Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Lucy

Directed by: Luc Besson

Produced by: Virginie Silla

Screenplay by: Luc Besson

Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Morgan Freeman
Choi Min-sik
Amr Waked

Music by: Eric Serra

Cinematography by: Thierry Arbogast

Editing by: Luc Besson

Studio(s): Canal+
TF1 Films Production

Distributed by: EuropaCorp. Distribution (France)
Universal Pictures (International)

Release date(s): July 25, 2014 (United States)
August 6, 2014 (France)
August 22, 2014 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 89 minutes

Country: France

Language: English

Production budget: €49 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $415, 005, 000

I just noticed as I was beginning to pen (or rather type) this particular review that for my last one on The Expendables 3, I had neglected to put the 's' in there, effectively changing the title on the film from a plural to a singular. It wasn't much of a mistake (of course, I edited it!), but it got me thinking about typos and what are the worst examples of a movie title being completely changed by excising one letter.  I perused the internet and found a rather funny article on the topic (which I will put as a link on the bottom here), and examples such as The 4 Year Old Virgin, A New Hoe, 28 Days Late, Fat & Furious, 12 Years A Slav, Aging Bull, Raveheart and West Side Tory (for those of us unfortunate enough to live in the United Kingdom under the current coalition government) cropped up. Just a thought. Anywho, I've got pending reviews for A Most Wanted Man, 20,000 Days On Earth and Maps To The Stars to finish out August/September and from there I will proceed onto October, for which I have already seen Pride, and I have have copies of Lone Survivor, Child Of God and Under The Skin, so, for all the latest the greatest as involves the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Lucy, a film which is noteworthy on a few points in context alone, never mind what the movie is like itself. The star of the picture is Scarlett Johansson, a poised actress who seems to be in the middle of an amazing career high. The past twelve months have seen the release in the UK of Don Jon, Her, Under The Skin, Chef and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, all of which have featured Johansson in at least a major supporting capacity. It's strange to think how long she has been in the public eye, and that she was only eighteen in her turn in Lost In Translation, more than holding her own with the mighty Bill Murray. She has always been considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, but it's nice to see that once again people are starting recognise her talents as an actress. Also noteworthy is director Luc Besson's return to the directorial chair in the action film genre that made him famous with earlier work such as Nikita, Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element. Besson has continued working as a producer in the action film genre, being the mastermind behind The Transporter and Taken film series, but as a director he recently has been doing things like the animated Arthur series (beginning with Arthur And The Invisibles), the Aung San Suu Kyi biopic The Lady with Michelle Yeoh and last year's crime comedy The Family. So, getting the notes away, let's get down to business: story goes that Lucy (Johansson) is twenty-five and studies in Taipei, Taiwan and is tricked by her boyfriend into being a drug mule, delivering a briefcase which contains a highly valuable synthetic drug known as CPH4 to his employed Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, one of my favourite actors, in his English-language debut). After her boyfriend is killing, she and three other mules have one of four bags sewn into their abdomen to deliver them to different locations across Europe. However, one of her captors kicks her in the stomach, and the bag rips, enabling her to acquire abilities such as telekinesis, telepathy and mental time travel. Basically this follows along the lines of it's central concept on the 10% of brain myth, the tagline(s) reading, "The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%." Got it? Good!

The first thing that I would like to praise about the film is the approach to the material which writer-director Luc Besson takes. Don't get me wrong, there's an intriguing central premise, and some of the scientific stuff is interesting, but ultimately, first and foremost, Besson is a direct descendent of the likes of Roger Corman, understanding the fundamentals of entertaining an audience in a mainstream manner. Essentially, not to discredit Lucy, it's a €49 million budgeted exploitation film. There is a delirious sense of playful insanity, an artist who has been granted (or granted himself) virtual autonomy to mould an entire world to his own will. It reminds me of a child playing in a sandbox, limited only by the extent of his imagination. As I said, the science is cool and all, but Besson keeps it to a minimum and keeps everything tight. At less than ninety minutes, it's one of the snappiest mainstream blockbusters I have seen for a good while. Besson himself took the editorial duties on this picture, and the film benefits all the more from his finite sensibilities on how to cut appropriately. Not only from the aesthetic standpoint, but also from a technical standpoint this is strong work. It's a real-world based action film with some really high-concept science-fiction/fantasy ideas, a mix which can sometimes lead to problems, but both Besson's editing and the terrific work of the visual effects artists make it all seamless. The visual effects are highly imaginative, supervisor Nicholas Brooks ensuring that throughout the film, which has over a thousand effects shots, they are of a consistently high standard. Speaking of visuals, Besson's regular director of photography Thierry Arbogast does a fine job of shooting it. With this many different things going on, you'd need to ensure that you not the right guy to do the work, but someone who was mentally able to keep up with the abundance of controlled chaos involved, and he certainly does that. There's none of the cheap gimmickry or fatal flaws which so often bring down an action movie today in the era of digital. We truly get the sense of awe and wonder at what Besson is trying to get across through Arbogast's viewfinder. Another praiseworthy attribute is the manic, frenzied score by another Besson regular in Eric Serra. Just on a side note, when I'm reviewing a movie, I usually listen to the score, so that I can get a sense of the movie, which can be very helpful if I'm doing it from hindsight or an almost retrospective standpoint. I'm going back over to this score and just listening to it without the visuals it is a daring piece of work. It's strange in that Serra splits it between having at separate times traditional orchestral work with strings, brass and what have you, then more electric based work on keyboards, synthesisers and digitally-altered choruses/voices. At others, both are mixed together, but first and foremost, it's a score that moves it's tempo around in such a way that it backs up the film, slower and faster and back again. What it reminds me of most is HEALTH's score for the video game Max Payne 3, one of my favourite musical scores in any medium in recent years, something that's not afraid to think outside the box in the pursuit of artistry. Finally, while there are no acting masterclasses at work here, I'd like to take the time to acknowledge a few of the film's performances. Morgan Freeman isn't doing anything that he hasn't done already in the part of Professor Norman, but he's the right guy to play the trope of wise old man. Also, Choi Min-sik's English-language debut, while nothing on the complexity of the work he's shown us in his native South Korea, is a triumph that'll hopefully open a few doors for him. He brings a cerebral, full-frontal intensity to the film's primary antagonist, making him a credible foil to the central character. Speaking of the central character, this is a shining lead performance for Scarlett Johansson. I would to say it's subtle, but the arc of Lucy, transitioning from relative innocence to what Besson describe as "the ultimate intelligence" is fascinating to behold. The warmth which seems to be an inherent part of Johansson's acting chops is replaced by cold, deliberate line delivery. Gradually losing her emotions to the power of the drug gives it a certain level of tragedy, which is depicted by Johansson terrifically in a scene early in the film when Lucy realises that she will eventually die due to the drug's volatility, and she has an unexpected phone-call from her mother. It's a touching, serenely-played scene, Johansson displaying mastery of the film's tempo, her character pulling away from the humanity she used to know and the enlightenment she is yet to discover.

Now, as you can tell, I liked Lucy a lot. Indeed, although I'm sure many critics would scoff at my saying this, I liked Lucy to the point that I can say that I think it's a great film. However, it is by no means a masterpiece, and you have to look at the film a level of objectivity. The thing with Lucy is is that it is not one of these pictures with outright flaws, but rather it has something inherent in it's make-up that denies it from crossing over into masterpiece territory. Aside from the aforementioned scene early in the film, there's no human element to bring us that connection that we made with the character earlier on, and as a genre film it lacks the extra layer of depth to give it that sense of thematic commentary. Besson has not designed this to have that level of complexity, with the film finishing on a simplistic note, directly addressing the viewer in much the same way the film's action sequences assault (in a good way) the senses. While it's not an outright negative fault, it denies Lucy passage through the pearly gateway into cinematic paradise. You take the examples of something like Akira, which has been regularly mentioned in relation to this film, and Robocop; those are two high-concept, science-fiction action movies with real pulp sensibilities and main characters going through similar journeys and transformative experiences that the titular Lucy is going through. What separates them from something like Lucy is that they manage to not only, to quote Jim Morrison, "break on through to the other side," but to transcend boundaries of the genre film, the exploitation film, the so-called "great film," and become something flexible and wholly different. Lucy, while being a fine cerebral experience, lack that fluidity.

Now, that last paragraph was as full of wordy psycho-philosophical babble as one of Morgan Freeman's lectures in the film, but you get the point. Lucy's one of those strange films for me when it comes to criticising it, in that I have to take an ever more objective approach than usual to analyse what I found problematic with it. Ultimately, it is a film that is not designed to cross over into the upper echelons, but as it is I do think it is a great film. It boasts Luc Besson, in this case a true auteur if I ever saw one (writing, directing, editing), at his most outrageous and imaginative, giving the film a delirious sense of playful insanity. Nicholas Brooks' work as overseer to the visual effects department and Thierry Arbogast's cinematography ensure that from a visual standpoint it looks well. Also, Eric Serra's score, while clearly following the tempo of the film, tries to do something different with the traditional film scoring approach. Finally, the film boasts three solid performances in Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik and especially Scarlett Johansson, the film's true anchor and who makes Lucy's transformation a marvel to behold, to use a pun. It's obvious from the box-office intake that not only has her star power been cemented, but that there is quite clearly still a market for genre/exploitation cinema that dares to think outside the box.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.2/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Deed oan (if you're Scottish or read Irvine Welsh, you should be able to get the point)

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