Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Catch-Up: Summer 2014

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: films seen in between summer vacations.

Happy Christmas
Dir. Joe Swanberg

3 out of 5

When twentysomething party girl Jenny (Anna Kendrick) moves into the suburban Chicago home of thirtysomething mother Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), it's difficult for the latter to observe the former without feeling a creeping regret, even in times of disapproval.  Sure, Kelly has a loving husband in Jenny's older brother, Jeff (writer-director Joe Swanberg), as well as an adorable toddler and a cozy home with a retro-kitschy tiki bar in the basement.  But she's also a former novelist who feels her dream slipping away - even more so now that the unmoored Jenny, with seemingly no expectations or aspirations in life, has crashed her nuclear family fantasy.  It's a dynamic that's beautifully rendered by Kendrick and Lynskey, who absolutely nail the awkward distance between two women not quite close enough to be sisters and too contemporary to play mother-daughter.

But that's only half the story with Happy Christmas.  The other half is the misadventures of Jenny, a shambling, episodic tale of an indecisive quarter-lifer that's more than a little reminiscent of Frances Ha.  While Happy Christmas shares an inviting, low-key comedic vibe with Noah Baumbach's film, it doesn't have the same dramatic conviction.  The movie's high point is a boozy conversation between Jenny, her friend Carson (Lena Dunham), and a reluctant Kelly, who eventually admits that she's not exactly happy about sacrificing her writing career to raise a family.  However, Swanberg unwisely switches gears to Jenny's halting attempts at personal development, turning the film into a predictable bell curve of maturation and emotional regression (with a disappointingly abrupt ending).  And I'm a little baffled by Kelly's arc, which seems to go off-message as she acquiesces to Jenny's terrible advice and rehabilitates her creative muscles by writing a trashy romance novel.  Happy Christmas has all the pieces of a sensitive, superior indie drama, yet its adult sensibilities can't hide the fact that it's still seeking a sense of purpose.

Dir. Luc Besson

3.5 out of 5

Only Luc Besson would dare to make an 80-minute Hong Kong-Hollywood action movie hybrid that begins like Midnight Express and ends like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Lucy is a reliably bonkers outing for the prolific French filmmaker, juxtaposing scientific seriousness and adolescent silliness in its tale of a young American woman (Scarlett Johannson) in Taiwan forced to be a drug mule for the Korean mafia, with a bag of the goods sewn into her tummy for transport to the West.  The substance in question is a new synthetic that, in large doses, unlocks the full capacity of the human brain, allowing for a massive boost in the user's intelligence (which seems like the exact opposite of what a club drug usually does).  When the bag begins to leak, Lucy starts to rapidly use more and more of her "true" intellect - a development that eventually gifts her with telekinetic powers and the ability to manipulate space and time.

The gag here is actually quite inspired.  Johannson portrays an action hero who doesn't do much muscle work once she gets on the Mensa escalator.  A simple flick of the wrist is all it takes to incapacitate these foolish men and their guns.  Her affectless, robot-like performance stands in stark and hilarious contrast to the usual Besson tomfoolery going on around her, particularly an artillery-laden shootout between French police and Korean gangsters in a university corridor.  What you think of the ending and its unexpected dive into Tree of Life territory depends on how seriously you've been taking the pseudoscience sprinkled throughout the preceding hour.  Still, this is the pulpy neuroscience - slick and satisfying - that Transcendence could never be.  Lucy might be shallow, but it contains multitudes.

Dir. Brett Ratner

2.5 out of 5

At the lowest point of the titular character's struggle against adversity in Hercules, a wily old soothsayer (Ian McShane) encourages the hero to persevere by finding "the truth behind the legend."  Considering how confused and manipulative the film get about facts, embellishments, and flat-out lies, it's difficult to know what that even means.  And it's too bad, because Hercules really tries to work a clever angle on the familiar myth, positing Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) as the leader of a band of Aegean mercenaries that ropes in clients with exaggerated tales of his exploits.

Director Brett Ratner finds this conceit only intermittently interesting.  The movie succumbs to a paint-by-numbers backstory involving the hero's dead family members, and populates its conflict with too many flat characters on both sides.  Structurally, the script is actually trying to do something unorthodox in the context of a modern (read: simplified) sword-and-sandals saga; and Hercules can also satisfy in conventional ways with well-choreographed action and jaunty supporting performances from the likes of Rufus Sewell and McShane.  It's a pity, though, that the movie in unclear on what is real and what is myth - and even less compelling in regards to why the audience should care.

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