attempt to stay awake, until you hear them ask a question so stupid you realize they probably don't even know what class they are in in the first place? That's what all the people in this class look like.

The class is being taught by Professor Morgan Freeman (played by actor Morgan Freeman). I can't think of a lazier way of both delivering exposition and trying to legitimize the stupid premise of your movie than by having freaking Morgan Freeman literally tell an audience of morons what the movie is about.

Again, I'm sure you know what the movie is about because Morgan Freeman told you in the trailers, but what he tells his students is that humans can only access 10% of their brains' capacity. He goes so far as to say that dolphins are the only animals that can go farther--up to 20%. I guess that explains those super-advanced cities they keep finding out in the ocean. Oh, wait, no, it's supposed to explain how they can use echolocation. I'm not sure how that applies to other whales, bats, etc. At least he doesn't try to suggest that dolphins figured out how to develop echolocation themselves. 

He does, however, go so far as to say, in relation to dolphins naturally developing echolocation and humans inventing sonar: "This is the crucial part of our philosophical reflection we have today. Can we therefore conclude that humans are concerned more with having...than being?" The class gasps as if this is some kind of revelatory or eye-opening suggestion, and unfortunately I can imagine the more brain-dead people in the audience doing the same.

This movie would embarrass even James Cameron in how far it goes with shameless attempts at audience manipulation. Movies as a storytelling form depend on manipulating their audience, yes, but well made movies will do so in such a way that you are unaware that you are being manipulated even while it's happening. Cameron, as an example, doesn't usually succeed at that, especially in his newer films--the elements that Cameron uses to make the audience feel a certain way, elements that would normally be obscured in other movies, are right out in plain sight in things like Avatar.

But at least in Cameron's case, we can tell what we are supposed to feel. It doesn't work--the movie telling you to be scared or angry isn't the same as the movie doing something to make you feel scared or angry--but you can tell what he's going for because he hammers it into your skull. In this movie, even the audience cues don't make any sense. We as the audience are in the same place as the students in the class, listening to Morgan Freeman deliver exposition. As such, assuming the movie had pulled us in like a good movie would do, we should be having the same reaction as his students. But when everything he says is so stupid that it just makes us laugh, the movie becomes even more absurd by blatantly trying to give us the impression that it is "deep," from the opening question about what we've done with life on Earth, to having the class react in such a way to the drivel coming out of Morgan Freeman's mouth. In a parody it might work, but this is supposed to be a real part of the movie.

It should also be noted that while Morgan Freeman is often hired because of the authoritative way he speaks/narrates, a lot of his lines here, including those above, feel awkward, as if they recorded him reading the script for the first time as he wondered whether this would finally be the role he would say 'no' to.

The movie actually cuts to the class a few times, and one of those scenes contains my favorite moment: Morgan Freeman is jabbering on, and there is a shot of a bunch of the students typing furiously on their laptops. What are they typing? Morgan Freeman isn't talking very quickly, and he's not saying much to begin with. It might not sound funny reading about it, but I laughed out loud in the theater.

Nothing Morgan Freeman says ever makes any sense. As the movie goes on, he speculates: What would happen if a person could access more than 10% of their brain's capacity? (Side note: I think the word they mean to use is 'capability'; 'capacity' is how much it could hold, like memory, whereas 'capability' is how much it could do.) Morgan Freeman gives one of his patented Knowing LooksTM and says something about gaining access to and control over one's physical self at 20%. Don't we already have that at our supposed 10%? I think he means absolute control over ourselves down our very cells, but if dolphins are already at 20%...screw it, I don't know.

At that point, a kid raises his hand and asks (in English so broken that I'm not sure the actor had any idea what the words meant), whether there is any scientific evidence behind what he is saying, or if it's all bullshit. I don't know why they would have someone actually ask that in a movie that is clearly pulling everything out of its ass, but I like the fact that Morgan Freeman just kind of says, "Wellllllll, no....." That's where I would have walked out of that class and transferred to a different school.

As if that wasn't enough, he goes on about how nobody believed Darwin at first, and that, "It's up to us to push the rules and laws and go from 'evolution' to 'revolution.'" Everyone in the class laughs, and everyone in the audience groans. I'm not even going to go into that one, but in the spirit of the movie's lack of coherency, let me arbitrarily choose this moment to mention that the Morgan Freeman lecture scenes are particularly infested with stock footage of planes/animals mating and giving birth/storms/random-ass shit.

Morgan Freeman continues, saying that humans would gain control of others at 40%, then control of matter (are people not made of matter in this movie?). He hesitates to go farther, saying that that would be venturing into science fiction, a statement that seems to demonstrate an intense lack of understanding of science as a very concept.

Annnnnnnyway--back to Lucy.

The screen goes to black with a big "20%" in white, and when she recovers from her episode and sits back up in her chair, a series of shots of her sitting really still show us how emotionless she has become. A guard comes in for some sexytime, and she beats him up and takes his gun. She walks out, shoots all the others eating their lunch...and then adds insult to murder by eating all their sandwiches. We're assaulted by jump cuts in the middle of the shot where she drinks a glass of water, another manipulation tactic of sorts to make us automatically think she is drinking a lot. The glass is pretty small, so it ends up being unintentionally funny instead. Also, the scene seems to exist to show us that her metabolism has increased, which makes sense I guess...?...but we never see it referenced again in the entire movie, so I don't know. 

There's another moment of unintentional humor when she goes up to two guys outside, shoots one in the leg, and forces the other one to drive her to the hospital. As they are about to drive away, subtitles for the guy who got shot come up on the screen, reading simply, "My leg." Subtitles will show up a lot more in the movie, but that's the first time they've appeared so far. We already saw him get shot, is it really that important that we know exactly what he is saying?

Being at 20% somehow let's Lucy translate the signs in the hospital that are in Chinese. She heads into a surgery room and shoots the guy on the operating table, telling the doctors they couldn't save him anyway. Apparently, going to 20% automatically makes you a medical expert too.

As absurd as the rest of the movie has been, that's where it really pushes itself over the line. Let's say we can accept that idea that we only use 10% of our brains for the sake of the movie. Let's say we can also accept that nothing relating to the criminals makes any sense because we simply don't know all the information relating to them. Granted, that would still be a problem with the movie not giving us enough information, but let's pretend we can still let it slide. The big logic problem comes when the movie expects us to believe that Lucy simply *knows* how to read Chinese because she can "access more of her brain's capacity." Sure, maybe she could learn it faster and retain it better, but how does she just *know* it? The same goes for interpreting the X-rays/MRIs of the patient. Just because she is more intelligent or perceptive doesn't mean she has the relevant information and knowledge she would need to do those things. Even in the context of the movie, it makes no sense.

Lucy gets on the table and tells the doctors at gunpoint to remove the rest of the drugs from her abdomen. She then asks if they mind that she makes a call on her cell while they work.

She calls her mom, who we only hear (and only in this one scene), but who still manages to compete with some of the students in the lecture hall for being the worst actor in the movie. The entire conversation is again unintentionally funny. Lucy talks about being able to feel everything and remember everything, including the taste of her mother's milk. She starts to tear up and tells her mother that she loves her. She later mentions that she no longer has any emotions, which from how she was acting seems to have been the case already, so having her cry here doesn't make much sense.

We already know the rest of the movie won't make much sense either, so I'll just cover the highlights, such as they are:

-When Lucy gets to Oldboy, she looks into his memory to find out where the other drug mules are going. We see her looking at things from his point of view, but she then seems to use his memories to access the memories of everyone else at the scene in his memory to get different perspectives until she can clearly see the passports. What???

-Lucy contacts a French cop to help her get the rest of the drugs. She needs the rest of the drugs because her body is breaking down--even though she supposedly has complete control over it, and by this point can apparently manipulate electromagnetic waves, and even type on two laptops at once! By the way, while she's using them the laptop screens creatively look like the Matrix screens. 

-The first scene with her using a computer had her typing nonstop and windows popping up all over the screen. Not only is it ridiculous because of how advanced of a computer it would have to be to keep up with what she is supposedly doing, but in the same scene she contacts Professor Morgan Freeman and proves herself to him by making herself show up on his TV, phone, computer. The movie is so inconsistent as to how powerful she is at any given moment (she is still supposed to be at 20% here).

-When Lucy sees a news report about her, she makes her hair change so she will look different...but she does it in the middle of a crowded airport. Besides, wouldn't changing her face make more sense? I know this is a movie with a marketable actress, but still.

-While Lucy is on a plane headed for Morgan Freeman's place (typing away on those two laptops) her body finally starts to break down. Again, she seems to have complete control over herself and tons of other superhuman abilities (she's now at 40%). Why can't she figure out a way to stop it? She spits out teeth, then her hand starts dissolving Super Mario Bros.-style, and she rushes into the bathroom. She has a Poltergeist moment in the mirror before scarfing down the rest of the drugs and, uh, turning into light...yeah.

-What if someone else were to breathe in parts of her that dissolved on the plane? Would they gain nonsensical abilities too? She probably dropped a bunch of the drugs on the floor of the bathroom, what if someone got into that? How did Oldboy and the others not know that the drug could do that to people? If he wanted to fix everything, why didn't he just have one of his own men take some of the drug and do it for him? Seriously, what would be the next step of the story? Would we have multiple CPH4 users fighting each other on a cosmic scale?

-Once the other mules are detained, Oldboy sends his men after them. As Lucy's abilities keep increasing, the threat of Oldboy and his men lessens and lessens. Every time Lucy encounters an obstacle, she takes it out really easily. Basically, there is no conflict in the movie. She has to get to the rest of the drugs before she dies, but she can do anything, so of course she's going to get to them.

-In an attempt to pretend there is conflict, this movie contains possibly the most ridiculous car chase in history. It is a one-car chase, where no one is chasing the car. Lucy is racing to get to Oldboy and the drugs once they get them back from the police, so she drives like a maniac through the streets of Paris, causing countless accidents and probably lots of deaths. Why couldn't she just levitate over the traffic? Why couldn't she just disable all the other cars electronically? When the car does gain pursuers in the form of police cars, she makes poles sink down into the sidewalk and reemerge in the middle of the road to stop them. Why? She could just make them stop in place. I don't know, fuck this movie. 

-She keeps the French cop around for no logical reason in the context of the movie. At one point he even says something like "Why am I still here?" She has some dumb line about it being so she could remember, but it's really because the audience needs to feel that something is at stake. It's no surprise that the movie does nothing to make us care about French cop guy, but we're supposed to anyway. He is still mortal, so he is someone that Oldboy can get to. There is even a big shootout toward the end between the cops and the bad guys, but we don't care because we know Lucy could stop it in an instant. The fact that she doesn't just stop it makes no sense either.

-The movie as a whole tries to pretend it's an action movie, but again, there is no conflict. Oldboy and his men should know they can't stop her, but they keep trying to anyway. And not even just by shooting her from a distance, but sometimes by trying to fight her hand-to-hand. Why? She could incapacitate them at any time, but she keeps letting them go. Why? She kills all the ones that she encounters after first gaining her abilities, but stops once she gets to Oldboy himself, and let's him go. Why? During the "car chase," she even says to the French cop, "We never really die?" Really? Why should I care then? Fuck this movie.

-Lucy finally gets to Morgan Freeman, who has assembled a small group of scientists. Believe it or don't, the movie manages to become even more pretentious toward the end. She says a bunch of shit that makes even less sense than anything that has come before. It's supposed to sound meaningful and thought provoking, but she basically spouts off random things that don't relate to each other, like "there are no numbers or letters, we created them to give us a reference," or something like that, which is kind of a true statement for once, I guess, but not one that has any deeper meaning. It's like something a stoned 12 year old would say.

-Lucy takes the rest of the CPH4 and hits 70%. I groaned audibly as I wondered how I would make it through the last 30%. Thankfully, the last 30% passes pretty quickly.

-There's a goofy looking dinosaur somewhere in there that looks like it stepped out of a freaking cartoon. I don't know.

-Then she turns into--I shit you not--a fucking computer! I can hear you laughing, but I swear it's the truth! She wants to pass her knowledge on to Morgan Freeman, so she turns into a black, fantasy castle-looking computer with a USB flash drive he can pull out. The drive has stars greenscreened onto it, so you know it's not just a normal flash drive. I'm not kidding, I swear! When he pulls out the flash drive, the computer dissolves into nothing.

-The French cop guy shoots Oldboy (SPOILER) and asks where Lucy went. He gets a message on his phone saying "I AM EVERYWHERE." She says something like, "You've been given life; now you know what to do with it." If she means making completely illogical decisions all of the time, then I guess most of humanity is already on the right path.


Phew, okay. So that was terrible, but at least it's over.

I've heard of customers at the theater where I work coming out of this movie and saying it was "deep," and "good." I heard about one guy saying it was one of the best scifi movies of the last several years. It really feels like a 2001: A Space Odyssey for dumb people. 2001 was pretentious enough, but at least it was a real movie. This movie even paralleled the beginning of that one with the hominids, and the ending with the Star Child. There was even some stuff that looked like going through the Star Gate before Lucy turns into a computer (that really happens, I swear on your mother's life).

Luc Besson wrote, directed, and even edited this monstrosity. I haven't seen enough of his movies to really make an informed analysis on how this fits into his filmography. I can say that the big hallway shootout toward the end was reminiscent of the shootout toward the end of Leon, aka The Professional, only without any weight to it whatsoever. It's also safe to say that Besson is not gay, looking at all the movies he does with female protagonists, and how he shoots them. After watching this movie, I feel like Scarlett Johansson's face is imprinted on my brain. I think it's in the 90% I don't use, though.

We've already established that this is just another paycheck for Morgan Freeman. Johansson actually puts some effort into this one for some reason, but she just doesn't have what it takes to sell a lot of it. She can cry and act worried, but we never get a sense of it being anything more than acting. At least she doesn't have to do anything for most of the movie because the script conveniently calls for her not to show emotion.

This movie is crap. Yes, the trailers told me it would be, but I expected enjoyable crap. Instead, I found myself board and angry. Even my occasional spurts of laughter were tempered by my anticipation of the movie being over. It's less than 90 minutes long, and I still barely made it through without falling asleep. If you're like me, everything you heard about it made it sound so ridiculous you just had to watch it to see if it was all true. Trust me, it's not worth it. As one of the employees at my theater said, "I saw it for free and still wanted a refund."

Avoid this movie at all costs. If anyone recommends it to you, ask them why they liked it. If they say it's because it was "deep," ask them to elaborate. Knowing what you do after reading this, you're sure to get more enjoyment out of whatever they say to you than you would from actually watching the movie.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

The opening of Guardians of the Galaxy is a scene set in 1988 that shows us a boy named Peter Jason Quill dealing with the death of his mother. The scene gives us insight on what will become an important part of his character, but it also helps us by starting the movie in familiar surroundings. When we flash ahead to Quill as an adult, played by Chris Pratt, there is no hesitation in throwing us into a very alien, sci-fi world. Knowing a bit about Quill's background gives us something to hold onto and use as an anchor in all the weirdness. Quill's Walkman serves the same purpose, tying us back to Earth by allowing familiar music to play over an alien landscape.

The fact that the movie isn't afraid to go with sci-fi concepts that are more extreme than we usually see in mainstream movies is great, but if it had jumped right in without any viewer preparation, it could have been disorientating. As it is, some of the early scenes are a bit confusing, with several characters being introduced at the same time without allowing us to get a firm grip on any of them at first. Once the movie gets going, it thankfully transitions between characters and locations more smoothly.

There's no point in going any farther into the specifics of the story because this movie is about the "hows" and not the "whats." It's the characters that push each scene forward and make us want to keep watching. In fact, the only dull scenes in the movie are the plot-based ones focusing on the villains. The heroic characters all have distinct personalities and entertaining interactions, but the villains are bland, undefined action figures.

Although it is something of an ensemble/team movie, Pratt's Quill is unquestionably the main character, and comes out feeling the most rounded out of all of them by far. Bradley Cooper does a surprisingly good job as Rocket, who has a very brotherly relationship with talking tree Groot (adequately voiced by Vin Diesel).

Zoe Saldana's Gamora, an assassin who turns on villain Angry Screaming Man--er, sorry, Ronan the Accuser--could have used some work. She tells us why she switched sides, but we never get a real sense of her feelings behind everything. Her interactions with the others, especially Quill, are fine in themselves, but she feels too trusting and friendly for her background.

In general, the group comes together a bit too quickly. Remember in Star Wars, how Luke had to keep persuading Han to help him, promising to pay him later? Then when they get to Yavin, Han says "so long" and takes off? It's not until the very end, when he shows up again to save Luke from Vader's TIE at the climax of the entire movie that we see his change of heart. No so in Guardians. Sure, the characters argue a lot (resulting in some of the most fun moments in the movie), but the way things play out still isn't quite convincing.

The standout character for me was Dave Bautista's Drax. Looking at him, you wouldn't expect the excellent comedic timing that he brings to the super-serious, completely literal character. It all comes out of the writing though, and there are lots of great exchanges between characters and funny little moments. Some of the jokes aim a little too broadly, and a few of the line deliveries don't quite work like they should, but none of them fall completely flat. The style of humor and overall tone of the movie reminded me of Serenity, which makes sense, with that movie's writer/director Joss Whedon currently being a sort of creative overseer at Marvel.

Guardians of the Galaxy also feels like a throwback to '80s adventure films like Ghostbusters, The Monster Squad, etc, from the songs and how they are used, to the all-pervasive humor, to the story (not to mention all the Star Wars references, from the Han and Chewie relationship between Rocket and Groot, to the straight-out-of-Empire scene with Ronan's Vader talking to Thanos's Emperor via hologram). We don't see space movies with a sense of fun anymore. Hell, we hardly see movies with a sense of fun to them at all.

Director James Gunn achieved a similar tone before, in 2006's Slither, which is a fantastic horror comedy that I recommend to absolutely everybody. It's no surprise that he brings back several cast members from that movie in Guardians, most notably Michael Rooker as Yondu, Quill's abductor/mentor. Gunn's dark sense of humor makes a return as well, giving this movie by far the strongest sense of individual personality of all the Marvel Studios offerings. You can tell this is the movie Gunn really wanted to make, which makes Edgar Wright's departure from Ant-Man all the more disappointing (but we're not going to go into that right now).

If only that sense of fun had carried over to the villains. Ronan looks like he does in the comics, sure, but, as with many of the Marvel Studios villains, he's just a fill-in. We get his motivation, but as with Gamora, telling us something isn't the same as showing us. We know what he wants, but don't get a feel for why he feels so strongly about it. Having him yell a lot isn't enough to create a sense of menace either. The movie tries to show us how much of a badass he is by having him stand up to Thanos, but we don't know anything about Thanos either, so we don't care.

Speaking of Thanos, he barely shows up here, but when he does, he looks terrible. It makes me wonder if they tried to hold off on doing those scenes in case they got leaked, then didn't have enough time to fine tune the CGI (yes, he is all CGI--why, I don't know). Josh Brolin's performance comes out being very disappointing too. He couldn't have had much to work with, but Thanos ends up just being some guy. Even the one shot of him in Avengers gave him a hundred times more personality.

Karen Gillan looks great as blue-skinned Nebula...and that's about all there is to say about her.

Benicio del Toro's Collector isn't quite a villain in this movie, which fits because he is actually interesting, with weird mannerisms and eccentric way of speaking. He doesn't end up being very important unfortunately, but hopefully he'll show up again in the future.

I haven't mentioned anything else about how this movie relates to the other Marvel movies because Guardians of the Galaxy is a different movie for Marvel Studios. Up until now, all of their films (this is their tenth) have tied directly into each other in ways that even the most oblivious of audiences would be able to detect. This one does so in ways that are more tangential, making for much more of a standalone film than any of the others. Apart from the line before the credits, "The Guardians of the Galaxy will return," it doesn't even tease any sequels. Anyone who didn't watch any of the other Marvel movies could watch this one and not even realize it had anything to do with them. Instead of approaching this movie from its standpoint within the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe as they are calling it, it makes more sense to look at it as simply a space adventure movie. Yes, the movie is part of that same universe, yes, the characters are taken directly from the comics (although a lot of their specific attributes and characteristics aren't quite the same), and yes, most of the background elements come from the comics too, but the story is original to the movie and many of those background elements are only there because they happen to fit what the story requires. That isn't to say that the movie doesn't feel respectful to the source material, or that the movie doesn't fit into that universe, it just feels like its own thing.

That may be a disappointing aspect of it for people who are looking for something to push the overall MCU farther, but it makes the movie itself work much better. Guardians tells a complete, satisfying story that doesn't feel compromised to fit in with anything else or to leave room for sequels or spinoffs.

At the same time, the movie is a part of the MCU, and while it doesn't seem to affect things too much on a story level (despite the brief appearances by Thanos), it does extend the boundaries of the universe in other ways. Through Thor, we've encountered aliens and other planets, but this movie goes all-out, giving us many different races, several different planets, an explanation for the Infinity Stones, and even the introduction of the Celestials. It really feels like a whole new universe in a lot of ways. Apart from Quill himself, there is almost nothing related to Earth at all.

Even in the comics, the cosmic side of things tends to be somewhat separate from the Earth stuff. You don't usually see earthbound characters like Spider-Man or Iron Fist dealing with godlike superbeings in space. Characters like the Fantastic Four do overlap, but when you pick up a cosmic comic, you expect a distinctly different set of characters, like the Silver Surfer (currently at Fox, unfortunately), Nova, Quasar, etc. It's a different part of the universe, and it makes sense that not everything comes back to Earth.

Either way, this movie opens up a lot of new doors for types of characters that would have seemed out of place popping up in an Iron Man or Captain America. It's the first time Marvel has tried to do something outside of traditional superheroes, and Gunn's attachment to the sequel has me very excited for what comes next.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow is a sci-fi film based on a Japanese novel called All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. I haven't read the book, but I did see the movie, and it was surprisingly good.

Invading aliens have taken over much of Europe. Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, sent to the frontline in France, where the fighting (reminiscent of the beach landing from Saving Private Ryan) doesn't go in the direction everyone had hoped. With everyone dying around him, Cage...also dies. The difference is he wakes back up, finding himself stuck in a time loop, repeating the previous day over again until he dies, then repeating the previous day over again until he dies, then repeating the previous day over again until he dies, etc.

Everything I knew about this movie made me not want to watch it. I'm generally not a fan of Tom Cruise. The mechanized suits looked like a lame attempt to shove something resembling robots into the movie. The poster said it was directed by the guy who made Mr. and Mrs. SmithThe movie as a whole looked like a dumb, generic action movie.

But, just like Oblivion (2013) turned out to be much better than the trailers implied, this was actually quite a good movie.

First of all, and most importantly, as it is the focus of more than half of the movie, the time loop aspect was handled very well. To be clear, Cage is in control of himself the entire time, he just keeps waking up in the same place at the same original time. Also, the aliens are inadvertently responsible for the loop, this isn't one of those movies where it just randomly happens.

Usually, a big studio movie like this would dumb things down so much that they didn't even make sense anymore. But much of this movie actually involved the characters using logic to find ways to exploit the time loop. It also did a great job of keeping thing from getting tedious when we are seeing the same events over and over, while at the same time showing Cage's frustration at having to keep going through it. 

I was afraid there would be times when I would say "why would X say/do the exact same thing every time if Cage changed what he did up to that point?" Well, that did happen, but it wasn't bad enough to bother me too much. Cage planning intricate moves during the battle he keeps re-experiencing based on knowing what is going to happen wouldn't work, because every little thing he did differently each time would influence everyone around him in increasingly dramatic ripples. Before he even got to the battle, everyone would be doing everything differently, so the idea that he knows exactly when to sidestep to avoid getting killed once he gets there obviously doesn't hold up. But everything dealing with that is minor enough that, while I would have preferred they handled things more realistically, it didn't detract from the movie too much, and it made for some interesting situations.

It helps that, while unfortunately ignoring logic in that aspect of the time loop, the movie does explore many other interesting angles. This is a movie that will make you think--not in the sense of trying to figure out what is happening, but in an imagination-sparking way. There are so many directions the story could have gone in, and it satisfies in all the directions it does go in. It also exploits the fact that Cage knows what people are going to do, and that he knows he will just wake up again if he dies, to great humorous effect. It was a much funnier movie than I expected.

As I stated before, I'm not usually a fan of Tom Cruise, but I actually liked him here. Right from the beginning, I liked that they made his character kind of a dick. But what made it work was that he didn't phone it in like a lot of actors do in movies like this. He played a character, and maintained that character throughout the movie. Granted, there wasn't a lot for him to do on a character front once the movie really got going, because the focus was just stopping the aliens. But there were enough little moments showing how his character is not the typical brave, ultra-competent hero of most action movies. He's not just a dick, he's kind of a coward too.

Emily Blunt plays Rita Vrataski, a legendary, seemingly indestructible soldier. It's not spoiling anything to say that the reason for her reputation is that she previously experienced a time loop of her own, so she knew exactly what to do to survive an earlier big fight, and she now has tons of experience fighting the aliens. When Cage finds this out, he keeps going to her, first to find a way to get rid of the loop, then to find out how to use it to prevent everyone from being killed by the aliens.

I've only seen Blunt in a few movies, never playing a badass, but she totally pulls it off here. I love the fact that the main character is kind of an ass, and what would normally be a more stereotypical action hero character is a woman (and much more convincing than one played by Angelina Jolie). The relationship between the two of them is very entertaining, and thankfully isn't a forced romance.

The mech suits actually felt practical in the movie, and were just another interesting element to the story. Before the time loop came in, the military angle, mech suits, and deployment/dropship scenes gave me a strong Starship Troopers vibe (the book, not the movie), which is cool. In print, I'm a big fan of military science fiction, but this is the only movie in the sub-genre that I've liked since Aliens, which was itself heavily influenced by Starship Troopers.

The aliens are interesting at first because of how they move and fight, but once you get a good look at them, their actual design is very disappointing. They look far too similar to Earth creatures and simply aren't interesting visually. They use projectile weapons, although we only actually see them firing them in a couple of shots, but I also would have liked to have seen them use some kind of ships or vehicles during combat. I suppose it is true that they probably couldn't have brought any with them based on how they arrive, but it would have been easy to come up with a solution to that problem story-wise. It doesn't make a ton of sense that their main tactic is to fight up close.

There isn't much to say about the technical aspects of the movie. Apart from some of the action toward the end, everything is shot pretty clearly and competently. There are a couple of long shots of the repeating battle that are visually interesting but distract from the flow of the movie when everything else is focused on Cage. The only time I noticed the music it was a bit groanworthy, but otherwise completely inconspicuous.

The CGI was surprisingly well handled. Usually, big movies like this end up looking like cartoons (I'm looking at you, Godzilla). While the all-CG creatures still don't look great, and there are a few shots toward the end with a clearly CG Tom Cruise, this isn't one of those movies where you stop caring about what's happening because none of it feels real. For the most part, Edge of Tomorrow holds to a sense of realism and keeps things believable. It also shows a pleasing restraint when it comes to how the camera is used in the big action scenes. When everything is CGI, filmmakers all too often break the film's hold over the viewer by suddenly making the camera do ridiculous things that don't add anything to the movie and yank you right out of it. This movie thankfully retains the same style used in all the other scenes.

Once the time loop came in, the movie became very engaging and thought provoking, but of course it couldn't last forever or I would still be there in the theater watching it. It was interesting how, once Cage was out of the loop (which we realize when it happens), the tension heightened. He had died so many times already, but death not being the end, there was nothing to really worry about. But once he's out, he only has one more chance to get things right. And after seeing him die so many times, we know how easily it could happen, and it feels like he could die again at any moment.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't maintain its level of engagement after that point. The story goes from the characters trying to figure out how to use the time loop to stop the aliens to just the characters trying to stop the aliens. Since we're still following characters we have grown to like, the movie should still be interesting, but the tension it built up is quickly diminished by action scenes that are too over the top compared to what's come before, and a shift from character focus to plot focus. The aliens were always more of a background threat up to this point, with the time loop itself being the problem the characters needed to solve and manipulate. The aliens don't have anything in the way of personality, so it's much less interesting when everything about the story starts to revolve around the characters reacting to the aliens instead of reacting to each other. It would be going to far too say the movie falls apart, but it does lose its momentum.

As if that weren't bad enough, the ending is by far the worst aspect of the movie. I won't give it away, but I will say that it doesn't make any sense. At first I thought maybe I just missed something, but from talking to people about it and reading people's reactions online, it seems it was exactly what I thought. I've read explanations that could make sense, but all of them involve people bringing in information that wasn't in the movie to find a way to explain it. The ending doesn't make sense based on what is in the movie. Even worse, the way it plays out suggests so many preferable directions they could have chosen.

And then the end credits play over an absolutely terrible song choice.

Apart from some minor things, the ending is the only thing keeping me from loving this movie. Even so, everything that did work was so good that I still highly recommend this movie. I would compare it to Inception in many ways. Both are action movies with plots dependent on the rules of a sci-fi scenario. Both explore different aspects of their scenarios in intriguing ways that make you think about what else would be possible within those scenarios. Both aggravatingly break the rules they have set up at some point, but everything else works so well that that doesn't become a dealbreaker like it would in most movies.

It's a shame that good, standalone scifi movies like this and Oblivion get overshadowed by sequels to big franchises that almost inevitably end up disappointing. If you like science fiction that doesn't pander, do yourself a favor and check this one out.