The Painter and the Thief
The Half of It
The Vast of Night
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Perhaps the greatest achievement in a movie full of them is that The Winter Soldier makes Captain America more than just a super gymnast, it makes him a person. Full review later.
When the premise of a film is repeated so many times throughout its marketing campaign, the film lives or dies on how well that idea is explored within the movie. The great ones follow the idea to its very end, exploring every aspect of the 'what-if' scenario until there's no more ground to cover. Lucy is not one of those great ones.
The first half of this movie is good. In fact, the first quarter of this movie is really good. But after that, the film begins to stumble and it never really recovers from its fall. The film is based on the premise that humans only use 10% of our brain's available capacity and asks what would happen if we were able to access that other 90%. It's an interesting premise, despite the fact that it has no basis in reality, and our path to answering that question brings us to the titular character, Scarlett Johansson's Lucy. After being tricked into becoming an international drug mule, Lucy's brain is awakened when the package inside her body is broken and the drug is unleashed on her system.
So far so good. And it really is. Up until about this point and even for a few scenes afterwards, Lucy is engaging, fun and thrilling with some not-unexpectedly fantastic direction from Luc Besson. But the wheels begin to come off the story pretty soon and they're never put back on. By the time the final act rolls around, it's not so much that events aren't making sense, but there's no sense of urgency here, no actual stakes to care about. In fact, it feels more as if the filmmaking team simply ran out of story, like a train suddenly reaching the end of the track before its destination. The point where the film finishes feels more like the point where we should be gearing up for the actual ending which should take all these ideas and rules set up within this world and propel us into the film's finale. Instead, we get credits. It feels like a cheat. And it doesn't feel like a clever cheat designed to make the audience think or to subvert some filmmaking rule, it simply feels like someone's closed the book and told you that it's the end when you can clearly see there's still a hundred pages they haven't yet read. And it's especially frustrating because of the practically limitless nature of the world the film had created. Lucy is given power over electronics, magnetic fields, people, time, objects, all information; basically everything. And yet she spends the last act sitting in a chair while a fairly conventional shootout goes on just outside. When we do see her in action, it's fantastic. Lucy sends men flying with a flick of her wrist, disarms weapons with a glare, suspends people in mid-air as they desperately throw punches at her. It's funny and cool and everything that you would hope a person with control over most matter could do. There's a car chase during the film which stacks up as some of the best action that Luc Besson has ever done, deftly blending left-field humour with madcap action and sci-fi coolness. And yet, it feels like such a waste by the time the credits roll around.
Enough talking about what might have been though. What is there is a fantastic performance once again from Scarlett Johansson. Her Lucy is another in an ever-increasing list of wonderful creations and yet again shows why she's one of the go-to action actresses at the moment. The shift in her performance from terrified and out-of-her-depth human Lucy to the unfeeling, unflinching, god-like Lucy is remarkable and carefully calculated. The way she shows the ever-increasing gap between her original personality and the detached, barely human one we get at the end is fantastic and fascinating to watch. She carries the film easily and it's a credit to her performance that so much of it is as engaging and thrilling as it is. She makes you feel every moment in those terrifying opening minutes and is completely absorbing as she exacts her cold revenge later on. The other big name on the poster is Morgan Freeman, but his character is really only there to inform us of the film's basic premise and then as a glorified exposition consultant. There's nothing particularly amazing here from performer or the role but Freeman's innate likeability and charm do a great deal for making constant exposition feel at least a little engaging. Beyond these two there is Amr Waked of Syriana and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen as police office Pierre Del Rio, a man Lucy tasks with helping her and as her "reminder." This character, however, just ends up pointing the glaring absence of a real conclusion to Lucy's story. At a certain point, Del Rio tells Lucy that she should probably just go on her own. "I'm obviously no help to you," he points out as he gestures to the room full of men Lucy has just incapacitated with a few motions of her hand. "Yes you are," she tells him. "How?" "A reminder," she says, and kisses him. It's a jarring inclusion and one that's never really returned to. The same way Lucy laments that she's losing everything that makes us human, but then never fights for that humanity when she begins to leave it behind in earnest. It's frustrating to see that these ideas are not only present, but actively mentioned before being so quickly forgotten and barely explored.
Luc Besson has been blending action, sci-fi themes and humour in his own unique way for some time now and his films such as La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element are both fantastic examples of that. Here he brings that same eye to bear and while some touches may lack any level of subtlety at all, you can see his unique vision all throughout the film. It's definitely good to see him back behind the camera, despite how disappointing it is that his first film in years lacks the ambition to match his skill.
That car chase.
The term 'superhero fatigue' has been floating around for a while now and you've either got it or it's gonna be setting in soon. The fact is that in the last decade (give or take) there's been an influx of people with powers dominating our cinema screens and ever since Robert Downey Jr. made Tony Stark a pop-culture legend, Marvel Studios has been the main offender; pumping out sequels and threequels of guys with hammers and anger issues and spangly outfits. Their crown jewel, The Avengers, put the whole gang in one big flying fortress and then burned down the box-office to the tune of around a billion and a half in ticket sales. As well as the Disney/Marvel juggernaut, Sony has Spidey and the five movies he's starred in, Fox has the X-Men and around a half-dozen movies of varying quality and Warner Brothers has Batman, a phenomenon unto himself with Superman occasionally showing up in various combinations of performer and tone. Safe to say, people in capes are no longer the exception, they're the norm when it comes to picking a movie for the weekend. And with Marvel's newest cab off the rank, Guardians of the Galaxy has set its sights on a pretty risky set of characters.
That's the other word circling the film in the lead up to its release: risky. And it's not undeserved. The cast itself is a tough sell; starring a guy best known for his supporting role in a low rating but highly acclaimed TV show, a leading lady whose most profitable film has her running around the jungle as an 8-foot Smurf and a previously unknown pro-wrestler. The only two names on the poster with any real box office clout to them are playing completely animated characters, with one a genetically engineered raccoon and the other a talking tree. And by talking, I mean with a vocabulary of three words in one specific order. It's a hell of a gamble. And damn did they manage to pull it off.
Not just pull it off, in fact, James Gunn and his filmmaking team have managed to make one of Marvel's best films to date. The story is so punchy and light on its feet that it's basically a zipline from the start to the finish. Characters are introduced in moments and in such likeable, instantly-recognisable fashion without ever stepping into cliché. And the journey along the way is so packed with humour and wit that it's almost dizzying. Each of the five central characters are so well-sculpted and so quickly established that the sparring battles between them make for some of the best scenes of the film. There are movies where a supporting character might steal a scene or two from the lead, but here each scene is a skirmish for the spotlight where the weapons are charisma and a witty one-liner. It's tough to call which of these guys walks away with the film, but to award a winner would be to ignore the amazing feat that's been accomplished here. Even in the comic-book world, these characters are hardly big players and in the cinematic one, they're completely unknown. Yet in the space of one movie, Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot, Drax and Gamora have become one of the greatest bands of rebels within Marvel's catalogue and one hell of a force to be reckoned with in whatever genre it is that they inhabit.
But you can't put all the kudos on the script, as good as this one is. The five actors at the centre of this film have to be given a mountain of credit as well. We'll start with Peter Jason Quill, known to very few as Star-Lord. Chris Pratt has been doing incredible, unpredictable, mostly ignored work as Andy Dwyer on NBC's Parks and Recreation for six seasons now, so any fan of the show will tell you that the guy is hilarious, but 'movie-star' has never been a line on his resume before Guardians. It sure as hell is now. From his very first scene it's clear that Pratt is destined for the stratosphere and this is the film to propel him straight there. His Peter is absurdly funny, cocky, more than a little bit badass and incredibly cool. After some truly amazing work to get in shape for the role, Pratt certainly looks the part, but no amount of sit-ups can give you the comedy chops to challenge an intergalactic warlord to a dance off. That stuff can't be taught. And all this without mentioning his character's ferociously beating heart as a child ripped from his home planet with nothing but a mixtape. Roles like this don't come around too often and it's great to see someone with such enormous talent not only get to play it, but to completely kick ass in the process. The rest of the crew are just as fantastic in their own right. Zoe Saldana's Gamora is maybe the least well-rounded character of the bunch, but even then she's got a bunch of dimensions to play with. Her conflicted history with her 'father' provides her with the angst, but her speed with a one-liner keeps her from falling into forgettable territory. Comic fans will have their own spiel to launch into about the differences from the written form to the screen but as a badass, green-skinned alien warrior, Saldana definitely delivers. Probably the biggest surprise is Dave Baustista as Drax the Destroyer. So often with pro-wrestlers turned actors it can become a chore to watch them struggle through the dialogue before they get to do what they actually got paid for and beat people up. Here, though, Bautista shows a stunning gift for deadpan comedy, as well as an unusual level of restraint throughout his performance. It would be impressive for anyone to pull this kind of level of comedy off but it's pretty much unheard of for a performer with this kind of background. And then of course, there's Rocket and Groot. These two where the riskier side of risky in the pitch for this film, and while getting Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel to play them might have brought some of the trepidation down a little, a talking tree and a raccoon with a gun are still one hell of a gamble. Thankfully, these two nailed it. Bradley Cooper's Rocket is a fantastic creation, finding unexpected layers in the computer generated critter through his defiant claims of, "Ain't no thing like me, 'cept me," and his hilariously combustible temper. Groot also not only manages to have some of the film's finest comedy moments, but is also a huge part of the film's heart, whether it's growing a flower for a little girl or simply by chiming in with endlessly musical variations on that one, now-immortal expression, "I am Groot."
There are plenty of things to like visually here as well. The production design team have excelled here and the film looks like nothing else in Marvel's catalogue. The sets and style have more in common with Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity than Thor, Marvel's main other expedition out of orbit. Peter's ship feels lived-in and real and galactic creations such as Knowhere are an incredible spectacle. Capturing all of this is James Gunn, whose most well-known work is the micro-budget Super. His work there shows plenty of flair for action but Guardians shows just what he can do with a Disney-sized budget behind him and it is incredible. Of course it's on an entirely different scale to Super so the comparison is a little unfair, but his work here is on a whole other level. The action scenes in particular are handled incredibly well; deftly making room for character beats within furious fight scenes and finding touches of humour in unexpected places. It's fantastic work and yet another example of a big risk paying off big time for Marvel.
And then, of course, there's that soundtrack. I think there's an extra star in this rating simply for the superb compilation of kicking 80s tracks from the Jackson 5 to Blue Swede. If you don't walk out of the cinema with at least one of them stuck in your head, you may be a robot. To pick one winner; it would have to be Come and Get Your Love. Perfect .
Superhero fatigue might be threatening Marvel's current stranglehold on today's box office but if they keep following through with style like this, I'm not sure I'll ever get tired.
Star-Lord makes his way through the ruins of a temple on a deserted planet... and dons his headphones.
Astounding in technical achievement and in narrative as well as possibly the best performance in mo-cap to date. Full review later.
Why? Full review later.