What Do the Entrails Say?

Sometimes, there are warning signs. Sometimes, all it takes is a few minutes into a film to let you know you’re in trouble.

In Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, that warning sign came less than five minutes into the film, when the pharaoh asks one of his advisers the soon-to-be-immortal question: “What do the entrails say?”

Yup. That line came less than five minutes into a 150-minute long film. I had to rewind it to make sure I had heard it correctly, which I had. And, just as the pharaoh’s adviser tells him, the entrails are unclear, but some stuff might happen that you won’t like very much. At this point (again, less than five minutes into a two and a half hour movie) I figured that that was a pretty good prediction as to what my feelings would be like about the movie as a whole: unclear, but definitely leaning towards the negative.

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Urgh. Exodus had all the ingredients to be good, so how did it go so spectacularly bad? Ridley Scott has been in a bit of a rut post-Gladiator, but he’s still an important filmmaker, and he has proven success directing historical epics. Christian Bale is widely acknowledged to be one of the best actors around. The movie tells a well-known Biblical story that most people, regardless of their religious views, are pretty familiar with. The cast also included Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, and Sigourney Weaver.

And yet, almost nothing in the movie works.

The story is a confusing mess.

The relationships between the characters are thin to nonexistent.

Sigourney Weaver has maybe three lines, all of which are delivered in a flat American accent, which sound totally out of place.

And, worst of all, the movie has no idea what so freaking ever what to do with God.

I just…it just…urgh. Look, the filmmakers made some choices in this film that were utterly baffling to me.

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Why, for example, would they choose to portray God as a, like, eight-year-old-child? Every time Moses (played by Bale, if you didn’t already know that) talks to God, he’s talking to a freaking little kid. I cannot fathom why the filmmakers thought this was a good idea. Literally anything would have been better. Have him talking to a disembodied voice. Have him talking to a ghostly figure of some sort. Have him talking to, I don’t know, a grown-up human being for crying out loud. But why in pluperfect hell would have him arguing with a child? And, even more inexplicably, why would you make it so that Moses is the only one who can see him, which results in scenes where Moses’ brother Aaron is spying on Moses, and it looks like Moses is just arguing with himself?

AND TO TOP IT ALL OFF, why would you make Moses and God have an antagonistic relationship with each other? I always thought that God worked through Moses, the movie makes them practically look like enemies. I get that people’s relationships with God are complicated. I get that. But making Moses and God enemies (maybe frenemies? I don’t even know) just makes no sense from a storytelling perspective.

Moses starts training the Israelites to become like this guerrilla army, and then Kid-God shows up and tells him he’s not doing enough, and that’s what starts the ten plagues. So all those scenes of Moses training his guerrilla army (which were meant to be all inspirational) add up to a whole lot of NOTHING.

The relationships between the characters are also incredibly poorly developed. Moses has almost no connection to anyone else in the movie. He has no reason to want to return to Egypt after his exile, aside from a few vague hints from Kid-God, and every time Moses says something about helping his “people,” or entreating them repeatedly that “God is with us,” it just rings absolutely hollow. The Israelites have no reason to follow him, and he has no reason to want them to.

And he has almost no relationship with either Joshua or Aaron, both important Biblical figures. It’s only even mentioned in passing that Moses and Aaron are brothers. I didn’t even know which person was Aaron and which was Joshua! There were these two guys I knew were Aaron and Joshua, but I could never tell which was which, and with the miniscule amount of character development either of them had they might as well have been the same person anyway.

None of this, in my opinion, is the fault of Christian Bale. Bale is an extremely expressive actor, capable of conveying worlds of meaning with just a look from his eyes. He does what he can with an extremely underwritten character, and while I did like Moses individually, it was not enough for me to care about the rest of the characters in the movie, since he has so little connection to any of them.

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The movie looks great, I can give it that. The sets, costumes, and special effects are all top-notch, and I especially liked the very cool-looking swords that Moses and Ramses use. You can tell that some serious money went into making this film, and, visually at least, it shows. The movie looks fantastic, and the scenes depicting the ten plagues are intense and frightening, and kinda gross. Oddly, by my count the movie only showed nine plagues, though I looked that up and the only one the movie leaves out is lice, and to be honest I forgot that lice were one of the ten plagues, so I guess I can kind of give them a pass for that.

Then again, no. No, I can’t. There were ten plagues of Egypt and the movie only shows nine. No pass for you, movie. The movie has four (credited) screenwriters, and apparently none of them can count.

Look, Hollywood. I appreciate the gesture, but seriously: you’re doing it wrong. For further proof, look at Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was also released last year. In addition to being the year of Scarlett Johansson, 2014 was also supposed to be the Year of the Biblical Epic. But after having seen both Exodus and Noah, I can officially say that it was the Year of the Severely Underwhelming Biblical Epic.

I disliked Noah even more than I disliked Exodus, which as you can probably tell is really saying something. I don’t really have all that much to say about Noah, except it suffered from a lot of the same problems as Exodus: weak characterization, muddled story, baffling storytelling decisions.

Oh, and for some reason, it was full of Rock Transformers.

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Wait, what? I didn’t think this Biblical epic was directed by Michael Bay. Noah is full of these weird creatures called Watchers that were supposed to be fallen angels, but I kept thinking of them as Rock Transformers because they looked like Transformers made out of rocks. One of them is even voiced by Nick Nolte of all people, and let me just say that Nick freaking Nolte is the absolute last person in the universe that I would ever expect to play an angel in a movie. A demon, sure (he certainly sounds like one), but an angel? Hell no!

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Tellingly, the Rock Transformers did not appear in ANY of the trailers or marketing for the movie. The marketing team must have thought, “Hey, what the hell are these Michael Bay rejects doing in this Biblical movie? Eh, I dunno, just leave them out of the trailers, nobody will notice.”

The main problem with the movie Noah is that the Biblical story of Noah is pretty straightforward. The Biblical story of Exodus is more detailed, but Noah’s story really isn’t. God tells Noah to build the ark and put two of every animal on it. Noah does so, God destroys the world with a flood, the animals on the ark and Noah and his family survive. That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. But, of course, that’s not enough for a full-length movie, so the filmmakers embellished quite a bit. And all of their embellishments, to me, felt like really weak attempts to add drama to the story, and half of them just don’t make any sense.

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How else do you explain Noah’s behavior in the last hour of the movie? For some utterly inexplicable reason, Noah spends most of the movie thinking that mankind is supposed to die off, so he spends most of the last hour of the movie trying to murder pregnant Emma Watson.

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I, it, just, WHAT??? Why is Noah a slasher-movie villain for the whole third act of the movie??? It’s just baffling. And then at the end of the movie, Noah gets blackout drunk and his kids find him passed out naked on the beach. And this guy is supposed to be the hero of this story?

Both Noah and Exodus do have a couple of specific scenes that I liked. The parting of the Red Sea sequence in Exodus is an exciting setpiece, and I liked the scenes in Noah that showed the animals coming on to the ark.

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They’re both great-looking movies, but the visuals aren’t enough to hide the emptiness that lies within both of these big-budget films. One of the reviews I read online said that Exodus was like a chocolate cake filled with sawdust, which I thought was a perfect metaphor: looks great, empty on the inside.

Look, I’m not a person who bases their system of beliefs on Hollywood movies. I don’t dislike these movies because they don’t exactly align with my own beliefs. I dislike them because their storytelling is muddled, the characterizations range from thin to nonexistent to downright baffling, and neither one of them has the slightest idea what to do with God.

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What do the entrails say? It’s unclear, but it’s not looking good.

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Why Fast Eight Will Be a Must-See

Two years ago, when Fast & Furious 6 was released, my review of it was entitled, “Why Fast Seven Will Be a Must-See.”

At this rate, I think I can see where this is headed, because Furious 7 is furious fun.

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It was supposed to be released last year, but as most people probably know by now, it was delayed by the tragic death of Paul Walker in a car accident in November of 2013. Walker’s death occurred when Furious 7 was still in production, and the film was put on hold while the filmmakers figured out how to complete it without Walker.

They ended up rewriting the script to serve as a send-off for Walker’s character, and completing his scenes using a combination of CGI, carefully-chosen camera angles, and body doubles, including Walker’s brothers Caleb and Cody.

I think that they handled it pretty well. I’m glad that they didn’t simply kill off Walker’s character. That probably would have been easier from a technical perspective, since if they just killed him off they wouldn’t have to deal with CGI and body doubles. But again, I’m really glad they didn’t go that route, since it would have cheapened Walker’s character and his contributions to the series.

Another good thing about how the filmmakers handled Walker’s death is that the techniques they used to complete his scenes are very convincing. There weren’t any moments where I found myself thinking that Walker’s character looked weird, or that he looked like a special effect. It’s a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that I have no idea how much of Walker’s footage was actually him and how much was simulated.

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Furious 7 ends up being a fitting tribute to Walker, and ends with a very nice little montage with some of his highlights from the series and the simple dedication, “For Paul.” It gives the movie real emotional heft and leaves the viewer feeling that the cast and crew of this big-budget action blockbuster really cared about Walker and really sought to honor his legacy.

So now that all that’s been said, what is the actual movie like?

Well like I said earlier, it’s pretty damn fun.

Part of the reason I was so excited for Furious 7 in the first place was because Fast & Furious 6 ended with such a great tease, in which a mysterious character played by Jason Statham kills one of Vin Diesel’s character Dominic Toretto’s buddies, and then calls him on the phone and intones ominously, “Dominic Toretto. You don’t know me yet. But you’re about to.”

Turns out he’s Deckard Shaw, the big bad brother of the previous film’s villain, Owen Shaw. His brother is now comatose (he seemed pretty dead at the end of the sixth movie but whatever) and Deckard has sworn revenge against Dom and his crew.

Partly it’s because I already like Jason Statham so much, but he’s my favorite villain of the year so far. He’s like a freaking Terminator. Pretty much every time he shows up it’s in the middle of an already-crazy action sequence, or his appearance sets off another crazy action sequence. I saw the movie a week ago so my memory on this may be a bit hazy, but off the top of my head I can’t remember any appearance Statham makes in the movie that isn’t action-related somehow.

He gets to drive fancy cars really fast (and wreck them too, of course), shoot machine guns and he gets to fight both Vin Diesel AND Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, so Statham fans such as myself will definitely get a satisfying dose of Statham badassery. It’s also a bit of a departure for Statham since he usually plays the good guy in his movies, but based on this film I would love to see him cast as a villain more often.

This is actually the first time Statham and Johnson have been in a movie together, which in my opinion has been far too long in coming. I’ve been trying to convince my dad of the cultural and historical significance of this event for some time now, but he’s still not buying it for whatever reason. Oh, well. He’ll come around eventually (I’m not giving up on this, dad).

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Pictured: cultural significance. Can’t you just feel the culture radiating off those biceps? I can feel it like a punch to the face.

Johnson doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time in Furious 7, since his initial encounter with Statham puts him in the hospital for most of the movie, which is too bad. But he still gets some cool moments, such as (spoiler, I guess) crashing an ambulance into a Predator drone and shooting down a helicopter with a minigun, so there’s that, and his battle with Statham at the beginning of the movie is a knock-down drag-out brawl for the ages. He also gets to break a cast off his arm simply by flexing his enormous muscles, which is all kinds of awesome.

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The plot of the movie is fairly simple. Deckard Shaw wants revenge. Dom and his pals have to stop him. In order to find him, they need to get their hands on a computer program called God’s Eye, which is capable of finding anyone on the planet no matter where they are. They are assisted in this particular endeavor by a government agent played by Kurt Russell of all people, who also gets a couple of badass moments, one of them involving night-vision sunglasses. Just throwing that out there.

The cast is mostly the same as the previous films. Vin Diesel is really quite likable as the gravelly-voiced Dom, Michelle Rodriguez returns as his amnesiac girlfriend Letty, and Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and of course Paul Walker all reprise their roles from the previous films. They’re all pretty great in roles each of them have been playing for years, the only one I don’t really like is Tyrese Gibson’s character, an irritating loudmouth who just gets on my nerves after a while. The only new addition to their crew is a computer hacker named Ramsey played by Game of Thrones alum Nathalie Emmanuel, who helps them get their hands on the God’s Eye program and of course looks gorgeous.

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All of this involves substantial amounts of mayhem. Cars dropped out of airplanes, cars jumping skyscrapers, cars getting blown up by missiles. I read that 230 cars were destroyed in the making of Furious 7, and I think it’s safe to say that they gave their lives for a good cause. The action sequences in the movie, and there are a lot of them, are consistently thrilling and just an absolute blast to watch, in many cases literally.

The movie was directed by James Wan, known mostly known for his horror films (among them Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring). He acquits himself quite well as an action director, with a couple of cool camera moves during the fight scenes. The previous four films in the series were directed by Justin Lin (who I think is going to direct Star Trek 3), but the change of directors doesn’t affect the quality of the movie.

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Furious 7, like its predecessors, isn’t high drama. It’s not a masterpiece in the arts of storytelling and subtlety. But it is an extremely well-made and endlessly exciting action movie, as well as a satisfying send-off for a gifted actor gone too soon. Popcorn flicks don’t get much better than this. Bring on Fast Eight, which I seriously hope will be called F8, and pronounced “Fate.” You can use that, Hollywood. I’ll expect my royalty check in the mail any day now.

The Untouchable

2014 was the Year of Scarlett Johansson. She had three movies that were all hits in their own ways. Her biggest hit was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was critically acclaimed and one of the top ten highest-grossing movies of the year. On the other end of the spectrum, she had Under the Skin, a strange little indie sci-fi flick that earned her some pretty great reviews for her performance as an alien in human skin.

And somewhere in between these two, she also made a movie called Lucy, a modestly-budgeted sci-fi action thriller, and it is this film which I will be taking a look at today. It was a financial hit, making its $40 million budget back several times over, but was polarizing among critics and audiences.

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Lucy was written and directed by Luc Besson, a French filmmaker who hasn’t been directing a whole lot lately, but if his name sounds familiar it’s probably because he’s been busy producing and co-writing films in the Taken and Transporter series, as well as movies like Lockout and From Paris With Love.

According to Besson, the script for Lucy took 9 years to write, so I guess you could call the movie a labor of love for him. In the film, Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman living in Taiwan. In the film’s opening scene, she is arguing with her boyfriend Richard. He works as a courier, delivering things to the mysterious Mr. Jang. Richard is trying to convince Lucy to deliver his latest package, a silver briefcase.

Lucy isn’t stupid, and she refuses to do it until Richard handcuffs the briefcase to her wrist. He doesn’t have the key to get it off her, so she has no choice but to deliver it. She enters Mr. Jang’s building while Richard watches from the street, and while she is waiting for Mr. Jang to come down and take possession of the briefcase, she sees Richard be shot dead outside. Some mean-looking dudes in dark suits come down the elevator and take Lucy, now terrified, upstairs to meet Mr. Jang.

When we meet Mr. Jang, he is stepping over a couple of dead bodies, and his face and hands are spattered with blood. Our friend Lucy is officially having a very bad day. He gives her the combination for the briefcase, and we see that it contains three packets filled with blue powder. Mr. Jang offers Lucy a job. She doesn’t want it (understandably) and is knocked out.

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When she wakes up, she has a scar on her stomach. Mr. Jang and his associates have sewn one of the packets into her abdomen and are going to use her and a couple other guys as drug mules.

Later on, a couple of her guards come on to her. She resists them, and is viciously kicked in the stomach. It’s tough to watch this very attractive young woman be brutally and repeatedly kicked in the gut, but I guess you could call it the Kick of Destiny, because it breaks open the bag of powder sewn into her stomach and releases the drug into her system.

From there, Lucy begins to become something not quite human.

All right, now I need to back up a little. I’ve explained the basic setup for the plot and described a few of the early scenes, but I’ve left out some details that are pretty important. In the opening scene, where Lucy is arguing with Richard, their conversation is intercut with footage of a cheetah stalking and running down a gazelle (or maybe it’s an antelope, I’m not really familiar with African wildlife). This is of course symbolic, with Richard as the cheetah, and Lucy as the unwitting gazelle/antelope.

And after the first scene with Mr. Jang, Besson cuts to a professor (played by Morgan Freeman, because everyone takes everything he says seriously no matter how ridiculous it might be) giving a lecture on brain capacity. And this seems to be the biggest point of contention about this film.

We’ve all probably heard at some point that humans only use 10% of their brain’s capacity. As far as I have been able to find out, this is purely a myth, but Besson’s film takes this idea, lights itself on fire, and scores a flaming touchdown against a team composed entirely of robot ninjas.

What I’m saying is that the movie takes the idea and runs with it. Like, really RUNS with it, and if you’re not down with it, well, that’s just too bad.

Once the drug is released into her system, Lucy starts to unlock more and more of her brain’s capacity, and gains more and more POWER. Remember Limitless, the 2011 Bradley Cooper movie where he takes a drug that makes him super-smart? Lucy is kind of like that, but in addition to becoming super-smart, Lucy also gains fricking superpowers.

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She gains telepathic and telekinetic abilities and is able to remember everything that has ever happened to her, including when she was a baby. She feels no pain and all of her emotions begin to fade. She becomes a superhuman, and all of the henchmen Mr. Jang sends after her are completely helpless against her. No one can touch her.

She ends up contacting the professor played by Morgan Freeman to help figure out what is happening to her, and enlists a French police captain named Del Rio to help round up Mr. Jang’s other drug mules.

Throughout all of this, Lucy becomes more and more emotionless and less able to identify with anything human. When Captain Del Rio asks her why she keeps him around, and quite reasonably points out that there isn’t really anything he can do for her that she can’t do for herself much more efficiently, she looks at him strangely for a second and says, “As a reminder.” She keeps him around to remind her of what it’s like to be human and to have human emotions, as she becomes more powerful she also becomes more disconnected.

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I really like this idea, it reminds me a lot of Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen (remember the big blue naked guy?), who has the power to save mankind from itself but doesn’t want to because he has grown so powerful that he can’t identify with them anymore.

It’s a great way to keep the movie interesting and to keep us caring about Lucy, and it prevents her from being turned into a boring automaton. There’s not really any physical threat to Lucy once she becomes more powerful, so most of the film’s drama comes from wondering what will happen to her.

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And Johansson nails it. She just absolutely nails every stage of Lucy’s superhuman transformation, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Her demeanor and her body language and the way she talks change completely as the movie progresses, and the character of Lucy at the beginning of the movie is completely different from her character at the end of the movie, but I found it to be a fun journey, thanks in large part to the strength of Johansson’s performance (and I’m not just saying that because I’m in love with Scarlett Johansson, I mean come on, who isn’t?). Luc Besson has always had a thing for strong female characters, and Johansson’s Lucy is no exception.

And as for the whole 10% brain capacity thing…it really didn’t bother me. It seems like a lot of people were annoyed that the movie takes the idea that people only use 10% of their brain’s capacity and treats it as fact, when in reality it’s all purely theoretical at best. I can understand how that would bother scientifically-minded people, but never having been very science-y myself I can honestly say that it didn’t bother me a bit. I quite enjoyed the movie, it’s just so weird that to be honest, I kind of loved it for just how bizarre it is.

The tone of the movie is kind of all over the place, and there are some weird montages thrown in at various points, including one of animals mating and giving birth (gross), so that the first time I watched the movie I kept wondering if I was watching an action movie or some sort of weird Discovery Channel documentary.

The early scenes with Mr. Jang are chilling, and Besson is very good at building suspense, and Johansson is very convincing at looking scared out of her mind. Also effective is the actor who plays Mr. Jang. He is played by a Korean actor named Choi Min-Sik, who is very famous in his native country and is probably best to known to Western audiences for the movie Oldboy. He is incredibly menacing, made even more so by the fact that all of his dialogue is in Korean and none of his early dialogue is subtitled, so the audience is as confused and disoriented as Lucy is at the beginning of the movie.

I thoroughly enjoyed Lucy. I can understand why some people would be turned off by it but I got a kick out of it (so to speak). And the whole movie, including the end credits, runs only 90 minutes (not counting the end credits it’s only about 82 minutes) so if you do end up hating it at least you won’t have to put up with it for very long.

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So by all means, check it out. It really is very different from any other movie I’ve seen recently, and that alone counts for something.