Even the most casual follower of current events must be aware of the plethora of headlines bemoaning the sorry financial state of this year's summer blockbuster season with its nearly 20-percent drop from last year's record setting bonanza. The experts have weighed in with a myriad of probable causes for this fall-off, with consumer fatigue over the usual action-hero-driven fare the most likely culprit.
I don't much care that these gazillion-budget blockbusters aren't making as much as usual. ( And let's keep this in perspective, folks: We're talking about an industry still reaping in billionsit's just less billions than usual. ) But the idea that audiences might be finally wearying of the same old same old piques my interest. Is it possible that the stranglehold of the typical testosterone-driven summer fare might finally be broken? Two new moviesMarvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and Lucyhybrids of the action genrecertainly offer proof that a new day may be dawning at the Cineplex.
It is perhaps the height of irony that Marvel Studios, the movie division of the comic-book consortium that has been the basis for the glut of so many of these superhero blockbusters, is behind Guardians of the Galaxy. It's ironic because the movie takes all the action-hero tropesthe hunky hero, the assorted sidekicks, the power-seeking villain and the hopped-up fight sequences welded to the razor-thin plotand twists them just enough to send up the entire genre. The result ( helped in no small measure by Chris Pratt as the cocky yet endearing Peter Quill aka "Star-Lord" ) is an exhilarating delighta tongue-in-cheek, big-budget sci-fi blockbuster that could easily be this generation's Star Wars.
Pratt has aptly described Quill as a cross between Han Solo and Marty McFly and that sums up the tone of the movie, too. In the deepest reaches of space, Quill, an earthling kidnapped as a child, now grown, comes across a mysterious orb which is coveted by the evil Ronan ( Lee Pace ). Quill, a womanizing loner, is forced to join forces with Ronan's enemiesa ragtag group that includes Zoe Saldana as a green-skinned alien assassin; a cocky, genetically engineered raccoon ( voiced by Bradley Cooper ); wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer; and a tree-like humanoid named Groot ( voiced by Vin Diesel )to keep the orb from falling into Ronan's hands.
This disparate group bands together to not only fight off Ronan but an assortment of other calamities and characters. They do so as the jokes and double takes fly between blasts of the laser guns. This disarming approach to a genre that is usually so deadly serious pixilates both the actors and the audience for the bulk of the movie. ( It's like a latter-day Flash Gordon, which also combined high spirits, laughs and action. )
Although the high spirits eventually sag a bit, the dazzling visuals keep the movie, which James Gunn directed, aloft. Certainly, expectations for Guardians of the Galaxy couldn't be any higher and the box-office prognosticators are warning that the movie is the summer's last hope of a financial windfall. Regardless of Guardians' financial outcome, Marvel has already announced a sequel; let's hope that by the time it arrives this kind of comic superhero hybrid is still as pleasing.
Lucy, from French filmmaker Luc Besson, is no less an exhilarating delighteven more so. Besson ( who scripted, directed and edited ) takes an opposite tack from Guardians. To the typical action-oriented, revenge plot he welds philosophical underpinnings, and creates a thought-provoking blockbuster that is fun, sexy and reflectiveand it's female-driven, to boot.
Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, a party girl living it up in Taiwan who is coerced by her boyfriend into delivering a briefcase to a drug lord named Mr. Jang ( Choi Min-sik ). Jang has a lethal new drug surgically embedded in her body and orders her and several other drug mules to deliver it around the world. But after being brutally kicked in the stomach by one of Jang's henchman, the drugs become ingested into Lucy's brain. In seconds, her mental capacities begin to grow at a phenomenal rate, turning her into a superwoman able to control the thoughts of others, as well as mastering matter itself. Lucy goes after Jang and his associates, and then tracks down the other drug mulesaided by Morgan Freeman as a professor who has only hypothesized the amazing things that Lucy can now do.
As Lucy's brain capacity nears 100 percent, her actions become more audacious by the second and the film takes on an almost hallucinatory quality. ( At one point, she becomes her own time machine. ) Lucy can see so far into the spectrum she's able to discern the visual equivalent of the soul that Besson ruminates on in the midst of Lucy kicking butt. Besson utilizes a battery of cinematic techniquesstop motion, propulsive edits and jump cutsto get across Lucy's amazing new abilities. Although the story, as noted, is typical, Besson's film is so stylish and tremendously fun ( I smiled through the entire film ), one overlooks the plot holes. Faster than the speed of light, Lucy is certainly the best film I've seen this summer.
The 20th annual Black Harvest Film Festival runs Aug. 1-28 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. The fest celebrates the diversity of the Black experience in the United States and around the world on film. Opening-night festivities include a "best-of" screening of festival highlights, as well as the presentation of this year's Deloris Jordan Award for Excellence in Community Leadership to Chaz Ebert and to her late husband film critic Roger Ebert for their long-term championship of minority films and independent cinema.
More than 30 filmmakers are scheduled to participate in the fest, including out director-producer Josh MacNeal and Cy, his lesbian sister who is screenwriter of their film, the character drama The 4th Meeting ( which screens on Friday, Aug. 8, and Thursday, Aug. 14, at 8:30 p.m. ).
Queer audiences will be interested in Bad Hair, from director Mariana Rondon, a Venezuelan film centered on a young Latin American boy named Juniorand his social, cultural and sexual identity vis-a-vis his 'fro. Things get tense in his homophobic family when his crush on a handsome news vendor becomes known. The film screens Sunday, Aug. 17, at 3 p.m. and Monday, Aug. 18, at 6 p.m. Director Norry Niven's From Above starring Danny Glover is closing-night feature. The complete line-up, screening dates, times and advance tickets are at http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/blackharvest_2014.
The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.in partnership with the Cultural Service at the Consulate General of France in Chicagois presenting the fourth annual Chicago French Film Festival July 31-Aug. 5.
Guillaume Galliennerecently seen in Yves St. Laurent, the biopic of the late gay French designerstars in the opening night feature Me, Myself and Mum, which he also wrote and directs. The centerpiece screening, slated for Saturday, Aug. 2, at 6:30 p.m., is Violette, which focuses on the lesbian relationship of writer Violette Leduc and Simone de Beauvoir. ( My review of the film will appear when the movie plays its theatrical run at the Music Box beginning Aug. 8. )
LGBT film audiences will also be interested in director Robin Campillo's Eastern Boys, a queer-themed thriller screening Friday, Aug. 1, at 9:45 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 3, at 8:30 p.m.; the movie won an award at the Venice Film Festival. Philippe Garrel's Jealousy is the closing-night feature. The complete line-up, screening dates, times and advance tickets are at http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/festivals/the-2014-chicago-french-film-festival.
Now available: The Best of Knight at the Movies: 2004-2014a compilation book of more than 150 of my film reviews from a queer perspective for Windy City Timesis now available. www.knightatthemovies.com