Friday, July 25, 2014
I'm sure you can imagine what your brain on drugs looks
like after the long running public
service announcement (PSA) with eggs in a frying
pan. Now, that image may have a new outlook according
to French writer/director Luc
Besson's preposterous yet electrifying sci-fi
(France/USA 2014 | 89 min.). If you takes the drug
which the film's heroine takes, then although the drug
will enhance your brain power and will make you a
superman (or superwoman), but you will also die quickly
when your body cells multiply in a lightning speed like
cancer cells. Therefore, it's still not a good idea to
However, that's not possible for the film's heroine Lucy (Scarlet Johansson) to decide. When the film opens in Taiwan (Why in Taiwan? To show off the tower Taipei 101?), Lucy is reluctantly dragged into a drug smuggling operation led by a Korean mafia boss Jang (Choi Min-sik).
The drug is called CPH4, which is able to unleash human's brain power that is currently functioning at only 10%. That scientifically false 10% assessment is according to a hypothetic theory from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who delivers his lecture in Paris as if he is in a recording session of narrating an episode of PBS's program Nature (his mesmerizing voice is probably why Morgan Freeman is casted to this role). CPH4 is claimed to bring brain's power to its fullest, to trigger brain's cells in making super connections, and to exponentially empower human's ability.
When Lucy accidentally gets CPH4 into her blood, she is able to gain control over heavy armed Korean gangsters, to learn knowledge and analyze information in a lightning speed, to block off physical pain, and to regain her memory about how her mom's breast milk tastes like (please don't laugh).
But she knows her time is numbered when her cells multiply like cancer. She desperately needs to get in touch with Professor Norman so she can give him the information about her brain on drugs. Maybe Professor Norman then can update that PSA about brain on drugs with his amazing voiceover.
Despite the utterly unconvincing performance by Scarlet Johansson in the opening scene as a terrified young woman, she gains her momentum and confidence in her performance when she gets her superpower later in the film. Speaking of brain on drugs, does that CPH4 have an effect on her acting as well? No matter what the reason might be, she leads the film's many exhilarating action sequences which make the film watchable.
But after all, it might be the write/director Luc Besson who needs the brain enhancement drug the most. He certainly needs a boost in order to make his ludicrous story more credible and to make his imagination beyond the scope of other sci-fi films. Many laughable dialogues reflect the director's limit knowledge in mathematics and science. Taking the example when Lucy uses a laptop computer, even though Lucy's brain becomes so powerful and can alter the electronic communication, that doesn't mean that the laptop she is using suddenly can become a super computer as well. If so, what drug did the laptop take? In the film, when Lucy's fingers tap on the laptop, it instantly runs so fast that we can hardly see the scrolling screen, except Lucy. If her brain can process so fast, why does she need the computer for at the first place?
The last scene of the film especially speaks volume about the filmmaker's limited knowledge in technology. After an unpleasant visual of Lucy's cell explosion, she hands over Professor Norman an USB thumb drive which presumably contains important information about her brain function. Despite the setup that Lucy possesses the power to alter ratio waves and electronic transmissions, somehow she cannot transfer the data without a physical media such as a thumb drive. At least the filmmaker didn't let her hand over the professor a floppy disk. Whew!
A Most Wanted Man
After the catastrophic 9/11
attack, the world has never be the same. While the Islamic
extremists become more aggressive than ever, the paranoia
mentality in the Western world also becomes
overwhelming. The war against terror uncontrollably
escalates day by day but the world is not any safer. In his
third feature "A Most Wanted
Man" (UK/USA/Germany 2014 | 121 min.), the Dutch
director Anton Corbijn
skillfully depicts that somber psyche and intelligently
tells a gripping espionage story about a German national
security agency's operation. The film is based
on John le Carré's
and it's the last completed film by the
exceptional Philip Seymour
Hoffman before his tragic sudden death.
The film's protagonist is the chain-smoking and non-stop drinking Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is also a brilliant national security agent based in Hamburg. Still haunted by the fact that Hamburg is the place where the terrorists orchestrated the 9/11 attack, Günther and his colleague Erna Frey (Nina Hoss) lead a team to keep Hamburg's Islamic community under closed watch. Their goal is to fish out the terrorist organizations through the connections with a philanthropic academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).
After a 26-year-old Chechen Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) sneaked in Hamburg illegally, he immediately becomes the focal point on Günther's radar. When a sympathetic immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) tries to help Issa to stay, Günther tighten his net on Annabel, as well as a banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) who is the person Issa is looking for in Hamburg.
Under the pressure from other government agencies, including the Americans represented by a CIA officer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), Günther is given 72 hours to close the case.
Despite that we are living in a time that NSA constantly mines gigantic amount of metadata they collect in the name of national security, the espionage techniques in this film are surprisingly old-school as if it were a story in the soviet cold-war era. Obviously, showing off the newest gadgets or high speed car chase (like in many other spy movies) does not interest the director Anton Corbijn. He is more interested in developing his absorbing characters and miraculously arranging the clues for his story. In fact, the film makes you feel that it is overloading suspense moments and intriguing puzzles in the beginning of the film. Luckily, most of the setup falls into places later in the film, and the bet on a character driven approach pays off handsomely.
Once again, Philip Seymour Hoffman exhibited what a great artist he was and his performance reminds us what a tremendous loss his death was. As almost every role he played, he was outstanding in the film and subtly conveyed the complex personality of Günther who is human and smart, but also can be cold and ruthless.
It's a challenge for these characters to be convincing when they hardly speak German in the film. However, the captivating story and engrossing characters leave us little room to fault those details. The mind game takes the center stage of the story from the beginning to the end.
Besides telling an extraordinary spy story, the film also makes a point about war on terrorism. The paranoia, hostility, and distrust toward Muslim community will further harbor hatred and escalate the terrorism activities, but will not diffuse them. While being asked the goal of his operation, with a smirk on his face, Günther quoted a line from CIA officer Martha: "To make the world a safer place." Now take a look at around the world, is it a safer place?
Magic in the Moonlight
Apparently, the celebrated prolific
auteur Woody Allen
can never run out stories to tell. At a steady pace of one
movie per year, the 78-year-old writer/director has been
robustly introducing new characters and telling interesting
tales for almost five decades. His latest film is a
charmingly entertaining "Magic in the
Moonlight" (USA 2014 | 97 min.), about a
haughty British magician trying to debunk a young American
psychic as a fraud.
In 1928, British magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is at his career's peak while performing in disguise as a Chinese conjurer Wei Ling Soo. He is critical toward others, especially those who are superstitious and religious, including the Vatican. He seems to have his own right to be judgmental, because he is intelligent, confident, and strictly scientific-minded. He claims that he can unmask other magicians' tricks with little effort and expose any fraudulent clairvoyant in no time.
To further affirm that reputation, Stanley takes on a challenge brought by his childhood friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) and comes to the estate of the Catledge family in Côte d'Azur. The Catledge family is deeply involved with a young and beautiful American psychic Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who can communicate with after-life souls. The mother Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) is desperately to reconnect with her late husband. The son Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater ) is hopelessly fall in love with Sophie and willing to do anything, besides singing love songs with his banjo, to marry her. But there is no doubt in Stanley's mind that Sophie is a fraud.
However, upon meeting with Sophie, Stanley's confidence and belief are shaken up by her impressive mind reading ability. With her beloved aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) acting like his psychotherapist, he realizes his affection for Sophie behind his hostile attitude.
The most gleeful trick the director Woody Allen played in the film is to magically turn his protagonist Stanley from an arrogant and supercilious magician to an affectionate and appealing gentleman. Even it's expected that the filmmaker is unlikely to craft an unlikable character for us, however, just like watching a masterful magic performance, we are still dazed and delighted to see how Stanley is transformed in front our eyes. Then we ask ourselves, how did Woody Allen do it so convincingly and elegantly?
In the film, Woody Allen doesn't disappoint us when he unpacks witty and humorous dialogue as he constantly delivers in his films. That makes his characters both charming and irresistible, and the most mesmerizing character is Stanley's wise aunt Vanessa, who always stays cool and speaks eloquently.
This film certainly is not one of Woody Allen's best films, but it's definitely a refreshing entertainment for a pleasant summer night.
Friday, July 18, 2014
Time flies. Seize the moment. Those may sound like
cliché to you. However, the renowned
Linklater takes notice. He not only gracefully
illustrated the meaning of those words in his latest
(USA 2014 | 164 min.), but he also unprecedentedly created
an insightful and delightful epic. He did so without
deploying any fancy special effect or implanting any
dramatic plot development. Instead, through his observant
lens on the same terrific ensemble cast over consecutive
twelve years, he lets us observe how an adorable 6-year-old
boy growing up into an 18-year-old young man. In the
process, he magically connects us to his mesmerizing
characters and provokes us to reflect on our own lives. Even
it's only in the middle of the year, but this film
undoubtedly is going to be the best film of the year.
At the beginning of the film, 6-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) live with their struggling divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). To make life easier, they have to move to Houston to be close to their grandma and leave their childhood friends behind. That's where their absent father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) comes to visit and to spend some quality time as a father figure.
As time goes by year after year, Mason goes to middle school, then high school, and then goes to college. His baby face becomes stubble cheeks and his inquisitive gaze evolves into opinionated stare. He grows up in front our eyes. The people around him also change over time while the world spins out of control.
The filmmaker Richard Linklater's achievement in this beautiful film is extraordinary and splendid. Through mostly daily routines and seemingly unassuming events, and much talking, he is able to create arresting characters. We get to know them quickly and begin to care about them. We cannot help but to see ourselves reflected in their lives. That's perhaps because these characters are indeed originated from people like you and me, or people we know. It's also because the filmmaker has an observant vision about life and is gifted in capturing it on film.
In many of his other films, including the fantastic "Before Sunrise" (1995), "Before Sunset" (2004), and "Before Midnight" (2013), Richard Linklater is exceptional in writing witty, insightful, and humorous conversations. He certainly repeats that talent in this film as well. No matter what the subject is, such as life in general, or politics, or social media, or music, he often provides his characters with eloquent and even philosophical lines. His superb writing is both enlightening and enchanting.
To film the same group of actors for 12 years in a narrative film is a huge risk and no one has done what Richard Linklater did in this film. We see these characters (and the actors) age for 12 years in less than three hours. It will profoundly affect us because it reminds us how fast lives zip through just like those in the film.
Time flies, indeed. Seize each moment and embrace it like the filmmaker does in this film, and like how the film's each moment seizes us.
Director Richard Linklater will attend three Q&As in San Francisco on opening night (Friday, July 18, 2014) after these shows: