Jen Wang is one of the smartest women I know — so who better to bring with me to see “Lucy,” a movie about the smartest woman on the planet?
Jen is a fellow school mom — our sons have been classmates and buddies for the past couple years — and the co-creator of the website DISGRASIAN.com, which focuses on Asian American issues and race. She always has inspired, thoughtful takes on a wide range of pop-culture topics. And she loves movies. And she loves drinks. You can see why we’re such good friends.
We met at the ArcLight Hollywood for a press screening of “Lucy” — starring Scarlett Johansson as a woman who accesses unprecedented brain power after being turned into an unwitting drug mule — then chatted afterward over watermelon tequila cocktails across the street at The Hungry Cat. I cannot vouch for how much of our own brain power we used in this discussion — the percentage might have dropped as the night went on.
CL: So what did you know about this movie going into it? You mentioned that you thought it would be a lot like “Transcendence.”
JW: Well … that was just Dave’s (her husband’s) opinion. He was like, “Isn’t it a lot like ‘Transcendence,’ which we just saw, which was terrible?”
CL: Right. It’s got some “Transcendence” to it. And some “Matrix.” And some “Tree of Life.”
JW: I thought about those movies, yeah. To me, it’s like the third installment in the holy trinity of Scarlett Johansson not-quite-human movies that she’s been doing. I mean, in the end, she basically becomes who she is in “Her.”
CL: It’s a great hybrid of her characters in “Under the Skin” and “Her.” She’s driven and predatory and not human like in “Under the Skin,” but she’s changing and she’s evolving and her brain is exploding in ways she doesn’t understand like in “Her.”
JW: And when she becomes that weird kind of black goo, that reminded me of “Under the Skin.”
CL: Because that’s what’s … under the skin. Spoiler alert. I like how she’s had this reinvention — and I’ll add the “Avengers” movies to this, too — in that she’s not the sexpot in a Woody Allen movie. She’s not confused or lost or vulnerable. She’s a bad-ass and a strong woman and she’s using her looks totally to her advantage to get whatever the hell she wants in whatever setting she’s in.
JW: Yeah. In all those three movies that we were just talking about, she doesn’t have a body, she borrows a body and then her body becomes a computer. And she’s so known for her body. It feels like she went to a backroom and calculated something with somebody where they were just like: “Look, this is the second phase of your career.”
CL: I should mention right now that Jen ordered oysters … those are all yours for your enjoyment. I’m gonna watch you eat oysters.
JW: Is this gonna be, like, exactly transcribed?
CL: Quite a bit of it, yes. I edit out me babbling. But when I’ve done it with Nic, for example, that’s four minutes of tape, and of me getting mm-hmms and yeahs out of him.
JW: Well that’s the only reason I agreed to do this was because I was like, well, if she can get a 4 1/2-year-old to do it …
JW: Then that’s OK.
CL: But speaking of our kids, though — as a parent, watching her brain explode reminded me of watching our kids figure things out. And she speaks about the primal nature of humanity and that’s like our kids.
JW: Also the phone call to her mom …
CL: That was very emotional.
JW: It was super emotional, although I was like, can she only cry out of one eye? She only cried out of her right eye the whole time.
CL: Well once she gets to use 100 percent of her brain, she gets to cry out of both eyes. Did you like this movie?
JW: I thought it was fun. I liked the actiony parts — the car chase, the shoot-outs.
CL: When she’s manipulating the guys in the sky.
JW: That’s hilarious.
CL: But that’s the shitty, EuropaCorp, Luc Besson, B-movie standard stuff he has to do. I think he’s trying to get at something much more profound — perhaps he doesn’t articulate it all that effectively — but I think he’s getting at it, but he has to have the car chase through Paris in order to get the financing.
JW: The ideas in “Her” that are about how this is what we’re doing with our lives, to some degree this is like the photo negative of that movie. I feel like I’ve seen movies that are more interesting — what was that weird Bradley Cooper movie where he takes the drugs?
CL: “Limitless”! Yeah. It’s a lot like that.
JW: I don’t know that there were really profound ideas here. It was like: “Now go out into the world and do this.” What, use all our brains? … Another thing that disturbed me: So many of these movies are multicultural, multinational. This had that same vibe where they were all picked up in these different European airports and all the cops are so perfectly cast.
CL: And it takes place in Taipei at the beginning. That’s calculated as hell.
JW: It is, for so many reasons. I mean, international box office, but also just like: The Asians are all the bad guys?
CL: I was seriously about to ask you that question.
JW: Like, we see the globe and we go all over the world and everybody is sort of multiethnic, multiracial, multinational, and they’re all trying to do some good. And then there’s just the bad Asians with big guns.
CL: Does that bother you?
JW: You know, it didn’t occur to me until the middle and then I couldn’t stop seeing it because it felt so one-dimensional on one side and also, like, a calculated bid for an Asian audience. But it’s a really low barrier of entry, like: Let’s get some Asian characters, and they’re the only ones who don’t speak English. They’re Korean but they’re in Taipei. Who knows why. And they take mostly white people to be their drug mules — which I felt was some, like, Western cultural anxiety about the rise of Asia.
CL: Whoa! So it is profound, see?
JW: But it’s profound in a totally different way.
“And So It Goes” does what it needs to do for its target audience in totally mediocre ways. Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton are nothing if not total pros in Rob Reiner’s comedy, trying their best to breathe life into strained material. It’s fine. It’s just not good. It’s not even “As Good As It Gets.” My RogerEbert.com review.
Radius — The Weinstein Co.
Rated R for violence, language and drug content.
Running time: 126 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
It’s so hard to describe how amazing “Snowpiercer” is without giving away everything that makes it amazing. I’ve actually been putting off writing about the film for that very reason, even though it totally wowed me. But I shall try. I am a professional, dammit.
Suffice it to say, the latest from Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose work includes the thrilling and darkly funny monster movie “The Host”) is constantly inspired and full of surprises. Its structure and its socioeconomic allgeory may call to mind other great cultural works but it’s a true original. And it’s nothing short of wondrous to look at in varied, detailed ways.
As director and co-writer (with playwright Kelly Masterson), working from the French graphic novel “La Transperceniege,” Bong finds a clever way into the overplayed premise of survival within a post-apocalyptic future. A failed climate-control experiment plunges the planet into a new ice age. The remaining stragglers are piled into an enormous train that makes a loop around the globe annually. By the time we join up with these passengers, they’ve been circling for more than 17 years.
At the tail end are the have-nots: the dirty, hungry and oppressed who are crammed together, doing whatever they must to live another day. For the most part, these are decent folks who’ve learned to co-exist peacefully, if miserably — but desperation does scary things to people, and the recounted examples of sacrifice are chilling. Their reluctant leader is Curtis, played by a quietly powerful Chris Evans. He’s almost unrecognizable here as a darkly brooding anti-hero in a thick beard and knit cap; it’s the farthest thing from the shiny Captain America persona that made him a superstar.
Curtis and the young, irreverent Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead a group in an ambush against the train’s heavily-armed security force and its prim, persnickety administrator, played by Tilda Swinton in garish hair and makeup that makes her almost as hard to recognize as Evans is in his role. Swinton is a hoot playing a truly awful human being, but being the thoughtful and versatile actress that she is, she finds a way into this cruel and condescending figure without devolving into caricature.
And so Curtis, Edgar and their team force themselves forward, from one car to the next, evenutally with the help of the drugged-out security expert (Song Kang-ho) and his equally spacey daughter (Ko Ah-sung). They’re ultimately aiming for the front and for the man who not only invented the train but placed everyone inside of it: the wealthy and powerful Willard, who’s regarded with equal amounts of admiration and contempt, depending on whom you’re asking. Seeing who plays him is one of the film’s many exciting discoveries.
From here, talking about “Snowpiercer” gets tricky. Opening the doors to each new car provides a rush of possibility, with Marcos Beltrami’s propulsive score underneath. Each represents a beautifully realized, self-contained world. Each is impeccable in its production and costume design. And while several of these cars — which cater to the wealthy among the survivors — offer abundance and pleasure, an inescapable sense of peril lurks underneath.
Bong does dazzling things with lighting to differentiate not just between all these miniature universes but also between the indoor and outdoor worlds and between light and dark. As Curtis and his crew press on toward the front — moving from the bleak and monochromatic to the lush and colorful — they realize that these fancier cars have windows providing a glimpse of the specactularly snowed-in world all around them. One sequence over a towering bridge is especially thrilling, as is a later moment when the train is rounding a giant curve and the front and back ends are tantalizingly visible to each other.
The director also makes dramatic use of night-vision goggles when the train enters a long tunnel, as well as the equally powerful way the masses respond with fire — concocting an impromptu torch relay from the back of the train that’s so joyous in its rebellion and visual purity, it made me want to cry. Other moments are striking because they’re just so surreal — an uneasy dinner, or a perky classroom full of children.
But in a way that’s reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now” and even “The Wizard of Oz,” things get stranger and more dangerous the closer Curtis gets to his destination. Dark humor is disrupted with blasts of bloody gunfire, the product of longtime, simmering class tension. There’s also more than a little bit of Ayn Rand in here: A wealthy industrialist dreamed of building a great train line, and the result is a place of economic disparity where the inhabitants are expected to fend for themselves.
The intentionally cryptic conclusion suggests that something better may be out there — for everyone — after all.
Tonight, Chris and I are attending The Nicolas Cage Party Los Angeles, an art exhibit downtown which could be incredibly strange and wonderful (like Cage himself). This got me thinking about a Five Most list I did of his best performances back in January 2011. Which films would you pick?
5 most memorable Nicolas Cage performances
By Christy Lemire
LOS ANGELES — No matter the role — and he’s played a diverse array of them over the past three decades — Nicolas Cage often seems to be teetering on the brink of his own personal, self-inflicted insanity.
Sure, he’s done plenty of forgettable action movies, and lately he’s been at the fore of some family-friendly Disney adventures. Then there was that period in the late ’90s where every movie he made was a drag, and it was a drag watching him in them. But when he’s at his volatile best, it’s an exciting place to be.
This week, with Cage starring in his latest in a series of wheels-off thrillers, “Season of the Witch,” here’s a look at his five most memorable performances. Like the best-of-Jack-Nicholson list recently, this one was hard to narrow down:
_ “Adaptation.” (2002): Cage earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his identical (and fictional) twin brother, Donald, in Spike Jonze’s brilliantly mind-bending comedy. And he seemed to be having the time of his life playing these contrasting roles: the self-loathing and stumped Charlie, as well as the goofy and garrulous Donald. After brooding his way through a series of films leading up to this (“8MM,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Windtalkers”), he lets loose again here even while creating two distinct, structured personalities, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
_ “Raising Arizona” (1987): One of the Coen brothers’ earliest, most playful and visually inventive films features a deliriously nutso starring performance from Cage. Hi McDunnough is a loser and ex-con who seemingly can do no right, but he finds a way to make his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) happy when he steals a baby for her from furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona, the father of quintuplets. Like “Moonstruck,” “Raising Arizona” allows Cage to tap into his unique brand of off-kilter, romantic goofiness. He’s a grubby, lovable cartoon character.
_ “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995): Cage won a best-actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic, failed screenwriter hell-bent on drinking himself to death. He and Elisabeth Shue, excellent as a hardened prostitute, forge a twisted, codependent bond in which neither will interfere with the other’s self-destruction. But Cage never devolves into a drunk cliche; rather, he finds shadings within this lost soul’s deep despair. Director Mike Figgis’ film is intense and unflinching, which just happen to be two of Cage’s strong suits. While the movie itself is often hard to watch, Cage’s performance is mesmerizing.
_ “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009): Here he is in classic crazed mode. Werner Herzog’s wacked-out remake is fueled by a wacked-out performance from Cage, whose character is himself fueled by a steady supply of cocaine and heroin, gambling and violence. His Terence McDonagh is a brazenly corrupt detective, a man infested with dark proclivities. As he descends further into drug-induced mania in post-Katrina New Orleans, we don’t know what’s real and what’s in his mind, and it doesn’t matter. Cage makes it all wild and riveting, and all you can do is watch in awe of how far he’ll go.
_ “Valley Girl” (1983): Cage’s first starring role, the one that put him on the map, and a personal favorite of mine, having grown up in the San Fernando Valley in the ’80s myself. So please, indulge me for a minute. “Valley Girl” came from an era of dumb teenage sex comedies, but it’s got an undeniable sweetness that most of those films lack. Much of that comes from the tender way Cage’s L.A. punk, Randy, courts the stylish and pristine Julie (Deborah Foreman), who lives on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. It’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in Southern California, but in his endearing awkwardness, Cage breathes new life into a familiar figure.