Sandpaper Required

You’ve likely heard the quote, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but fewer people have heard how the line ends: “that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” The film industry believes in imitation as a business model. If a style or genre of film worked once, they assume it will work a dozen more times. Currently, thanks to the success of The Hangover and Bridesmaids, there’s a flow of R-rated comedies coming out of Hollywood. We get Neighbors, Office Christmas Party, and Fist Fight, among many others. Currently, the movie on the marquee is Rough Night.

Rough is right. The movie veers wildly from farce to gross-out comedy to action, with a script that seems more concerned about checking all the usual boxes. Sex? Check. Drug use? Check. Australian friend? Check. Director Lucia Aniello co-wrote the script with Paul W. Downs, the pair having worked together on the TV series “Broad City” and the mini-series “Time Traveling Bong.” I’d say the writing is cartoonish, except cartoons usually do comedy better.

The plot, such as it is, concerns four college friends reuniting for a bride’s night out. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is about to marry Peter (screenwriter Downs) and Jess’ college roommate Alice (Jillian Bell) has organized a trip to Miami to celebrate. Also invited are their two best friends from college, Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer), as well as Jess’ friend from Australia, Pippa (Kate McKinnon). The writers substitute stereotypes for characters: Jess is a hapless political candidate that no one really supports, Alice is the NFF (needy fat friend), Blair’s a hard-driving career woman, Frankie’s a liberal organizer in flannel shirt and jeans, and Pippa is Rebel Wilson.

After a coke-fueled trip to a nightclub, the women return to the house they’re borrowing. Frankie has ordered a male stripper from Craig’s List, and when a handsome though surly guy comes to the door, she invites him in. The guy does a rough dance, but grosses Jess out. Alice calls out that it’s her turn and leaps into the guy’s lap, sending him falling backwards so he hits his head against the fireplace and dies.

Paul calls Jess from his bachelor party, a pretentious evening of wine-tasting, and she almost confesses what happened before the phone’s grabbed from her hand and smashed. Paul (of course) assumes Jess is breaking up with him. Worse, he listens to his friends when they recommend he act like the former female astronaut who drove from Houston to Florida wearing adult diapers so she didn’t have to stop to confront a rival. (Apparently the writers didn’t remember the woman did it to murder her rival and then get back to Houston fast enough to establish an alibi. They convinced themselves the visuals would be funny. They aren’t.)

What follows is pretty much cobbled together from other films (The Trouble With Harry, Weekend at Bernie’s, Ruthless People, and others) while the women do everything they shouldn’t in the situation. The best part of this pastiche is Kate McKinnon, though she’ll likely be roasted on the barbee in Australia for her accent. On the other hand, ScarJo is miscast. One subplot has Ty Burrell and an unrecognizable Demi Moore as oversexed neighbors, a trope meant to titillate but that is just tedious.

The plot twists might as well be accompanied by flashing lights and blaring horns – subtlety is not something the script aspires to accomplish. And it twists itself into a pretzel to work out a happy ending. But probably the best way to sum up the movie is that there’s a long tag at the end of the credits to tie up a plot point, but I’d long before given up caring to pay attention.

Rough Night could definitely use sandpaper on its rough edges.

Captain America Rises

Of all the superhero series that have filled the screens of theaters – and filled the seats as well – the most pleasant surprise for me has been Captain America. The first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, had a tinge of nostalgia that you don’t usually find in the genre, with the origin story set during WWII. It also had a compelling and semi-tragic love story between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter; not many superhero movies leave you with a tear in your eye. Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best Marvel movie to date. So I was primed for Captain America: Civil War.

The movie was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brother team who helmed Winter Soldier and who’ve been tagged to take over for Josh Whedon for the next Avengers movies, the two-part Infinity War. The script, based on the classic story by Mark Millar (who also wrote the base stories for Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service), was adapted by Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely who’d done the previous Captain movies and are also doing Infinity War. While they each may not be Christopher Nolan, as a team they come pretty close.

As a result of an operation run in Lagos, Nigeria by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) that causes a large number of civilian casualties, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (John Hurt) delivers an ultimatum from the United Nations to the Avengers: submit to oversight by that organization or be declared outlaws. He has an ally in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who’s racked by guilt from the Ultron affair.

Rogers sees the other side, that political interference could prevent them from being effective or doing what they see needs to be done. Wilson supports him and they refuse to attend the signing of the accord. But then the conference is attacked and it appears to be the work of the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Rogers believes Bucky is being framed, and with the help of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Rogers tries to save his friend. But there is much going on behind the scenes with a mysterious player named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) pulling strings in the background while pursuing his own agenda.

After several movies each, the main actors wear their characters as comfortably as their costumes. One of the pleasures of Civil War is the new kids on the block. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) joins Team Cap and brings a welcome dose of snarky humor. For Team Iron Man there’s Spiderman (Tom Holland). The character has finally been repatriated to Marvel after fourteen years at Sony and five great to awful films, and Holland gives me hope the upcoming Spiderman movie will be the former rather than the later. Best of all though is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who’s out for revenge after his father is killed at the conference. Boseman is a powerful actor as he proved with 42 and Get On Up. Where superhero movies are often operatic in their emotions, Boseman dials it way down, which makes his performance all the more compelling. His own stand-alone movie has been announced for 2018, and I’m already looking forward to it.

It’s fun to see the consistency of the Marvel Universe. They brought back William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, the character he played in 2008 in The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton. They also again have John Slattery as the older version of Howard Stark, a role he began in Iron Man II.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how hard it is to make a good third movie in a series. Lord of the Rings managed it by pretty much filming all three as one movie, and it had the benefit of having a trilogy as its basis. Even when the third is done well, the second movie is often the stronger. Nolan ran into that with The Dark Knight, which still is the pinnacle of the superhero movie genre. The Dark Knight Rises was excellent and a fitting conclusion for the trilogy Nolan planned, but it will always be overshadowed by The Dark Knight. The same goes for Star Wars. Return of the Jedi was a decent final chapter for the original trilogy, but it couldn’t match The Empire Strikes Back. About the only time the third movie in a series was better was Revenge of the Sith, but then it didn’t have far to go to outshine episodes 1 & 2.

Civil War falls into the same slot. It’s thrilling, has a deeper plot than most superhero movies, the acting’s first-rate, and it builds to a satisfying climax, but it couldn’t top Winter Soldier. So hang your expectations at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is, a really good movie.

An Odyssey – with Guns and Car Chases

Luc Besson should have been born in Hong Kong. Although he’s from France, he is the spiritual child of John Woo and delivers the high-body-count cinema that began in that city. His first major hit as a writer and director was La Femme Nikita, which spawned an American remake (Point of No Return) and two TV series. From there he wrote, directed and/or produced Leon: The Professional (which was 13-year-old Natalie Portman’s feature film debut), The Fifth Element, The Transporter, and Taken, among others. Now Besson has written and directed Lucy

“Life was given to us a billion years ago,” Scarlett Johansson says in a voice-over of the CGI image of Australopithecus afarensis drinking water from a prehistoric pool. “What have we done with it?” The image jumps to the modern world with skyscrapers, traffic jams and crowds. Especially early on in the film, Besson throws in nature footage to equate the actions of the characters with that of wild animals. It makes you feel like you’re constantly flipping between HBO and an Animal Planet documentary. Having Morgan Freeman as a main character adds to the documentary feel in light of the voice-over narration he’s done on films like March of the Penguins. Strangely enough, the imagery works well in the context of the story.

Lucy (Johansson) is a student in Taiwan who’s been more focused on partying than studying. Her current week-long boyfriend tries to talk her into delivering a briefcase for him to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). She refuses politely, but then the boyfriend handcuffs the case to her wrist and tells her Jang is the only one who can take it off. The boyfriend is dispatched of by Jang’s men and Lucy is dragged up to his office. Inside the case are four packets of a blue crystalline substance. Lucy is knocked out, and when she awakens she finds they’ve surgically placed one of the packages in her stomach cavity. She and three other drug mules are given passports and plane tickets and are sent to deliver the drugs to Jang’s men in Europe.

Lucy is taken to a holding cell to await her flight. Some of Jang’s men beat her and threaten much worse. The beating causes the packet to rupture, spilling a huge dose of the drug into her body. Lucy finds the drug has jumpstarted her mental capacity so that it’s growing at an exponential rate. With her new intelligence Lucy escapes the cell and gets to a hospital to have the package removed. In doing so, she leaves a trail of bodies in her wake. She tracks down Professor Samuel Norman (Freeman), an expert on brain function and evolution who is lecturing in Paris. (His lecture has been interspersed with Lucy’s actions in Taiwan as well as the nature video footage.) She arranges to meet him, and works with a French Surete captain, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) to round up the other drug mules. But Jang follows her, and is determined to kill Lucy.

Besson keeps the sleek movie roaring along at a race-car pace through its 89 minute running time, gliding over erroneous technical details. For instance, a large part of the story revolves around the old saw that humans only use a small percentage of their brain, something that’s been disproved by MRI imaging. Besson admitted in an interview that he knew this was incorrect, but he kept it because it made such a great jumping-off point for the movie.

As she’s shown in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson can kick-ass with the best of them, like Angelina Jolie in Laura Croft: Tomb Raider or Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Actually, during the ten years it took Besson to get the film made, Jolie was cast as Lucy, but she had to drop out before Besson began filming. As important as the action, Johansson makes Lucy sympathetic from the beginning, She gets the audience rooting for the character, and that connection continues throughout the film. Freeman is given the unenviable role of explaining the pseudo-science of the film, but with his voice and gravitas he makes it compelling. Min-sik Choi is a veteran of Korean cinema, and was the title character in the original version of Old Boy. His embodiment of Jang blends both world-weariness with complete ruthlessness, and makes him a compelling villain for the piece.

The movie throws action, science fiction and nature documentary elements into a blender and purees them, and the smoothie that’s created somehow has a pleasant taste. Think of Lucy as a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with guns and car chases as a substitute for the space and the odyssey, and with 2001’s glacial pace turned up to eleven.