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Films I Neglected To Review: Contractual Obligation Edition
by Peter Sobczynski

Due to contractual obligations, I am unable to offer full-length reviews of most of this week's new releases. Instead, please enjoy short looks at "I, Origins," "Lucy," "Magic in the Moonlight," "Mood Indigo" and "A Most Wanted Man." Most are pretty good and one is a masterpiece--see if you can guess which one it is.

For the follow-up to his impressive 2011 debut "Another Earth," writer-director Mike Cahill returns with "I, Origins,"another trippy and ultimately rewarding excursion into low-fi science-fiction. In it, Michael Pitt plays Ian, a biometrics researcher who believes only in the scientific method and disdains anything that even remotely smacks of faith or a higher power. With colleague Karen (Brit Marling, another "Another Earth" alumnae), he is obsessively studying the eye in order to prove that it has evolved over the centuries. Around this time, he meets Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a gorgeous fashion model with an exceptional pair of peepers, among other things. Although she is more spiritual than he is, Ian falls madly in love with her and they are married but on the very same day that there is a stunning breakthrough in the lab that advances him personally, there is a horrible tragedy in his personal life. Years later, his research has made him famous but then he stumbles across some evidence that sends him on a journey halfway across the world and forces him to reevaluate everything he thought he knew about practically everything.

As was the case with Cahill's previous effort, "I, Origins" is a sci-fi film that is more interested in ideas than in hardware and while the merging of science and spirituality has not always resulted in top-flight entertainment (as a recent rewatching of "Brainstorm" reconfirmed), it does work this time around. Granted, there are times when the story doesn't make a lot of sense (if our hero believes only in rational science, why does he also seem to be interested in numerology as well?) and it threatens to get ridiculous once Ian lands in India in the final third. However, Cahill keeps the narrative moving along without ever getting bogged down into gobbledygook and keeps the surprises coming without ever getting too far out into the ozone. Visually, the film is pretty spectacular without transforming into an orgy of soulless CGI effects. As the hero, Pitt is more engaging than I can recall him ever being in his previous performances--even as a scientific cold fish, he is still reasonably likable and interesting--while Berges-Frisbey is a memorable presence, if not a particularly stunning actress, as Sofi and the always-interesting Marling is captivating in a smaller role as the lowly assistant who grows in importance in Ian's professional and personal lives. Granted, "I, Origins" is a bit of an acquired taste and those who don't immediately respond to it are liable to write it off as utter hooey but for those willing to give it a chance, the results are, no pun intended, fairly eye-opening.

Since returning from one of the more short-lived retirements of recent years, Luc Besson's directorial career has been a bit shaky--ranging from family-oriented trifles like the two sequels to "Arthur and the Invisibles" and "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Saint-Blanc" (none of which were afforded a theatrical release in this country) to the well-meaning but slightly dull docudrama "The Lady" to the simply awful action-comedy "The Family"--but with his latest work, the head-spinning thriller "Lucy,"he has snapped back into prime filmmaking form and the result is not just his best film in years but arguably the most sheerly entertaining of all of this summer's crop of would-be blockbusters. Scarlett Johansson plays the title role of an unassuming young woman studying in Tokyo who is shanghaied into serving as a mule for gangsters who have sewn a bag of a new drug inside her stomach to avoid detection. The drug turns out to have the ability to help unlock amount of brain power that the user is able to access and when the bag ruptures and she ingests a huge amount, Lucy finds herself developing astonishing physical and mental abilities that she puts to eye-popping use in her efforts to escape the gangsters and reach the one scientist (Morgan Freeman, playing virtually the exact same role he did earlier this year in "Transcendence") who is able to grasp the implications of what is happening to her.

With its combination of neuroscience shop talk and over-the-top ass-kicking, "Lucy" is a film that is so crazy throughout that it practically redefines the word "preposterous" right before your eyes. While the sheer nuttiness on display will no doubt inspire many to simply dismiss it as complete silliness, those who have sparked to Besson's past live-action cartoons , such as "La Femme Nikita," "Leon" and "The Fifth Element," will be delighted to discover that he is back in his own distinct element here. The action sequences are exquisitely staged set-pieces that have been put together with a style, pace and dedication to spatial fidelity that makes the rapid-fire confusion of "Transformers 4" and "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" seem even more embarrassing than they already are and maintain a certain sense of humor amidst the carnage that keeps them from growing monotonous. While films of this type are not necessarily known for their standout performances, Johansson delivers a surprisingly strong and convincing performance in the title role--as implausible as the story gets, she nevertheless manages to ground it in a certain reality throughout and gets a couple of quieter dramatic moments that work just as well thanks to her efforts. I also really liked what is sure to be the most controversial aspect of the film--a truly wild finale that may be the most audacious climax to a popcorn entertainment since the ending of Ang Lee's "Hulk" in the way that Besson wholeheartedly embraces the bizarre implications that he has put forth. Love it or hate it (and there is no middle ground with this one), "Lucy" is not the kind of film that you will forget anytime soon and those who do respond to it positively are likely to find it one of the best pop entertainments to come around in a while.

During the salad days of his long career, Woody Allen had the ability to spin out one great film after another with nary a stumble in between but In recent years, he has, consciously or not, developed a pattern in which he follows a highly praised effort with a comparatively minor work--"Match Point" was followed by the misfire "Scoop" and his big hit "Midnight in Paris" led to the fairly forgettable "To Rome With Love"--and that tradition continues with last year's popular and award-winning (and somewhat overrated) "Blue Jasmine" leading into his latest project, the decidedly minor "Magic in the Moonlight." Set in the 1920's, the film stars Colin Firth as a magician and famed debunker of spiritual hokum who is recruited by a colleague to go to the south of France where a rich family friend (Jacki Weaver) and her goofball son (Hamish Linklater) are both under the spell of a beautiful young woman (Emma Stone) who appears to have clairvoyant powers that the former wants to fully finance and the latter wants to marry into. Firth is certain that it is all a con and does his best to prove it but cannot figure out how she is pulling off her amazing feats. As a result, he finds himself forced to consider the possibility that all the things he has spent his life debunking--magic, spirituality and love--may in fact be real after all.

Because the film is essentially about a decidedly cynical older man going to great lengths to prove to the world that a seemingly innocent and much younger woman is an incredible liar capable of duping practically anyone, there are some people who will look at "Magic in the Moonlight" as Allen's artistic response to the accusations against him that gained additional traction this past winter and not just because it literally begins with a shot of an elephant in a room. Personally, I don't buy it because the film is far too wispy and innocuous of a confection to support that kind of weighty conceit. This is the work of a veteran filmmaker who no longer has anything to prove to anyone and who prefers to indulge in works that allow him to play around with subjects that interest him--magic in this case--in his own particular way. To that extent, it is more or less a success, albeit a very low-key one--there are the requisite number of funny bits, Firth and Stone strike enough sparks to make you overlook the age difference between them (the latter is such a lively presence that I wouldn't be surprised if Allen started using her regularly as he did with Scarlett Johansson a few years ago) and the cinematography by ace lenser Darius Khondji is absolutely gorgeous. In the end, it may not add up to much more than a mid-tier Allen effort--no "Midnight in Paris" or "The Purple Rose of Cairo" but certainly no "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" or "Anything Else"--but for those viewers looking for something in a lighter and frothier vein, you could do worse than this one.

If you prefer your French-based froth to contain subtitles and a turn to darkness in the third act, you might instead want to consider "Mood Indigo," the strange and charming romantic fantasy from Michel Gondry, the director of such offbeat works as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "The Science of Sleep" and "Be Kind, Rewind." Based on the enormously popular (in its native land) novel by Boris Vian, the film tells the story of the romance that develops between Colin (Romain Duris), a rich and idle lad who devises elaborate contraption such as the "pianocktail"--a piano-wet bar hybrid that dispenses drinks inspired by the style and mood of the music being played on it--and the sweet and winsome Chloe (played, almost inevitably, by Audrey Tautou). It all seems perfect until Chloe takes ill on their honeymoon and it is discovered that she has a water lily growing in one of her lungs and that her only hope for a cure is to be constantly surrounded by fresh flowers. Because of his love for Chloe, Colin depletes his fortune and even lowers himself to the horror of actual work in order to keep the flowers coming but will his efforts be enough to save the love of his life?

Is "Mood Indigo" for you? Here's a quick question--upon reading the above description, did you immediately think that it was the most preposterous thing that you had ever heard of in your life? If so, you should give this film the widest possible berth. On the other hand, if you thought that it actually did sound kind of intriguing, you should probably try to give it a chance. From a visual standpoint, the film is stupendous and Gondry's unique cinematic style--in which he eschews the slickness of CGI effects for a more low-key approach in which everything looks handmade--yields some stunning results here. (I guarantee that everyone who sees this film will yearn for their own pianocktail.) However, there is also a certain darkness behind the whimsy this time around that Gondry handles with equal deftness and when it gets to its dark, tear-jerking finale, some viewers may find themselves surprised by how touched they are by it. Throw in nice performances from the two leads--together they make the most ridiculously charming and good-looking couple in recent French film history--a trippy score and a lot of big laughs and you have all the makings for a fairly delightful summer sleeper.

Whenever a well-known actor dies with a film that has not yet been released before, that project inevitably receives an extra level of scrutiny from critics and audiences who use it as a way to sum up that performer's life and career. In the case of "A Most Wanted Man,"which stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last lead role (he will also be seen in smaller parts in the two concluding chapters of the "Hunger Games" saga), this is unfortunate because neither the film nor his performance are particularly interesting. In this adaptation of the John Le Carre best-seller, Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, a member of a highly secretive counter-espionage group based in Hamburg, a city that became notorious as a hotbed for terrorists planning activities in the wake of 9/11. His latest target is Issa (Grigory Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim who has snuck into the country illegally in order to claim a sizable fortune allegedly left in a bank account by his late father. While a local human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and a high-powered banker (Willem Dafoe) deal with the man and his claim, his presence arouses the suspicions of Gunther's agency and of a CIA operative (Robin Wright), who suspect that he may have arrived in order to organize and fund a new terrorist action and who are willing to do anything and use anyone to get to the truth of the matter.

It sounds compelling enough in the abstract but in translating it from the page to the screen, something has gone terribly wrong. Le Carre is famous for his densely packed novels in which the spies are more likely to sit in dreary rooms poring over data than engaging in globetrotting adventures but as films like "The Russia House," "The Constant Gardner" and the brilliant adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" can attest, it can be done when put in the right hands but that has not happened here. Screenwriter has streamlined the material to its most basic elements but has discarded most of the details, not to mention the anger at a world gone increasingly wrong that has become Le Carre's default position in recent years, and the results will leave most viewers feeling as bored as the characters are. Director Anton Corbijn, whose previous film was the great and wildly underrated "The American," likewise fumbles things by spending more time offering up one sterile, airless and overly self-conscious image after another in which everything is so deliberately composed that the film begins to resemble a photo shoot than an actual narrative. Sadly, even Hoffman--who almost never gave a performance that was anything other than compelling--comes up short here with an uncommonly lifeless and uninteresting turn that never rings true for a second. To be fair, none of the other lead actors are especially convincing--McAdams is especially off as one of the less believable Germans in recent screen history. "A Most Wanted Man" is that rarest of birds--a serious-minded film aimed at adults opening in the middle of the summer--but as its characters learn, often the hard way, the noblest of intentions do not always lead to a happy or satisfying ending and that is certainly the case here.

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originally posted: 07/25/14 03:13:22
last updated: 07/25/14 21:58:56
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