Today marks a change in the way I do my film reviews: thanks to a suggestion from my wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, I will begin each review with a one-paragraph capsule review. The following paragraphs (if any!) will expand and expound on that capsule. (The worse the movie is—in my opinion—the more likely it will not have much, if any, expansion.) That way, you can stop reading after one paragraph if you don’t like either the movie or my review of it. I can apply that format to reviews of old as well as new movies. Let me know what you think, eh?
CAPSULE REVIEW: LUCY (2014) starring Scarlett Johansson. What a disappointing movie! The first thing you notice about this film is that it’s extremely heavy-handed; Luc Besson (who wrote and directed it) can’t just tell you something, he has to throw in a minute or two of visuals to hammer home the point. Talk about cells reproducing, you get films of animals having sex then giving birth (although I have to confess I thought the rhinos “doing it” was kind of funny). Lucy’s in danger—let’s show cheetahs hunting; Lucy is captured, let’s show those cheetahs with their kill. You’d think a movie about using 100% of your brain might be a bit—oh, I dunno, intellectual or something, but no! Let’s have car chases and car crashes and lots of bullets and blood! Visually, the movie is extremely strong—some of the shots are gorgeous, and I loved the opening shots of the original Lucy (“mother of the human race”). But I don’t agree with the philosophy expressed here, or the conclusions—or practically anything said here. My opinion? Skip it unless you can see it for free; it’s the weakest Besson movie I’ve seen in a long time.
Lucy—review continues: Although I concede that Scarlett Johansson is attractive, she’s not the most beautiful woman in film, nor is she particularly my type—given that, she’s extremely watchable. When, that is, she’s given something to do! Within the limited range allowed by this film, she’s terrific; that’s not to say that the film is very good. One of my main complaints—after Besson’s heavy hand—is that the film is based on a flawed premise: the idea that we only use 10% of our brain (20% in the Bradley Cooper film Limitless) has been disproved for years. Neural scans have shown that all of our brain is in use, even during sleep. Besson was aware of that fact, but chose to disregard it, saying that the idea “would make a great science fiction film.” Uh, no… science fiction (at least real sf) doesn’t disregard facts; you’re thinking of science fantasy!
Anyway, Scarlett plays Lucy, a young woman in Taipei, Taiwan, who’s apparently there to study something, but who is generally out clubbing and drinking and having a great time. She meets and dates Richard, and he talks her into delivering—well, sort of coerces (by handcuffing an aluminum briefcase to her wrist) something to a “Mr. Jang” at a swanky hotel; giving her half of his $1000 fee. As she waits for Mr. Jang to come to the lobby, you can see stereotypal “heavies” heading into the lobby—and we switch to the aforementioned cheetas watching their prey; when they sweep her off her feet and carry her to the elevator, we see the cheetas dragging dead antelopes away. Wow, thanks, Luc—we’re too stupid to figure that out without your help. (And Richard—Pilou Asbæk—is shot just as they drag her off, so he gets his comeuppance.)
Shortening things somewhat, we find out that Jang operates a drug empire and they’ve synthesized a hormone—CPH-4—that is usually produced in extremely small amounts by women in the sixth week of their pregnancy; this hormone—according to Morgan Freeman’s character, professor Norman, is like an atomic explosion for developing fetuses, allowing them to grow bones and all kinds of stuff; according to Jang’s interpreter, this will be extremely popular with the younger people. Jang puts one sack of these blue crystals (although Lucy calls it “blue or purple powder”) into the abdomens of Lucy and three other mules, then a British man working for Jang gives the three men passports and airline tickets before having them hooded and sent off to the airport. They are all warned that if they cause a scene or go to the authorities, all their relatives “including distant cousins” will be killed. Lucy is also hooded, but finds herself not at the airport when the hood is removed, but being chained by two hard-looking Asian men in some kind of cell. One of them gropes her breasts, and she slaps his hand away. “I’m not in the mood, okay?” He immediately knocks her to the floor and proceeds to kick her in the abdomen several times before he’s dragged out of the room.
Thanks to the kicking, the drug packet is punctured, and a large portion of its contents is released into her intestinal system and bloodstream. We’re treated to very graphic visuals of the crystals making their way into the bloodstream and zapping her nervous system; her eyes glow blue (Figure 3) and she slides up the walls and onto the ceiling before gaining control of herself and sitting back in the chair to wait for her captors’ return. They do; she gets out, kills them all and takes a taxi at gunpoint (“Speak English? No?” *BANG*) to the nearest hospital, apparently learning Chinese (both written and spoken) by watching and listening to people having conversations as she rode by. At the hospital she has the packet removed (after killing a patient on the operating table—“His tumor has spread to the right side of his brain and the spine. You couldn’t have saved him anyway,” she tells the surgeon—and we’re supposed to feel sympathetic to her?) and calls her mother while the surgeon is opening her stitches. She borrows his cell phone and calls her mother, telling her that she feels no pain, but she feels everything else, from gravity to her brain and so on.
This sort of thing continues throughout the movie. We get lots of special effects and lots of visuals, interspersed with lots of shooting, many car chases/crashes and so on as the drug makes its way into her system and enables her to use more and more of her brain until she finally hits 100%; Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman interprets what she should be able to do at each 20 percent or so (first she will be able to control every cell of her body; at 40% she will be able to control other people and her environment) while we watch her levitate people, see cellphone threads (Figure 2), manipulate TV and phones with her brain and so on. Figure 4 shows her disguising herself by instantly changing her hair colour and length, since she “has complete control over her body.” Excuse me? Only the follicles of hair are alive; how would “control over her body” allow her to control dead cells? (According to Freeman, she would not yet have “complete control over her environment.”)
I won’t tell you what the end is; I will tell you that she, and Freeman, both say that time is the ultimate measurement—without time there is nothing. (She says that humans measure things with numbers: one plus one equals two—but one plus one has never equaled two. There are no measurements; time is the only measurement. This is one of what I consider to be stupid pronouncements in this movie.) Freeman’s character tells his audience at a lecture that cells have only two options: if the environment is hostile, they must choose immortality, but if the environment is welcoming, they must choose reproduction. Pardon my French, but WTF? What the freak does that mean?
For much of the film, Johansson is denied the opportunity to really act, because she becomes above “the things that make us human”—like emotion; we’ve seen that kind of thing before, even with her, in Under The Skin, where she played an alien learning about being human. Frankly, even though the latter movie was tediously long, it had just as good cinematography and at least the attraction of Johansson being naked much of the time. This one doesn’t even have that. IMDB says this scores about 6 out of 10 stars; I’d give it five, to be generous—and only because of Johansson, Freeman and the cinematography.
CAPSULE REVIEW: MALEFICENT (2014) starring Angelina Jolie. Simply put, I really liked this film! Jolie’s Maleficent (the character) is magnificent; the storyline expands on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au Bois Dormant” by giving Maleficent a reason for being evil. Visually, it’s stunning—especially in 3D, which is how I watched it. Elle Fanning (Figure 6) makes a beautiful and charming Aurora, Sam Riley is very good as Diaval, the crow-man; and Sharlto Copley’s descent into paranoia as King Stefan is very plausible. I kind of liked Disney’s 3 fairies (Flora, Fauna and Merriweather) better than this movie’s Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit, but on the whole I was charmed no end by this film. I highly recommend it.
Maleficent review continues: We are treated to the usual Disney opening of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty’s castle, which morphs into a real castle, while the narration—in a female voice—tells us of two side-by-side kingdoms that live uneasily or unhappily together, because of the distrust of humans for the creatures that live in “the moor,” as well as because of the envy of the moors’ wealth. If there’s only one thing that I don’t really care for in this film, it’s that almost all humans are portrayed badly—saving Prince Philip, who you’ll remember from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty as a manly king’s son on a white steed; we see very few “normal” humans, non-royal types, those few being mostly maids and kitchen help. The rest are royals, soldiers and courtiers; none of those are without an axe to grind, whether sucking up to King Henry so as to become the next king after he dies (like Stefan did) or blindly following one King or another to attack the moors for no special reason.
But aside from those quibbles, the movie works really well for me. Angelina Jolie already has those high cheekbones—she’s pretty much the modern Lauren Bacall (I guess that would make Brad Pitt the modern Humphrey Bogart). But in order to make her look like the original Disney portrayal of Maleficent, the incomparable Rick Baker has given her cheekbones you could cut glass with. And as such, she can look both formidable (as evil Maleficent) and magnificently beautiful—with the traditional “blood-red lips”! (And yes, I’m cisnormal straight male, so where it’s appropriate to the movie, I do comment on how some women look from my viewpoint.)
We’re introduced to a young Maleficent (Figure 5)—just an idea, but why didn’t they call her “Benificent” at first, and then have her change her name when she turned “bad” by announcing “From now on, I shall be called Maleficent!” with appropriate thunder and lightning? Why would anyone curse a young fairy by calling her “evil,” which is basically what “maleficent” means in Latin. But anyway; we meet the young Maleficent, who is the largest of the winged fairies (the “Fair Folk”) who, as she grows up, becomes the guardian and protector of all the people and animals of the Moors—none human, by the way. Only one human manages to pass by the giant dolmens on the border, and that’s a young man named Stefan, who came to steal a diamond from the Pool of Gems. (This is apparently the “wealth” the humans are all jealous of.) He is cornered by two tree-like guardians, afraid they will kill him, but Maleficent coaxes him out into the open, telling him they might punish him for stealing, but they certainly wouldn’t kill someone for that. A friendship grows; Stefan tells her he is an orphan who lives in a barn, but someday he will live in the castle on the hill. When he finds out his iron ring burns her—the Fair Folk cannot abide the touch of iron—he throws it away. And when she is 16, he gives her what he calls “true love’s kiss.”
Maleficent has a magnificent pair of wings, larger than she; on them, she flies all over the moors as its guardian and protector—we are allowed to share in her joy of flying; but one day, when she is grown, King Henry decides that she is too powerful (“A power is growing in the moors”) and, besides, he promised his people he would take over the moors and their wealth; so he attacks. Maleficent beats back his attack with her treelike guardians and “earth dragons” that look like they’re made from roots; in the attack, Henry is injured badly. On his deathbed he tells his courtiers—of whom Stefan has become one; not bad for a kid who once lived in a barn—that whomever could get rid of Maleficent will inherit his kingdom. Stefan (now played by District 9’s Sharlto Copley) sneaks back to the moors in the dead of night and calls her; he lulls her with his friendship, telling her he has found out that the King is going to have someone hurt her. He then gives her a drugged drink and she falls into a deep slumber. In her sleep, Stefan is going to stab her to death, but he finds himself unable to carry out that plan.
When she awakes, she is wingless; Stefan has sawed off her wings while she slept; he takes the wings back to King Henry, who proclaims him the next king. After the coronation, King Stefan and his wife have a baby girl, whom they name Aurora (the dawn, for those of you who don’t know that name). The whole kingdom is invited to the christening; even three fairies–Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit (one of whom is Imelda Staunton, Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter movies!)—who come to give gifts to the newborn: beauty, happiness and… here Maleficent shows up to offer an unwanted gift—you’ve all heard the tale, so you’ll not be surprised to learn that “before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep from which she will never awaken!” (In the Disney film, the third fairy, who hadn’t yet given her gift, amends that to “until she is given True Love’s kiss.”) Here, Maleficent, wounded by Stefan’s betrayal, changes it to “unless she is given True Love’s kiss,” convinced that such—since Stefan had once bestowed it on her—doesn’t really exist.
Although she cannot fly, Maleficent is still a magical being, and she has put a magical barrier of thorns between the human kingdom and the moors; although King Stefan has given care of Aurora over to the three fairies who—in order to hide her and themselves from Maleficent—grow, disguise themselves as three peasant women with no magic—and live in a cottage on the outskirts of the human kingdom. Despite these precautions Maleficent—aided by her crow/human Diaval (played well by Sam Riley) finds them, and—since she isn’t really evil, just emotionally hurt—she becomes the child’s secret guardian, since the three fairies are about as competent as the Three Stooges. She watches over Aurora until the latter is almost 16; at one point, when the girl is around 9, revealing herself. “I know who you are,” Aurora tells her; “You’re my fairy godmother!” Maleficent, charmed despite herself, calls Aurora “beastie,” and…
Well, I guess you’ll have to find out for yourself, won’t you? Bwa-ha-haa! I guess I’m kind of evil myself for doing this. Rest assured, there is a fire-breathing dragon involved, and a battle between a knight in armour and the dragon; King Stefan—driven to madness by guilt and ambition—attempts to put an end to Maleficent once and for all. You will—when you see it—know the outcome of the story, which is not at all what Disney first led you to believe in the animated film (1959). I do hope you’re as charmed by this movie as I was; if you’re not, I do sympathize, because I think it’s wonderful. Oh, and one other thing—although many of the Fair Folk appear to be Brian Froud characters, there’s not so much as a mention of that artist in the credits to the film, and I scrutinized it pretty thoroughly. You’d think he’d at least get a “thank you” at the end for inspiration!
Whether you liked it as much as I did, or not, please comment on this week’s column. Let me know what you liked or disliked about it. You need to be registered—it’s free, and just takes a moment—so go ahead and register, then comment here. Or you can comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome; and don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!