Lucy (France-Taiwan-Canada, 2014)

An American superhero made in France

An American superhero made in France

In the film ‘corner’ of cyberspace, amongst liberal circles at least, there’s much debate about when Disney/Marvel are going to produce a female superhero. This is when Russia is invading Ukraine; an apocalyptic cult is enforcing Middle Age justice on anyone they can; Ebola is devastating western Africa; citizens can’t feed and house themselves, not new I know but increasingly a problem in the UK. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is the only high profile female superhero in recent films and she only plays a supporting role in The Avengers and Iron Man 3. Yet here she is playing Lucy, a woman who acquires superhero powers blitzing the box office; she’s currently taken nearly three times as much as the ageing males of The Expendables 3 in North America.

Writer-director Luc Besson has a reputation for producing female protagonists, though I found La Femme Nikita (France-Italy, 1990) misogynist, and he’s scored with Lucy. It’s not strictly a superhero film, there’s no costume, but there are superpowers. In this sequel-driven industry it’ll be a surprise if she doesn’t come back and it would be a welcome return even though the film isn’t anything special.

Johansson, as usual, is excellent, particularly as the scatty student inveigled into giving a Korean gangster a suitcase. The gangster is played by the great Korean actor Choi Min-sik and his characterisation will have to down as another example of EuropaCorp’s (Besson’s company) xenophobia – see here; there are no positive East Asian characters. Once Lucy becomes ‘super’ she becomes less interesting but there’s plenty of cod philosophy, and physics, to keep audiences distracted. I liked Besson’s use of Eisensteinean montage in the early scenes when shots of wildlife hunters and prey and cut into the scene when Lucy is the prey of the Koreans.

As far as I remember, Johansson’s body is only objectified once; a shot at the airport that moves up her body from behind. There’s far more of her body on show in Under the Skin a film that probably won’t titillate much given its disturbing qualities. This is an important issue because patriarchy tries use women’s body as a way of controlling females – see the recent ‘hacking’ of nude, personal pictures of female ‘celebrities’. That is as absurd as Seth McFarlane’s ‘We saw your boobs’ song at last year’s Oscars and parades male stupidity to anyone with a maturity beyond adolescence. As Jennifer Lawrence, one of the victims of the release of the images, parody account tweeted today:

‘If a man stands in the middle of the forest speaking, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?’

It’s a fair comment even if those of us who do not feel the need to prove they are men are categorised with the idiots who deal with their own inadequacies by trolling women that have the audacity to speak their mind and/or have a high profile.

Lucy is a film with a powerful female protagonist and I particularly like Amr Waked’s cop who can do nothing but get out of Lucy’s way in order to help her.

A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK, 2013)

A failure of form?

A failure of form?

This first screening of Conrad Clark’s second feature, at the Bradford International Film Festival, had the director in attendance and he explained he was attempting an ethnographic approach to portray the effects of global capitalism. He does this but I thought the film to be poorly made. Others have responded far more positively, see here, and Roy’s view here. Why didn’t I like it?

Narratively it’s obtuse; and there’s nothing wrong with that. The audience has to work to fill in the gaps between the ‘slices of life’, about a female Chinese entrepreneur in the UAE. Sang Juan’s Le Fei, the protagonist, is also unlikeable as a character; she often rudely berates her workers; though I acknowledge that’s probably a cultural judgement. Again, I’m not against narratives that don’t offer easily identifiable characters but when, at the end, we are clearly meant to feel sympathy for her – through mise en scene and music – I wondered why we are purposefully alienated from her at the start. So, I didn’t find the narrative convincing; the direction, for me, was also at fault.

Again I’m not against, per se, poorly composed shots and/or non ‘classical’ styles. Indeed the handheld ‘realist’ style, here almost certainly dictated by budgetary constraints, has much to offer. However, when Clark insists on shooting a conversation using whip pans he does risk both nausea in the audience and being asked the question (politely I didn’t stay for the Q&A) ‘what’s wrong with shot/reverse-shot?’. Similarly he insists on using extreme close-ups, both in sound and vision, presumably to bring us closer to Le Fei, but again it risks ‘unpleasure’ when we experience her slurping noodles. Similarly, the camera often follows characters close-up from behind, which reminded me of the Dardenne brothers’ technique in Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999). Whilst in Rosetta I felt the eponymous protagonist’s determination to get on, here I experienced being dragged along on characters’ backs.

As Roy notes, there are a few scenes which are clearly documentary in nature; they look like Clark has asked itinerant workers to talk about their lives to one another. Interesting, yes, but they didn’t fit in with the film. As my recent posts on Kim Ki-duk films suggests, I am very interested in hearing about the downtrodden in our world, but there was too much wrong with the film for me to hear them clearly.

And I’m still uncertain as to why she was ‘fallible’ or why she was a ‘girl’ and not a woman.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (US-UK-Qatar, 2012)

THE-RELUCTANT-FUNDAMENTALIST_STILL_1-1024x842

Who Do I Identify With?

I haven’t read Mohsin Hamid’s novel on which the film is based which is an oversight as anything, like Amy Waldman’s excellent The Submission, that tries to get to grips with the ‘war on terror’, which threatens to run as long as the wars in Orwell’s 1984, is important. There was a lot to like about the adaptation, not least Riz Ahmed’s performance in the lead. The subtleties of identity politics are well rendered as Ahmed’s Changez finds himself caught between tradition and rampant capitalism. Kiefer Sutherland, incidentally, excels as the slimy capitalist, a role he may be danger of becoming typecast in – see Melancholia.

The febrile atmosphere of Lahore is thrillingly caught; a fellow member of the audience told me that only a few exteriors were shot in Lahore, not surprisingly given the state of play in Pakistan at the moment. The glass mausoleums of capitalism are also well shot though the problems inherent in using ‘9/11’ footage (that it was far more dramatic than anything cinema can render) were not resolved.

But… While I understood the reasons for the romance narrative, Changez is after all a young man seeking his way in the world, this didn’t ‘come off’ at all. Changez is in his early 20s and while there’s no reason why he wouldn’t fall for a thirty something Kate Hudson (34), she looked far older to me; unlikely as it is, she seemed to have suffered from botox. But that’s probably just me.

Without spoiling the film, I can comment that I admired the way Changez developed convincingly throughout the film but found the final scene, with Liev Schrieber’s journalist, risible. The expression on Schrieber’s character’s face should be mortified and not a wry smile.

Incidentally I saw this at a packed out screening at the close of the Bradford International Film Festival.

The Impossible (Spain, 2012)

Wish I weren't here

Wish I weren’t here

In the first film post of the year I talked about international cinema and The Impossible is another good example. For many people the only clue that the film is Spanish would come if they stayed to watch the end credits where the, actors apart, names are indubitably from the Iberian peninsula. Why would anyone think it was Spanish? After all the film is in English, focuses upon an English family and has enough spectacle for a Hollywood film. The clue that it’s not Hollywood is in the dearth of American characters; the most prominent of which, though briefly seen, are portrayed as bossy and selfish. Despite the film’s brilliance, its struggling to make an impact in America, though it is still on a limited release there.

The film recounts the true story (if it weren’t true we wouldn’t believe it I expect) of a Spanish family caught by the tsunami in Thailand, in 2004. Aussie Watts and Scot McGregor are playing English characters though in recognition that this will give the film more commercial prospects. In other words, if they hadn’t had their nationalities transposed the 30m Euro budget wouldn’t have been available. Only 30m?! It looked a lot more, the tsunami is brilliantly shown as is the devastation afterwards. JA Bayona’s febrile direction captures the fraught circumstances of the survivors, both physically and psychologically, as their first thoughts are for their missing members of their families.

It is in this that the film really triumphs; its portrayal of the survivors’ desperation to find their loved ones is truly moving. I doubt I’ll see a more lachrymose movie this year. The cast is exemplary particularly Lucas, the elder son, (Tom Holland) who is the focus of much of the narrative.

The film has been criticised for, typically, turning a developing world tragedy into a drama focusing upon westerners. A well thought through piece on this can be accessed here. The argument does hold water though, as noted above, the economics of filmmaking are such that a story of a Thai family, or even Thailand, would not get made to this scale. The anonymous bloggers states:

‘When the tsunami subsides, the film’s dubious racial politics make an unwelcome reappearance. Maria is tended to by a villageful of kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything.’

This is a misrepresentation as one of the rescuers constants talks to Maria (Watts) albeit in the form of ‘jabbering’. But I don’t think this is a colonialist view of other languages but a representation from Maria’s perspective. I’ve no doubt that the man’s words (almost certainly encouraging) were perceived as ‘jabber’ in her painful and anxious state. In addition, the (silent it is true) locals who tend are shown to be wonderfully caring; but the film’s not their story. Later, at the hospital, the Thais are shown to be dealing with chaos both professionally and with care. That said, I would like to see a film that dealt with the appropriation of the fishermans’ devastated land to build tourist hotels in the aftermath – see Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

Mawkishness is often very near the lachrymose but this is a true story (more or less) and as a portrayal of human resilience and community (I was tearing up badly when Henry – McGregor – is offered mobile phone to complete a call home) I doubt this will be bettered this year.

Life of Pi (US-Taiwan-Aus-UK-Can, 2012)

FInding God? Don't think so.

Finding God? Don’t think so.

I didn’t get on with Yann Martel’s novel so I shouldn’t be surprised that I didn’t ‘get’ Ang Lee’s take on it. Harry Cohn, mogul at Columbia during Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, stated that if his ass started itching the movie was no good. My ass started itching 90 minutes into Pi which probably says more about my attention span than the movie.

CGI films tend to leave me cold, my concentration is is deflected by the glossy sheen of digital images and this film is ‘special effect’ heavy. However, they are at the service of the narrative, which apparently is intended to convince us of the existence of God. It was setting itself an impossible task. The CGI tiger (it is real only 14% of the time) is, however, utterly convincingly; visual-effects supervisor, Bill Westenhofer, has done a stunning job. The sea, however, as usual, is much less than real; though much of it was shot in a tank in Taiwan.

Some of the imagery was stunning, particularly the utterly still sea, and the lead, newcomer Suraj Sharma, is as good as the tiger. The film’s an interesting example of the internationalisation of cinema: Canadian source material; Taiwanese director; Gerard Depardieu cameos; American scriptwriter (David Magee); Chilean cinematographer (Claudio Miranda); in addition to the five countries cited above as producers. The $120m production budget requires a worldwide audience; currently it’s taken $214m in total.

The group I was with enjoyed the film; I was thinking of the curry we were eating afterwards.