When a Luc Besson movie opens with shots of 'Lucy' the pre-historic female hominid we are all potentially descended from, you know this will not be any ordinary action movie. Lucy is two characters in this film, the hominid, to whom the film returns a couple of times, and Lucy, an American in Taiwan, played by Scarlet Johannson, who gets kidnapped, and forced into being a drug mule. She has a package of a synthetic hormone, called CPH4, surgically placed in her stomach. The broght blue crystals of the drug supposedly emulate a substance produced in the womb that gives a fetus the energy to survive. During a beating, the bag breaks and the drug leaks into Lucy’s system, affecting her brain in profound ways so that she becomes super-powered.
The film operates on a trope I have heard for much of my life, that humans only use 10% of their brain capacity. This mythic idea has been used a couple of times recently in movies, Bradley Cooper's 2011 film Limitless for one.
Morgan Freeman plays a neuro-scientist who has built a career on this theory and the film cuts to him early on giving a lecture where he posits his theory that if we could use 100% of our brain capacity our minds would be blown basically. Cue Lucy, who rapidly moves toward this mythic capability, developing abilities along the way--learning chinese in an instant, defying gravity, stopping time, killing bad guys (well, it is an action movie of sorts).
It's actually a fascinating film, a little silly in places, as many Besson films tend to get, and this one has some major flaws (not the least of which is Lucy's reliance on Professor Norman, the Freeman character when it seems obvious that her increasing super-intelligence means that she doesn't need anyone else's help-but they probably needed another marquee name so..), but this one is actually quite adventurous and really stretching for something--I'm not sure it totally gets there but it goes a fair way. Besson ultimately wants us to consider the wonder and the mystery of life, the sheer fragility and luck of it all, and the limits and act accordingly.
The more interesting and probably over-looked point is that Lucy is not overly enthralled with her new found capacites, in fact, quite the opposite, she senses that they actually detract from her humainty, and she repeatedly makes the point that the limits of our 10% are actually enough for us to live meaningful existences.
The film intersperses some great Koyanaquatsi-type film footage to enhance our understanding of the scope of the story, and the return to pre-historic Lucy seeks to connect us more deeply to present-day Lucy's transformation. Lucy's transformation is within the context of an action film so it lacks a little depth and the attempts at depth are few and far between unfortunately, but there are moments in this film that might move you and that is rare for a 90-minute action flick with guns and bad guys.
The idea of limits seems to be cropping up a lot lately-after our modern obsession with perfection, infintity and the like, its a welcome relief.
To my mind, Vik Muniz is one of the more interesting artists working today. He plays with size and perception by using everyday items, be it sugar or garbage to create amazing images. His first documentary film, Wasteland, about his work with garbage pickers in the largest landfill in Rio, was up for an Academy Award.
Netflix released his latest work, This Is Not A Ball, in time and in honour of the World Cup. For this film, Muniz has turned his attention to the global fascination with football, asking the question of why it is such a popular game, all the while telling a story of a new art project built around 10,000 soccerballs. One of my favourite lines from the film, "People ask me when I became an artist and I always say that I became an artist when everyone around me stopped being artist, because all kinds are artists..."
Whether you like football or not, this is a fascinating film about life, art, meaning and creativity.
I have a book called The Wes Anderson Collection, by Matt Zoller Seitz, which explores Andersons film, via essays, interview and an expansive visual record of his almost obsessive commitment to detail. it's th evisual component of anderson's films that I am drawn to, don't get me wrong, I love the stories in and of themsleves, but it's the wya they are told visually that holds such joy for me. When I'm feeling uninspired, I often look at the book, just to marvel at the fantastic stuff that gets put into his work.
I recently came across a mention of Dublin-based graphic designer Annie Atkins, who does a lot of graphic work for Anderson's films, as well as other films. She creates some of the elements that Anderson puts into his films which makes watching them such a delight--the world is complete, down to the minute detail.
His most recent Grand Budapest Hotel has been called a 'return to form' personally I wasn't aware that he had lost form but there you go, to each his own. I watched this film with geelful delight and revelled in it's mischief. Ralph Fiennes was just perfect in his role and his character arc perfectly complimented the quirky and somewhat dark threads of this particular story. You can check out a lot of Atkin's work here and you'll see the amazing work she does.
A serious amount of words have been devoted to Noah, Darren Aronofsky's non-biblical/biblical blockbuster. I have been interviewed by a number of publications, and been asked to weigh in on Hollywood and religion, the ruckus over the licence taken with the biblical text etc., and a host of other things related to culture and the Bible. As I said in all the interviews I participated in, I don't look to Hollywood films to affirm or negate my life, nor am I threatened by another version or interpretation of a particular story, and that more importantly, I would watch Noah because it was an Aronofsky film, not because it was about Noah. Hence my disappointment with the film was not with the way it dealt with the Flood narrative but that it was a piss-poor movie in my mind.
Now I realize that this film was unlike many of Aronofsky's prior projects, this was a big-budget studio film with all the prerequisites that come with a venture like that, not the least of which is the need to deliver big on spectacle and spectacle that follows certain rules of the genre, so no problem there, big scenes, I mean creation of the world, humanity's evil, the destruction of the world by water, talk about fodder for a CGI wet dream--and even that didn't bother me. But it felt that none of this did anything to expand Aronofsky's abilities as a film-maker.
Noah is a genre film of a particular type and it touches on what I think is America's greatest fascination--apocalypticism. The apocalypse hangs over American culture like a blanket, covering virtually everything with this trope that the world must end and out of it a new world built upon values that were always missing or latent in the previous one. Of course, there are links to biblical ideologies in this, but you don't need a 'biblical' story to see it, it's everywhere in American pop culture. So Noah is almost a no-brainer. And the latent ideas that the film teases regarding the environment, industrialization, humanitie's destructive tendency are grist for the apocalyptic mill, so why not mine it. It seemed no different to me than the re-appropriation of other mythic tales--Thor, Hercules etc. all of them fully adaptable for the expression of contemporary cultural fears about how we interact with life, the planet and each other.
What really bugged me, and where it really lost me as a viewer, was in the look and tone of the film. The minute Russell Crowe as Noah is striding across the wasteland in boots with laces and leather soles and his nemesis is fashioning steel whilst wearing a version of a welding mask, and handling an early-gun prototype, and they are all dressed like outcasts from a distressed linen and leather factory, you lost me--all I could think of as I sat there was Book of Eli meets Transformers (those stone encased fallen angels-concrete versions of Optimus Prime if you ask me) meets One million years BC.
It seems to me there is a lot of over-inflation in terms of both attacking and defending this film from different sides of the religious community, but they all seem to deal solely with the story essentially in its narrative form. I've read theological attacks and defences, seen it described as a midrash, on and on, and that's all fine, but a film isn't just the spoken world, its the visual and musical accompaniment, that expands the world the film-maker wants to draw you into, and I found myself uninterested in journeying into this tale, in fact I felt pushed out of it by most of the choices it made in all three realms, but particularly the visual and musical--again, I usually enjoy the work of film composer Clint Mansell, who has composed the music for all of Aronofsky's films, but this had to be the most turgid and un-interesting of them all.
I have never been a big fan of the block buster genre anyway, I don't need that much spectacle and noise, so I should have known. I think I would have preferred a low-budget telling of this tale, and I'll go back to Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain to keep my Aronofsky juices flowing.
There are rock documentaries that follow formula and then there are others that use the band as a backdrop for something else. Tom Berninger is the younger brother of Matt, lead singer for The National. His brother invited him on tour, ostensibly to be a roadie--it didn't go well, but a documentary came out of it. Mistaken For strangers is a very real and honest look at a band, but more importantly a look at the dynamic between two brothers, one an ascendant rock star, the other, nine years younger and a bit lost. What do you do when success, direction in life even, eludes you and you live in the shadow of a sibling doing well? There is a lot to think about after watching this film.
Two words, Ralph Fiennes, reason enough to see Wes Anderson's latest, Grand Budapest Hotel. As with all of Anderson's films it is inhabited by quirky characters existing in the Directors obsessively curated world, this time a grand European hotel. This film is darker than his others, has more violence and meanness, colours we haven't seen much of in his work thus far, but it's a welcome addition. There are lots of Anderson regulars vying for screen time here, Schwartzman, Murray, Swinton, etc. but it is Fiennes whose timing is so brilliant that makes this one shine. Her plays a concierge, lothario, gigolo in a caper film involving money, art, a hotel, crime, and stories within stories within stories. Again, as with all of his films, I can watch them simply for the art direction and use of colour, this one, alive in pinks and purples and reds, which are much more primary than his last outing Moonrise Kingdom with all it's East Coast harvest colours.
I think an Anderson has to be seen to be fully understand, it is a visual treat as much as anything else and this one won't disappoint.
Zizek is back. Available today via iTunes and on Netflix I think, is the latest documentary from Zizek, The Perverts Guide to Ideology, directed by Sophie Fiennes, an exploration of cinema and "the mechanisms that shape what we believe and how we behave." It's pretty much the same format as the earlier PG to Cinema, but this time the focus is more on ideology itself. You know what you are going to get with Zizek, a marxist philosophical view of everything, but I find the man perhaps at his most insightful when he tackles what is going on in culture via cinema, coca-cols and chocolate eggs and much more. Any philosopher who tackles The Sound of Music, casually mentions religion as a means of harnessing sexual desire and then takes the film as an important ideological treatise and notes that Climb Every Mountain was censored for its Catholic propagandist tendencies in his native Yugoslavia when he first saw the film, is worth listening to as far as I am concerned. Complexity and the unseen depths of things are what I always take away from Zizek's cultural critique and that is always more than enough.
Reading through some blogs this morning and came across a reference to a 1938 movie called Sex Madness, which like the perhaps more familiar, Reefer Madness, is a quasi-documentary film pointing out the dangers of unbridled sexual activity and the dangers of STDs particularly Syphillis. Its a moral prescriptive story about new values, or lack of values and morality around sexual activity and the young, and features a 'concerned citizen,' Paul Lorenz, who is on a one-person crusade against immorality. Of course the protagonists are up for any kind of sexual activity regardless of the cost and consequences--'wild' parties, lesbianism and premarital sex all follow.
The form of the film, which was 'educational' allowed things to be shown that were forbidden by the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. It's less than an hour long, but it is an insightful peak into a period in history where new moralities were challenging old ways--it's after the giddy and dizzying heights of the Jazz Age, when new attitudes to gender, class, sex and sexuality and social norms were pushing the world into directions many felt uncomfortable with the direction things were going and reduced everything down to a simple moral equation rather than wrestling with the complexities of new social relations and finding ways to address both the opportunities and challenges of such shifts. Funny how not much has changed in that regard. One of my favourite 'pick-up lines in the film comes courtsey of a suave 'cowboy/flamenco' guy who is preying on a naive young girl swept up in the idea of an independent life and career, "lets seal our friendship with wine-sparkling, bright...it rids the mind of worry, fills the soul with hope..." very smooth--this first drink leads to champagne a wild party and then... it happened, a life ruined. Unfortunately, of course, nasty things can and do happen to people when their minds are blurred and their eyes are blinded by things they desire, but the films heavy-handed and one-sided treatment of the issues is what makes it worth watching.
Morality and moral choices are so simple for some people, it's just a case of always knowing right from wrong--I find it usually much more complex, especially in times of change, when we find ourselves at the frontier of new human orderings and what is emerging has yet to be named and defined. You can watch the whole film here.