Lucy / ***

lucy-scarlett-johansson-posterLook, let’s get this out of the way: yes, the whole “we only use 10% of our brains” thing is an urban myth. It’s one of those things that gets said a lot, and seems to be accepted by some people, but it’s not true, and really doesn’t make much sense. And so, yeah, I suppose you could dismiss Lucy based off the fact that its entire premise revolves around that – it tells the story of a young woman who is tapping into her brain capacity more and more, giving her powers beyond any explanation.

And look, I guess I can’t argue with you if that’s your hang-up with the film, but in the end, the brain thing is a MacGuffin of sorts. No, it’s not what everyone is after, so it’s not a literal MacGuffin, but it’s a plot device – an excuse to let the film unfold, a hook to make things work. And whether it’s the 10% of our brain or a magical drug that gives her powers, it doesn’t really matter that much to the film around it. Well, more accurately, it shouldn’t matter that much. Because, really, Lucy is a pretty dumb movie. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad, mind you; it’s just a gleefully silly movie that wants to make a fun action flick, and needed an excuse to make it work.

And work it often does, if you can give yourself over to the silliness. Luc Besson knows what he’s doing behind a camera, and his staging and pacing of Lucy is generally a joy every time he lets the action unfold. There are scenes here that feel like what we kind of wanted The Matrix to be – a world where rules could be re-written – and every time Lucy goes for broke, the end result is silly, over-the-top fun, from a destructive car chase to a series of ineffective gun battles.

The problem, ultimately, comes in the disconnect between Lucy‘s best parts (the action) and the weakest – a part of the film that could charitably be called “technobabble”. In the best version of Lucy that exists in some alternate world, Besson lets the absurd premise dictate the film, and lets the gleefully weird action shine. Instead, Lucy takes itself oddly seriously at points, and as Lucy herself becomes more and more godlike, the film gives itself over to bizarre abstractions that feel like 2001 if it were…well, if it were filmed as a really dopey action movie. (Here’s a helpful guide to watching Lucy: if Morgan Freeman is in a scene, it’s because Besson needs him to keep everything from seeming as stupid as it is. Nothing against him, but every scene with Freeman is successively dumber than the ones before it.)

It’s hard to hate Lucy that much – it’s just a dopey, goofy movie that takes itself a bit too seriously, and feels, to steal a phrase from Matt Singer’s review, “like 2001: A Space Odyssey as reimagined by a pothead college dropout”. It’s entertaining and silly, to put it mildly, and it takes itself a bit too seriously by the end. (I really can’t express easily the weirdness of the ending, which I kind of loved as a gonzo filmmaking choice, even while I was baffled by using it as a way of ending this story.) That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, and it doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining; it just means that it’s pretty dumb, and ironically, doesn’t make the most of its potential.

IMDb

Unfriended / ****

unfriended_2015_teaser_posterThere’s something really satisfying about going into a movie that you expect to be only okay – or maybe even out-and-out bad – and instead getting an inventive and pretty great experience. And let’s be fair: there’s almost no reason that Unfriended should be any good. The film showed every indication of being what Roger Ebert called a “Dead Teenager Movie” – in other words, a generic slasher about teens paying for their sins. In this case, those sins seem to revolve around a girl who was cyberbullied until she committed suicide, and all of our young protagonists seem to be connected to the incident somehow.

And yet, Unfriended feels like nothing else really out there, and the reason, once again, goes back to Ebert. This time, though, it’s his First Rule of Movies: “A movie is not about what it is about; it is about how it goes about it.” And while Unfriended is a horror movie in which teenagers die, how it goes about it is far more interesting than it has any right to be.

Unfriended plays out in real-time, and essentially as one single shot – a shot of a laptop screen. The entire film is told via the screen of Blaire Lily, and as it unfolds, we watch her Skype calls with friends, her web searches, her side messages with her boyfriend, and more. More than that – and more interestingly than that – we see her inputs in real time, as she revises her typing, changes her mind about what she’s going to say, and debates how to handle the nightmare unfolding in front of her.

Let’s set aside the complicated technical aspects of the film (which apparently necessitated each actor basically doing the film in a single unbroken take), the-cast-of-unfriended-movie-2015and instead, let’s talk about how the idea pays off.  Director Levan Gabriadze does wonders with his limited screen space, letting tension build with something as simple as a window being moved to the background, or the arrival of a new notification, or the unexpected playing of a song. It’s a peculiarly literal version of the idea of the “ghost in the machine,” but a fantastic one, one that gives the film absolute control over our window into this “reality” and the ability to toy with what we see and experience.

More than that, it gives the film a fascinating way to let the story play out, as we get the divide between what our characters are saying, what their interactions imply, and most interestingly, some of the things that Blaire isn’t saying. On multiple occasions, the film watches as Blaire struggles with the right words, and in the various drafts she goes through, we start to put together more story than any dialogue ever could. (That’s most notable when Blaire tries to explain to her friends a bit more about why the dead girl was more sympathetic than they might have thought.) It’s a small touch, but it’s also a method of storytelling that no other approach to the film could have supported.

And finally – and most compellingly – it turns the subtext of the film into text. Unfriended is a film that revolves around cyberbullying, but it’s also a film about technology in modern life – unfriendedthe distancing effect online interactions can have, for instance, but also the ways in which we deal with other. It makes the film valuable not only as a snapshot of our current era, but gives it some thoughtful material to unpack, and a subtext that becomes important as we learn exactly what part some of these teens played in the death of that girl.

Sure, some parts of Unfriended are still only okay. The deaths feel a bit silly and contrived, and almost laughably contrived in a few cases. And it’s really a shame that the film doesn’t end about 30 seconds earlier than it does – it’s exactly the ending that I suspected the film would deliver, and it’s disappointing not only in its predictability, but in its cheesiness. But for all of that, there’s still some genuinely unnerving sequences in Unfriended, and I have to admire any film that gets this much tension and unease out of nothing more than a blank, default Skype icon. Unfriended is far from perfect, but it’s far more inventive and interesting than I ever expected it to be, and really, much better than I hoped, delivering a horror film that does something fairly rare for the genre: it does something wholly new and unique. And even if it was terrible – and it’s not – that alone makes it worth your time. The fact that it’s still creepy and engaging is just icing.

IMDb

Deutschland 83 / ****

deutschland_eighty_three_xlgA little while back, I wrote about The Americans, which just might be the best show on television. It’s the story of a pair of Russian spies living undercover in 1980’s America, and the toll that their double lives takes not only on themselves, but on their family. It’s a gripping piece of drama, one that uses its espionage hook as a way of exploring complex ideas about identity, loyalty, and self.

I mention that because it’s all but impossible to talk about Deutschland 83 without at least mentioning The Americans. After all, both are espionage stories set during the Cold War; both focus on a Communist spy who works to infiltrate the West; both are steeped in the music and pop culture of the time. But while The Americans uses its premise as a stepping off point, Deutschland 83 instead focuses on the mechanics of spycraft, following our protagonist as he snaps pictures, makes dead drops, works to maintain his identity, and tries to keep his superiors informed as to what’s going on.

That’s not to say that Deutschland doesn’t have its share of dramatic moments; it’s just that the stakes are entirely different, so much so that the comparison to The Americans often seems unfair to Deutschland‘s many great aspects. At its core, Deutschland is a spy story, and the tensions it’s working with all arise from that mechanic, as the film delivers knockout sequence after knockout sequence of infiltrations, manipulations, and near misses. More than that, the show lets its stakes arise from the Cold War setting, to the point where we’re reminded of the incredibly high stakes around which this war constantly revolved.

The result is an incredibly fun show, one that feels like a fantastically taut little thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It took me about an episode to get into its rhythms, but as you start to realize just how invested Deutschland is in its double-crosses, false identities, and scheming intelligence heads, it’s hard not to get swept up in it. And if it’s not the rich, superlative experience that The Americans is, that’s okay; to insist on that would be to rob yourself of just how exciting and thrilling this show is.

Mind you, Deutschland isn’t perfect; it’s a bit overstuffed at times, with a few plot threads that end up feeling pretty extraneous by the end (that may be most true with a theoretically big revelation in the final episode that feels pretty pointless in just about every way). But by and large, this is great summer television – smart, exciting, tense, and well-made throughout. And man, what a killer 80’s soundtrack throughout.

IMDb

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon / *****

41avvhthuglI first read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time back in 2004, not long after its release, and was immediately taken by it. It’s hard not to be, mind you; Mark Haddon’s tale of an autistic young man who investigates the killing of a neighbor’s dog, only to find his way into a far different mystery, is funny, charming, profound, moving, and wholly original. Much of that comes from Haddon’s original, incredible creation of Christopher, our narrator – and I’ll have lots to say about him in a few. But first, let’s talk about the story itself, which often gets overshadowed by Haddon’s wonderful writing.

One of Haddon’s many great choices in Curious Incident is the decision to turn his novel not into a simple portrait of this young man, nor plunge into his complicated family history. Instead, Haddon frames his tale as a murder mystery…of sorts. After all, not many murder mysteries revolve around the killing of a dog. More importantly, though, not many books solve their mystery less than halfway through the novel, turning what we thought was a mystery into something wholly else: a gut-wrenching piece of drama about families, love, and betrayal.

Which brings us back to Christopher, who has to rank among the greatest and most original narrators in recent memory. Haddon plunges us into Christopher’s mindset, and it’s a very strange world for many of us. Even with the increase of awareness with regard to autism in the decade since the novel was published, it’s still an affliction that’s bewildering to many of us. And yet, Haddon helps us to understand Christopher perfectly, teaching us how he sees the world, how he struggles to interpret people, why he gets overwhelmed – and he does it all without ever feeling like he’s sliding into didactic writing or lecturing. Indeed, one of my favorite small sections involves nothing more than Christopher explaining his interpretation of various simple “smiley faces,” and demonstrating how hard it is to find nuance and complexity in them. It tells you an immense amount, all in less than a page.

Here’s the thing, though: ultimately, while the story of Curious Incident is great (and genuinely surprising on the first read), one of the things you forget until you re-read the book is just how essential Christopher’s narration is to the impact of the novel. As the book evolves in the back half into something wholly unexpected, and Christopher forces himself out of his comfort zone, Haddon never lets us forget just how grueling this experience for him, and the impact is devastating. As Christopher deals with people who don’t understand him, constantly overwhelming stimuli, and an inability to comprehend the complexity of his loved ones’ emotions, we find ourselves aching for this child, who is simultaneously brilliant and naive, intellectual and yet unable to understand basic human interaction. Haddon walks the line effortlessly, never reducing Christopher to a caricature, but never forcing him through the plot. Instead, by limiting our exposure to his world through his eyes, we only get glimpses of everything going on around him. And from those glimpses, we come to see not only how complicated Christopher’s life is, but maybe what it’s like to try to parent someone like him.

More than anything else, what Haddon has done here is something remarkable: he’s turned a simple mystery into something more profound and human, slowly letting his book evolve from a story about a dead dog into an examination of families, guilt, and the complexities of love. More than that, though, he does it all while forcing the reader to have empathy with someone wholly unlike themselves, and the end result is like little else you’ve ever read. By now, you’ve probably read this book; its reputation precedes it, and it’s not undeserved. But if you haven’t, make the time; it’s a truly powerful, remarkable book, one that inspires empathy, understanding, and true compassion – something the world always needs more of.

Amazon

 

1984, by George Orwell / *****

1984_book_cover_2_by_ioski1-d3g8fcxI haven’t read 1984 since high school, and yet, it has stuck with me for nearly 20 years. I had never read anything quite like it before – nothing quite as thoughtful and intricate in its horrifically cynical view of the future. And its ideas about language – how controlling language, to say nothing of the past, could be used to control the population – floored me, and inspired me to think about media and literature in new ways.

And yet, over the years, what I had mostly forgotten about was how 1984 worked – or didn’t work – as a novel. I remembered the rich ideas, the complicated politics, the rich version of an all-powerful government that controlled its populace through manipulation of every facet of life, but what I didn’t really remember much about was Winston Smith, his inner conflict against Ingsoc and Big Brother, and his burgeoning relationship with Julia.

It turns out, though, that there’s a reason for that. It’s not that any of it is bad by any means; indeed, it’s hard to overestimate the impact 1984 has had on modern fiction, most notably on a cavalcade of YA fiction that borrows from its dystopian outlook. Without 1984, it’s hard to imagine having The Hunger Games, much less any of the slew of more generic YA knockoffs that came after that. Orwell immerses us in Winston’s worldview seamlessly and quickly, not only forcing us to understand the reality of life under Big Brother, but to see why he might want to rebel, as well as how difficult the very idea of rebelling is. And while Julia never really fully comes to life as a character, that’s almost intentional; she’s a symbol to him, and not a huge amount more.

But really, 1984‘s plot is far more simple and somewhat perfunctory than I remembered. Winston considers rebelling; he meets Julia and they begin an affair; things take a bad turn. That’s about it, really. So, sure, the plot is fine – it’s engaging and keeps you reading. But more than that, the plotting is there to underline the complex, fascinating world that Orwell has constructed. As we follow Winston’s journey – not only his physical one, but also his mental trips through his memories, his political evolution, his occupation, and more – Orwell is able to construct his horrifying dystopia, using every incident and detail to underline the power that Big Brother truly represents.

That comes to a head in the book’s final third, which only works as a result of understanding what this government is capable of – and what they seem to want. Without that, Winston’s final trials in the Ministry don’t work, nor does Orwell’s brutal ending. And yet, thanks to the construction of the world he’s invested his time in, it all feels…not right, exactly, but sadly plausible.

1984 undeniably has some issues as a novel. It’s occasionally didactic to an extreme, most notably in a long section in which Winston finally gets to read the official theories of the rebellion – a multi-chapter transcription of political theory. And, of course, there’s the appendix, in which Orwell combines world-building with a discussion of how language could be used to control thought – a long discussion which I found fascinating, but of course, I’m an English major, so I’m biased that way. And yet, even with those flaws, I can’t regard the book as anything less than a masterpiece, an incredible dystopia that’s more thought out, nuanced, pondered, and horrifically plausible than just about anything out there. More than that, it presents rich and complex ideas in an understandable, even entertaining way, and one that allows you to see their intention, their execution, and their impact on a society – something that an essay of political theorizing could never accomplish. It’s an essential piece of literature, one in which any shortcomings as a piece of storytelling are more than made up for by the importance and power of the ideas.

Amazon

Ran / *****

as_ranIt’s not a small thing that Ran just might be the best film Akira Kurosawa ever made. This is the man who directed films like RashomonYojimbo, Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep WellSanjuroHigh and Low, IkiruThe Hidden Fortress…oh, and did I mention The Seven Samurai? In other words, some of the greatest films ever made, period. And yet, even as great as every one of those films is – and that can’t be in dispute – Ran may well be his masterpiece. And seeing it on the big screen in a stunning 4k restoration only drives home that fact all the more.

Ran is Kurosawa’s final foray into Shakespearean tragedy, transplanting King Lear to feudal Japan as he tells the story of an elderly lord who steps down from power and leaves everything to his oldest son. When his decision is mocked and questioned by his youngest child, he banishes the boy, as well as an advisor who supports him – a choice that sets off a cascading and horrific tragedy of epic scope.

Ran isn’t the master’s final film – he put out less than half a dozen more before his death – but in many ways, it feels like it should be his last, a meditation on legacies, children, influence, and more than anything else, the nature of humanity. In other words, all the themes that Shakespeare himself dealt with, but made wholly unique by Kurosawa’s interpretation. Ran is also a film about war, and about people’s innate cruelty and vindictiveness. And that lesson comes through loud and clear in the battle sequences, which have to rank among the most astonishing, beautiful, and nightmarish renditions of war ever captured on film.

Here’s maybe the most remarkable thing about Ran: by the time Kurosawa filmed it, he was largely blind. Indeed, by all accounts, he could only frame shots with the help of assistants, who used as their guidance the storyboards Kurosawa had been painting for ten years in the run-up to the filming. And yet, Ran is undeniably Kurosawa’s most astonishing visual work, a breathtaking display of color, environment, and framing that creates an impact all its own. 138581719827As the film builds to its devastating war between the lord’s children, clouds gather, the sunlight begins to be obscured, and the storm brews. And then, all at once, everything explodes into violence and bloodshed. Troops converge in a shadowy, haunted landscape, with their flags the only color. Flames erupt, and the smoke combines with the fog to obscure some – but not all – of the horrors. And the violence is inescapable. And yet, Kurosawa stages it all simply, removing the soundtrack and replacing it with classical music that only underlines the horrors we’re watching. It’s one of the greatest pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen, and one that both moves me emotionally and cinematically.

But the story throughout Ran is no less haunting, as the patriarch reels from the betrayal of his children, his long vanquished foes wreak their vengeance from beyond the graves, and he is forced to look at his legacy head on and realize what he’s left behind. It’s a heartbreaking arc; even while we recognize the foolishness of this man, and perhaps his culpability in everything we’re watching unfold, Kurosawa forces us to empathize with him, and realize his pain as he understands what his life has led to.

It is, in short, a masterpiece, one of the all-time great films on every imaginable level. It is a magnificent work of cinematic achievement, a haunting portrait of the horrors of war, a painful look at the damage we do in our lives, and a devastating examination of a family tearing itself apart. It is profound, moving, and gut-wrenching – and more than anything, it does Shakespeare justice while standing on its own terms as a personal work. If you’re a cinephile, and you miss the chance to see this – especially in this beautiful restoration on the big screen – you’ll be missing out on of the great accomplishments of cinema.

IMDb

Two by King Hu / *****

A couple of years ago, thanks to the El Rey network, I started trying to make an effort to start watching classic kung fu films. Old-school martial arts films were something I never really got into, and I realized it was something I needed to check out to start patching that gap in my film credentials. But apart from a few great ones (The Streetfighter prime among them), I found myself mostly bored by them; you can read longer thoughts here if you want, but the short version is just that they didn’t do anything for me. It wasn’t the films; it was just that there was little there that interested me.

And yet, with the re-opening of the great Belcourt theater in Nashville came the chance to see two films by famed director King Hu, whose Touch of Zen is often held up as not only one of the best martial arts films in the wuxia tradition, but one of the great films, period. And with it came Dragon Inn, an earlier work that’s no less beloved by many. And so, in the hopes that I’d find something more to my liking, I gave these a shot.

Oh, man, am I glad I did. Because while a lot of the traditional Shaw brothers movies may not do much for me, with their bad dubbing, goofy plots, and whatnot, I was floored by just about every moment of these two great pieces of filmmaking.

cta_1125_originalLet’s start with Dragon Inn. The plot is simple: the family of a disgraced lord is making their way to exile, pursued by the regime’s soldiers, who want them dead. At an inn near the Dragon Gate, the soldiers wait, only to find themselves dealing with some unexpected opposition – a wandering traveler, a pair of unlikely guardians, and an innkeeper who’s more than he seems.

Don’t let that simple story fool you, though. Indeed, much of the joy of Dragon Inn – which I truly, really loved – comes from the way it uses its archetypal characters to their utmost. The closest comparison I can come up with is saying that Dragon Inn is to martial arts movies what Sergio Leone westerns are to normal Westerns – recognizably the same genre, but done with style to spare, an attention to visuals that’s striking, and an ability to turn a simple story into something operatic.

Even better, Dragon Inn is just plain fun, staging its martial arts action with more humor and creativity than I expected, and delivering more laugh-out-loud moments than I thought there’d be, from the dialogue to some of the staging. And in moving away from traditional martial arts and towards the wuxia school (slightly magical, less realistic), the film soars, letting its characters actions move beyond reality into something more sweeping and effective. More than that, the characters become defined through their actions – their confidence, their style, their presence. And it makes every battle and confrontation all the more gripping and effective as a result.

The short version? I loved it -it’s fun, exciting, beautifully shot, got a fantastic sense of humor, wonderful action, and a story that draws you in with its simplicity. It’s a complete blast, and I can’t recommend it enough. Dragon Inn: *****

6353_tnBut then there’s A Touch of Zen, which, in some ways, is a whole other animal. It’s longer, by far, than Dragon Inn – almost 70 minutes longer, which makes for a movie that’s over three hours long. That’s long by any standards, much less for a martial arts movie. And the story here is, in some ways, more complex, and in other ways, almost identical. Again, we have exiles pursued by officers of a corrupt regime, and a last stand being planned in an isolated community. But while Dragon Inn was simple and pulpy, A Touch of Zen goes on digressions, be it life in a small town, the relationship between a local boy and his mother, the possible haunting of a local fort, or life among a group of traveling monks. And in those digressions, the film evolves into something deeper, more profound – a study of life in these times, as well as the impact of religion in this world.

And yet, make no mistake, this is a martial arts film, and a brilliant one at that. It’s also one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, and only made more so by the beautiful 4k restoration that’s recently been done. There is a battle in a bamboo forest that ranks among the most astonishing scenes I’ve ever seen, and that’s matched throughout by no end of brilliant use of lighting, smoke, and shadows. More than that, the wuxia touches that appeared in Dragon Inn reach a peak here, as the fights become something sweeping and majestic, often done without soundtrack other than the rustle of their clothes and the clashing of the blades.

Yes, A Touch of Zen is a bit long – maybe too long, especially with a long final section that almost feels like an epilogue from a different film at times. And yet, it’s hard not to be awed by the overall impact, as the story unspools in a complicated pattern that’s both true to the operatic style of Dragon Inn and yet more character-driven as well. A Touch of Zen is undeniably the “better” film – the visual style is breathtaking, the story richer, the character work more satisfying. It may not be as purely “fun” as Dragon Inn, but that doesn’t take away from its power or beauty, nor the creativity of its action, or the richness of the world it constructs. A Touch of Zen: *****

IMDb: Dragon Inn | A Touch of Zen