The latest crop of new films includes an exemplary sequel, a predictable romantic comedy and an interesting (if bloody) exercise in exorcism that — wonder of wonders — treats faith seriously.
To describe "Boyhood" as unique is to underestimate a film that was shot in 39 days over the course of 12 years. For this reason alone, "Boyhood" offers an unprecedented cinematic experience. In this green-screen era of computer-generated effects, it's refreshing, even astonishing, to watch characters age naturally — if not gracefully — on the big screen.
Writer-director Richard Linklater ("Before Midnight") sets out to chart "the rocky terrain of childhood" as no one has done before. As such, "Boyhood" has a documentary feel, and brings to mind Michael Apted's "Up" series, which checks in with the same participants every seven years.
But "Boyhood" is a work of fiction, and its tone of moral indifference ultimately will not resonate well with viewers of faith — or with those who cherish the loving bonds of family.
At its heart is Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). We meet him as a perfectly ordinary 6-year-old boy in suburban Texas, and then follow his life to age 18 and his departure for college.
Along for the ride are his spunky sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter), and his divorced mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). The lad's father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is an occasional presence.
Olivia is restless and insecure. She wants more out of life than being a mother, and uproots her family multiple times as she searches for a career and a new husband.
Mason Sr., on the other hand, is footloose and fancy free. He indulges his children whenever he sees them (which is not often), dispensing dime-store advice.
When Mason Jr. throws gutter balls at the bowling alley, upset that there are no bumpers in his lane, Dad tells him to grow up. "You don't need bumpers. Life doesn't give you bumpers."
Divorce looms large in this movie, as children are forced to deal with their parents' inadequacies and their opposing methods of parenting, a situation made all the more challenging when Mom remarries (twice), and Dad finds another wife.
In the end, the children essentially raise themselves, and decide on their own what is right and wrong.
This is where "Boyhood" falls short. The film is critical of Olivia's poor taste in men (both of her new spouses are abusive alcoholics) as well as Mason Sr.'s narcissism. But when it comes to the bratty kids, judgment is suspended.
Mason Jr.'s journey is presented to the audience as perfectly natural, even normal. We watch him drink beer in middle school, and smoke pot and have sex in high school.
He is lazy, indifferent and rude, marching to his own drummer despite the protestations of his mother and teachers. In the end, he is an admired figure, possessing a "wisdom" that seems beyond his years.
While many viewers may identify with Mason Jr.'s experience, that does not make his actions morally acceptable.
Not surprisingly, "Boyhood" has no time for religion, even when Mason Sr. marries a sweet lady from the Bible Belt who manages to reform his freewheeling ways. Her gun-toting parents give Mason Jr. a Bible for his birthday, played as a cringe-worthy moment.
Samantha laments, "You're not becoming one of those God people, are you Dad?" Heaven forbid.
The film contains a benign attitude toward drug and underage alcohol use, teenage sex, and contraception, an ambivalent portrayal of religion, occasional profanity and frequent crude language. (L, R)
This much can be said for the passable 3-D adventure "Hercules": By comparison with this year's earlier cinematic addition to the store of lore about antiquity's most acclaimed strongman, "The Legend of Hercules," the new film is practically a masterpiece.
Considered on its own, though, director Brett Ratner's mildly demythologizing take on the subject — which stars Dwayne Johnson in the title role — nets out as amiable and reasonably diverting, but unlikely to linger in moviegoers' memories.
Based on Steve Moore's graphic novel "Hercules: The Thracian Wars," this variation on a durable theme finds the hero — who may or may not be a demigod — following up on the completion of his 12 canonical labors by leading a band of super-skilled mercenaries around the political patchwork of ancient Greece.
His quintet of comrades is comprised of fighting prophet Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), brainy strategist Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), mute, feral slaughter survivor Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), Amazon archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and callow warrior — but gifted storyteller — Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). In addition to being Hercules' cousin, young Iolaus is also the ancient equivalent of his PR man.
When fetching Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) turns up to offer this formidable ensemble a job, her proposal seems straightforward enough at first. She wants Hercules and his followers to help her father, King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt), rid his realm of a marauding rebel called Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). Their reward? Hercules' weight in gold.
Of course, anyone familiar with court intrigue, at least as it's portrayed on screen, will realize that all is not what it seems and that Hercules and company will end up getting more than they bargained for when they struck their initial deal with Ergenia.
The odd witticism and some on-target messages about believing in oneself and putting strength at the service of goodness are scattered through Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos' script. But the real agenda of Ratner's sweeping movie is large-scale combat and plenty of it.
Still, for those grown-ups content to munch popcorn in an air-conditioned theater, this summer dole out of derring-do will no doubt ... well, do.
The film contains constant, mostly bloodless violence, some gory images, a glimpse of rear nudity, occasional sexual references, at least one use of the F-word and a handful of crude and crass terms. (A-III, PG-13)
No one can accuse French writer-director Luc Besson of having made a dull film. But giddy sci-fi notions pepper his bizarre action thriller, while harsh events unfold amid its gritty setting, making this breakneck outing a suitable ride only for those grown-ups with seasoned judgment.
It's a safe bet that nothing good is going to happen to the streetwise but impressionable waif of the title once Lucy's boyfriend, Richard (Pilou Asbaek), tricks her into delivering a briefcase with unknown contents to a recipient he's clearly afraid to face. So it's no surprise when the case turns out to hold a large quantity of a cutting-edge narcotic belonging to brutal Taiwanese crime lord Mr. Jang (Choi Min Sik).
Though the initial transfer of the drug is harrowing enough, worse is to follow: Beaten unconscious, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) wakes up to find that a portion of the crystalline substance has been implanted in her, and that she's being compelled to serve as one of Jang's beleaguered crew of unwilling mules.
Held in captivity pending her departure, Lucy is accidentally exposed to the influence of her cargo when one of Jang's henchmen, whose advances she's repelled, responds by putting her through another drubbing. The startling result is that, rather than merely getting high or even overdosing, Lucy rapidly begins using more and more of her brain's untapped capacity for thought.
This process of intellectual expansion not only enables Lucy to escape, but keeps her several steps ahead of the pursuing bad guys, led by Jang's underling Jii (Nicolas Phongpheth). While they're intent on recovering their product — and punishing the runaway — Lucy is determined to turn her unique experience to the benefit of science.
To that end, she uses the Internet to locate Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), one of the world's leading experts on the subject of evolutionary consciousness. Scenes of Norman lecturing on his chosen topic have earlier been interspersed, somewhat mysteriously, with the sequences recounting Lucy's mounting misfortunes.
Religiously dedicated moviegoers will appreciate the brief but fervent prayer Lucy offers up once she realizes that she's fallen into Jang's clutches. They'll be more ambivalent about her encounter with her namesake, the earliest ancestor of the human race from whom, scientists surmise, all subsequent homo sapiens descend.
During their meeting, the two reach out, finger to finger, in a gesture strongly reminiscent of the iconic one shared between God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Is this a Darwinian redrawing of Michelangelo's familiar image of creation? Or are we to infer that Lucy's ascent to some version of omniscience makes her a stand-in for God?
Plot details also call for careful sifting. As Lucy approaches intellectual totality, she gains the ability to control the material world. From a Christian perspective, of course, that's an off-kilter portrayal of the relationship between thought and matter. Lucy's ever-deepening insights into the nature of things, moreover, have more to do with a sort of low-rent Zen Buddhism than with revealed religion.
These philosophical factors, together with a steady stream of nasty mayhem, suggest a wary stance toward "Lucy" would be best, even for adults.
The film contains themes requiring mature discernment, considerable gory violence, drug use, a scene of sexual aggression and about a half-dozen crude terms. (L, R)
CNS classifications: A-I — general patronage. A-II — adults and adolescents. A-III — adults. A-IV — adults, with reservations. L — limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. O — morally offensive.