This week there are some huge hits and some throwbacks, which is exactly how I likes my shelf. The great thing about this time of year is, even though the stuff currently in cinemas is a bit “naff,” to use the British colloquialism, the stuff coming out on Blu-ray and DVD is all from a period of much better things. It’s the ebb and flow of the entertainment world.
The French may have invented the Auteurist Theory in regards to movie making, but I don’t think any of those critics at Cahiers du Cinema could have predicted the career of Luc Besson, the French movie mogul who’s written, directed, and produced some of the biggest action movies in the country, and is one of the biggest French exports to the U.S. and elsewhere. He doesn’t direct as much as he used to, but already with movies like Leon The Professional, The Fifth Element, and La Femme Nikita, and producing the Taken and Transporter franchises, dude is sitting pretty in the genre world. His more recent directorial efforts haven’t done much for me or anyone, which is why it came as a huge surprise last year when he had one of the biggest international hits of his career, and one of the weirdest – Lucy.
The story is impossibly simple: a young woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) studying in Taiwan is sent to deliver a suitcase to a notoriously violent crime lord (Choi Min-sik). The contents of this suitcase happens to be an experimental drug being marketed to the party crowd. After a bloody opening, Lucy has a bag of the stuff surgically sewn into her abdomen and is sent as a mule. She’s picked up by the wrong people and chained in what is essentially a dirty sex dungeon after being punched repeatedly in the stomach. This bursts the bag inside her and the drugs start being absorbed in her bloodstream at a dangerous level. The upshot of that much of the drug is that it expands her mental ability, bringing her ever-closer to being an entity of pure thought. She goes to find a neuroscientist (Morgan Freeman) who is an expert on such things and along the way tries to catch the other mules with drugs in their guts before the gangsters get to her. The upshot of her overdose is she is completely in tune with her body, then eventually has telekinetic powers, then teleportational powers, then create-computers-out-of-her-own-body powers.
It’s a sci-fi movie with an action movie wrapped around it, and a huge star vehicle for the new IT actress of ass-kicking, Scarlett Johansson. It made close to half a billion dollars worldwide, and for an R-rated film that’s a huge feat, especially one with a relatively modest budget. The crazy thing about it, though, is that it’s about as weird and arty a movie as Besson has ever made, full of images and themes that are actually attempting to do more than your typical brainless actioner. Johansson proves just how good she can be as a badass and the movie is never dull, likely because it’s only 82 minutes long, with 7 minutes of closing credits to try to bring it up to a respectable 90. While utterly preposterous and explained in a pretty hackneyed way (Morgan Freeman just tells us what’s happening via a lecture), Lucy is weird enough and the central performance is compelling enough to make this anomaly fun and very watchable.
The newly-minted Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, the latest from Laika studios, who are the current masters of stop-motion/CGI collaboration, continues their string of kinda scary/kinda silly family movies that includes Coraline and ParaNorman. While gorgeous to look at, in a grotty way, the unfortunate thing is that The Boxtrolls isn’t nearly as good as either of those previous two films, due almost entirely to the story being pretty lame.
The movie takes place in a weird Victorian-era steampunk world with a city on a large, pointy mountain. The people on the surface are generally petty and more concerned with their status in society and their ability to obtain and brag about rare cheeses. Underground live a society of creatures called Boxtrolls, which are literally trolls that wear and hide in boxes left in garbage piles. Many years ago, a baby is left to the Boxtrolls to look after he grows up to be Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a 12-year-old who believes himself to be a Boxtroll. Meanwhile, the evil Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) is out with his cronies every night attempting to catch and kill all the Boxtrolls they can, because they’ve lied and told the town to be afraid of them, so he can be given a white hat, which signifies a place in high society, despite his disgusting allergy to cheese. The daughter (Elle Fanning) of the town’s top man (Jared Harris) is the only one who thinks something might be fishy with Snatcher and the Boxtrolls.
There’s nothing particularly bad about this movie, it just isn’t very compelling. It’s only 96 minutes but I felt myself getting bored very quickly and watching the clock a lot. There’s nothing here narratively that we haven’t seen a million times before, with the “monsters” being the good guys and the humans actually being monsters, and a young lad growing up among the monsters to act as their liaison. The voice cast is very good, and I was especially pleased that two of my favorite voice actors, Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum, voiced the two main Boxtrolls, Fish and Shoe respectively. However, the trolls themselves have almost no character and really don’t have much to do with the plot beyond just existing and being funny and cute in a grotesque way. Some critics have read a lot of symbolism into this movie, including some ill-advised WWII imagery, but ultimately this movie is highly well-made and inoffensive, but forgettable.
The Palm Beach Story
Preston Sturges was, along with Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and others, one of the godfathers of the modern romantic comedy with their screwball comedies in the 1930s and ’40s. Sturges above the others was an excellent writer of zaniness and actually had something to see, as evidenced by his films The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels. His 1942 movie The Palm Beach Story may well be one of his craziest and represented the filmmaker at the height of his ability to do anything he wanted.
Joel McCrea and Colette Colbert play a married couple on the verge of a breakup thanks to them being so unbelievably poor. There is also a weird convention that isn’t fully explained until the end (which I won’t spoil) which explains more of why they’re having such marital difficulties. She decides to split and take the train to Palm Beach, FL, where she can marry a rich second husband who can give money to her ex. She meets John D. Hackensacker, III, a rich dork with more money than he knows what to do with who falls in love with Colbert’s character immediately. McCrea decides to follow his wife to Palm Beach and doesn’t want her to get married to anyone else. Things get super convoluted from there.
The Drop – James Gandolfini’s last feature is a crime drama in which he stars opposite Tom Hardy.
White Bird in a Blizzard – Amid all her movies based on young adult novels, Shailene Woodley starred in indie director Gregg Araki’s latest, in which she is certainly not acting like a novel young adult.
Zero Theorem – Terry Gilliam’s latest is another in the vein of Brazil and 12 Monkeys. This one stars Christoph Waltz.