“Are humans more concerned with having than being?” Lucy (2014)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We finally got around to seeing Lucy, the Luc Besson-directed thriller starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. (We do have a dog named Lucy, so I’m not sure why we didn’t get to it sooner? Hmmm…)

WTF, ‘Murica?

I don’t know if I’m horrified or delighted (or both) at the financial success enjoyed domestically this summer by this loopy, French existentialist, nonsensical genre mash-up of the much superior Bradley Cooper-starrer Limitless, John Travolta’s Phenomenon, the little-seen (and also superior) Chris Evans-flick Push, and Besson’s own La Femme Nikita (unnecessarily remade as Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda) and The Fifth Element (with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich).

Don’t get me wrong – I was totally entertained during Lucy‘s blessedly expeditious 90-minute running time, but, every fifteen minutes or so, the script seems to jettison its own internal narrative logic (let alone anything remotely connected to real-world physics, biology, information technology, or screenwriting 101) as it careens toward a denouement that makes the final moments of, say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Terrence Malick’s, well, anything look like the gritty, grounded urban dramas of Sidney Lumet.

The set-up (bear with me) is that Lucy (Johansson) is a college student (I think?) in Taipei (I think?) who has a one-week (?) stand with Richard, a skeezy beau wearing a cheap straw cowboy hat and awful, rose-colored (really.) wrap-around Bono-style sunglasses. They have an interminably cutesy exchange outside a fancy hotel as Richard tries to convince Lucy to deliver to a guest one of those stainless steel briefcases that only seem to exist in Hollywood movies (or holding poker chips at the last-minute holiday gift display at JCPenney).

Richard (Dick, get it?) ends up handcuffing Lucy to said suitcase (ah, bondage – is this a movie about female empowerment?), and shoves her into the hotel lobby, at which time an army of black-suited, indeterminately Asian mobsters swarm about her, put her through h*ll, shove some space-rock crack-esque drugs in her tummy, pop her on a plane, and leave her in a third-world dungeon somewhere. After she is brutalized by her captors, the bag of purple diamelles or whatever burst in her stomach, giving her the ability to increasingly access the remotest reaches of her brain.

See, we mere mortals access only 10% – which is why we make stupid decisions like watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians or wearing PajamaJeans or eating Funyuns – but Lucy gets all kinds of nifty skills, like telepathy and computer programming and rocking stylish mini-dresses, when her cerebral cortex goes into overdrive.

Besson helps us neanderthals in the audience follow along by periodically flashing black and white percentages on the screen – 10%, 20%, 30%, 99% – not to mention random images of cheetahs chasing gazelles and Quest for Fire-extras discovering, er, fire. Deep, man.

Spoiler alert! As Lucy gets more and more authority over the idiots populating this Big Blue Marble, she starts to quite literally evaporate because her cells are multiplying at such a rapid rate her body can’t hold her consciousness (I think?). The film then becomes a race against time as a) Lucy heads to Europe to track down the remaining shipments of the glowy purple narcotics; b) hooks up with a hunky hawk-nosed French cop; c) runs away from and, inexplicably, does not use her super-brain to blow up the horde of angry Asian mobsters; d) has a sit-down with sage old wry Morgan Freeman doing that sage old wry Morgan Freeman thing as an academic who has been conveniently narrating the film up to this point to explain this whole “we only use 10% of our brains” nonsense; and, e) after surreally meeting our collective ancestor “original” cave-monkey-person Lucy, figures out how to ensure her own immortality by taking the form of a star-festooned … thumb drive.

(One could argue that the way the film ends actually tees up Johansson’s disembodied voice in Her. Heck, Lucy’s last message to humanity appears as a text on a cell phone. Just think about that! Minds blown. 🙂 )

All that said, I rather enjoyed myself at this idiotic movie.

Why? Besson is an incredibly stylish filmmaker – alongside Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, The Insider) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator), he is arguably one of the most. The visuals in Lucy POP!, with brilliant use of grime and fluorescent light, color contrast and international locales, jazzed with trippy intercuts and hyperkinetic pacing.

The wisest choices of all, though, were made in casting Johansson and Freeman who wink at the junk material without ever condescending to it. Freeman especially seems to be having a good time with what could have been a thankless role, both befuddled and surprised that his life’s theoretical work has apparently come to blazing life in the form of Lucy.

Johansson didn’t used to be my cup of tea. Not sure why. However, I’ve grown to appreciate her – both as a performer and a human – more and more, and, in Lucy, I loved every note of the fear, anger, inquisitiveness, exasperation, and (finally) magnanimous indifference she wrings from the paper-thin script.

Like any popcorn film that tries too hard to say something so philosophical, Lucy ends up not saying much at all. There is a zippy line early in the film that holds such promise but is never revisited: “Are humans more concerned with having than being?” I’m not sure that intriguing question is ever actually answered. In the end, Lucy only works as a movie if you don’t think about it too much…which is pretty ironic for a film that ostensibly is about using every last bit of our brains.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: 12 Years a Slave

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Only 2 days remain until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s what Roy thought about 12 Years a Slave: “…a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity prop up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Countdown: Her

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

My childhood home

My childhood home

The countdown continues! 6 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Thanks to Kat Kelly-Heinzelman (read her blog here) for her friendship and support! She writes, “Check out my new profile picture; I think you will like it, Roy. LOL! Hope you’re having a good day … I love it [Reel Roy Reviews]. Have been reading since I got it. Good so far!”

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of HER: “Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent ‘operating system’ (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Driving our collective spirit underground: Her and 12 Years a Slave

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Whenever the Academy Award nominations are announced, I suddenly feel pressure … like I’m in college again and I have an imminent final exam for which I haven’t read one chapter in our assigned texts the whole semester.

Blessedly, the various movie studios’ marketing departments kick into overdrive at Oscar time, and many movies we might have missed the first time around get a second run in theatres (and not only the art houses, but in those big stadium jobs with the good/lousy Sbarro pizza).

So, my Martin Luther King Day was spent in the multiplex for one of my stranger double feature combinations: Spike Jonze’s Her and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. This duo still doesn’t to compare to my high (low?) watermark when I paired the childlike whimsy of stop-motion animation Coraline with the Nazi-in-hiding sexual perversity of The Reader … I felt like such a creeper that day.

At first blush, Her and 12 Years a Slave would seem to bear little in common, other than critical acclaim and multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. However (and I don’t think this is just because I am force-fitting patterns that might not otherwise exist), both films, in very different ways and settings, address the disconnect that has long-plagued American life, in which religion or economics or technology engender empty separations and cruel abuses (physical, emotional, or plain neglectful), driving our collective spirit underground.

In the case of Her, which I found a slightly stronger film, Jonze paints a depressing near future – not quite dystopian, but burnished and bland and beautifully designed as if IKEA and Dwell Magazine bathed the world in minimalist chic – in which smart phone technology has become so integrated into our every waking moment that every human interaction is filtered and measured by a handheld device.

Looking like the nebbish-y hipster offspring of Charlie Chaplin and Kurt Vonnegut, Joaquin Phoenix is deeply affecting as a Byronesque romantic lost in a sea of bits and bytes after his author wife (Rooney Mara, continuing her sharp-edged roll) leaves him. Phoenix’s Theo just wants to feel something … anything

As you are likely aware from the ubiquitous advertising, Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent “operating system” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).

Amy Adams plays the third woman in Theo’s life, a longtime friend (and likeliest soul-mate of all), who also struggles to find meaningful interaction in a world where all the rough edges have been sanded to apathetic perfection. Adams shines in her scenes with Phoenix, and I enjoyed her performance here as Theo’s fellow lost soul so much more than I did her work in American Hustle.

The film borrows heavily from the aforementioned Vonnegut (Harrison Bergeron popped into my mind for some reason) as well as Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric) with a touch of Cyrano de Bergerac and Stanley Kubrick’s HAL for good measure. Theo spends his days composing hand-written notes for folks too busy to compose these missives themselves. (He doesn’t actually do the penmanship, but dictates into a computer that generates them.) And he spends his evenings, in an empty/disheveled apartment with fabulous views of downtown L.A., playing video games, pining for his ex, and wooing his computer.

Her is a starkly composed ode (and cautionary tale) to a society (ours) that has lost its heart, displacing flesh-and-blood dialogue with glib texts, microblog snark, and social media stalking. I don’t know that I loved it, but I sure can’t stop thinking about it.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If Her worries about where American society is headed, 12 Years a Slave shows us where we’ve been and possibly how little we’ve changed. 12 Years a Slave gives us a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity props up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.

I respect the work McQueen has done with this story, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. I will say, however, that I am not as transfixed by 12 Years a Slave as others seem to have been. Perhaps my judgment is affected by how delayed I am in getting to see this one, a film that couldn’t possibly live up to the expectation generated by months of critical praise.

Personally, I also have long-struggled with the idea of the very important historical film – be it Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan or others like them – the subject matter of which is so rightfully raw that one might feel discouraged to openly criticize the filmmakers’ artistic interpretation.

Regardless, this movie is extremely well-acted and, once it finds its narrative groove, is a powerful gut punch. I mostly had issues with the episodic and unconvincing (to me) first third of the film, from the set-up of Northup’s life as a free man in Saratoga, New York through his kidnapping in Washington, D.C., and onto his purchase by Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. (Yup, Cumberbatch again. I hope he earns a long vacation after the 118 films in which he appeared this year. He has been excellent in everything.)

Once Northup (portrayed with a weary incredulity by Chiwetel Ejiofor) lands with the cruel, equally defeated slave master Epps (Michael Fassbender) the movie has you on the edge of your seat. Fassbender does his best work to date, channeling the small-minded rage and belligerence of a Southerner deeply disaffected by life yet believing his faith and his race entitle him to bullying dominion over all creatures great and small. Sarah Paulson is equally crackerjack as his spiteful, heartbroken, spoiled belle of a wife.

The scenes between Ejiofor and Fassbender twist like a knife in the gullet, and viewers with modern sensibilities may reflect on how little some aspects of our country have changed since the horrific days when slavery was an American institution. Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking as Ejiofor’s fellow slave – an object of Fassbender’s economic admiration, sexual depravity, and violent tyranny – who is doubly damned for her race and her gender.

In this hectic awards season, as various film producers and their respective studios engage in ever-escalating gamesmanship to score trophies for the “home team,” it is easy to lose why some films speak to our souls. I think I will be reflecting for some time on both Her and 12 Years a Slave – well after the gold statuettes are all handed out – and what these films say about our uniquely American condition: ambition, cruelty, love, segregation, prosperity, racism, sexism, ageism, apathy, and … freedom.