A STUDY IN SCARLET and TALES OF HOFFMAN: Lucy and A Most Wanted Man


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Warning: SPOILERS
lucyRicky Ricardo: Lucy’s actin’ crazy. Fred Mertz: Crazy for Lucy, or crazy for ordinary people?
                                                                           I Love Lucy
First, I must begin by being absolutely clear so that everyone knows where I stand. Lucy, the new sci-fi thriller written and directed by French filmmaker (and some people use that term loosely in this context) Luc Besson is a terrible film.
I mean, c’mon. You know it. I know it. We all know it’s terrible. It’s silly, nonsensical, preposterous, absurd, often makes no sense and is not remotely believable, even for an unrealistic fantasy sci-fi thriller.
Which is also, in m any ways, a redundant way to state it because, well, gees, I mean, c’mon, it’s a Besson film, for Christ’s sake.
But with that being said, it may very well be a…dare I say it…I dare…great terrible movie.

 

The story revolves around one Lucy (Scarlett Johansson, of course), an American ex-pat living in Taiwan who likes to have a good time. When her latest fling, a good time Charlie of a disreputable character, asks her to deliver a briefcase for him, she’s smart enough to say no. But he’s smart enough to handcuff it to her arm and force the issue.

 

This all leads to some sort of silly, yet rather frightening, rigmarole on the part of a group of bad Asian mafia type dudes who insert some newfangled drug into Lucy in order for her to be a mule.

 

But when the bag breaks and the drug rushes to Lucy’s brain, it starts her on the road to making 100% use of that organ (yeah, yeah, I know, you know, we all know, we actually use 100% of the brain all the time…so, dudes, get over it already, it’s a Besson film), with powers and insights beyond anyone’s imagination.

 

Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating. It can’t be beyond anyone’s imagination or we wouldn’t have a movie, but you know what I mean.

 

At that point, Lucy looks up the foremost expert on the brain, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) while getting help from French police detective, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) while the Asian mob, heading by Mr. Jang (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi) is trying to track her down, etc., etc., etc.

 

So, got all that? I mean, there will be a test.

 

Lucy is shallow, yet deeply profound; unbelievable, but makes you go with every preposterous plot turn; in your face and on the nose, yet surprisingly subtle; over the top, yet controlled and to the point; ludicrous, yet takes itself quite seriously; ridiculous, yet riveting.

 

In the end, I’m not sure exactly what to really say about Besson’s style of filmmaking.

For example, when Besson has his characters talk about people being hunted, then cuts to animals stalking other animals; when he talks about people reproducing to save the species, then cuts to various animals making the beast with two backs; when he talks about…well…anything, then cuts to a series of shots to emphasize what he is talking about, are we supposed to be in awe of his having a unique and personal vision on how to make a film, or are we supposed to be insulted at how stupid he thinks we must be not to be able to grasp his points without visual aids?

 

Or both?

 

And when he has his characters wax profoundly on the meaning of life and what it is to be human, yet if you listen closely you have absolutely no idea what in tomfoolery he’s talking about, that it’s just a bunch of mumbo, jumbo bull hockey, are we supposed to be awed by his attempt at deep existential insight, or laugh at the fact that we’re not even sure if Besson knows what he’s talking about?

 

I don’t know. I don’t care.

 

It’s a Besson film.

 

And all I know is that Lucy is one hell of a ride. So don’t just get over it, get over it and go for it.

 

Probably what helps here is that the movie is ultimately not held together by any of the silly goings on going on on screen or Besson’s desperation in having his philosophy and insights taken seriously when they can’t remotely be taken such at all, but by some incredible performances in what would be a Heinz 57 of an international cast that is becoming more and more typical of movies these days (and Lucy has everything from a Danish party boy to a police officer of Middle Eastern background to Asian mobsters living in Taiwan who speak Korean).

And heading it all is the rapturous Scarlett Johansson, with a sexy and kittenish body and attitude that makes her come across as a mixture of Marilyn Monroe and the early Jane Fonda (before Fonda based her roles on how serious the subject matter was).

 

Here Johansson does the reverse of what she did in one of her last cinematic exploration of her almost unequaled sexiness, Under the Skin. In that first film, also sci-fi, she played an alien slowly becoming human. Here, she is a human slowly becoming something alien. And each time, the transformation gives her more insight into just what it means to be of the homosapien variety.

 

Of course, in Besson’s case, I’m not always sure what the idea of being human really means or what insight Lucy gets. She talks a lot and pontificates her pouty lips off, but I’m not convinced it really means very much (but Johansson is so good, it sounds like it could have been written by Kant or Spinoza or Sartre).

 

And there are some real oddities in the philosophical discussions. At the end, she hands Professor Norman a stick drive and says he’ll know what to do with it. I looked at my friends as they looked at me, all equally puzzled and saying the same thing: How will he know what to do with it? What the hell does that mean? (Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I just skyped for the first time last week).

 

And at one point, Lucy tells one and all that humanity has been wrong in measuring life mathematically, that math shouldn’t be the basis for how we interpret knowledge. Instead she says it should be time. But when she said that, all I could think was, “But time is a mathematical concept”.

 

But through it all, Johansson is simply amazing. She can do and say anything and make it emotionally riveting. At one point, she calls her mother and goes off on a speech about how she’s changing and can feel everything and can remember everything down to being born.

 

She’s so incredible that she makes you forget that the conversation really makes no sense: her mother should be freaking out and wondering what drugs her daughter is on. But no, it’s all Johansson’s show.

 

She gets able support from Freeman. He basically plays the same role he’s been playing of late, but with a twist. Freeman is there to react, to explain things, to observe, but he no longer takes part in anything and never essentially interacts. In other words, he’s no longer playing the God of Christianity. He is now playing the God of the Deists.

 

The whole thing climaxes in a typical Besson way. People carry guns in public and no one notices and then when the shooting starts, there’s not one whiff of reality to it. How hard can it be to get a SWAT team to take out a small band of mobsters (especially since these baddies are really little more than bunch of Keystone Kopsters who run their organization without the sense that God gave a goose, as my daddy might say)? I mean, really, are the French waiting for the U.S. to come rescue them again?

 

At the same time…well, if you go to a Besson film and expect a different sort of climax, you kinda deserve whatever you get.

 

Because, after all…It’s a Besson film.

 

most wanted manFool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

Unknown origin

 

A Most Wanted Man, the new espionage thriller based on a book by the great anti-Ian Fleming spymaster John Le Carre, has a rather typical Le Carre hero at the center: a man burnt out, disillusioned, who has been treated badly, but who is the most righteous and optimistic of all those around him, the only one who plies his trade with any sort of morality while everyone above him no longer knows the meaning of the word.

 

Of course, he can’t survive in such a world, but still, in some sort of existential funk, he continues on fighting the good fight for a world and organization that is no longer good enough for him. He may be out of their league, but they are in control.

 

The man is called Gunther Bachmann, and he runs a special ops group in Hamburg that does things that no one else is allowed to do, and is so secret, most people have no idea it exists.   It’s also sort of a punishment after something went wrong when the bureau he was running in Turkey was betrayed and his network of spies revealed, costing many of them their lives.

 

Now he is trying to trap a businessman, a man of Middle Eastern descent who goes around preaching peace, but who may or may not be diverting some of his charitable earnings to rather less than savory groups. Bachmann doesn’t want to take the businessman out; he wants to control him, make him part of his new network.

 

And one day a way presents itself when a homeless man, Issa, a mysterious Russian refugee of Middle Eastern background, arrives in Hamburg who ultimately wants asylum, but also has a key to a safety deposit box in a bank that may hold another key, the key for Bachman to control the businessman.

 

Bachmann is portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in all his burnt out glory, and he approaches the part as if it were a flame quickly reaching its end. Hoffman completely immerses himself in this role, playing it all out as if his life depended on it. Like the Joker for Heath Ledger, the brilliance Hoffman shows here just emphasizes how tragic it is that such a talent is no longer with us.

 

Like the movie Lucy, he is backed by a somewhat international cast including Nina Hoss (one of Germany’s brightest new actors and the muse for the filmmaker Christian Petzold in such movies a Barbara, Yella and Jerichow) and Daniel Bruhl (probably first really noticed over here in Good Bye Lenin!, but has since been seen in such non-German films as Inglourious Basterds, The Fifth Estate and Rush) as agents working for Bachmann; Homayoun Ershadi (of The Taste of Cherry) as the businessman; and Robin Wright (House of Cards) as a CIA operative.

 

This is becoming more and more the standard for films these days. Though productions still tend to use actors for roles outside of their background (here Hoffman; Rachel McAdams as a lawyer; and Willem Dafoe as the manager of the bank), it’s becoming more and more common for films to have a more catholic taste when it comes to casting. And the more movies do this, the more a sense of reality it brings to the proceedings, with a lot less embarrassment when the actor feels a bit out of place (Alec Guiness in A Passage to India anyone? Anyone?).

 

The movie, written by Andrew Bovell (who also wrote Lantana) and directed by Anton Corbijin (who also gave us the marvelous Control and The American, the latter another espionage thriller), is an extremely taught and exciting thriller, riveting and edge of your seat in the first and third acts.

 

At the same time, the second act tends to sag a bit and lose its momentum. I think this is because the story gives us a red herring. It makes us think that Issa is what is driving the story, and so much of the second act is spent trying to find a way to get him to do what Bachmann and the others want him to do.

 

First, these scenes are not filmed with the same sense of a ticking time bomb that the first and third parts are. Everyone talked up this Issa as if they had so little time to get what they needed from him before the apocalypse appeared, but when it really came down to it, everyone seems more to just plod along here.

 

But more importantly, it turns out that Issa is not driving the story, that he is actually a macguffin. He’s just the method to get to the businessman. Issa has no real connection to the businessman. Their life stories are not remotely entwined. Issa is a just a means to an end.

 

Yet that’s not how his story is dramatized. So basically, much of the story is focused on a plot turn that is actually rather minor and could have been almost anything. And this emphasis kind of throws the whole forward momentum thingy off.

 

At the same time, once it all starts moving again, the suspense kicks back in (I’ve never seen so much tension depending upon whether someone signs his name to a document or not; it’s almost as exciting as Indiana Jones trying to escape that boulder rolling toward him).

 

And the ending is typical Le Carre. And it leaves you with a sudden fierce slap to the face.

 

At the same time, I’m not quite sure it works as well as it might, because once the pain went away and I started thinking about it, I wasn’t quite sure why some here decided to betray Bachmann, why his plan for the businessman was inferior to whatever plan they had. I’m sure there was a reason. I’m sure that it might even have been spelled out somewhere along the line, but in the complications of the plot, it got a little lost (and Le Carre’s plots can be a tad hard to follow at times).

 

But right now, the ending more happens because that’s just the way things happen to Bachmann. No real rhyme or reason to it. That’s just the way his life is.

 

And I’m not quite sure that’s as satisfying as it might be.

 

As a side note, I do have to say that all involved are really giving the U.S. intelligence service great props. Based on the news I read, I never thought they could pull off something as well timed and smart as this.

 

But the story is fiction after all.

 

At the same time, do see A Most Wanted Man. It’s one of the finer films of the year.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Great reviews, Howard, definitely worth the wait to read them! LUCY’s being over the top, yet controlled and to the point…lol… Agree with your Scarlett’s sexiness and attitude comparison to MM and Jane Fonda’s. As for AMWM, I’ve only read the screenplay, but your evaluation was pretty spot-on in its regard. I also felt its 2nd act drags and loses steam, and felt the 3rd act’s final scene was anticlimactic. I’ll save the money now and stream it on Netflix when it comes out. I can definitely see Philip Seymour Hoffman in that role!

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