Movie Review: “Lucy”

Starring
Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked
Director
Luc Besson

There’s an episode of “Phineas and Ferb” where the gang is in Tokyo, and a J-pop music video breaks out. As they’re leaving (still dancing, of course), Candace looks at Isabella and says, “I have no idea what just happened.” The final third of Luc Besson’s “Lucy” prompted a similar reaction. It is just barely connected to the events that preceded it, morphing from a story loosely in the vein of Besson’s (great) 1994 film “The Professional” into something along the lines of this year’s (not great) “Transcendence.” If anything, Besson made an outstanding case against the notion that humans should try to maximize their brain power. Sure, we might become brilliant, but we’d also become crashing bores.

Lucy (Scarlett Johannson) is scraping by in Taipei, partying too much and studying too little. Her drinking buddy Richard (Pilou Asbaek) asks her to deliver a briefcase to businessman Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, who looks like a Korean Russell Crowe). When Lucy refuses, Richard forces her to do it by handcuffing the case to her wrist. She delivers the suitcase, only to discover that it contains a new, powerful synthetic drug, and she will be forced to smuggle one of the packages of the drug inside her body for distribution elsewhere. She is assaulted shortly after the package has been placed inside of her, and the package breaks. As the drug flows through her body, Lucy’s ability to tap into the farthest resources of her mind expands. The now-enlightened Lucy uses her newfound intelligence, as well as her ability to manipulate the space around her (levitation, force fields, etc.), to get even with Mr. Jang, while simultaneously contacting Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) to show him that his theories on the subject of brain usage are dead on the money.

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Movie Review: “Magic in the Moonlight”

Starring
Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Eileen Atkins
Director
Woody Allen

Woody Allen has made some real stinkers over the course of his 50-year career, and though “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t quite bad enough to be included among the director’s absolute worst films, it’s not very good either. Allen’s movies have always been pretty hit-and-miss, but since 2005’s career-altering “Match Point” – in which he inadvertently became a foreign film director by working almost exclusively in Europe – he’s only made three legitimately great movies. But while Allen has proven that he’s still capable of delivering a good film on occasion, he seems more concerned with maintaining his yearly output no matter what the cost, and that quantity-over-quality way of thinking only underlines the problems with his latest comedy.

Set in the late 1920s, the movie opens in a Berlin theater during a performance of world-renowned magician Wei Ling Soo. But just like the magic tricks in his show, it’s all a ruse. Wei Ling Soo isn’t Chinese at all, but rather the terribly racist stage persona of grumpy and arrogant Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth). He’s an elitist at heart who despises charlatans that give his profession a bad name, so when his longtime friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks for his assistance in debunking a young spiritualist named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whom he believes is scamming the heir of the wealthy Catledge family, Stanley is all too happy to oblige. The pair heads to the Catledges’ mansion on the French Riviera in order to observe Sophie in action and catch her red-handed, but against his better judgment, Stanley begins to believe that she’s the real deal.

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Movie Review: “Wish I Was Here”

Starring
Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Joey King, Pierce Gargnon, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, Jim Parsons
Director
Zach Braff

Hating Zach Braff was in fashion long before the actor/director launched a Kickstarter campaign for his long-awaited sophomore effort, but the way he went about funding his follow-up to 2004’s “Garden State” really got under some people’s skin. (Oddly enough, Rob Thomas’ “Veronica Mars” movie received infinitely less criticism despite starting the whole fad.) But while Braff may have been unfairly judged for the way he raised the money to make the film, it’s a wonder why he had to resort to crowdsourcing at all, because “Wish I Was Here” is a confident, funny and heartfelt tragicomedy that, although not without its blemishes, proves Braff is more than just a one-hit wonder.

Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor whose wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is the sole breadwinner of the family, supporting him and their two children (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) with her drab, government job while he’s off pursuing his dream. But when his father (Mandy Pantinkin) is no longer able to pay the children’s private school tuition because he needs the money for an experimental cancer treatment, Aidan agrees to homeschool the kids rather than place them in the city’s awful public school system. The problem is that Aidan isn’t exactly fit to be a teacher (hence the grammatical error in the film’s title), so instead, he takes them on a series of “field trips” meant to impart life lessons that help him rediscover his own identity in the process.

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Blu Tuesday: Transcendence, Sabotage and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Transcendence”

WHAT: When anti-technology extremists assassinate Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) – a renowned scientist in the field of artificial intelligence – as part of a series of synchronized attacks, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads his consciousness to a supercomputer. But once Will achieves transcendence, he proves to be far more dangerous than those trying to stop him.

WHY: It’s difficult to pinpoint where “Transcendence” went so horribly wrong, because it’s a colossal mess of a movie that is neither entertaining nor inspires the kind of thought-provoking discussion that it likely intended. Though Jack Paglen’s screenplay topped the 2012 edition of the Black List (an annual survey of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood), whatever made people so excited about it must have been lost in translation. That blames mostly falls on Wally Pfister, who doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp on what to do with Paglen’s sophisticated premise. Pfister may be one of the best cinematographers in the game, but he probably should have chosen something a little less ambitious for his directorial debut, because he bit off more than he could chew with this high-concept techno-thriller, which moves like molasses and isn’t terribly engaging. Maybe he thought that assembling an impressive ensemble cast would be enough to hide the film’s narrative flaws, but the performances are just as poor, especially Johnny Depp, who phones in his performance as the ghost in the machine. “Transcendence” certainly had the makings of an excellent cerebral thriller, but instead, it will only give you a headache thinking about all the wasted potential.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a quartet of mini-featurettes on things like Wally Pfister’s creative process and the potential of artificial intelligence, as well as some viral videos from the film’s marketing campaign.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Sabotage”

WHAT: An elite DEA task force steals $10 million during a drug raid on a cartel safe house, but when they go back to retrieve the hidden money, they discover that it’s missing. As members of the team start to get picked off in brutal fashion, their leader John “Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) joins up with a homicide detective to track down the people responsible, with the surviving agents suspecting it could be someone from within their own ranks.

WHY: Arnold Schwarzenegger has been hard at work since his return from retirement, but he’s still yet to make a film that measures up to his more iconic roles. “Sabotage” certainly had the potential to be that movie, but this modern-day twist on Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” is just another disappointing genre flick. More of a slow-burning crime thriller than the action-packed film the trailers suggested, “Sabotage” represents an interesting change of pace for Schwarzenegger. This is the most subdued that the actor has ever been, but he’s just not as entertaining without his larger-than-life charisma to fall back on, with his co-stars constantly upstaging him. In fact, the movie’s best moments come from the frat-like camaraderie between the task force members, so when they start dropping like flies, so does the enthusiasm earned from the high-octane set piece that opens the film, eventually devolving into a dull whodunit. The route that David Ayer and Skip Woods’ script takes wouldn’t feel so anticlimactic if it weren’t lacking so badly in any sort of tension, because there’s nothing about “Sabotage” that’s even remotely surprising, except perhaps for the fact that a movie with such a cool premise and awesome cast could be this boring.

EXTRAS: There’s a short making-of featurette, a pair of alternate endings and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Movie Review: “Sex Tape”

Starring
Jason Segel, Cameron Diaz, Rob Lowe, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper
Director
Jake Kasdan

The screenplay credit may reveal more about “Sex Tape” than it cares to admit. Karen Angelo gets both a story and screenplay credit (yep, this movie was a woman’s idea), with lead actor Jason Segel and his writing partner Nicholas Stoller sharing a joint screenplay credit as well. For the sake of Segel and Stoller’s reputations as writers, we are going to hope that they went into production with Angelo’s draft of the script, only to have Segel and Stoller punch it up once they realized it wasn’t working, and then realizing that there wasn’t enough time to get it completely right, so they settled for this. That is the only way to explain how Segel and Stoller would be part of something so emotionally tone-deaf. The characters in “Sex Tape” don’t have personalities: they have quirks. That’s not the same thing, by a damned sight.

Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Segel) are harried with children, with neither the time nor the energy to invest in their sex life as they did when they were younger and childless. Both recognize that this is a problem, and they decide to make up for all of the missed opportunities by making a video of them performing every position in the 1972 book “The Joy of Sex.” The plan is for Jay to delete the video in the morning, only he doesn’t. Later the next day, Jay receives a text from an unknown number, telling him that they’ve seen the video. It went out after Jay did a group sync of the contents of his iPad (that was the camera) with several other iPads that he has recently given away to friends and colleagues. Annie is naturally embarrassed, but worse, she gave one of those iPads to Hank (Rob Lowe), who’s considering buying Annie’s mommy blog.

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