Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Lucy" and "Begin Again"

Two female stars, one hit, one honorable miss

     Scarlett Johansson plays the smartest person in the world in Lucy, but this movie is neither a comedy nor a work of horror.  Instead, it’s an action movie with science fiction elements directed by Luc Besson.  It’s one of those plots where you don’t have much time to really think what might
happen next and once that has happened, you shouldn’t ask too many questions about whether it made any sense or if it was plausible.  However, it’s a cool mind game that somehow merges neuroscience and theoretical brain possibilities with intelligent design or the human as a god or the biblical prophecy.

     Besson’s hyperkinetic style takes the dawn and death of human evolution and civilization that Kubrick posited in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and a wild, Pop texture.  Lucy, the primate that was the progenitor for the human species, appears and later in the movie I thought that Johansson’s Lucy would ask her “Are you my mother?”
Fortunately, Morgan Freeman leavens the proceedings as the John the Baptist-type Professor who gives us a quick fill in on the scientific details.  Amr Waked as a cool French cop and Choi Min-sik as a sinister Korean crime boss offer great support without speaking much English. 

     The movie works and Johansson acquits herself well, especially in how she flattens out her voice as the movie progresses, but I just don’t see what it is that turns on middle-aged and older straight male directors.  Her best performance remains Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Sofia Coppola, a young, female director.  For movie performers to have long careers, they either need to be liked (male) or wanted (female) by specific directors (usually male).  Johansson has little to worry about since so many major directors want to cast her.

     Some gay male actors can make it under the aegis of a gay male director, but that’s usually in Europe.  Hollywood may trumpet open-ness in terms of sexuality, but the power structure doesn’t want to fund it.  So, we’re back to the question of what is it about Johansson that gets her roles?  For one thing, she never stops working whether it’s film, television, theatre, or singing.  That’s a chicken or an egg conundrum because she finds/is provided opportunities.  She also has been very careful to maintain a cool, respectable image even through a highly publicized marriage and divorce.  

     However, there are other performers of her generation with talent, intelligence, looks who haven’t had the same breaks.  I’d like to give a shout out to Rachel McAdams, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Seyfried, Meagan Good, Amanda Bynes, Hilary Duff, Zoe Saldana, Mandy Moore, Tara Reid, Julia Stiles, Jena Malone, Alison Lohman, Anna Faris, Evan Rachel Wood, Jessica Alba, Kirsten Dunst, Jessica Biel, Ginnifer Goodwin, Ludivine Sagnier, all of whom were on the cusp between being a working actor or starlet and possible star around 2001 to 2005.  Some found some good roles, some supported in blockbusters, some moved into obscure independent films, some stayed in Europe, some turned to television, and a couple went back to recording.  The point of this is that none of them have moved forward like Johansson.

     Bend It Like Beckham was one of the most intriguing and entertaining sleeper movies of 2003 because it focused on athletes, but the sport was soccer and the characters were female.  What happened to the performers underlines the choices for starlets and the underlying body image/ethnic identity issues that plague American culture even as we ‘celebrate diversity and openness.’  Parminder Nagra played the main role, but in reality she was a decade older than the character.  She has made some movies, but in supporting roles and has instead had a very successful and stable career in television.  Archie Punjabi was a couple of years older playing a character that was actually around her age.  She played supporting roles in a number of movies, but became a television star playing the mercurial Kalinda on The Good Wife.  And then there was Keira Knightley, who was perky and pretty and blonde, working since she was a child, and nominated for many awards after starring in many movies.
     Keira Knightley actually took over the lead from Johansson in Begin Again, a low-key musical with integrity written and directed by John Carney.  It feels like the cusp of stardom American version of Carney’s earlier Once (2006).   Knightley plays a songwriter whose writing partner boyfriend chooses stardom, neither of them quite realizing the price they’ll pay.  That he’s played by Adam Levine may seem like stunt casting, but he convinces as someone more sincere than he initially appears.

James Corden and Keira Knightley
     Actually, the whole cast charms.  James Corden, hot off of Broadway and British TV, pretty much steals every scene he’s in and I wondered if they’d consider a follow-up with him and Adele as singer performers in a comic romance.  He’s lost weight (everyone seems to be doing so such as Chris Pratt because why?  It’s healthy?  It’ll put more butts in seats?  Fashion magazine editors demand it?), but I hope Adele doesn’t because we need brilliant beautiful performers that actually represent a specific audience sector.  Catherine Keener’s warmth comes through especially in the tougher roles she’s played recently and she has a lovely moment with Mark Ruffalo as her estranged husband where he’s smoking a cigarillo and she steals a puff from it and they both exhale out the front door.  Hailee Steinfeld, a female Tom Sawyer in True Grit (2010) matches up well as their daughter and will be a beauty so she just needs to make certain she gets the right roles.  

Ruffalo and Knightley
     Knightley gives an understated, committed performance as a woman who finds herself in relation to strangers who become friends.  It’s a classic romance – the search for the Grail, for understanding oneself – without turning gushy.  Ruffalo, quietly terrific as always and more deserving of a box office hit than any major actor I can think of, avoids every cliché built into the role.  He’s helped considerably by the narrative outline, though maybe not the dialogue.  The scene where he visualizes how he could produce Knightley’s song is a highlight.

     Lucy was a hoot, but I’d rather sit through Begin Again again.

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