Under the Skin (R)

9 Stars

‘Alien’ is a misnomer.

More accurately Laura, played by Scarlett Johansson, is an ‘extraterrestrial organism.’

A being who exists beyond our frame of reference. Seems puzzling, no?

Well it’s certainly elaborate, but not needlessly confusing.

Under the Skin is smart and mandates a brief personal yarn.

During movie viewings, my buddy and I rarely talk or utilize the pause feature.

We pressed the freeze button thrice while watching Under the Skin in order to clear up confusion.

Our choice to abandon the usual procedure proved beneficial, because UTS is a lot easier to follow when combining noggins.

Rotten Tomatoes’s summarization explains, “Its message may prove elusive for some, but with absorbing imagery and a mesmerizing performance from Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin is a haunting viewing experience.”

That little lady’s on quite a streak. She’s been in six huge movies since The Avengers in 2012. Her last eleven are Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!

A topless Scarlett may be the sole draw for certain viewers, but I suspect they’re the same folks who’ll find its message elusive.

Under the Skin is a great movie that hasn’t received the credit it deserves. It’s a mixture of sci-fi, fantasy and horror and if you dig this cinematic breed I highly recommend the rental.

It’s currently available for instant streaming via iTunes and Amazon as an HD rental ($4.99) or purchase ($9.99).

According to Box Office Mojo, it cost $13.3M to produce Under the Skin, and so far it’s just shy of a $5.4M gross worldwide. Which is a bummer because passion and effort should be rewarded.

Jonathan Glazer did an excellent job directing this movie. A massive chunk of thought went into each scene. The workload’s palpable.

The audio and visuals are simply stunning. Everything feels ‘intergalactic.’

The plot’s creepy and unnerving. Certain details seem like red herrings, but the film’s so polished their exclusion must be purposeful.

Under the Skin is wildly thought provoking and hits the spot.

If you seek uplifting content, search elsewhere, chum. Several moments are on the warmer side, but the majority’s unsettling and quizzical.

Follow my example and catch this flick with a loved one.

Let’s hope Laura runs across Lucy (from Lucy) and Samantha (from Her) and finds solace in their company somewhere in the metaphysical ether.

Chef (R)

8 Stars

Who knows if it’s always been this way, but the phrase ‘date movie’ is a surprisingly bad omen.

It’s synonymous with bad comedy and cheesy romancing.

The idea that a sequel to Valentine’s Day got produced…


Last year’s The Spectacular Now is a great example of what a ‘date movie’ should be.

So is this year’s Chef.

It’s a heartwarming story about a talented L.A. foodsmith finding his niche. In part a road-trip buddy comedy, Chef explores father-son relationships and the struggle to maintain balance.

‘Slice of life’ is what you might call it.

Jon Favreau is lights-out. That dude’s a boss.

He writes, directs and stars in Chef. Favreau directed Elf; he has a cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, and plays a great supporting character in Iron Man 3. You may be surprised to find out he’s also Danny Bateman, the overzealous linebacker from The Replacements.

He’s also into comics and a big supporter of the Marvel franchise. (Yes, I can easily forgive him for Iron Man 2.)

Plus the off-type roles he wrote for Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara in Chef are very strong. The whole movie’s well written. It’s not a comedy in the traditional sense, even though most websites categorize it such.

If we’re to get technical, Chef meets the prerequisite minimum of hilarious dick jokes. So in a scholarly sense it’s a comedy.

Perhaps ‘realistic fiction’ is the right name for it. I still prefer ‘slice of life.’

It tells a real story about a hardworking, driven middle-aged man who’s reached a seemingly insurmountable crisis. The interactions between Favreau and Dustin Hoffman are believable and compelling.

The viewer quickly forgets they’re watching the Hoffster, and can empathize with both sides of the conflict.

Between Scar Jo, Sofia, Dusty and all the rest, the supporting cast is phenomenal.

One final actor worthy of mention is John Leguizamo. He’s always great, and doesn’t disappoint here.

A common criticism is the initial half is far more compelling than the later. But I couldn’t disagree more.

It’s between six to eleven minutes too long but that’s the film as a whole; there is no greater or lesser half.

Chef also dives into social media and creatively incorporates animation to illustrate ‘tweeting.’

There’s no ‘stinger’ after the end-credits but if you wait until halfway through, there’s a short clip of Favreau learning to make grilled cheese from a professional. It’s not mind-bending, but it’s fun and worth the three minutes.

Chef’s not a blockbuster but it’s hilarious, heartwarming fun if you’re seeking a flick in-theaters.

I saw it for six bucks, which is a steal nowadays.

So don’t leave it on the backburner any longer.

Chef’s packed with laughs and just the right amount of sentimentality.

It’s a realistic date slice of comedic fiction life movie.

With a dusting of romance.

Lucy (R)

6 Stars

Six stars is rare.

Categorically, it’s ‘just barely worthwhile’; a timid thumbs-up.

Anything less I can’t recommend.

This particular rating syncs up with the Rotten Tomatoes score at 60%. Which is, coincidentally, the lowest possible for the ‘certifiably fresh’ stamp.

So the question becomes: What’s the value of a review teetering on indifference? Let me explain.

The main problem involves the trailer. Almost all of the good moments are spoiled.

It’s been mentioned before, but I’m sick and tired of seeing previews that ruin the movie. This day marks the official beginning to a lifelong campaign against misleading trailers.

If you saw the preview and hopes are high, don’t catch this one in the theater. Give it a few months or a couple years before tackling Lucy. Try to let your memory of the footage fade before renting it.

After all, it’s only ninety minutes. You’re not losing much; even if you hate it.

If you’re planning on a future rental or catching it on the big screen anyway, you may wish to stop reading now. There are potential spoilers below.

The trailer isn’t the only problem.

An expectation is The Bourne Limitless with a female protagonist. The story doesn’t allow Scarlett Johansson to develop a particularly memorable character. Her acting is strong as always, but it doesn’t fit the tone of such weak storytelling.

The premise is similar to the Bourne films in terms of being an international action-thriller. A similar plot device to Lucy’s CP4 is utilized in 2011’s Limitless. The main character, played by Bradley Cooper, takes a drug that allows him to unlock a higher percentage of brain capacity.

But the viewer never feels ‘swept up’ like one associates with watching those comparable works.

Unfortunately, Lucy attempts to accomplish similar goals, but ends up falling short.

For example, all of the combat is spoiled in the trailer. There are no elaborate fight sequences. There’s a solid car chase, in which Lucy drives against traffic. As effectively shot, choreographed and edited as it is, it’s still illogical.

The editing is disjointed and the story is riddled with plot holes. Lucy leans further toward fantasy, rather than science fiction.

Style abounds throughout, but not in a positive way. Much like the ticking digital clock in the TV show 24, title cards with percentages are utilized as dramatic transitions. All in all, they add nothing to the story and serve as only a further distraction.

Quite a bit of wildlife footage is interspersed, presumably to build tension and create a more elaborate experience. But it just comes off as cheesy.

I truly wonder why such a prolific writer/director as Luc Besson would include the cheetah chasing down the gazelle as Lucy’s captured. This is a pinnacle of heavy-handed metaphor. The enormity of the cliché seems almost purposeful.

The montages of various wild animals engaging in intercourse and giving birth are hollow moments devoid of value.

Besson’s use of time lapse and montage is clunky and distracting; not to mention it feels cheap. Montages, time lapses and original animated interstitials are in vogue. Such films as Noah and 22 Jump Street make productive use of them.

Lucy does not.

The animation of the CP4 molecules spreading throughout her nervous system is momentarily interesting, but eventually drags on. The footage is later revisited, much to the viewer’s misfortune.

The narrative voice is unfocused. It opens with Johansson speaking her thoughts through voiceover. They’re not real-time thoughts, more like generalized notions about the beginning of mankind. This transitions sharply into Lucy snapping out of a daydream.

This disparity is heightened by the introduction of Morgan Freeman’s voiceover regarding the evolution of the brain and human potential. Later it transitions back to Lucy’s real-time thoughts, so the nature of the narrative voice remains unclear.

During the film’s introduction, the missing link is featured on-screen. The part’s played by an actor in discomforting make-up and is featured several times throughout the movie.

Its too bad Besson didn’t speak to Andy Serkis, who crafted a simian army using stop motion technology for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Serkis could probably create one missing link without removing his bathrobe.

Besson is hit-or-miss. His early career hits include Leon: The Professional, The Transporter and The Fifth Element, and more recently Taken. These are all great movies, each in their own way.

There’s a through line to his pictures, though. They aggressively toe the boundary between fantasy and reality, asking a lot from the viewer in order to suspend disbelief.

Take Leon: The Professional for example. Gary Oldman plays Stansfield one of the greatest villains in cinematic history. His drug of choice is less potent than CP4, but it’s still a ‘fantasy intoxicant.’

The point being: Lucy would be a lot easier to accept if I was still a teenager.

All things considered, it’s a good movie that isn’t great.

It’s ironic Lucy went out the same way as ‘Samantha’ (from Her).

Hopefully they’ve successfully avoided Skynet (from The Terminator) now governed by Arnim Zola (from Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and joined the torch-bearing digital people (from Tron: Legacy) in the cyberspace community.

Unfortunately I’m one of the few people who haven’t seen Transcendence, so I can’t include Johnny Depp’s character in that reference.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (PG-13)

9 Stars

Our hero, believe it or not, is a symbol.

It’s not what you’re thinking.

The Captain’s a metaphor for America.

Look down. Did I fake you out of your shoes?

It seems a simple conclusion to arrive at, but ogle this concept through a different lens.

Captain America encapsulates a philosophical notion; a mindset transcending time, war and politics. He is twentieth century patriotism. In the face of any enemy, be it systematically internal or external, while others may waver Captain America perseveres.

A hefty portion of this concept lies in his commitment to the notion everybody may live free. But it’s something more than just freedom. It’s an incorruptible belief; a manner of ‘striving for righteousness’ that lives on through the death of many American soldiers.

Speaking of, should you see the second installment?

I rate Captain America: The Winter Soldier four and half, but to account for my proclivity toward comic books, you can give or take a bisected star.

Remember it’s a sequel to both The Avengers and Captain America: The First Avenger. Those who haven’t seen these earlier films may find this bothersome, but the majority probably won’t.

Never forget if you’re looking for things to complain about, you’ll find them.

It’s the same track I spin when any other comic book movie (Marvel or DC) comes out nowadays. If you’re willing to like it, and not overly critical, there’s no reason you’ll hate this film.

Logically, females with zero interest in superheroes should probably keep their distance. But even the pythons dangling from Chris Evans’s tank-topped shoulders can sway the naysayers.

It’s somewhere between twelve and nineteen minutes too long, so prepare for potential fidgeting around the two hour mark. And I’ve heard from NPR’s podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, the second scene after the closing credits is underwhelming. But I can speak for the mid-credits sequence, which didn’t bowl me over. Sure it’s slightly ominous, but the reference is outside my wheelhouse, so the reveal’s rendered inconsequential.

The scene’s directed by Joss Whedon and I like it; it just doesn’t get me looking forward to the next film.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is slated for release on May 1, 2015. Marvel will follow up two months later with Ant Man.

The use of negative space in the post credits sequence is smart, fun and intricate. Lend it five extra minutes if you appreciate this sort of thing.

The fight sequences are nothing short of spectacular. The use of different camera angles throughout the battleship in an early scene is elaborate and magnificent.

Overall, the narrative derives its strength from the movement of our hero through manufactured space. The shifting of the threats and the threatened assets often evokes the classic chess metaphor. On a more evolved scale of course; where time, height and game piece type become more varied and critical factors.

Things get really interesting when examining the intricacies of battle tactics and choreography. I won’t dive in too much, but simply consider the strengths and weaknesses of the main trio. Consider the setting of an elevator; the more bad guys filling it, less the chance Black Widow has of escape. She can probably take upwards of five or six, especially because short range and close quarters are optimal combat conditions for her superhumanity.

The same can’t be said for Falcon. At most he can handle two or three thugs trapped in a lift.

The depth to the settings is truly spectacular. The epic nature of it all is so fantastic, while maintaining a secure tether to realism.

So far CATWS contains the second-best Stan Lee cameo, after The Amazing Spider-Man.

I like how the Captain wears the old suit at the end. Solid costumes are a great touch.

A major criticism I can understand but don’t share personally: Several moments are reminiscent of plot devices from other films. For example, Black Widow utilizes a similar means of concealment as Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voight) in Mission: Impossible. But that was released in ’96 so I give it a pass.

A similar example (spoiler alert) involves the fate of Brock Rumlow, the lead thug played by Frank Grillo. During a brief shot at the end, his broken body’s raised on a stretcher, in a similar state to that of Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley) in Elysium. There’s a major difference between their sustained injuries, but all bets point towards Brock rising again.

Another obvious connection mirrors a trend in superhero cinema: What I call, “The Citizen’s Call to Arms.” It’s the moment when the fate of ‘the good’ is partially placed in the hands of the regular humans. This notion’s explored in The Dark Knight and is part of the climactic sequence in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Robert Redford does a spectacular job acting as Agent Alexander Pierce, but it’s to no avail. The highest upside to his performance is his appearance and demeanor are completely different from that of his last role in All is Lost.

He’s easily the worst part of Captain A. His character isn’t all that compelling, and it’s a bit unclear what he wants and whom he poses a threat to. He’s not a detractor but there’s nothing exciting about him whatsoever.

Pierce isn’t particularly menacing and neither is Hydra as an overall villain. But that’s okay, it seems like an attempt to break convention; a good idea that sizzles out with Redford’s uneventful performance.

The other thing I don’t love is the glossing over of Falcon’s background. The reveal’s a delight, but further detail on his history (particularly his superhuman abilities) is highly desirable.

Major nuance derives from the supporting players. In the realm of sidekicks, Captain’s got two complicated, original and fully-fleshed-out allies.

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson plays a great sidekick to Cap. He turns in a subtly fantastic performance.

And so does Black Widow as the other co-goody.

Oh me, oh my, I love me some Scarlett Johansson.

But Widow’s got me worried something fierce. She’s up to something fishy.

This movie’s final shortcoming is the lack of screen time for Natasha Romanoff. I’ll scream from the mountaintop until Avengers 4 we can always use more Black Widow, both in combat, and just as much outside of it.

And for Pete’s sake, I want Cap and Widow to fall in love like nobody’s business. Sure it could happen someday, in another movie, but it’s the fact that it also couldn’t that worries me.

To wrap up, Captain America: The Winter Solider is another solid entry in the esteemed superhero canon.

The one I can’t wait for?

The Hulk.

And he better be rocking purple slacks.

Don Jon (R)

9 Stars

Generally speaking, Sundance is not my gig.

Call me shallow, but I incline toward major motion pictures, or feature films.

I rarely watch documentaries or independents.

And I thought a movie about a guy addicted to pornography sounded gross and off-putting. But I should have known; Jo-Go would never let me down.

Don Jon’s a winner.

The narrative is timely, stylish and thought-provoking. It moves along at a brisk, enjoyable pace with a cast of relatable and compelling characters. Starring, written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who’s been one of my favorites for years) this movie depicts a regular guy, dealing with regular issues. And it’s great!

This is not the type of movie you watch with your girlfriend, your parents or your grandparents. Or your grandkids, for that matter.

It’s almost cheating with the casting choices made for this film. Scarlett Johansson’s one of the top actresses working today, Tony Danza was such a radical (but perfect) choice to play his father, and Julianne Moore is great as always.

First of all, Scarlett’s role as Barbara Sugarman, is nothing short of fantastic. It really explores the mindset of a certain type of woman. She’s so aware of her sexiness that she truly believes she inhabits a higher class of humanity.

It’s been a helluva year for Scarlett. Let’s hope she keeps it up!

The stylistic touches are probably what make the movie soar. Each shot adds to the story, and it keeps the pacing crisp as well.

If you haven’t seen Don Jon, it’s worth the watch. It explores a lot of truths that some may interpret as a misogynistic tone. I applaud Joseph Gordon-Levitt for writing such an honest, cutting edge screenplay.

Now, watch out for spoilers below.

There is one point in the movie that he’s watching porn and is narrating his actions through voiceover. What’s fascinating is it breaks the fourth wall in a subtle way, because Scarlett catches him at that moment. She interrupts the voice-over narration of himself!

It’s a bit of a time paradox if you think about it.

There are bursts of joy at times, when certain events occur in the manner you hope they will. When the stylistic fireworks go off, and pieces start to fall into the right places, you feel a swelling of happiness. And I think that’s noteworthy, given the limited storytelling that’s going on in Don Jon.

I love Acts I and II but didn’t adore the ending.

I’m not sure why. The whole movie skips along at such a brisk pace, but I never really enjoy the time he spends with Julianne Moore. It’s all just so sad and pathetic. But it’s not terrible!

I just found it underwhelming.

That being said,  Don Jon’s enormously insightful, brilliantly shot, masterfully edited, well-acted and just a good story all around.

Good on ya, Joseph Gordon!