Movie Review: American medicine is in “Code Black” in new documentary


“Code Black” opens in chaos, settles into systemic calm and ends with young doctors struggling against “the failure of the system” to get back some of that chaos.
But this isn’t this year’s new variation on TV’s “young doctors, under stress and in love.” It’s a documentary film filled with adrenalin junkies, idealistic Type A personalities, over-achievers. They’re residents at L.A. County Hospital’s “legendary” emergency room, capturing the urgency and immediacy of this last line of defense against sudden death.
Dr. Ryan McGarry, who directed this, was one of them while making this film, a doctor put through the wringer of working in the emergency room that basically invented the concept of “emergency room.” His over-ambitious, short and sweet film wanders over much of the malfunctioning medical landscape in message. Heroic doctors (nurses are somewhat shortchanged), dedicated healers all, stay calm, cool and collected as they deal with gunshot wounds, heart attacks and every emergency malady known to humanity.
If only there wasn’t all this paperwork. If only Congress hadn’t created a medical system that allowed for-profit hospitals to dump ” a tidal wave” of patients with no insurance packing off to public hospitals. If only doctors could get back to what they got into medicine for — meeting patients, finding out what ails them and helping them.
McGarry’s film opens in a maelstrom of blood, pain and medicine, as practiced under institutional lighting. The ancient “C-Booth”, a 20 by 25 room where E.R. practices were born, is so crowded that you wonder how anyone could possibly be saved in all this disorder. I counted 12-13 people in camera operators McGarry, Sandra Chandler and Nelson Hume’s tightly framed shots — “the team,” doctors and nurses and the EMTs who got this patient there, family, a tiny balcony where med students observe this whirl of activity.
Off to one side, calmest of the calm, is “the chairman,” the attending resident — directing traffic, moving team members, instructing each other, encouraging each other. Get that tray over here, get that tube inserted.
“All the way in. All the way in. All the way in.”
But at the center of it all is the patient, the focus of every single person’s attention. Gurneys crowd against each other and frankly, it looks a bit Third World. Still, the teamwork, the dedication and the urgency of this “blue collar” corner of medicine is stunning — more impressive than any mere TV episode recreating the chaos.
That was the way it was before L.A. County got a new E.R. One of the central debates at the heart of McGarry’s film is what was lost when the hospital had to come in compliance with the myriad regulations that protect it, the doctors and nurses who work there and the government which funds it from invasions of privacy, mistakes and the lawsuits that follow.
McGarry and his teammates lament the “profit and efficiency” that are paramount in our cost-obsessed culture. They scramble to try new ways to re-invigorate an overwhelmed system — a 300 person waiting room can lead to 18 hour waits at L.A. County.
Though the film doesn’t get into the relative inexperience of those younger staffs — a common complaint about emergency medicine — McGarry does a nice job of at least listing the many barriers to providing great care and the need for health care reform that goes beyond merely making sure everyone is insured.
The more experienced doctors show up to toss a bucket of water on their idealism. Costs, nurse burnout and malpractice claims are real world problems, and “the system,” cumbersome as it is, is aimed at minimizing those, something the newbies are slow to pick up on.
A favorite moment — an elderly woman explains to Young Dr. McGarry the self-medicating she’s been doing for her sciatica. The kid doesn’t know what “Mary Jane” is.
The older doctors and nurses don’t romanticize “the day of the cowboy,” the chaotic past of an E.R. run by the seat-of-the-pants.
But McGarry, with this slick, invigorating film, whose action is set to a pulsating James Lavino musical score, has broadened a national debate that anti-healthcare reform folks have narrowed via the courts and political demonization.


MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic surgical scenes, blood and profanity
Cast: Dr. Ryan McGarry, Dr. Jamie Cheng and the doctors, nurses and patients of L.A. County Hospital
Credits: Directed by Ryan McGarry, written by Ryan McGarry and Joshua Altman. A Long Shot Factory release.
Running time: 1:20

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John Michael McDonaugh and Brendan Gleeson talk about “Calvary” and cinematic salvation

bgBrendan Gleeson had just finished another movie and showed up, “exhausted,” to don a cassock to play an Irish Catholic priest in “Calvary.” He’d done his homework, as always. And he’d be working with his pal, playwright turned writer-director John Michael McDonaugh. They made “The Guard” together. But “Calvary,” a darkly comic tale of a good priest told he’s to be murdered for all the sins of the Catholic Church, was a workout the Great Gleeson wasn’t prepared for.
“Not for the pummeling I got, in every scene, day by day,” he says, laughing. Everybody village member of Father Lavelle’s flock insults him, treats him with nothing but over-the-top comic contempt.
“Relentless,” McDonagh acknowledges with a chuckle. “And funny, I hope. Now, don’t let that change your travel plans. You’re not going to get that if you drop in on a small town in Ireland.”
Adulterers smirk and flaunt their sins. Wife beaters, drunks, an atheist doctor, almost to a one, they tear into the priest. It got to be a bit much.
“At one stage, we shoot a scene where Father Lavelle goes in and finds Aidan Gillens and Orla O’Rourke, their characters, sniffing coke in the loo, and I’m to walk straight back out again,” Gleeson recalls. “It was the last scene on a Friday, in the third week of shooting. I’m out on my feet and I needed a break. But, John, in his wisdom, whispered to Aidan, on one of the takes, to call me a name as I was going out. Which Aidan duly did.”
McDonagh admits to this. The ugly name? Let’s just say it rhymes with “trick.”
“I got outside the door,” Gleeson says, sounding more irked as he recalls the story, “and I very nearly went BACK in. I’m not joking you. ‘WHAT did you say? WHAT?’ I had to take a walk and count to ten and stuff, because it was pretty full-on and I’d had enough of just this relentless abuse, I must say.”
“Calvary” has been called “”a meditation on Ireland and its religious disillusion” (Siobhan Synnot, The Scotsman newspaper). But McDonaugh, who like his playwright/filmmaker younger brother Martin (“In Bruges”) has made dark Irish comedies with religious undertones his stock in trade, would like that clarified.
“To me, it’s not an anti-religious film, it’s an anti-authority film,” McDonagh says. “The problem with the Catholic Church is its power in Ireland… They were colluding with the police, colluding with the government, to such a degree that you had pedophile priests covered up by the police and the government…That’s been true, to a lesser extent, with this scandal, all over the world.
“So the film’s not an attack on the Church. It’s an attack on authority.”
He had an idea of doing a trilogy of pictures with Gleeson, probably best-known as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films. And “one night in a pub, in Galway, as we wrapped up ‘The Guard,’ it struck me that we should do a movie about a good priest, kind of go against the grain of what the news is full of — bad priests.”
Father James Lavelle would be a widower with a troubled adult daughter, a man who drank and threw punches in his younger years. And he’d wear an old-fashioned full-length cassock.
“I was a big fan of those old Italian spaghetti Westerns, which always seemed to have some sort of ‘whisky priest’ — a stock character,” McDonagh says. “So ‘Let’s have Brendan wear a cassock, grew a beard, stand on the beach and wait for his doom.'”
The film’s dread-filled opening scene, with Father Lavelle listening, patiently and calmly, as an unseen man in the confessional tells him he was molested as a child and will kill the only priest handy — Father Lavelle — in a week, was filmed last. That gave Gleeson time to get a grip on how to play it.
“That notion of absorbing people’s pain, the idea that you think you have a bottomless well of optimism and finding out there’s a bottom to that well, I got that from all the weeks of abuse from the other characters on the set,” Gleeson says. ” Other people are taking these buckets of optimism out of your well can make you run dry. You’ve got to be self-protective.”
Gleeson has been praised for giving “a performance of monumental soul” (Justin Chang in Variety), and “Calvary” has earned rave reviews in those countries where it’s opened. It opens in the U.S. Aug. 1.
Meanwhile, the director and his big redheaded muse are plotting a third leg of the trilogy. It is to be titled ”The Lame Shall Enter First,” McDonagh says, “and Brendan will be playing a really amusing paraplegic — angry, funny, and in a wheelchair.”
Gleeson laughs and speaks of “trepidation” about that collaboration
“John, he continually giggles when he starts describing to me the picture of me crashing and banging into doors and cars and everything that gets in your way when you’re in a wheelchair,” Gleeson says. “He has some point he’s going to make, his malicious reasons for doing that, I am sure.”

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Scar-Jo blows up the Box Office: “Lucy” is a smash

What the what?

Scarlett Johansson, once mocked by a producer of”The Island” for NOT being box office enough to get a sci-fi film off the ground, Woody Allen’s fixation for a few years, new Avenger and now — newly crowned BOX OFFICE QUEEN?

box“Lucy,” a loopy/crazy/cool bit of sci-fi that has her playing a kidnapped woman drugged into a super-avenger state when the drugs she’s forced to carry in her gut leak and make her Super Scar-Jo,” is blowing the roof off a desultory summer at the box office.

Friday’s numbers suggest this passably-reviewed Luc Besson thriller, the one with Lucy the primate scenes, and animals attack nature footage interspersed with the fictional action, will clear $40 million by midnight Sunday. Close to $45, says.

Will wonders never cease?

She’s in “Chef,” the sleeper hit of the summer. “Under the Skin” was daring. She made “Her” work. Girlfriend is in the zone. Raises for her manager and agent.

“Hercules,” the Brett Ratner bore starring a bored Dwayne Johnson, looks to reach $30 million.

“Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t opening wide yet, and may not warrant a wider opening, thanks to a poor opening weekend.

“A Most Wanted Man,” the best reviewed wide release, (not that wide) is doing respectable numbers.

“Apes” is closing in on $175 and should fall short of $200, by the time it finishes its run. The steam is running out.

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“Superman Lives” documentary has a trailer.

Be a real tragedy if this documentary about the Nic Cage/Tim Burton “Superman Lives!” movie that never was never finished. A tragedy.

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Movie Review: Fluffy is a lot less fluffy, and preaching about it in “The Fluffy Movie”

fluffyA plus-sized stand-up gets by on very thin material in “The Fluffy Movie,” a concert film built on the comic stylings of Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias.

His set-ups take forever, his transitions between stories are natural, but drag on forever. And this guy would probably be the first to admit that he’s about as far from comedy’s cutting edge as, oh, Jay Leno or Garrison Keillor.

But Iglesias makes it work, after a fashion. Because he’s a story teller, with a genial stage presence and a Hispanic American fanbase that has taken him from stand-up specials to a Kevin Hart-sized feature-film treatment.

Iglesias, who turned 38 this month, stars in a concert film that pays homage to Eddie Murphy’s “Raw,” an ’80s concert doc that, a cute acted-out prologue tells us, was little Gabriel’s inspiration for getting into comedy after he conned a video store clerk (Tommy Chong) into letting him rent it as a kid.

That prologue tells the story of his conception and birth — about-to-divorce Mom hooks up with mariachi singer Jesus, cigar chomping border country doctor (Ron White) delivers him, the works — a life begins in five minutes.

Then Iglesias takes the stage at a Bay area venue and enlightens us on the banalities of his life — his morbid obesity, his step-fatherhood, and his relationship with the estranged father he barely knows.

These are, he admits, “random stories,” and he draws them out, with mixed results. He kills the first 30 minutes of the show talking about his 100 lb. weight loss, his diabetes, the doctor who gave him two years to live and the visit to a gastric bypass clinic where he sought salvation. First, they had to weigh him, and they were ready — “We have an industrial grade scale,” the nurse tells him. Yes, if they’re using “industrial” in any way with a course of treatment, you’ve messed up, he jokes.

Iglesias, a cartoon voice superstar waiting to happen, is known for his funny voices, and he doesn’t disappoint his fans — mousy women, sullen teens (his step son), an English valet, black people, white people, Mexicans and, thanks to a visit to the Subcontinent, Indians.

That’s where his observation powers shine, picking up on Indian dialect, the affirmation-oriented personalities the culture encourages and a bit of head bobbing that seals the deal on India’s connection with Mexico. Spicy food, colorful accents, “Don’t drink the water,” and English is a helpful second language? It’s Mexico! East!

He imitates Indians, Apu-style, but in a nice way.

He makes fun of their manners, but in a nice way.

But the bulk of the film concerns his relationship with his ingrate of a stepson, and that’s pretty pedestrian stuff, to be honest.

The film doesn’t catch Iglesias when he was younger and hungrier, so to speak. This is like Kevin Hart’s second concert film, sort of a victory lap. His audience is with him, doing too much of the work (easy laughs) for him.

He’s lost a lot of weight, and not in the smartest way, and he preaches about it. He’s a step parent, and he preaches a bit about that, and about the dad he met only recently. He doesn’t touch on America’s Anglo-Spanish culture clash, switching to Spanish here and there for effect.

“Some of you got that. Gracias.”

His comedy, whatever it was at an earlier age, is comfort food now.

But he is never less than good company, and never out of touch with his audience — his peers, more an age group than an ethnic one at this stage. When he admits to buying pirated copies of video games for his kid, he’s at his most human.

“Yes, I have money. But I’m still ghetto.”


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for suggestive material and sexual references

Cast: Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, Jacqueline Obradors, Tommy Chong, Ron White

Credits: Directed by Manny Rodriguez. An Open Road release.

Running time:

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Weekend Movies: “Hercules” earns better reviews than Woody Allen or Rob Reiner

lucyimageSo for starters, no WAY Brett Ratner’s generic, dull and listless “Hercules” (alas, the same can be said for “The Artist Formerly Known as The Rock”) is better than the other popcorn picture opening this last weekend of July — “Lucy.” Luc Besson’s film is demented, loopy and dead-sexy fun.

“Hercules” is just “300-Lite.” Strip all the supernaturalism out of Herc, make him a Merc. Sure. But that should be a fun concept, not a “Hercules as Drill Sergeant Training Thrace for War” swords and sandals and slashing picture. A few laughs, all provided by/given to Rufus Sewell and Ian McShane as the not-a-real-demi-god’s sidekicks, a couple of big battles, a little blood. No romance, a teensy bit of skin.

And Dwayne Johnson sleepwalking/lumbering through the whole affair as if it’s just a paycheck. The early reviews were from overseas lightweights, but the two Hollywood trade papers endorsed this dog, too.

My prediction? Since it was withheld from American critics, the raft of reviews that will come in today and tonight will beat this bum down out of the 60% range, where it sits on Rottentomatoes, now.

Besson’s “Lucy” has Scarlett Johansson in fine form as a college student kidnapped in Taipei who has drugs surgically stuffed into her abdomen for smuggling. The drug makes one hyper-aware, and it starts to leak and Lucy becomes the smartest/toughest/maddest thing on two shapely legs.

It’s a nutty film, with “Lucy,” the first humanoid primate playing a role, animal hunting and killing footage intercut with the action. But it’s fun. Mixed to negative reviews for this one.

“A Most Wanted Man” is the best reviewed wide release opening this weekend, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final tour de force turn, this time in a John le Carre adaption set in Hamburg where spies chase would-be Islamo-terrorists. Yeah, Hoffman’s got “Hunger Games” sequel footage in the can, but let’s be real — this was his last time to shine. Very good film.

Woody Allen finally gets the beat-down he deserves for repeating himself and making comedies with diminishing returns on laughter. “Magic in the Moonlight” is a DOA period piece about a medium being exposed by a cynical magician. Decent cast, as always. Lovely French Riviera settings. Dead movie. Bad enough to make you reconsider the arch and stiff “Blue Jasmine,” or the tired jokes and cliches of “Midnight in Paris,” his biggest hit and best of his recent offerings.

Rob Reiner is over. Unless older audiences find his critically dismissed “And So It Goes,” write him off. He hasn’t had a major studio release since “Flipped,” and that went into limited release only. And he hasn’t had a hit in this millennium. Done. The movie’s not terrible, just old and tired.

The Anna Kendrick mumblecore dramedy “Happy Christmas” hits a few theaters and is quite good. Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) writes interesting characters and the actors he casts make good use of them.Good reviews for that one


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Movie Review: Dwayne Johnson goes Greek as “Hercules”

hercIt was a bra-less age, when men wore skirts of leather, planted their feet and commenced to speechifying. About heroic deeds, which they made up, or at least exaggerated — in Greek.

This is the world of “Hercules,” a B-movie with a hint of “300-Lite” about it. Directed by Brett “I almost ended the X-Men” Ratner and starring Dwayne “Why didn’t they cast me in this ten years ago?” Johnson, it’s a brief, violent and narrowly-focused tale of a Hercules utterly removed from myth.

This is Hercules as hired warrior, Herc the Merc, an incredible Greek hulk whose “half-man, half-god” story is declaimed, loudly, to one and all by his brash press-agent of a nephew, Iolaus (Reese Ritchie of “Prince of Persia”).

Iolaus weaves tales of Herc’s 12 labors, his battles with the hydra and gigantic boars and lions. This impresses those who would hire Hercules and his mercenary sidekicks. And theoretically, at least, it intimidates his enemies. Who wants to fight a fellow whom Zeus sired, a man who cannot be killed?

Regarding those “sidekicks” — news to me, too. “In legend, you fight alone,” those meeting the man complain. Herc likes to keep his saga single-handed, for PR sake. But in this tale of the man mountain, he has wily knife-thrower Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Amazon archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the mute berserker Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and wizened spear-wielding seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) as his crew.

When the King of Thrace (John Hurt) and his hot daughter-in-law (Rebecca Ferguson) need help fighting a warlord, they offer to pay Hercules “twice your weight in gold.”

To which Autolycus cracks, “Eat up.”

The rapists and pillagers confronting Thrace are numerous, tall, bald and painted green.

“Look at me,” Hercules barks. “Do I look afraid?”
Johnson leaves his eyebrow arching bit behind for this action epic, and that’s a pity. The humor is what works best, and most of the funny bits go to McShane, playing a seer who knows when he’s supposed to die, and how — or thinks he knows — and Sewell, every bit McShane’s match in landing a punchline.

What Ratner has turned out here is a myth with all the mythology stripped from it. This 98 minute film has three decent battles in it, and a long training sequence where the Thracians are prepared for battle. Why make a Hercules movie about that?

He’s haunted by the deaths of his family, tormented by visions of the three-headed dog from Hades. Yes, they tell you it’s Cerberus, just in case you slept through that class in school.

Joseph Fiennes shows up as the King of Athens, along with a klatch of character players you’ll recognize. The production team does a swell job of recreating the ancient citadels of the fourth century, B.C.E.

But for all the fun these folks could have had with Hercules maintaining the supernatural assistance facade, or denying it as his handlers gild his lily testifying that it’s true, the movie is content to just go through the motions. Ratner doesn’t so much as ask his actors to walk and talk at the same time. Perhaps the digitally-augmented sets demanded it, but players standing still, staring into each other’s eyes and delivering pep talks, trash talk, threats and jokes to each other is dull and stagy — bad theater.

And Johnson, in a role he was buffed up to play, seems more inclined to go through the motions than his colleagues. At 42, he’s still got the bulk, but the grace of movement is gone, along with the eagerness, the twinkle in the eye and the cocked-eyebrow that always let us know he was in on the joke. “Hercules” was plainly just a paycheck, repayment for all those years in the gym, and in every scene, Johnson reminds us of that.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, John Hurt, Joseph Fiennes

Credits: Directed by Brett Ratner, written by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos. A Paramount MGM release.

Running time: 1:38

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Movie Review: “And So It Goes”


2stars1Two old pros show the kids how chemistry works in a romantic comedy in “And So It Goes,” a love-the-last-time-around romp that’ll give its target audience the warm fuzzies.
Diane Keaton dons one stylishly kicky outfit after another — hats included — trills “La di dah,” or words to that effect, and all is well in this high-rent corner of Connecticut, where the perfectly-coiffed Michael Douglas plays her permanently-grumpy realtor neighbor.
They fight, flirt, annoy and court like it’s 1979. This Rob Reiner comedy has the Oscar-winning Heir to Hepburn and the Oscar-winning Son of Kirk in grandparent mode, just a couple of spry old-timers forced together when the grandkid he never knew moves in, and prefers the company of the neighbor lady who cannot stand him.
Oren Little (Douglas) is waiting on that one last big sale before retiring in tony suburban Bristol. After 44 years in the business, he’s selling his priciest listing — an $8 million mansion that was his home. Widowed, he drives to showings in his vintage Mercedes convertible, himself immaculately turned out, the house immaculately staged. It’s over-priced, but telling him he that sets him off.
“Wiggle room” to Oren is another way of saying “extortion,” as “rape is just another form of affection.” Yes, he goes nuclear in a heartbeat.
His neighbors in the charming waterfront fourplex he’s downsized to have to contend with rudeness, selfishness and general boorishness, which his second martini only accentuates. The little boys of one neighbor have a code phrase for cranky Oren.
Leah (Keaton) is a widowed lounge singer who fronts a jazz combo (Rob Reiner plays the toupee’d piano player) who cannot get through a set without talking about her late husband, and weeping. The tactless Oren is the last guy she’d be interested in, age-appropriate or not — even after Oren shares his own widowhood woes.
“I cried all I’m ever gonna cry.”
But when his estranged, ex-junky son (Scott Shepherd) shows up and drops his daughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins) on Dad as he heads off to prison, Oren’s crankiness endures its toughest test. Leah steps in and that throws the two adults together, awkward though his pick-up lines eventually turn out to be.
“I’ve sold houses older than you. And in worse shape.” “Last time I had sex I tore my ACL.”
Working from an undemanding Mark Andrus (“As Good as It Gets”) script, Reiner steers closer to his old Big Budget Studio Picture form. He did “When Harry Met Sally” in his prime, but his last film was the deservedly unseen Morgan Freeman twinkler “The Magic of Belle Isle.” His players know how to land a laugh, and he fills in around the leads with choice character player support. “Jersey Boy” Frankie Valli plays a club owner who might book Leah, and the great Frances Sternhagen is Oren’s only friend, a fellow realtor who lets a few cute codger cusswords fly in between puffs of her ever-present Camel Unfiltered.
“Christ on Ice and Mary in the Penalty Box!”
It’s all adorably light, aside from the odd, jarring moment when Oren has to face the ultra-realistic addicts of his son’s former life. And the players are never less than game.
Mercifully, the movie isn’t about the child. But the jokes, sight gags and comic situations never aim higher than “cute,” and often fall short. Oren is kind of a half-hearted ogre, and Keaton’s Leah is half-greatest hits performance, half-wardrobe, with that wardrobe looking like half the picture’s budget.
Still, seeing these veteran players go through their paces, find their comic rhythms and probe for laughs where many a laugh has been found before is not a bad thing. Now that everybody who wanted to see it has caught the story of Frankie Valli’s life on the screen, here’s a perfectly pleasant, if winded replacement, one with the real Frankie in it.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual references and drug elements
Cast: Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Sterling Jerins, Frances Sternhagen, Rob Reiner.
Credits: Directed by Rob Reiner, written by Mark Andrus. A Clarius/Castle Rock release.
Running time: 1:33

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Movie Review: Not much “Magic in the Moonlight”

magic1half-starThose of us waiting for Woody Allen’s return to nostalgia after “Midnight in Paris,” fans who figure his love of 1920s “Hot Jazz” and theatrical, dated dialogue make him most at home with period pieces, are in for something of a let down with “Magic in the Moonlight.”
This year’s Woody is a 1920s romance set in the sunny, summery south of France, a world where every mansion is perfectly preserved, every open top Alfa Romeo roadster is immaculately restored and every linen suit or flapper dress flawlessly recreated.
But the “comedy” set in that world is an almost painfully slight and parched farce that toys with the debate of “childish” faith in the supernatural and religion versus “the dull tragic reality of life.” It’s not a bad film, just lifeless.
Colin Firth is Stanley, who makes his living in heavy makeup as the Chinese conjurer Wei Ling Soo. When he isn’t making elephants disappear from a stage in 1928 Berlin, he debunks “charlatans and frauds,” people who pass themselves off as mediums, and those who believe in the occult or the “power of prayer.”
But even though the vain, egomaniacal and ever-smirking Stanley has “all the charm of a typhus epidemic,” he does have a friend among his peers. Howard (Simon McBurney) shows up backstage and talks Stanley into coming to the Cannes coast, where Howard thinks this new American medium might be “the real thing.”
“There is no REAL thing,” Stanley sneers, “from the seance table to the Vatican.” He takes the challenge. He will observe this Sophie (Emma Stone), her stage mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and the wealthy, “gullible dupes” (Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver) she seems to be conning. And he will expose her.
But Stanley, “who believes in nothing,” is challenged by this pale, wide-eyed waif, who seems to have the gift she claims. When a seance doesn’t unmask her, Stanley takes her on long walks, lovely drives to visit his aunt (Eileen Atkins of “Doc Martin”), rainy afternoons that end in an astronomical observatory.
Allen, is of course, repeating himself. That last bit is borrowed from “Manhattan.” The deep philosophical debate here was a big part of his 1970s and ’80s films, and the mismatch in ages — the dashing Firth paired up with the more-girlish-than-ever Emma Stone, who looks half his age — also conjures up memories of “Manhattan.”
But “Magic” is not without its charms. Linklater, of TV’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” croons love songs and (apparently) plays the ukulele as his scion of wealth courts the charmed but reluctant Sophie. Stone, staring into the distance as Sophie gets her “mental vibrations” going about this person or that “spirit,” makes an engaging muse for a filmmaker who has had many of those.
But Firth, summoning up his snobbish Mr. Darcy of the distant past, isn’t helped by the timing of the scenes or slack pace of the picture. Allen can only get away with his dissertations on Nietzsche when the movie surrounding them is sprightly, light on its feet. Even the jazz club scenes are stiff and stale, the music sounding more like old ’78s from Allen’s record collection than something the musicians on screen are playing.
We don’t really buy Firth as the great cynic here any more than we accept his abrupt “eye opening” transformation into a convinced, and perhaps smitten, doubter.
“Magic” lacks too many things to rank among Allen’s better recent films — the come-uppance and zeitgeist currency of “Blue Jasmine,” the frivolity of that don’t-think-too-much-about-this lark “Midnight in Paris.” But the biggest shortcoming is right there in the title, a tease if ever there was one.
Where’s the “Magic”?
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout
Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney
Credits: Written and directed by Woody Allen. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:39

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Movie Review: Scar-Jo delivers, and how, in “Lucy”

lucyimageAfter a decade when the only person to take her seriously was Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson seems to have found her groove of late, with the new actioner “Lucy” as further confirmation of her niche.
She’s been a poker-faced Russian comic book heroine in “The Avengers” universe, a murderously humorless alien in “Under the Skin” and a voice a guy could fall in love with in “Her.” And that’s the polished skill-set she brings to “Lucy,” a vulnerable college student whose poor choice in beaus gets her tangled up with a Korean/Taiwanese mob about to unleash an irresistible new drug on Europe.
Lucy resists the pleas of Richard (Pilou Asbæk) to deliver this briefcase, so he just handcuffs it to her and sends her in to meet her fate with Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi).
Jang’s bloody hands and the bodies he steps over to get to her make Lucy whimper in fear. And that’s before she realizes what his associate, “The Limey” (Julian Rhind-Tutt) has in store. They need to transport this potent new drug and she’s to be one of the couriers. They knock her out and sew it into her intestines.
“I’m afraid it’s our business model.”
But an unexpected beating makes the drug leak into her system, and that’s when Lucy starts to discover how “limitless” her potential truly is.
That “We only use ten percent of our brain” stuff, basically recycled from the Bradley Cooper thriller “Limitless,” is delivered by Morgan Freeman in a lecture in Paris, while Lucy struggles to survive Taipei long enough to get on a plane to meet him.
Johansson gets a marvelous, simple phone call scene where she tells her mother, “I feel everything — space, time…the rotation of the Earth, the heat leaving my body.” And that’s just the beginning. Big numbers on the screen tell us when she clears 20% brain usage, 40%, and so on.
French action auteur Luc Besson, who turned to producing with the “Transporter” and “Taken” movies, mounts a dazzling fast-motion car chase through Paris and scintillating Scar-Jo slo-mo face-offs with legions of bad guys in this insanely ambitious popcorn popper.
Effects get across the evolved state Lucy is headed for, and simple, comical intercuts of animal kingdom footage show leopards hunting gazelles and the like, just to underline the predatory nature of Lucy’s first encounters with the bad guys.
Amr Waked plays a befuddled French cop caught up in her quest, and things turns deliriously silly and metaphysical as the film veers into Johnny Depp “Transcendence” omnipotence.
But Johansson never wavers, never varies the confident, robotic monotone that Lucy adapts as she controls her mind, her body and then others, and finally gravity and physics itself. She lets her hair fall, strategically, over her right eye and doesn’t blink or wrinkle her short skirts as she guns down or psycho-kinetically punches out or levitates the bad guys. It’s not a great performance, just a perfectly consistent one.
Besson’s script may let her (and Freeman) down in the third act, but the 89 minute long “Lucy” is so brisk it’ll give you whiplash. Even marginal thrillers benefit from a director and star who have a sense of urgency and are as hellbent as this on not overstaying their welcome.

(Related, “Lucy” is a box office smash!)
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman,Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt
Credits: Written and directed by Luc Besson. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:29

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