Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lucy Review

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

We Are the Best! & Night Moves Reviews

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

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.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Snowpiercer Review

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.