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LUCY IN THE SKY

Producer: Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Noah Hawley and John Cameron
Director: Noah Hawley
Writer: Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi and Noah Hawley
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Colman Domingo, Ellyn Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro, Pearl Amanda Dickson and Jeffrey Donovan
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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The sad story of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who in 2007 was arrested on charges of threatening another female NASA employee as a result of jealousy over her relationship with a third astronaut Nowak had had a relationship with, is the very loose inspiration for director-writer Noah Hawley’s feature debut. At the time the tale became tabloid fodder, with reports that Nowak used adult diapers to allow her to make a desperate drive from Houston to Orlando to accost her quarry; it even (or perhaps inevitably) became ripped-from-the-headlines grist for an episode of “Law & Order.”

But while Hawley and his co-writers Brian C. Brown and Elliott DeGuiseppi certainly don’t ignore sensationalist elements in the final lap of “Lucy in the Sky,” which deals with that frantic road trip, their film attempts to be a serious rumination on how the protagonist’s unhappy life and her obsession with escaping its emotional pull by continuing to fly into the vast quiet of space led to her psychological unraveling. It’s a concept that might have made for a compelling portrait, had not Hawley’s penchant for gimmicks over straightforward storytelling fatally compromised the film.

In this version, Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) is an ambitious astronaut who yearns to return to space and dedicates herself to acing the various tests that entails, even endangering her own life in the process. One can somewhat understand her desire, since her home life is not entirely satisfying. Her husband Drew (Dan Stevens, with whom Hawley has worked on FX’s “Legion”) is an understated, dweebish NASA personnel analyst, her daughter Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) is somewhat troubled, and her beloved granny (Ellen Burstyn) is not only ill, but a constant reminder of how unhappy her childhood was.

No wonder she’s attracted to fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a handsome, macho womanizer who’s about to go off on a mission himself. They have a passionate fling, but his wandering eye eventually lights on another astronaut, Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), who’s not only younger but unencumbered, it seems, by family ties. That makes Lucy jealous, and as her emotions get the better of her, their boss (Colman Domingo) tells her that he’s, at least temporarily, removing her from consideration for upcoming flights. When she breaks into Mark’s office computer and finds that it was he who raised concerns about her stability, it sets Lucy off (her grandmother’s death adds another element to her distress), and she impulsively decides to confront him and Erin on their rendezvous. In Hawley’s revised narrative, she takes her increasingly concerned daughter along, which further contributes to her plan falling apart.

The cast is certainly committed down the line, with Portman standing out with a highly engaged performance, Texas drawl and all. But Hawley and his cinematographer Polly Morgan undermine the cast’s work with tricks meant to enhance the dramatic urgency but actually diminish it. The most obvious is the decision to switch repeatedly from widescreen to the compressed Academy aspect ratio, creating a boxier image; the change is apparently meant to suggest Lucy’s claustrophobic inner life as compared to the breadth of her experience in space, or simply gazing at the stars, but the effect is more confusing than enlightening.

There’s also the sequence of Lucy traversing the hallway of the hospital en route to her nana’s room, done in the vertiginous style of a character floating against the backgrounds rather than simply passing them by. And there are persistent references to butterflies, bees and other insects that are meant to have some metaphorical import but come across merely as strange.

Then comes the final road trip sequence, shot and edited (by Regis Kimble) so frenetically that it almost turns into farce, which comes across at odds with what has to that point been a pretty serious, if often histrionic, character study. Unless one knows about the Nowak case, moreover, it will also come out of left field, especially given Lucy’s apparent lack of concern for Blue Iris in all the tumult.

In sum, “Lucy in the Sky” is a film with an impressively ambitious reach, one that extends literally into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, it remains obstinately earthbound because the ambition too often goes awry.

SEMPER FI

Producer: David Lancaster and Karina Miller
Director: Henry-Alex Rubin
Writer: Sam Mullin and Henry-Alex Rubin
Stars: Jai Courtney, Nat Wolff, Finn Wittrock, Leighton Meester, Arturo Castro, Beau Knapp, Rachel Hendrix, Wayne Pere and Lance E. Nichols
Studio: Lionsgate

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We are presumably meant to sympathize with brothers Cal (Jai Courtney) and Oyster (Nat Wolff), the fraternal pair at the center of Henry Alex Rubin’s “Semper Fi,” but the writing and performances make that rather difficult to do—despite the travails they go through—simply because of the awful choices they make. In the end you may wonder whether they don’t get pretty much what they deserve.

Cal, played with much intensity by Courtney, is the focal character here. He’s a dedicated if sometimes overeager cop who’s also a Marine Corps reservist. He and his rowdy buddies—Jaeger (Finn Wittrock), Milk (Beau Knapp) and Snowball (Arturo Castro)—are about to ship out for a tour of duty in Iraq, but before their departure they raise plenty of hell, and in the midst of it all Cal’s loud, abrasive younger brother—whom Wolff makes pretty obnoxious, to tell the truth—gets into an altercation in a bar and the other fellow winds up dead.

Being a principled officer, Cal prevents Oyster from going on the lam; in fact, he’s instrumental in taking him in. Oyster is, as you might expect, not happy with this, especially after he’s convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a long term in the pen, where his cocky attitude soon brings the wrath of the nasty guards on him.

Cal’s tour in Iraq with his buddies is unsettling, given the dangers they face, but with the exception of Jaeger, they come back physically uninjured. (A scene in which they all visit Walter Reed Hospital and see injured comrades-in-arms being treated is the film’s most moving moment.) But when Cal learns how his brother’s being treated in prison, he’s anxious to have his case appealed, or maybe get him a transfer. Oyster doesn’t help matters by accusing Cal of not having given him enough support after their parents died; he essentially blames his brother for his present predicament.

So Cal decides to take extreme action: with the help of his Marine pals, he’ll arrange for his brother’s escape. The scheme involves using the team’s military expertise to waylay a prison bus transporting Oyster and then spiriting him across the Canadian border. There’s supposed to be suspense as to whether the operation will succeed, but not much is actually created; and there’s heavy-handed irony in the conclusion, in which Cal sacrifices much to secure his brother’s freedom. To say that the outcome strains credulity would be an understatement.

It’s certainly true that Rubin and his cast capture the drunken camaraderie of this bunch of longtime buddies quite realistically, as well as their devotion to supporting and protecting one another. There is a female presence here, in the person of Leighton Meester as Clara, Jaeger’s girlfriend, who serves as the reasonable alternative to the impulsiveness that arises from Cal’s damaged psyche; but the emphasis—indeed, the whole point of the film—is on the guys and how they’re always loyal to their pals, no matter what. “Semper Fi” is the Marine Corps motto, of course, but here it refers to the unbreakable bond that links these brothers in arms who are also brothers in life.

That’s a nice premise, but it’s one that intersects poorly with the action-movie tropes and overripe melodrama employed here to shape the narrative. The fraternal relationship at the center of the film is frankly mawkish, however many recriminations Cal and Oyster shout at one another, and the dirty half-dozen heroics at the close border on action-movie parody. This is a film that wants to seem grittily real, but under its ostensibly hard surface it has a mushy core.