Sex Tape

sex tapeOnce in a while a film comes around that sets its sights on exploring something fundamental to human existence at one pivotal moment. A film that presents a cautionary tale that shakes the philosophical core of a generation. A film that whole-heartedly immerses itself in the journey to discover the answer to a ponderous question that plagues each and every one of us, especially in this digital age. The question: “What happens if my sex tape is accidentally uploaded to the public?”

Thankfully, director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher, Orange County) has taken the challenge of answering this question with his new film, Sex Tape. Sex Tape finds married couple Jay (Jason Segel) and Annie (Cameron Diaz) in the clichéd marital funk that inevitably and cinematically arrives when kids are introduced into the relationship. Once erotically charged, Jay and Annie’s marriage has displaced its sexual component so much that they apparently don’t even know how to do it anymore! Naturally, the next logical step to rekindle that spark is to send the kids to grandma’s, dust off that copy of The Joy of Sex, set up the iPad, and record what happens. All is right with the world until the mysterious “Cloud” uploads Jay and Annie’s “sex tape” to all of Jay’s devices including the ones gifted to their best friends Robby and Tess (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper), Annie’s hopeful new employer Hank (Rob Lowe), and even the mailman. Now, with the clock ticking on the decimation of their reputations, Jay and Annie begin a city-wide quest to recover the iPads before their tape is viewed and their lives are screwed.

Now if you can’t tell from the tone of this review, the worst thing you can do with Sex Tape is take it too seriously. The set up to the film is breezy and enjoyable, as is the film’s second act where Jay and Annie recruit Robby and Tess to help them. The film does hit some snags in the third act where the ridiculousness quotient is pushed to the limits and the movie loses some of its zeal. Also unfortunate is that Sex Tape now joins the crowded subsection of films that include a snooping character who is suddenly pursued by the homeowner’s dog, culminating in a fall out of a second story window.

These faults aside, Sex Tape has some good laughs and Diaz and Segel commit, no doubt about that! Also, Lowe, Corddry and Kemper are always fun to see and are welcome inclusions to this cast. On the most part, Sex Tape is funny, but for a supposedly adult comedy about a very adult subject, it feels more childish and goofy than it ought to, especially that third act (perhaps a result of being written by two of the writers of The Muppets). Nonetheless, Sex Tape has its heart, among other body parts, in the right place. B       

Sex Tape is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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Lucy

LucyCinema’s fascination with what might come from an evolution in human intelligence is as old as film itself. Thus, finding fresh, original ideas for these kinds of films is often a lost cause. However, if you like your Limitless with a side of Tree of Life, then Lucy may be the ticket for you this weekend.

The latest film from French director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Family), Lucy stars Scarlett Johansson in the title role as a student living in Taiwan whose boyfriend tricks her into completing a drug deal that has some unexpected consequences. When the drug deal goes sour, Lucy finds herself face to face with drug kingpin, Mr. Jang (Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi) who threatens to kill her unless she acts as his drug mule. Lucy is forced to transport Jang’s newly synthesized drug by having it sewn into her lower intestine, but when an altercation results in the drug leaking into her bloodstream, Lucy discovers that the drug has an unintended side effect of increasing her cerebral capacity. Now, armed with brain functionality that dwarfs that of the average person, Lucy goes on the warpath to seek revenge against Jang and his outfit. In order to keep the film from becoming a routine revenge film and to instill a bit of legitimacy to Lucy’s agenda, Besson introduces Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), a brain researcher who advises Lucy to act as any thriving organism does and attempt to pass down what she learns for future generations.

As I stated earlier, this is not the most original idea ever put to film, but Besson does put his artistic spin on it and successfully creates what is easily one of the best films he has ever directed (which to many is not saying much!). As we are reminded over and over, the average person uses 10% of his or her brain, but Lucy discovers that once 20% is reached, the rest falls into place like dominoes. Soon Lucy discovers that her body requires doses of the drug to survive, resulting in further increases of brain functionality, but she finds that she cannot sustain 100% cerebral capacity making her a paradoxical ticking time brain. Lucy’s journey to unlock the secrets of the universe and kill a drug lord does feel a bit unbalanced at times. Furthermore, at a svelte 90 minutes, the film also seems a bit hurried and cheesy at times. It is also a surprisingly violent film with plenty of on and off screen casualties that do not seem necessary or prudent to the story. The film is strongest in its set-up where Besson cleverly splices metaphorical imagery into his narrative to an almost subliminal effect. What is proven is Johansson’s charm and strength in the genre (Lucy almost feels like an audition for the upcoming Black Widow, Avengers spin-off that will star her and is now in production). Regardless of its faults, this is an artsy and visionary little slice of sci-fi that is worth checking out. B

Lucy is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Apes and a Train: A Summer Action Double Feature

After the fourth worst July 4th weekend in box office history, I’m sure many of you have been waiting for a movie finally worth seeing. Well The People’s Critic is here to the rescue with not one but TWO great films to see right now: Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The amazing thing is that these two films have more in common than their release dates! Both take place 10 years after a cataclysmic event that nearly wipes out the entire human race. Both warn against the effects of totalitarianism. Both star a different British guy from Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. Both are excellent.

SnowpiercerSnowpiercer stars Chis Evans as Curtis who exists with the last handful of humanity left alive after a failed experiment to reverse Earth’s rising climate resulted in another ice age. The only survivors are those who boarded a bullet train that was designed by an enigmatic billionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris) to perpetually cycle the earth in annual rotations with no need for fuel. Curtis is a “Freeloader.” Freeloaders are the poor who are permitted to board the train but are relegated to the tail-end of the train and live in deplorable conditions. The train features a second and first class passage for those wealthy enough to afford the tickets, each with far more luxurious accommodations.

Unsurprisingly, the Freeloaders get fed up with their position in the train and the conditions that they are forced to live with such as the mysterious gelatinous “Protein bars” that are their sole food supply. As the film progresses, director Joon-Ho Bong (The Host, the Korean monster one, not the lame Saoirse Ronan one) slowly reveals exactly what the Freeloaders have had to do and live with in order to survive in their compartments. Curtis with the help of an aging leader named Gillian (John Hurt) stage a rebellion that will take them through the entire length of the train with the goal of reaching and taking control of the sacred engine car. This fight to the front is the main action of the movie, and it is really exciting. Every car is wildly different with new and interesting experiences for the characters that keep the movie fresh and engaging.

Snowpiercer is a witty and enjoyable allegory about class warfare and the dangers of totalitarianism. Directed by a South Korean, it is hard to not see this film as a somewhat veiled criticism on the state of North Korea. Political and allegorical messages aside, Snowpiercer is a solid, intelligent summer action film with great performances. Tilda Swinton may give the first Oscar-worthy performance of 2014 as the deliciously evil Minister Mason who combats Curtis and his army in the most sly and conniving of ways. Snowpiercer easily could be labeled the best film of the summer, if not for….

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the follow-up to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and truly Dawn of the Planet of the Apesputs the mesmerizingly talented Andy Serkis in the spotlight that he truly deserves. Serkis reprises his motion-capture role as Caesar, leader of the now highly evolved population of apes. Ten years have passed since the battle of San Francisco. The H5N1 virus, nicknamed the Simian Flu, has killed off most of humanity except for a miniscule group of people immune to the virus. The apes have migrated to the forests and have evolved to such a degree that they have built a civilization that has allowed them to develop an entire culture. Oddly the fantastic score by Michael Giacchino during an early scene where the apes demonstrate a highly advanced hunting technique is reminiscent of the score from 2001 A Space Odyssey that accompanies that film’s apes making an important evolutionary step.

It is this kind of subtext that makes the film so impressive. As the surviving humans realize they are running out of fuel, they conclude that their only hope is repairing a power-generating dam that is smack in the middle of the apes’ new civilization. Fear and paranoia mount on both sides as a stage is set worthy of Shakespeare, Serkis’s character being named Caesar clearly being intentional. Caesar’s memory of compassionate humans causes him to hesitantly permit a group of humans lead by Ellie (Keri Russel) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to repair the dam. Ellie and Malcolm are two ‘Chimp-athetic’ humans, if I may use a phrase coined by Entertainment Weekly’s film critic Chris Nashawaty, but many of the other humans are not including the desperate human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who will not allow his people to sink back to the uncivilized life they had before setting up their current compound in San Francisco.

Of course, misplaced trust and a few bad apples on both sides threaten the safety and livelihood of both man and ape resulting in the threat of another all-out war. Caesar and Malcolm are tasked with the mission of trying to maintain peace.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an incredibly good looking movie and one with momentary glances of brilliance. Most of the film’s success can be attributed to the expressive Andy Serkis, however. Never in all of his underrated performances has he given a performance so emotional, raw, and empathetic. Caesar is an ape of few words, regardless of his ability to speak, and his face (and consequently Serkis’s) communicates complex emotions unlike anything we have seen him convey before. If Tilda Swinton’s performance in Snowpiercer starts the Summer Oscar conversation, Serkis’s totally immersive performance as Caesar certainly adds to it.

These two films come just in time to save the summer from total mediocrity. If you’re looking for something to wash that bad taste Transformers: Age of Extinction left in your mouth, then a Snowpiercer/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes double feature is just the thing. Snowpiercer: A-, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A-

Snowpiercer is also available on VOD and is rated R with a running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

TransformersWhen the world is under attack by asteroids, alien robots, or even the Japanese, Michael Bay is there. Nearly 1/8th of Bay’s directorial career has been dedicated to the alien robot type of threat, and now with his fourth Transformers film, Transformers: Age of Extinction Bay actually manages a new level of self-indulgence: rebooting his own franchise trilogy with his own new franchise trilogy. Imagine this level of egoism; it would be like if George Lucas went and…oh wait…

It’s exactly like that. Bay moves his timeline forward five years after the near total destruction of Chicago (and Shia LaBeouf’s sanity) and interprets the action between the same Autobots and Decepticons through an entirely new set of human characters. This time our central human figure is Texas inventor Cade Yeager (played by the last person you’d ever expect to play an inventor-type character from Texas, Mark Wahlberg). Wahlberg actually has a lot of fun with the part though, and he actually continuously keeps the film from falling below the low bar set by the previous two Transformers films. Yeager lives on a farm where he experiments in his barnyard laboratory to create inventions in the vain of Randall Peltzer (do yourself a favor and see Gremlins if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Yeager is also the widowed father of Tessa (Nicola Peltz), his high school daughter whom Bay has seemingly discovered new camera lenses and angles for photographing in alarmingly close up ways. Cade is in financial trouble and while Tessa has earned several scholarships, she is continuously denied financial aid and still unable to afford tuition to go to college. Cade resorts to purchasing broken down items and fixing them in the hopes of turning a profit. One such item, a seemingly totaled semi-trailer truck, is actually battle damaged Autobot leader Optimus Prime living in exile. Yeager repairs Prime with the help of his friend Lucas (T.J. Miller) and in turn attracts the attention of CIA director Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and business tycoon Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) both of whom want to capitalize on the alien metal Prime is made of called…wait for it…Transformium.

As it turns out Joyce is using the transformative metal, along with knowledge from a pact with certain Decepticons, to create a robot army that will revolutionize the U.S. military. Of course, when one puts trust into an alien race whose name comes from the root “Deceive,” one can expect complications. What results is the reincarnation of Decepticon leader Megatron as the more powerful Galvitron. Now it’s up to the Yeagers and Prime to gather the Autobot army and fight back.

Bay
I have no sense of artistic integrity.

This is a loud, long, and dumb movie, but it does fit right into a certain fun summer niche that is rather vacant this year. Still, Transformers: Age of Extinction does not fill that vacancy with high quality entertainment, but rather strives for mediocrity with momentary flashes of obscene and immoral product pandering in the style of the famously satirical Wayne’s World scene, only completely without any sense of irony. Bay does this unapologetically, which may explain his smirky IMDB photo (see right image).

The greatest fault with Transformers: Age of Extinction remains its running time. Even the most excited Transformers fan is likely to lose interest around the 100 minute mark, but that still leaves another hour left! This is the best Transformers film since the first one in 2007, but that’s like saying this is the best Chicago Cubs season since 1908 – there hasn’t been much to brag about since. Nonetheless, audiences have come to know what to expect from Bay, and his movies make money, so why should he do anything differently? Wahlberg is all in and his commitment makes the ride feel fun. If you can rise above your sensibilities, there is a movie here, but that’s about all I can say. C

Transformers: Age of Extinction is rated PG-13 and has a running time of TWO HOURS AND FOURTY-FIVE MINUTES!

The Fault in Our Stars

faultThe Fault in Our Stars is the film based on the wildly successful young adult novel by John Green. In an interview, Green said in writing the book that he wanted to create a moving and realistic portrait of what it’s like to be young and in love and sick. Now if that doesn’t sound interesting, you’re probably not a 15-year-old girl. Nonetheless, Josh Boone directs a film that achieves Green’s goal by telling a humanizing story about very adult situations impacting some very young people.
The Fault in Our Stars is the story of seventeen-year-old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and eighteen-year-old Augustus (Ansel Elgort). Hazel lives with stage IV Thyroid cancer with metastasis forming in her lungs causing her to be perpetually connected to an oxygen tank. Augustus is recovering from a bout with osteosarcoma that took one of his legs. Hazel nearly died from complications of her cancer when she was thirteen, but favorable results from an experimental drug called Philanxiphor have slowed the growth of her cancer. Hazel and Augustus form an immediate bond when they meet in a cancer support group, and the film basically documents their growing relationship as it buds into romance.
As with any romantic film, much of its success relies on the chemistry between the stars, and Woodley and Elgort have it. Woodley practically makes me forget about her dull and droning performance in Divergent and instead makes me recall a much better film of hers, The Spectacular Now. She plays Hazel with the intelligence, dignity, and realism that her character deserves. Elgort brings the extreme likability of Augustus off the page and to life. Augustus’s goal is to be remembered, to seize the day and do remarkable things. Green’s book and Boone’s film do a nice job of showing an audience who is likely on the young side that being a good person is the best way to make this happen.
There’s no getting around this, The Fault in Our Stars is sad. The reason that makes it worth the emotional struggle is that the story is so human. That is not to say that the film does not pander for tears. On occasion, it does, but the film’s love, life, and spirit of humanity far outweigh its struggles, darkness, and frailty of life.
While the film does have young protagonists and is told chiefly through their eyes, there is a sphere of adult perspective from both Hazel’s and Augustus’s parents. Hazel’s mother (Laura Dern) is developed well in the film, and in some of the film’s happiest moments, Dern is responsible for the audience’s biggest smiles.
The Fault in Our Stars is a strongly accurate adaptation of Green’s novel. It is also a beautiful little film about young love under bleak circumstances. There is no doubt you know what you are getting into before buying a ticket for this film, but in the words of the film’s strangest character Peter Van Houten (Willem Defoe), “That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.” B+
The Fault in Our Stars is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes. Bring a tissue if you’re a crier.