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Did I Love Scarlett Johansson’s “Lucy”?

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No. No, I did not. Why not?

Because you can’t spell “ludicrous” without L-U-C. As in Luc Besson, the Euro-trashmaster behind such overrated, over-le-top cult faves as The Professional and The Fifth Element. (And, yes, a good film or two, like the original La Femme Nikita.) Besson specializes in kick-ass female heroines and mind-numbingly stupid plots.

Lucy is the apotheosis of Luc-y-ness. Scarlett Johansson—she of the pillowy, pillowy, pillowy lips and the gravelly, Elizabeth Ashley-gargling-Drano voice—emptily ebodies an American expatriate in Paris who’s drafted by her inexplicably scuzzy boyfriend to deliver a briefcase to an Asian crime lord. Somehow this leads to her being turned into a mule for a synthetic drug that allows users to access more than the average 10 percent of their brains. The substance leaks, and she starts mutating into a superpowered avenger (not to be confused with the superpowered avenger, Black Widow, she plays in The Avengers and Iron Man and Captain America and… oh, never mind).

She hooks up with Morgan Freeman as a pioneering brain scientist (didn’t he just go down this road to nowhere with Johnny Depp in Transcendence?), and her exploits are intercut with nature footage of leopards preying on antelopes, rhinos screwing, dinos devouring each other and the first female, an ape-like creature named, you guessed it, Lucy. Besson’s airy-fairy montages play like bad outtakes from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (and that movie’s in-takes weren’t great either). Call it The Shrub of Life. Oh, and when Freeman starts talking about how dophins use 20 percent of their brains, you may think—nay, wish—that you stumbled into a sneak preview of his upcoming Dolphin Tale 2.

As Lucy’s use of her brain capacity increases, the not-so-special effects look like something an 8th-grader could do on their laptop, and the screen periodically flashes percentages—20, 30, 40%, and so on. That only makes you realize how much of this brain-dead movie is left to endure. After a while, you start to feel a sensation similar to watching a photograph upload from your phone to Facebook. You watch the completion bar slowly, slowly, slowly move near completion, but it never seems to happen fast enough.

When Lucy nears maximum capacity, she foolishly starts to wear an unflattering Bettie Page-like black wig and attains the ability to transport herself to anywhere at any time. She chooses to go all the way back to the past to meet, you guessed it, Lucy. But just as she’s about to be devoured by a dinosaur, she quickly swipes her hand to the left and returns to the present, eliminating the prehistoric era like an eon-spanning iteration of Tinder.

After threatening us with the specter of a sequel, Lucy (the pillowy-pillowy-pillowy-lipped one, not the ape woman) tells us that we were given our brains millions of years ago, and now we finally know what to do with them. Job 1: Don’t waste two hours of your life watching Lucy.

Why James Garner Was a “Game” Changer

Skin GameAs I mourn the passing of my favorite actor, James Garner, I watched one of his films I’d never seen before: the 1971 Western comedy Skin Game. What a revelation! It’s a bold, ballsy farce about race, class and gender in the Civil War era. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was made by Garner’s Cherokee Productions (the actor’s maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Native American). Off-camera, Garner bravely blazed trails in the arenas of civil rights (he helped organize Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington) as well as actors’ advocacy (he sued Warner Bros. and Universal for unpaid profits on Maverick and The Rockford Files, bettering the lives of many of his colleagues). And though it’s little remembered today, Garner’s Skin Game prefigured at least five major pop-cultural landmarks.

1. Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged that his slavery-themed dark comedy was inspired by the tale of a con man (Garner, flashing his Maverick charm) and a free black man (Lou Gossett) who ride from town to town swindling would-be slave buyers. While not nearly as blood-soaked as Django, Skin Game does feature a daring scene in which Gossett guns down a brutal slave trader (Ed Asner) and keeps on shooting, even after his target is dead.

2. 12 Years a Slave. Many moviegoers were shocked to learn the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man from New York who was captured by slavers in Confederate territory and forced into bondage. But they might not have been if they’d seen Skin Game‘s story of Jason (Gossett), a highly educated African-American from New Jersey who’s befallen by the same fate. While in captivity, Jason falls for a beautiful young black servant (Brenda Sykes) who bears more than a passing resemblance to Oscar winner Lupita N’yongo’s Patsey.

3. All in the Family. Okay, this one’s a bit of a stretch, but Paul Bogart—who had previously directed Garner in the supercool 1969 private-eye drama Marlowe—made Skin Game before going on to direct 97 episodes of the classic sitcom, which broke ground with its frank depiction of racism. (Go ahead, call me a Meathead!)

4. Blazing Saddles. While its comic tone isn’t nearly as wild as in Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western spoof, Skin Game laid the foundation for the story of an African-American sheriff (Cleavon Little) with its blackfish-out-of-water premise. Working under the pseudonym Pierre Martone, screenwriter Peter Stone—the scribe behind 1776—wasn’t afraid to use the n-word, just as Brooks did. Not to mention Tarantino again…

5. Roots. It’s not just that Gossett plays a slave, like he did as Fiddler in the milestone miniseries, or that Asner (who won an Emmy as slave-ship Capt. Thomas Davies) plays a sadistic trader. The scenes in which Garner is stripped and whipped, and Gossett is threatened with death if he ever dares to speak proper English to his “owner,” are every bit as potent as the indelible image of Levar Burton’s Kunta Kinte being tortured into accepting his slave name of “Toby.” That was no game, but there’s no question Skin changed the racial rules.

Ann-Margret & Jon Voight: The Best of Times

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I had the pleasure of interviewing two true Hollywood legends—Jon Voight and Ann-Margret—for a story in this Sunday’s New York Times. We not only discussed their roles on my current favorite TV show, Showtime’s Ray Donovan, but also their memories of making one of the most underrated films of the 1980s, Hal Ashby’s Lookin’ to Get Out. That movie also marked the debut of Voight’s daughter, Angelina Jolie, and he reminisced about working with her. For all that and more, click here!

Roger Ebert: A Real American Hero

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It seems fitting that Life Itself, the new documentary based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, should be released to theaters and on-demand services on July 4. To me, the movie critic and TV star is a true American hero.

By that, I don’t mean he was a perfect man—and the refreshingly straightforward two-hour film made by Steve James (one of the directors Ebert championed, starting with his groundbreaking basketball documentary Hoop Dreams) doesn’t paint him as a plaster saint. Ebert could be “a big baby” (as one of the producers of his TV show calls him), especially when he’d clash with on-screen partner/nemesis Gene Siskel over matters of ego. He was prone to human weaknesses, overindulging in food, alcohol, and women who were, in the words of a pal, “golddiggers, opportunists or psychos.”

But Roger overcame his shortcomings; he met Chaz, the love of his life, at an AA meeting. Life Itself is a love story on many levels: It’s about Roger’s love of Chaz, who embodies the “in sickness and in health” vow by supporting Roger through the grueling battle with cancer that robbed him of his jaw, his voice and ultimately his life. “This woman never lost her love,” Roger says in the film. “Her love is like a wind pushing me back from the brink.” In turn, Chaz swore to him, “If you promise me you’ll give it your all, I promise to make your life as interesting as possible.”

The film is also about Roger’s love for Gene, whose widow explains how their rivalry gave way to profound respect and friendship. “I’m sick and old and find myself thinking about Gene more than ever,” Roger wrote to her not long before his own death, in one of many revealing emails shared in the film. “My stupid ego, and maybe his, complicated the fact that I never met a smarter or funnier man.” And, most of all, it’s about Roger’s love of movies.

Life Itself features heartfelt testimonials from the likes of Martin Scorsese (who produced the film along with Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian—and who credits Roger and Gene for saving not just his career but his life by giving him an award at the Toronto Film Festival at the depths of Scorsese’s coke-fueled ’80s flameout), Werner Herzog (who dedicated his Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World to Roger), Errol Morris (who admits he wouldn’t have a career if Roger and Gene hadn’t championed his pet-cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven) and Ava DuVernay (who met Roger when she was a little girl at a dress rehearsal for the Oscars and perhaps not coincidentally grew up to be a great filmmaker behind Middle of Nowhere and the upcoming MLK biopic Selma).

Roger befriended many of the filmmakers and stars he wrote about, but—like Jed Leland, the Citizen Kane critic—he never allowed his friendships to affect his film criticism. (He even trashed Scorsese’s The Color of Money shortly after giving the director that award.) Among the many classic clips James unearthed for the film was Ebert on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, sitting next to Chevy Chase as he panned Three Amigos!

Roger was a genuine embodiment of the American dream. The son of an electrician (who instilled Democratic, pro-union values in him) and a housewife, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, yet stayed at the working-class Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years, resisting the advances of professional suitors like The Washington Post‘s Ben Bradlee. His priceless explanation: “I’m not going to learn new streets!”

Never was Roger’s heroism more evident than in his valiant battle with cancer, which had taken Gene more than a decade earlier and to which Roger refused to surrender until he was ready to go on his own terms. “I consider my remaining days to be money in the bank,” he tells James, via his speaking computer keyboard, shortly before his 2013 death. “When I run out, I’ll be repossessed.” “I don’t know where he got his determination from,” Chaz says in an interview completed after he passed away. “He had an inner core of steel.”

Like another newspaperman immortalized at the movies, Roger Ebert was a real man of steel. And Life Itself is a film worthy of its superheroic subject.

 

Back in the New York Times!

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, but I’ve been busy: My latest piece for the New York Times, about John Logan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo, Tony-winning playwright (Red)—and creator of the new Showtime shocker Penny Dreadful—just went live. If you’ve ever wondered how the same man could be responsible for writing films as disparate as Skyfall, Rango and Star Trek: Nemesis (not to mention Sweeney Todd, The Last Samurai, Any Given Sunday and Clint Eastwood’s upcoming adaptation of Jersey Boys), click here. And let me know what you think in the Comments below!

Rediscovering Jim Jarmusch

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, is about vampires. With his shock of white hair and all-black wardrobe, he’s a bit of a vampire himself, not seeming to have aged a day in the 30 years since his breakout feature, the deadpan black-and-white comedy Stranger Than Paradise. But he has grown as an artist, as I can testify having attended several screenings in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s complete Jarmusch retrospective, Permanent Vacation, named after his 1980 debut, a fascinatingly primitive and nearly formless depiction of life in the downtown New York art scene before Manhattan began its transformation into the world’s biggest shopping mall.

In order to find an equally scary and uncivilized place, Jarmusch travelled to Detroit to film much of Only Lovers Left Alive, which can only be described as an undeadpan comedy. Convincingly debauched Brits Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve — yes, that Adam and Eve — vampires who’ve kept their love (and themselves) alive for all these years by feasting on blood provided by such sources as 16th century playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), who takes some hilariously pointed shots at his contemporary, Shakespeare, and a research-lab worker known only as Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright, who steals both of his scenes).

Adam is a reclusive musical genius haunted by “zombies,” his derisive term for brainless human beings who won’t leave him alone (Los Angeles is termed “zombie central”). Jarmusch’s films have always been fueled by music — and the Film Society of Lincoln Center series smartly paired each of his films with a music video he directed for such artists as Talking Heads and Tom Waits — and Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. Just as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell On You” perfectly set the mood for Stranger Than Paradise, tracks by Wanda Jackson, Charlie Feathers and Jarmusch’s own band, SQÜRL help maintain the spooky mood. Among the film’s hilarious throwaway jokes, Jack White (who recruited Jarmusch to direct the video for his band the Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes”), is implied to be a vampire as Adam and Eve pass his childhood home in one of their after-dark drives around the Motor City. Eve declines the opportunity to visit the Motown Museum, however, explaining, “I’m more of a Stax girl.” (She’s a vamp after my own heart.)

the_limits_of_control10In Swinton, Jarmusch has found an ideal muse: She also appeared, again with white blonde hair, in his underrated 2009 anti-thriller The Limits of Control, as did Bill Murray, a frequent Jarmusch crony, who delivers a chilling turn as a Dick Cheney-esque pol. It’s no coincidence that Swinton and Murray as are also kindred spirits with Wes Anderson. Jarmusch and the Grand Budapest Hotel auteur share a passion for carefully composed shots and bone-dry humor. (The Limits of Control is also notable for the appearance of Boardwalk Empire‘s frequently naked Paz de la Huerta, or as I call her, “Pants de la Where-ta?” since she’s bottomless through the entire film.)

Whether or not you enjoy Jarmusch’s films—and I’ve loved some (the martial-arts masterpiece Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) more than others (the muddy dramedy Broken Flowers), you’ve got to give the guy credit for never selling out. Even when he does genre pieces, he subverts the conventions; witness the abstruse Western Dead Man, or Only Lovers Left Alive‘s final scene, which I won’t spoil. To invoke the title of one of his best films, he boarded the Mystery Train long ago, and he’s not about to hop off now.

 

 

Fading Gigolos, Naked Aliens & Captain America

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My apologies, Fretts on Film-goers: I’ve been so busy lately, I haven’t had time to post. But I have been going to movies, so here’s a catch-up. The most surprisingly enjoyable film I’ve seen in ages is Fading Gigolo. Based on his disappointing works as a writer-director (the semi-autobiographical dud Mac, the muddled musical Romance & Cigarettes), John Turturro didn’t seem capable of making a movie that would live up to such a terrific title. But by channeling the spirit of a costar who rarely appears in films he doesn’t write and direct, Turturro has made the best Woody Allen film Woody never made.

It’s good to see Woody back in the ‘hood—New York City, that is—after so many years of carpetbagging around Europe (London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, etc.). Even Blue Jasmine was mostly set and shot in San Francisco. But he seems right at home in Fading Gigolo as a rare-bookstore owner who closes up shop and opens a new business pimping out his florist/plumber/electrician friend Fioravante (Turturro) around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Turturro’s view of the City that Rarely, If Ever, Sleeps is slightly different than the Woodman’s. It’s more racially diverse (Woody’s character lives with an African-American woman, played by Tonya Pinkins, and her four adorable sons) and bops along to a funkier kind of jazz—including several tracks by R&B-influenced saxman Gene “Jug” Ammons—than Woody’s beloved Dixieland swing. But Fading Gigolo‘s unpredictable comic tone and amusingly bemused observations about Jewish cultue, including a subplot involving a rabbi’s widow (the pleasingly cast-against-type Vanessa Paradis) and a Hasidic neighborhood watch-man (Liev Schreiber, showing a similar flair for comedy as he did in Larry David’s underrated HBO flick Clear History), puts it right in Woody’s wheelhouse.

Say what you will about Woody’s personal life (and a passing incest reference resonates disturbingly), but as a filmmaker, he’s always had an appreciation for beautifully complicated women, and Turturro is a kindred spirit. As bi-curious babes of a certain age who recruit Fioravante for a menage a trois, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara exude sex appeal to spare. But it’s the bromance between Turturro and Allen — the auteurs and their characters — that’s the most delightful aspect of Fading Gigolo.

One of Woody’s more recent muses—Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona vet Scarlett Johansson (we’ll skip Scoop)—gets a whole new kind of exposure with her double fantasy features Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Under the Skin. She slips comfortably back into her leather Avengers ensemble as Black Widow, achieving a teasingly flirtatious chemistry with Chris Evans’ all-American hero in the engagingly light-hearted sequel. New directors Anthony and Joe Russo enlist their Community pal Danny Pudi for a funny cameo as well as channeling the sitcom’s antic spirit. And Anthony Mackie, as high-flying sidekick the Falcon, is—as Pudi’s Abed would no doubt put it—cool, cool, cool.scarlett-johansson-600

As for Under the Skin, it’s beyond cool: It’s downright chilly. Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer casts ScarJo as a new type of sexy beast: an alien who seduces and destroys unwitting men as she drives around Scotland. (The locals speak with such thick brogues, this English-language movie could benefit from subtitles). Johansson doesn’t speak much but she frequently disrobes, and Glazer knows she’s a compelling enough camera subject to hold viewers’ interest without a lot of blah blah blah.

Under the Skin looks, sounds and feels like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what the point is (or if there is one), but it’s certainly out of this world. The same can be said for Captain America and Fading Gigolo. And as we head into the cinematic silly season that is summer, that’s cause for celebration.

 

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