Monday, 1 September 2014

I read your theory on the use of the brain's capacity. It’s a little rudimentary but you're on the right track.

Lucy
(2014)

Lucy is entertaining enough, but the inevitable salvo of comments, all repeating the refrain that if one uses less than 1% of one’s brain capacity one might enjoy it aren’t so wide of the mark. This is easily the dumbest movie claiming to explore intelligence and consciousness since… Transcendence, actually. Which this starts to resemble at points, particularly when the screen begins to fill up with cut-price CGI gloop and nano-cellular-gubbins. I’m sure there’s a place for a movie combining action and philosophy in equal measure; I’m fairly certain it’s one directed by the Wachoswki siblings. This most certainly isn’t it, and it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that a Luc Besson opus fails to say anything insightful in its exploration of the potential the exists within us all, or that it makes a horrendous hash of discussing our ephemeral relationship with the physical world itself.


One only has to look at Besson’s screenplay and story credits over the past two decades to realise this guy has no interest in challenging anyone to think deeply about anything. A succession of mid-budget action movies, most of which have been astutely gauged to turn a tidy profit and a few (Taken) that have gone through the roof. Since he’s become a one-man mini-studio, in tandem with his diminished desire to actually direct, he’s become a lot less interesting. The ‘90s triptych of Nikita, Leon and The Fifth Element (the latter is how to have fun making a big dumb action movie with a lot of heart and a kernel of simplistic philosophy) now look like the last valiant cry of a moviemaker who fooled us into thinking he was going places. Instead we got one who doesn’t really care what he makes, or fills in at the last moment when one of his protégés drops out.


That said, I had a lot of time for Besson’s last picture. The Family wasn’t a revelation in any way, but it made me laugh, it was well cast, and the action – when it surfaced – was every bit as confident as ever. The action bit is sort of Lucy’s problem; Besson wants to indulge in a speculative treatise (perhaps that’s pushing it… ) on what would be in store for us if only we could tap into that other 90% of our brains we don’t use (already this has been denounced as an “unscientific” stick with which to beat the picture, though really I think such a conceit is the least of its flaws) but the only bit he’s really good at is the action, and he seems reluctant to really let himself off the leash in that regard. All the old skills are present and correct; that smooth, clear coherent staging and enervating editing. Yet it’s used to little gain. The most notable sequences come early.  Later it’s time for some sub-Neo in The Matrix physics-defying shenanigans (and chains of code, and last lines that mimic the tone of his in the first of that trilogy).  Further counting against him is the evidence that Besson is most certainly no sage, such that when he attempts to strike a philosophical note Lucy is mostly laughable.


There’s also a problem of basic relatability here. Besson has apparently cited his indebtedness to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which does him no favours whatsoever (given what’s on display here you expect him to summarise that masterpiece with “Yes, that Kubrick, he’s wicked cool”), and it says something about Besson's failure to come even in the remote vicinity of its quality that he fetches up a monolith-shaped USB stick as the sum total of human knowledge. The tone of 2001 was precise, deliberate, one of cerebral inquiry and detached observance. Besson isn’t naturally a demur director, and his best films wear their passions on their sleeves. Lucy is quickly punctured by his having no one to care about, and nothing to imbue tension in the proceedings; as such, its merciful that the picture is so short.


The casting of Scarlett Johansson doesn’t help matters either. Somehow the Wachowskis hit gold with the open-faced vacuity of Keanu Reeves, positing him as a guileless messiah. That approach, of contracting someone who clearly is not a boffin, flounders here. Perhaps Besson should have asked Morgan Freeman to suck up that blue meth, then asked his stunt double to do a series of back flips. Credit where it’s due, Johansson is very good in the first 20 minutes or so, before CPH4 begins to take effect. As caught-unaware student Lucy, she is wholly persuasive emoting a palpable terror at whatever this fiendish Korean gang (those Koreans, eh?) have in mind, be it death or worse. These scenes are tense and nervy, with a fine streak of dark humour (the gang withdrawing to a safe distance while Lucy opens their potentially booby-trapped case).  Besson perversely, and perhaps purposefully (he’s not just an action director, you know) does his best to dissipate this by cutting to really subtle wildlife shots of predator and prey; once you’ve seen that, you know exactly the level of depth this picture is aiming for. The whacky Frenchman.


And yet this deranged zest also, almost, works. Wheeling out everyone’s favourite walking (just about, he’s really getting on these days) gravitas Morgan Freeman to deliver a lecture on the brain’s unused expanses is such a blatant attempt to disguise sloppy writing (to make a silk cerebrum out of a sow’s noodle), it’s not true. We can’t really blame Morgan for picking up the cheque, twice in one summer with Transcendence, and at least his rent-a-sincerity momentarily veils a seminar that possesses all the integrity of a high school essay project (what happens if we use all our potential, or even more? Hmm, you don’t really have the foggiest do you Morgan?) The decision to intercut his lecture, so utterly pedestrian, with the grimness of Lucy’s encounter with Jang (Min-Sik Choi) and his goons is so perversely off it has a daffy appeal. It’s not even close to being audaciously brilliant, but it’s likably offbeat.


However, once the bag of crystallised Lu Blue that has been sewn into her abdomen seeps and Lucy (literally? – I assumed this was intended to be a Renton-esque trip, but everything that occurs later suggests otherwise) starts climbing the walls, Johansson’s grip on the performance evaporates. She inherently fails to exude anything approaching braininess, and her attempts to button it all down and do the robot are lack lustre; Besson’s as much to blame for the material he gives her, of course. While she handles the earlier emoting well, a wholly naff scene in which Lucy calls her mother undoes this good work. She speaks to her for all the world like a student taking her first Acid trip (except no student in their right mind would call their parents in such a state). Like, the colours, man (mum), and everything is one, man (mum). And I can taste the milk from when I used to suckle on your tit, mom. What? Perhaps Lucy’s mother has early onset dementia as she seems not to bat a verbal eyelid. There, dear. Perhaps you need a nice cup of tea. The scene foregrounds a lurking suspicion that, in order to be most amenable to Lucy, one should be severely baked.


Since auteur Luc hasn't bothered to work out any of the markers of these incremental advances in brain function, from 30 to 40 to 50% capacity etc., Lucy’s marvellous antics all becomes much of a muchness. There’s magic wand waving up the wazoo, where anything can happen but nothing much really imaginative does, and there's no real danger because she's unstoppable within minutes of being loved up. Lucy uses an E.T. glowing finger to read Jang’s mind straight off the bat, then she’s making her hair change colour in the blink of an eye. So at the end it’s not so much surprising that she can transform her form in to strange mutations, or finally disappear at all, as that, with all the possibilities available, she has does so little with them (Limitless at least, by setting its sights low – too low, really – comes out with something much more coherent and much less inane). By the end Lucy is the world, she is the people, she is everywhere, but there’s zero sense of awe and nothing mind-blowing about it.


Admittedly, I liked the scene on the plane where Lucy’s cells begin striving for individual survival and she starts to tear herself apart, before sticking her nose in more drugs to calm her corporeal form down (let that be a lesson; more isn’t always less and moderation isn’t always the answer). At this point there’s a much needed – but brief –dramatic tension as she panics and doesn’t know what’s going on, combined with a suitably Altered States-esque bodily breakdown.  Because Besson can’t feed the audience’s brains, he’s unable to sustain most of what occurs post-mental expansion. And he doesn’t even care. There’s no reason Lucy would leave Jang alive, except to have a villain in the third act. The overblown shootouts are immaculately staged (there’s an amusing moment as the police pile into a building while, unbeknownst to them, the Korean mob arm up in the foreground) but there’s no dramatic investment in them. Amr Waked does good work as the confidante cop, but it’s a thankless part. By this point, another perverse turn around has occurred, such that the gangster plot is tangential now to the metaphysical rumblings,; unfortunately this isn’t particularly satisfying on either side of the divide.


Besson’s spin on his premise, of what happens when we switch on, aside from the supernatural abilities that come with it, is wholly pedestrian. As such, it's notable that the picture, for all its "anything goes" attitude, can muster little more than enlightenment or transcendence coaxing a liberating effect on our perception of time. Once it is no longer bound by time, the physical body no longer exists, so Lucy can range back and forth across the centuries and millennia… Time is a constant by which we measure our existence, and freed from that limitation we can do anything – just as long as it involves sitting in a chair and flashing across green screen landscapes. And that’s about it? Sure, Lucy meets some dinosaurs, and even gets to indulge in a bit of Grandmother Paradoxing by sparking intelligence in an unwitting ape name Lucy, but there doesn’t appear to be much else under the lid. Perhaps Besson, an avowed atheist, struggles to find more having eschewed all notions of spiritual advancement. Lucy’s development is very limited and linear, a tangible reflection of timelessness replete with CGI ape, CGI dinosaur, CGI-tentacles, and what looks a lot like CGI CGI.


I wondered occasionally if Lucy was going to show some perversely curious motivations as she grew in knowledge and understanding. Some of the discussions held had interesting germs of ideas. Why would she necessarily lose touch with her emotional and more especially empathic faculties? Such that she shoots taxi drivers and kills terminal patients with impunity? There’s an element here of divesting oneself of limiting notions of humanity, such that compassion hardly matters when you have the brain the size of the planet; was the line about the patient dying anyway an afterthought to justify the calculated machine mind Lucy? Did Besson wish to forward the idea that anyone or thing approaching the capacities of a godlike being must inevitably be morally suspect – or amorally suspect (David Icke fans will note Lucy’s lizard eyes during her transformation)? After all, Lucy would do bugger all if not for Freeman’s suggestion that knowledge should be passed on. Morgan is used to strike a positive note, then vacillates and it is left to Lucy to reassure him that ignorance brings chaos not knowledge but the idea that order should result from her actions isn’t actually actualised in Lucy, or at least not per se.


It’s almost inevitable that writers write themselves into corners when they try to broach the cosmic, which is why its usually better to verbalise as little as possible; if you’re dealing with symbols (2001, Altered States) you’re more likely to carry resonance. Still, credit to Besson for his lack of restraint in juggling armed gangsters with CG ape-men, wildlife footage and weird physical transformations. And doing it so concisely (any longer and it would have become wearying, as Transcendence illustrated). Lucy’s a stupid movie, with an attractive premise that eludes its writer-director. The shame of it is, Besson’s action chops are as great as ever but he only wants to flex them intermittently. That’s where his real talent lies. You’re not a thinker, Luc, you’re a bruiser.


***

I’d take 20 more years just to have another three days with you.

Labor Day
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Hitherto, Jason Reitman has tapped a very deliberate furrow dramedy vein in his storytelling choices. He’s a quietly confident, if vaguely anonymous, director, and his greatest asset maybe a sure eye for casting. Buoyed by strong performers, he’s hewn repeated successes with potentially glib (Up in the Air) or emotionally difficult (Young Adult, not that anyone much went to see it) material. His good thespian ense doesn’t desert him with Labor Day, but in most other respects it’s a misfire. Without the insulation of humour, Reitman comes unstuck. He’s left high-and-dry, stranded by a clichéd script (he’s guilty as charged there, as the adaptor) that he over-extends in a self-important and ponderous fashion.


Reitman based his screenplay on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name. He was upfront about this being new territory for him, suggesting he might not get it right on this occasion. He didn’t, and he was evidently so over-conscious of what he was trying to achieve that he over-egged the pudding (or peach pie, if you will). This is a coming-of-age tale, narrated by the adult Henry Wheeler (Tobey Maguire, with Gattlin Griffith as his 13 year-old incarnation). He tells of the titular weekend in 1987 when escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) enters his and his mother Adele’s (Kate Winslet) lives. Frank, convicted of murder (flashbacks eventually reveal it was not an intentional act), quickly stirs passions in mum, a borderline shut-in who leaves the house once a month for supplies.  


Adele gets nervous tremors whenever she has to drive or even enter a supermarket, and has been this way since the departure of Henry’s father (Clark Gregg). As the over-written narrative informs us, “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself”. Quite ripe. Henry does his best to fill the gap (he even takes her on a date – to see D.A.R.Y.L.) but what she really needs is a big hunk of gruff-but-sensitive manly man. Something Gregg never was, but which Frank embodies in his rippling white t-shirt and skill with every possible real guy task there is. And, like Steven Segal in Under Siege, he also cooks. Reitman proceeds to overdo the sensual world of Adele’s “hunger for human touch”; each cord Frank binds to one of her limbs is an act of foreplay, while the cooking sequences aspire to the rhapsodic passions of Ghost’s flagrant potter’s wheel.


Frank’s also the perfect surrogate father for Henry, steering him towards baseball rather than less-than-macho dance classes. Why, Frank’s even an enormously intuitive and understanding carer for a neighbour’s son, the physically handicapped Barry (Micah Fowler). So it is that Adele and Frank, inspired with passion, plan to head off to Canada to live in bliss. Henry, feeling like the cuckoo in the nest, his head filled with doubts by new girl in the neighbourhood Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), initially believes they are going to leave without him. The confluence of events that leads to hopes dashed would play out better if Reitman didn’t dawdle so much; it’s a nice touch not to know exactly who it was who set the cops on Frank, but the conspiring of circumstances is so acutely emphasised it could be straight out of a Zucker Brothers movie.


Everyone in the town is incredibly nosey, and everyone suspects Henry or Adele of being up to no good for the slightest possible thing. Cashing a cheque, not going straight to school, walking along a pavement unaccompanied, buying a razor, and putting boxes in the back of a car. It quickly becomes ridiculous (Eleanor even puts two-and-two together regarding Henry’s mum’s suitor but quite how she does this is mystifying). Most bizarrely, the whole purpose of Frank’s intrusion on their lives is so he can lie low for a few days. So what does he do (despite diving behind walls every time there’s a knock at the door)? He mends a wall (does he have a concrete mixer handy?), changes oil and wheels on the car, plays baseball in the garden, and cleans out gutters. All activities of highly visibility to any slightly curious neighbour, or one with their binoculars out to sneak a peek at Our Kate (it’s not often you have an Oscar winner in the area). Or James van Der Beek’s policeman (James still has a very longitudinal head, for anyone interested).


Reitman was quite possibly attempting to instil the flavour another journeyman director, once one of the best, Rob Reiner, imposed on Stand by Me. That ’50 set tale was released in 1986, a year before the main events of Labour Day, complete with narration from a writer (Richard Dreyfus) looking back on a nostalgic but tumultuous experience from his youth. Where that film was soaked in bittersweet memories and an acute sense of period, everything about Labor Day is over-deliberate; from the lingering shots of record players and freeze dried coffee tins to the posters of E.T. Regular Reitman collaborator Eric Steelberg inflicts a hazy autumnal reverie on every frame, copious shafts of delicate sunlight and wistful longing. The tone reeks of an awards-bid, but ends up as too much of everything. The only way this might have been carried is if Reitman had underplayed at every turn, but instead he digs for every ounce of fallow emotion. The flashback sequences, gradually revealing events (in particular the crime Frank commits) are particularly suspect in this regard; textbook oblique references glimpsed throughout until the final dramatic unexpurgated reveal (there are also insights into the past of Adele but they are less abstruse). One gets the sense Reitman has been watching Terence Malick movies and thinking, “I’ll have some of that”, little realising his material is far too heavy-set and wholly ill suited to such an approach.


What saves Labor Day from being a complete misfire is the cast. Griffith, unlike many a child actor, is able to underplay without appearing wooden. Brolin doesn’t exactly have his work cut out for him, but he does his best to modulate a walking talking erotic fantasy. Winslet is outstanding, and you’d swear in the moment of a scene that Adele is a fully-fleshed out person rather than a slightly reductive depiction of a woman who just needs a good man to make her whole again. The relatively upbeat ending suggests another Stephen King (reunion after all these years; The Shawshank Redemption) but by that point the artifice has defeated any vestiges of genuine feeling.


On this evidence, the best advice to Reitman, who has already developed a career far eclipsing his father’s in terms of quality, is to take a step back, take stock and regroup. He instilled far greater depth and understanding through the caustically brittle humour of Young Adult than he does here. Men, Women & Children is probably more comfortable ground in this regard, despite a should-try-harder title (based on another novel, but that’s no excuse) and a role for Adam Sandler (fast becoming a box office kiss of death). It also features J.K. Simmons, who hopefully gets more than screen time than his too few minutes in Labor Day.


**1/2

You smell like an affiliate.

Runner Runner
(2013)

There are plenty of decent gambling movies. It’s a natural subject for offering conflict and drama, winners and losers. Most follow well-established structural rules that take in mentors and apprentices, arch-nemeses and addicted best pals. It should actually be surprising if you are unable to eke a certain amount of tension from any given scenario, be it pool or cards; there’s an ever bountiful fountain of slow-burning tension on tap, as the protagonist dutifully gets in over their head. Writers Brian Koppleman and David Levien managed it with Rounders, a patchy affair that sagged under the weight of its clichés but ultimately won through on the strength of its casting. Runner Runner has no such luck.


Justin Timberlake is, at best, a passable screen presence, in that he’s been okay in a few things where he was either musically inclined (Inside Llewyn Davis) or the object of derision (Bad Teacher). But he isn’t a reliable dramatic presence (he was the weak link in the otherwise very good The Social Network), and he’s very far from being a movie star. Aside from his lack of chops, his screen presence is lacklustre; naturally unsympathetic and a bearing a vague untrustworthiness. It might be those pointy eyes. Perhaps Brad Furman and his casting directors were subconsciously conscious of this, and thought he’d be perfect for Richie Furst (this movie has awful character names; they might work if it was a comedy), the morally suspect Princeton masters student who runs a scam to get undergraduates to sign up to online gambling websites (the opening credits informing us of the wash of student gambling addictions is as close the picture comes to relevance, despite repeated attempts to summon the spectre of the global financial crisis). Richie used to have a Wall Street career, so he’s straightaway one of the enemy, and when he is danger of being expelled for non-payment of fees he risks everything in an online poker game. And loses. But wait a minute; he could tell the game was rigged. Because he’s brainy. So Richie sets off to Costa Rica to confront the owner of Midnight Black (the website), one Ivan Block (Ben Affleck).


Yes, Ivan Block. Good grief. So Timberlake is the Charlie Sheen to Affleck’s… Michael Douglas (his dialogue is very much sub-Gordon Gecko ruthless). Credit to Ben for attempting to ascend to the summit of the elder supporting man/villain, but he never really nailed the leading roles to start with. The result is two listless performances at the centre of the picture. Timberlake, twitchy and nasal, is in thrall to Big Beefy Ben. Who seems to have decided a rash of stubble will make do for characterisation (this is definitely one where he’s acting with his lantern jaw). I don’t mind Affleck per se, but whenever he’s onscreen I can’t help but instantly think there’s someone better they could have cast. There’s a blunt, dulled quality to him. Bringing up the rear is poor Gemma Arterton in the PA/girlfriend part of Rebecca (we’re told she built this business with Ivan, but neither she nor the script is selling the idea). Still Gemma got a free tan out of it, so it’s not all bad. John Heard, as Richie’s dad, has about two scenes. He got off lightly.


Richie has his foot in the door and succumbs to Ivan’s offer of an “in” on his flashy lifestyle. So we run through the standard plays of seduction (money and girls), intimations of dodgy dealings (Anthony Mackie as an FBI agent attempting to secure Richie’s services) and finally disillusionment as the devil’s dealings are revealed in full. It’s not necessarily what you do with this kind of movie, it’s the way that you do it. And director Brad Furman is all at sea, with only Mauro Fiore’s burnished photography of Puerto Rico (doubling) to stamp any personality on the proceedings. If there was any snappy patter in here it’s buried by the faint performers. There are references to Ponzi schemes, to underline Block’s nefariousness, but we understood he was actually a wannabe Bond villain as soon as we were introduced to his pet crocodiles. Richie’s eventual discovery of a conscience (that voice in his head is not fear, it’s his conscience; they liked the line so much, they used it twice!) is largely unconvincing because Timberlake is unable to convey genuine penitence (he’s also rewarded for his vague good deeds, par for the course in this sort of thing but uncomfortable when the lead fails to garner sympathy). The worst thing about a scam movie is for the scam to leave you shrugging, and nothing in the final act twists leaves any impression. Firstly because we don’t give a hoot about anyone here, and a secondly because the intrigues are so incredibly weak they barely register.


I wasn’t terribly convinced by Brad Furman’s last film, The Lincoln Lawyer. It may have been instrumental in Matthew McConaughey’s career comeback, and it possessed a decent enough script, but Furman seemed to do everything he could to work against its dramatic potential. He’s more pedestrian in his approach here, but no more successful in securing our interest. As for the leads, it will be interesting to see whether David Fincher can elicit an acceptable Affleck turn with the upcoming Gone Girl. He generally has a sure touch, but he isn’t infallible (Timberlake, Jake Gyllenhaal). Timberlake, well it’s hard to see him eking out a reputable career as a muso-turned-actor on the level of, say Wahlberg. Casting youthful-ish leads in this kind of morality tale, who lack substance, brings to mind the late ‘80s-early ‘90s trend for Brat Packers in iconic roles. Those were probably more misses than hits (Mobsters) but invariably there was someone with some genuine charisma in the line up (Emilio Estevez, for example). Runner Runner is sunk by a tired script, indifferently directed and performed gracelessly by bland leads.


**