Lucy Review  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , , ,

Directed by Luc Besson
Released in 2014

Lucy is an exhilarating liberation from sense — a slender, manicured middle finger to anyone who carped about Gravity’s jetpack physics or reassessed their love for a movie after watching one of those “Everything Wrong With…” videos on YouTube. To say this movie has plot holes or is “so dumb” is to say nothing critical at all; those are platitudes, facts, technical specifications. Watch Lucy on its own terms and enjoy a rare collision of 21st century style and themes with old-school, no-nonsense narrative economy. It moves faster than you can think and it’s all over in — have I mentioned?? — 90 minutes.

Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a pretty much average, intellectually at least, American studying abroad in Taiwan. When we first meet her she is in the middle of some boring back-and- forth with her boyfriend until — being the scumbag his wiry beard and tinted shades telegraph him to be — he handcuffs a mysterious suitcase to her wrist, for immediate delivery to a Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy fame). Jang’s henchmen knock her out, surgically insert the contents of the case — a bag of blue crystallized drug called CPH4 — into her lower tummy and, for added macho awfulness, one of the goons gropes her while she is chained in a dingy room. Since she is a strong female protagonist, she wards him off, but since this is also a screw-the-patriarchy kind of action flick, he retaliates by kicking her in the abdomen. The bag inside her leaks and an animated camera flies through her arteries as blue crystals spill into her bloodstream, lighting up like fireworks and sending her into a convulsive, floating fit. But she survives, and Lucy 2.0 is born.

From this point on, Lucy does not waste a single gesture, glance or step. The drug in her system fuels her brain to reach its untapped potential — to go beyond our brain’s paltry efficiency, which Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, Hollywood’s go-to for making nonsense sound smart) hypothesizes sits at 10 percent. In the midst of this initial action, director-producer-writer-animorph Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) cross-cuts to Norman lecturing before a rapt university audience (i.e., us) about the possibilities of using 20, 40 and eventually 100 percent of the human brain. Telepathy, extrasensory perception and other powers he admits belong in the realm of science fiction could be tapped into, and sure enough Lucy wields all these and more as she avenges her kidnapping, quarantines the rest of the world’s CPH4 supply and, I don’t know, attains the infinite sum of universal knowledge. References to 2001: A Space Odyssey abound, and rarely does an action film overreach so spectacularly.

Besson throws everything at us with his hypermontage style. Footage of cheetahs stalking prey, laundry machines and dividing cells pop up sporadically for associative, not quite subliminal effect. It’s a bit much, but then so is the whole movie. The leaps of logic — to say nothing of the laws of physics — enhance the film’s kineticism, naturally, and even make sense, thematically. This is a movie about a woman who evolves to attain a divine plane of omniscience, and better she do things impossible, bizarre and batshit crazy and leave us scratching our heads than…not. On Letterboxd, Jake Mulligan writes eloquently, and soberly, of how this is one of the only true “superhero movies” ever made. I’m all on board, and my only annotation is that ludicrous genre fare such as this may be the only proper vehicle for cinematic explorations of divinity: The only way to do it right is for it, in the end, to not fit together so neatly, and better have fun doing so than harden our theater seats into pews.

There are also car chases (note, plural) where coupes screech across asphalt on their sides and taxis catapult with a flick of Lucy’s wrist. But what makes Lucy good cinema and Transformers 4, Michael Bay’s undeniable talents aside, just a headache? Brevity is the soul of wit, and so Besson’s quick cuts keep action scenes short, breathless, lethal. And because of this tactical precision in the editing room, and a relatively conservative (or perhaps unnoticeable) use of special effects, Besson maintains a sense of plausible reality in spite of all the implausible going-ons. You will laugh throughout, and rest assured that is intended.

If I am overrating Lucy at all, it is because I am considering it in the context of Hollywood movies today, and especially their norms for screenwriting. The industry now values the likes of Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who suffocate any momentum their stories stumble upon with relentless qualifiers, asides and blatant exposition so to keep the plot hole warriors on IMDb at bay. In the end, movies like Prometheus, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and the new Star Treks are overlong, pedantic and, yes, still rife with all sorts of lapses in character motivation and logical continuity. Action cinema just takes itself so seriously these days.

There’s a moment in Lucy that takes place in an airplane bathroom, and it comes out of nowhere. I love that the movie made no attempt to explain it or incorporate the power she attains until the very end — and even then, only implicitly. This movie is uncut, color-coordinated nonsense  revolving around an ass-kicking heroine, but it’s also a bit more: As the story plows to its end, Lucy gets smarter, kills less (that’s for the boys to keep up, as the futile battle scenes at the end commiserate) and supersedes her physical female form. Godard famously said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” to which Lucy agrees, only with some crucial additions.

Three makes a trend, for Scarlett Johansson’s last three projects, outside of those in the contractually-obligated Marvel machine, mark a conscious redefinition of her image. Objectified and fantasized over more than most, she has now played three non-humans in a row with Her, Under the Skin and Lucy. Once the drug takes in this film, she remarks in soulless monotone how she no longer feels fear, pain or desire: “All things human fading away.” Besson fixates on her with many loving close-ups, but for once you feel she has found a director and a project that meets her on her own terms.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Venus in Fur Review  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , ,

At The Ithaca Voice. This film is a worthy complement to Certified Copy — for the time being, I can think of no higher praise.

We Are the Best! & Night Moves Reviews  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , ,

We Are the Best!
Directed by Lukas Moodysson
Released in 2014

We Are the Best! ends with a riot, as a rowdy audience hurls awful profanities at our three young heroines, Bobo (Mira Barkhammer), Klara (Mira Grosin) and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), in the middle of their punk rock set. But it’s undeniably a happy ending, one that literally gives voice to the film’s exclamative title and shrugs off the hostility met by politically charged music to, instead, exalt the joyous highs of friendship.

Best friends Bobo, a reserved tomboy, and Klara, a wild id with a mohawk to prove it, look around their Stockholm middle school and only see conformity, objectification, blondes. They turn to punk music, naturally, and bounce lyrics off one another for their first song, “Hate the Sport,” while walking laps ordered by their gym teacher for not following the rules. Like most coming-of-age fiction, We Are the Best! runs through a lot of boring rules just begging to be broken, but what makes this film not only stomachable but intelligent is how these girls come across as the right mix of precocious and flat-out annoying. They hide behind “the rules” to steal a practice room from a bunch of metalhead jerks (their band is called “Iron Fist”) and shrink from messing with them head-on, but they do so to prove a point. They don’t even know how to play instruments, but now they have a space to learn, dammit. Still, they need to learn, which is when loner Hedvig, a gifted classical guitarist, joins the picture.

At first I thought I was in for a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, times three, that would interrogate the weird drive in these worldly adolescents to make a statement, however on-the-nose it may be, through music. We get a little bit of that, as Hedvig imposes some discipline like “chords” on Klara’s atonal wailing and a maturation becomes visible. But director-writer Lukas Moodysson finds the relationships between these girls more interesting than their amateur music, which is a smart, if also somewhat safe choice. Boys enter the picture, which is at first a cute and necessary (given the boyish looks of these girls, especially Bobo) subplot that lapses into convention before long.

More vibrant is the time these girls — all played phenomenally, perfectly by their respective actresses — spend together. Moodysson's camera has a tungsten-tinged, handheld aesthetic that recalls Lars von Trier, and there is a moment when Bobo accidentally cuts her hand, screaming in pain, and that brutal Nordic realism threatens to surface. But it turns out to be just a flesh wound, quickly bandaged, and Klara and Hedvig flank her for a group hug. “I don’t want to die,” Bobo says. An extreme response, perhaps, but those words were just under the surface, waiting for a rapt audience of two.

Night Moves
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Released in 2014

Kelly Reichardt is a name anyone who follows American independent film should know, considering she is not only one of the best female directors out there but one of the best, period. But if you have not seen Meek’s Cutoff or Wendy and Lucy, chances are you have heard of Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, the stars of her latest film, Night Moves. Along with Peter Sarsgaard, the two play eco-terrorists plotting, in hushed whispers, to blow up a Oregon dam. While Fanning is just fine in her limited role, it is Eisenberg who you will remember. With very little dialogue to work with — Reichardt is known for “slow cinema” — Eisenberg proves that he does not need Aaron Sorkin-penned putdowns to hold your attention; all he needs is a tic, a hunched walk, a cold stare. He is creepy, intense, but above all contained. The obscurity of this movie guarantees he will go unnoticed come Oscar season, which goes to show how useless those awards are in the first place.

As barren and nocturnal the film’s ambience may be, this is also a oddly funny film. Reichardt does a lot of heavy lifting in the editing room, cutting from a grave piece of eco-propaganda to Eisenberg’s stone face once he is finished watching it. Even a man willing to topple infrastructure in the name of the environment knows a piece of brainless fluff when he sees it. The same goes with Reichardt. Her film ends on a willfully opaque note, but its premature conclusion guarantees that Eisenberg’s statuesque update of Psycho’s Norman Bates will stalk the corners of your mind, and maybe vision, for some time to come.

Life Itself Review  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , , ,

Link here, at The Ithaca Voice. This is more an essay on my evolving relationship with Roger's work and persona after his death than a straight-up movie review. To compare, you can read my Ebert obit written not long after April 4 last year; he's important enough a figure to merit multiple reflections, and I am sure this piece will not be the last.

Snowpiercer Review  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , , , , ,

Find my review here, at The Ithaca Voice. I talk about the film's fascinating political dimension, which is both dense and inconsistent, but more than anything I try to convey Bong Joon-ho's overpowering synthesis of sound and image. A magical experience that I long to feel again.

Ida Review  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , , , , ,

I wrote my first piece for The Ithaca Voice, a new online venture founded by my good friend and former Sun colleague Jeff Stein. I am not going to copy-paste what I write there to my blog, for reasons of traffic and professionalism. But I'll provide a link of course - RIGHT HERE - and I hope you all will read it. This is a great film - 4.5/5 star material.

Governors Ball 2014 Wrap-Up  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , ,

Vampire Weekend, GovBallNYC Stage
Governors Ball
Randall's Island, New York City
June 6-8, 2014

Her eyes bulged out of their sockets when she saw him. She pointed her finger at his face and screamed, “You’re here! You’re fucking here!!!!” Her blushing friend pulled her arm along as the girl craned back her neck and cackled to the sky. At a loss to make sense of what just happened, I looked at the mystery man to my left that was the target of this strange outburst. He was wearing a red and white striped sweater and beanie. Like Waldo. Where’s Waldo. He was right next to me. 

For its fourth year, Governors Ball attracted what must be the largest congregation of carefree twentysomethings to ever descend onto Randall’s Island, and sure, there were times when our numbers proved overwhelming: waiting on line for entry, water, restrooms, $16 lobster rolls. But as an experience to pocket and carry with me, Governors Ball 2014 was a great time, thanks to both the musicians and the good-humored, damn inspiring masses that showed up for the love of music and a good time.

Strolling into the Gotham Tent Friday afternoon to see Washed Out, my first set of the festival, I saw Jeff Goldblum. Not in the flesh, but the next best thing: A cardboard cut-out, roughly four feet wide, of the bare-chested actor splayed across a table, an image familiar to anyone who grew up watching Jurassic Park (so everyone in attendance). Some friends brought multiple copies of Sexy Goldblum so they could find each other in crowds, and one even had a blow-up T. Rex that he used to chase around the others. It was Exhibit A of the festival’s hilarious signage; other winners included a Steve Buscemi head, a screaming Schwarzenegger from Total Recall and a Face-Off poster folded down the middle, so we could admire either Nic Cage or John Travolta in profile. Seeing any of these stupid faces waving above the throngs of festivalgoers added a strain of irreverence, community, even mythology to the long weekend.

When Julian Casablancas + The Voidz, a spin-off band he is set to release an album with later this year, took to the main stage Friday afternoon, an already packed crowd bum rushed forward to destroy any lingering fantasies of personal space. Which was just fine, since Julian inspires that kind of fanaticism and his short set offered an opportunity for Strokes fans to chill together before the real thing the next day. When the synthesizers rolled into “Instant Crush,” Julian’s hit with Daft Punk last year, everyone mumbled the unintelligible lyrics along with him. Hunched over, his hands wrapped around a microphone and a vocoder, Julian looked pained as he belted the high-pitched, “I don’t understand!” refrain twice. Not long after, some guy collapsed to my right, likely due to dehydration. After he came to, an onlooker deadpanned, “Julian is just so overpowering.”

Outkast summoned an unbelievable mass of people for their headliner set Friday night, and they did not phone it in, as they reportedly did at Coachella in April. Emerging from a transparent cube, André and Big Boi launched into “B.O.B.,” their motormouth classic that ended, of course, with the crowd jumping up and down yelling, “Power music electric revival!” And while Janelle Monáe bounced on-stage to shake it like a Polaroid picture during “Hey Ya!,” I must mention TV on the Radio, which played a furious set just before Outkast across the park on the Big Apple Stage. A homecoming of sorts, the Brooklynites tore through classics with the help of lots of red spotlights and a dude who looked like Jesus playing the tambourine, trombone — everything really. “Halfway Home,” the opening track off their greatest album Dear Science, barreled through any audience fatigue, while “Wolf Like Me” inspired a mosh pit that nearly broke my best friend’s glasses. He was all smiles, of course.

Phoenix, GovBallNYC Stage
First thing Saturday, I caught the last two songs from Deafheaven, the post-rock metal band from San Francisco behind 2013’s Sunbather. They carry this mystique with them, in part due to the way some songs start with spaced-out guitars and not so much segue as violently rupture into a heavy metal maelstrom for the song’s remaining duration. Then there’s George Clarke, the band’s lead screamer, sporting an all-black button-down and raising his hands in the air like a fascist leader. His hypnotic presence could not contrast more with the jovial antics of Chance the Rapper, the next star to rule the Gotham Tent. In a tight Superman t-shirt, Chance had the packed house in his hand as he conducted sing-alongs to “Pusha Man,” from his breakout mixtape Acid Rap, and Ziggy Marley’s “Believe in Yourself,” the theme song from Arthur (yes, that Arthur). With thousands of happy millennials before him, Chance used a break between songs to conclude, “This is the best concert of all time.”

A sunbaked crowd kept chill as it grew in anticipation of Disclosure’s Saturday afternoon set. This hot electronic duo is comprised of two English brothers, one of whom is younger than me (sigh). Pulling from the hits off their 2013 debut Settle, they did not do much on-stage but at least kept the rest of the crowd moving. Aluna Francis joined them for “White Noise,” and a merciful breeze complimented the trance bridge of “You & Me.” As my friend and I ducked out early to get a spot for The Strokes, I heard a French girl gushing, “I can’t believe how the music is in my body. It’s amazing.” Call it heavy bass, ecstasy or just really, really good music. Call it all those things.

The Strokes were The Strokes: They were awesome — what more do you want from me? They covered it all: “Reptilia,” “Take It or Leave It,” “Hard to Explain,” “Last Nite,” “You Only Live Once,” which Julian introduced with a laugh when he said, “YOLO, that’s right.” The calibration of the main stage speakers brought out Albert Hammond Jr.’s locked-in rhythm guitar, the secret ingredient to their music’s good vibes. I am still unsure if I like how their recent material sounds like a SEGA video game, but The Strokes of old were on stage late Saturday afternoon and all was good.

Quick sidebar: I did not attend The Naked and The Famous’ Saturday show, but I overheard an anecdote from someone who did. As disembodied hands smacked beach balls across the thousands waiting for Jack White, this guy to my left talked of a stray volleyball blindsiding people at that earlier set. Apparently, the ball bludgeoned a number of heads because the victims were so infuriated that they immediately pegged it in some random direction. The story could be apocryphal, and I do hope it is, but the image (and sound!) of a volleyball ricocheting through a horde of heads is so funny to me that I could care less about investigating if it is actually true.

While Jack White took his time finding his way onto the main stage, this adorable Indian dance troupe performed on the grass, grainy footage of which was projected simultaneously on the Jumbotron. The Hindi lyrics sure confused some, but this little gesture prompted me to look around and realize how I was part of one of the most diverse, in all respects except age, crowds I have ever seen. Jack White united all of us to bleed from our ears, equally, as he let loose a set of rock and roll spanning from Lazaretto, his latest solo album, to White Stripes classics like “Seven Nation Army.” With a stoic face and 19th century goatee, Fats Kaplin proved to be the night’s secret weapon, as he accompanied White on fiddle, pedal steel guitar and it-looks-like-he’s-a-Jedi theremin. At this point, I have seen White’s face on so many Rolling Stone covers that I forgot he was, like, legit. Thanks, bud, for correcting me on that one.

Sunday afternoon boasted an Odd Future double bill, starting with Earl Sweatshirt on the Honda Stage. “Governors Ball has AIDS, bro,” Earl said, because, you know, he’s Earl. Tyler, The Creator and Jasper Dolphin joined him on stage, and the three of them transported across the field to the Big Apple Stage for Tyler’s set immediately following. Although I rarely listen to his music, I dig Tyler’s sense of humor, even if it makes me sick. When he botched the opening for a song, he growled in his deep voice, “Can everyone boo me for fucking up the set? I’m an idiot. I’m sorry.” He then took aim at the VIP section of the field, saying, “Your rich parents pay for this shit? Fuck you guys.” Tyler’s flippant sensibility has led to regrettable moments in the past, and I still have no clue what to do with a song like “My Bitch Suck Dick,” but he’s a man of the people. At the very least, two white girls no taller than five foot four moshing with Jansport backpacks on during “Yonkers” embodied all the contradictions to Odd Future’s appeal.

Buscemi waiting for James Blake, Honda Stage
James Blake was by far the weirdest experience of the weekend. I’ve been a fan of this guy since his debut album dropped my senior year of high school, and yet I totally get why someone would not like him. Blake’s sparse post-dubstep delicacies do not share a lot in common with Disclosure and next to nothing with Skrillex, both acts that graced the Honda Stage before Blake’s Sunday 6:45 set. His music makes use of silence and simple percussive loops, so when the Jumbotron cut to a girl drifting off over the front-row barricade, the crowd erupted in ironic cheers. He won back the lizard brains with a groovy jam called “Voyeur,” off his last album Overgrown, and cut through the disrespectful chatter with hits “Limit To Your Love” and “Retrograde.” He capped his time with an a cappella rendition of “Measurements,” which he prefaced with a plea for silence. Every audience has a few assholes, so there were some catcalls committed to the looping vocals he recorded on the fly, but by the song’s end, when a whole choir emerged from this one man’s voice, Randall’s Island silenced for a few precious seconds to marvel at the rarest of festival phenomena: grace.

The Governors Ball programmers ended the festival with two of New York’s own. First was Interpol, strumming through hits like “Evil” and, fittingly, “NYC” at the Big Apple Stage. Opposite Axwell Λ Ingrosso on the Honda Stage, Vampire Weekend capped the night for a jolly sea of bodies young and old (so here, meaning around 30). Getting “Diane Young” out of the way first, they played pretty much everything a fan would want to hear. Slowed down and augmented for improvisation, “Ya Hey” flaunted the weirdest chorus in indie pop, in case you forgot. Ezra Koenig milked the beauty of “Hannah Hunt” for all it is worth, with a cutesy intro full of suspenseful pauses, just as he should have. In the middle of “Cousins,” a conga line at least one hundred bodies long snaked away from the front rows and onto the grass. I asked my friend, rather boneheadedly, why so many people would do this and forfeit the nicest spots in the audience. A Vampire Weekend skeptic, he nevertheless shut me up with his response, “To be a part of something.”

It was something all right. When the spritely bliss of “Walcott” came to an end, the lights went dark but, without missing a beat, Sinatra crooned “New York, New York” from the speakers. As tens of thousands of us turned our backs to the stage and made our way back to civilization, we sang along. Unexpected musical accompaniment came from the beer cans, littered about the pavement and island grass, that clanged together when our shambling feet kicked into them. The sound of hollow aluminum scraping and crunching against the ground roared louder and louder, nearly drowning out Ol’ Blue Eyes. It was not a pretty sound, but its effect — with Sinatra, the voices singing along, this city we revere, the chemical and communal intoxication of the weekend — moved me terribly.

I looked up to see fireworks lighting up the sky. Later I would discover that they were synced to Axwell Λ Ingrosso’s ongoing DJ set across the lawn, not to “New York, New York,” but the matter of intent made little difference. Here was the lot of us, a collection of know-nothing young people, drunk or high and next to broke after the long weekend, and here we were laughing and singing. It was our filthy Eden for a few days, and it was now time to go home.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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