Pandas: The Journey HomeFriday, July 25, 12:30 p.m.-ish: I take my seat for the latest big-screen edu-tainment at the Putnam Museum, and can't imagine a better way to begin my third quadruple feature of the month. For one thing, the movie I'm at is only 40 minutes long, which will shorten my work day considerably. For another, the movie is all about pandas. Pandas! Who doesn't love pandas? I figure that, at worst, the National Geographic presentation Pandas: The Journey Home will be adorable. So I'll admit to some more-than-mild surprise when, not 10 minutes into the film, we're treated to the (tasteful) sight of a female panda being artificially inseminated, right after witnessing the (tasteful) sight of a male panda mating with her. Hmmm, I think. Didn't see that in Disney's Bears.

But even at twice the length, that springtime Disneynature release wasn't as informative as director Nicolas Brown's Journey Home, which concerns the efforts of China's Wolong Panda Center to prepare bears raised in captivity for life in the wild. Did you know that pandas eat up to 80 pounds of bamboo a day? That wild pandas occasionally resort to cannibalism? That while delivering fresh supplies of bamboo to their charges, Wolong Panda Center employees have to wear theme-park-styled panda costumes that, as narrator Joely Richardson gently explains, are "scented with panda poo and pee"? I had expected this last factoid to elicit chuckles from the kids in the happily ample crowd. But instead, they watch the entire movie with what seems like rapt attention, and are audible only when giggling at the bears' playful cavorting or "Aw-w-w"-ing at appropriately "Aw-w-w"-worthy moments. My only significant gripes with the film are that it sometimes feels unduly rushed - Richardson tells us the capture of a particular panda "isn't going to be easy" three seconds before the cub actually is captured - and that the screen images are awfully dim, even considering the 3D eyewear. (Although I presume, maybe incorrectly, that this is less the cinematographer's fault than an issue with the projection, every scene appears to have been shot beneath heavy storm clouds.) But Journey Home remains a fine, fun time at the Putnam, and a wonderfully educational one, especially when it's revealed that female pandas are fertile for only two days a year. Pandas may be cuter than us, but I bet they also corner the market on performance anxiety.

Dwayne Johnson in Hercules1:30-ish: Now on the other side of Davenport, I'm attending Hercules, and as my schedule dictates that I catch the film in its IMAX 3D presentation, I'm wondering if I should've saved a few bucks by pocketing those Putnam glasses and sneaking them in here. (I would never have done that. But I did wonder.) Not quite 100 minutes later, I'm more than happy to have shelled out the extra dough, because this big-budget action spectacle, against nearly all of my expectations, deserves to rake in as much cash as it can. Having managed to avoid Renny Harlin's The Legend of Hercules in January - and from what I've heard, good for me - I was still less than enthused about viewing this more simply titled but equally (laughably) somber-looking adventure, despite the promise of lead Dwayne Johnson with, you know, hair. I'm also initially concerned that the most visually exciting bits from the previews, involving our muscle-bound Greek's "12 labours" battles with the Nemean Lion and Erymanthian Boar and such, are tossed off in the first five minutes, employed as mere preamble to what would presumably be a far less engaging narrative.

I wind up so wrong. With each fantastically well-choreographed action sequence trumping the one that came before it, and nearly every scene sprinkled with jokes (and funny jokes), director Brett Ratner's invigorating outing - based on Steve Moore's graphic novel - may be the most unexpected cinematic blast of the summer. Many consider the notorious "auteur" of the Rush Hour franchise a hack. (And, off-screen, the possessor of some rather douche-y attitudes.) But here, he's at least an extraordinarily confident and enthusiastic hack, and one with a particular gift for chaos involving thousands of CGI extras. (Hercules' and company's battle against an army of bald, shrieking, green-tinted nightmares is so joyously nasty that I grin all the way through it.) And by the time Johnson has worked himself into his enraged "I ... am ... Hercules!!!" lather at the finale, egged on by composer Fernando Velázquez's thunderous score, the overpowering thrill of the build-up, and the surprising emotion of its release, may make you feel like applauding or bawling or both. The movie is manipulative as hell but damned satisfying, and I leave the screening antsy for a 12 Labours of Hercules prequel, just so long as the charismatic and empathetic Johnson is along for the ride, and brings with him at least a few of his co-stars. Ian McShane (as a frequently, comically inaccurate oracle), John Hurt, and Rebecca Ferguson are particularly strong, and I absolutely love Rufus Sewell as Hercules' snarky traveling companion Autolycus, who's recruited, none too happily, to turn hundreds of Greek farmers into a fierce army battalion. "If you're lucky," he says, referring to his hapless trainees' inevitable deaths, "you'll go to Hades. Where all the fun people are."

Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton in And So It Goes3:10-ish: It's time now for the new endurance test from the formerly reliable, presently insufferable Rob Reiner, whose latest tin-ear extravaganza is the director's geriatric romantic dramedy And So It Goes. If you've ever longed to see a feature-length adaptation of the word "meh," this is the film for you.

Michael Douglas plays another of his late-career cantankerous bastards, this time a cranky widower who Learns to Love Again through the aid of a nine-year-old granddaughter (Sterling Jerins) he never knew existed, and the eccentric charms of the giggling-through-tears chanteuse next door (Diane Keaton). The movie itself, written by Mark Andrus, is as dreary and forgettable as its namby-pamby title - a squishy, soft-focus mess boasting irredeemably phony dialogue, witless sitcom contrivances, ridiculously simplistic conflict resolution, and some of the most embarrassing mini-slapstick that Reiner, or anyone, has ever before delivered. (When the director, in his co-starring role as Keaton's pianist, loses his balance, tumbles to the ground, and gets all wet, the moment couldn't be more ineptly staged. Or, for that matter, more symbolic.) But as there's no longer any schadenfreude in witnessing the continuing downward spiral of Reiner's filmmaking career, and certainly no pleasure in watching Douglas and Keaton forced to spin the wheels of their familiar acting tics for 100 minutes, I'm determined to remain as upbeat as possible. Consequently, I leave at least grateful for the time spent with the blessedly salty and sweet 84-year-old Frances Sternhagen, and the chance to hear Keaton - still in lovely voice at age 68 - croon touching, lounge-singer arrangements of "It Could Happen to You," "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Something to Talk About," and other tunes. Her skills, by the way, eventually earn Keaton's character a $1,500-a-week nightclub gig given to her by none other than Frankie Valli ... meaning that the pop legend has gone from Jersey Boys icon to Rob-Reiner-flick cameo in just five weeks. And so it goes.

Scarlett Johansson in Lucy4:55-ish: My most jam-packed screening of the day actually takes place at a traditionally underpopulated time for movie-going, as I'm seeing writer/director Luc Besson's Lucy with easily more than 100 fellow patrons. If you closed your eyes, you might've thought more than 500 opted to attend, because the raucous laughter that greets this action thriller's most brutally sadistic escapades is that of people clearly overjoyed to be in on Besson's joke - if, in fact, he is joking. The movie finds an accidental drug ingestion causing Scarlett Johansson's title character to access superhuman percentages of brain activity and cognizance, and it's filled with lofty recitations of theoretical science that make you slump in your seat and pray for the next violent encounter to land soon. (In this regard, it's just like this past spring's Transcendence, and has Morgan Freeman on hand to prove it.) But there are laughs, and huge ones, whenever Lucy unleashes her nascent powers of mind and matter control on the thugs who want her dead, and there are memorable set pieces galore, such as when our heroine disarms a hallway full of cronies and sends them spinning to the ceiling.

Being a Besson picture, Lucy is nuts; hyper-edited stock footage of animals in the wild blends with surgeries performed sans anesthesia blends with a dino-friendly nod to The Tree of Life, and the plotting is silly to the point of distraction. (Seriously, if you're smuggling drugs from China to America, there's no better way than through the stomach of a platinum blond in a leopard-skin coat?) Yet even at its most senseless, the film remains an enjoyably feverish, up-tempo black comedy, and Johansson - blisteringly intelligent, profoundly physical, richly sensual - is utterly spellbinding in it. I have a pretty great time at the movie, and would've had an even better one if not for the two exceptionally rude patrons who chatted at top volume throughout and shared their (occasional) vocal derision even after patrons sitting nearby asked them to keep it down. Despite the vicious fun of Lucy, this was the most irritating viewing experience I've had at a cineplex since ... well, since that area booking of Under the Skin, when I was forced to make sense of the story through the neighboring interruption of Muppets Most Wanted. I remember that I also had a mild vocal altercation with a man at Captain America: The Winter Solider whose daughter, sitting next to me, chattered loudly throughout the movie's first half. Is there nowhere that a fan can enjoy Scarlett Johansson's work in peace?!

6:35-ish. I exit Lucy and see that there's a 7:50 showing of Begin Again, the new musical by Once creator John Carney that stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and that finally landed in our area after its release in larger markets several weeks ago. Love Once, John. Love you, Keira and Mark. But today, at least, you can't make me.

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