Diplomacy. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Notes from December 3, 2016: Diplomacy is the first film I have seen by world-renowned German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, and I am deeply impressed. Compressing the tense, suspenseful events of a single night in August 1944 (in Nazi-occupied Paris) into the span of 84 minutes, Schlöndorff explores the cat-and-mouse-game played by Swedish-French diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier) as he tries to convince General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) to abort the Nazi plan to destroy Paris by dynamiting the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, other landmarks and the banks of the Seine, which would not only signal the annihilation of Paris’s extraordinary culture/history but also cause catastrophic flooding, the collapse of the city’s entire infrastructure and the deaths of over a million people.
Dussollier and Arestrup display masterful acting in what is essentially a two-person show with most of the film’s scenes confined to the general’s hotel room/office headquarters. The two men engage in a deadly dance as they argue for and against saving one of the world’s greatest metropolises, as well as its entire civilian population; we witness a complex and emotional debate as to which side “must” prevail. Perhaps the single-room setting that we are trapped in for the majority of the film betrays Diplomacy’s theatrical origins (Schlöndorff and Cyril Gely wrote the screenplay as an adaptation of Gely’s 2011 play of the same name), but Schlöndorff and his talented cast and crew created a compelling drama that should prove riveting even if you are not familiar with this particular World War II incident. You already know the outcome of the film, but Schlöndorff’s production is as tense and anxiety-ridden as if the ending were a surprise.
Lucy. Directed by Luc Besson. Notes from May 20, 2016: (SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.)
Between 2013 and 2014, Scarlett Johansson made three films that have been described as the posthuman trilogy: in Under the Skin she plays an alien trying to become human, in Her she plays a computer trying to become human and in Lucy she plays a human who eventually becomes a computer. Johansson is our most beautiful blank slate: she’s great at being able to wipe her face of emotion – or, if not totally, then close to it – and she allows us, the viewers, to project meaning onto that blankness. (The same goes for Johansson’s voice-only work in Her, but in terms of what she could stimulate in Joaquin Phoenix’s character, as well as in us, through speech.) These performances were described in 2014 by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis as “expressive of elusive, tantalizing, otherworldly stardom itself.” That being said, I loved Under the Skin and for the most part couldn’t stand Her.
Lucy, the story of a young American woman in Taipei who is coerced into becoming a drug mule, falls somewhere in the middle. Given that the illegal substance pushes our protagonist’s brain and body toward 100% of their capabilities, transforming her from a normal woman into a telepathic super-assassin, the film is abundantly entertaining and moves by at a rather fast clip. It is also a film that gets by on a paltry bit of logic, forcing the audience to swallow every plot turn with the world’s largest grains of salt. Every narrative decision can be shrugged off because the story is a sci-fi fantasy dreamed up by Luc Besson. That doesn’t make everything OK, but Besson demands total attention from the word go, so there is no room for us to hesitate. You just have to stick with Johansson and see what she will do as she hunts all over Taiwan for a cure.
The film’s flaws stick out painfully – Besson’s characterizations of the white American heroine versus stereotyped Asian male villains, for one – and it’s disappointing to see Morgan Freeman in yet another of his trademark kindly/all-knowing father-figure roles, but Lucy is worth seeing for its concept, if not the incomplete end result. (It should be noted that Amr Waked’s performance as Johansson’s police-captain accomplice is also quite good and film editor Julien Rey does a great job of holding the film together.) And Damon Albarn’s song “Sister Rust,” which plays over the end credits, is certain to unnerve you, which is exactly as it should be at the conclusion of such a creepy tale.
October Gale. Directed by Ruba Nadda. Notes from October 7, 2016: My recent dive into director Ruba Nadda’s filmography has come to an end now that I have seen her fourth, most recent film, October Gale. It is a step up from her third film, the tepid thriller Inescapable, but for some reason Nadda insists on sticking to this particular genre that she has not yet come close to mastering. I’m not sure why Ruba Nadda has not tried making more films like Sabah (2005) and Cairo Time (2009), both of which are lovely romances; perhaps that’s why October Gale tries to merge both thriller and romance elements in an attempt to do a hybrid form which unfortunately doesn’t work.
If the film had simply been a Nicholas Sparks-style drama about an older woman (Patricia Clarkson) getting over the death of her husband (Callum Keith Rennie in tedious flashbacks) by finding love with a younger man (Scott Speedman), Nadda might have found some interesting territory to explore. Instead, Speedman appears on Clarkson’s doorstep (it’s a cottage on an isolated island, naturally) as a bullet-ridden victim of a nasty foe (played by Tim Roth, who puts in a small but entertaining appearance as a total psycho), so the film goes from a slowly-paced one-woman show to an erratic suspenser, a zero-to-sixty shift that doesn’t feel remotely plausible. It’s to Clarkson’s and Speedman’s joint credit that they have a decent amount of chemistry, but that’s definitely no thanks to Ruba Nadda’s script. If she is so intent on directing thrillers, she ought to work with a screenwriter other than herself; if not, Nadda should stick to crafting films based on character development and interpersonal connection rather than on shoot-’em-up action.
Pride. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Notes from January 4, 2017: Pride is the kind of movie that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and more than a little teary, telling the story of the L.G.S.M. (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) coalition that raised money and fought alongside striking coal miners in Wales in the 1980s. Ben Schnetzer does an excellent job as Mark Ashton, the real-life figure who headed the movement to help the Welsh communities; so realistic is his accent that if you didn’t already know that Schnetzer is a native New Yorker, you would absolutely believe that the actor, like his character, hails from Northern Ireland.
George Mackay, another impressive young actor, also does fine work as Joe, a quiet young man who starts the film being afraid and almost ashamed to be gay and by the story concludes, he has found his voice and proudly embraces his sexuality. Andrew Scott, Dominic West, Joseph Gilgun and Faye Marsay play some of the other major figures in L.G.S.M., while character actors Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine (one of the UK’s most underrated actors), Jessica Gunning, Menna Trussler, Lisa Palfrey and Rhodri Meilir do wonderfully as the most prominent members of the small Welsh town that struggles to accept the LGBTQ group’s assistance. Pride hits all the obvious notes about underdogs triumphing against an unjust system, and you may roll your eyes at the cheesiness of a few scenes, but the numerous strong performances and the film’s copious amounts of warmth and humor make the end result immensely likeable by the time the story concludes.
X-Men: Days of Future Past. Directed by Bryan Singer. Notes from May 14, 2016: I’ve been thinking about wanting to see X-Men: Apocalypse when it comes out two weeks from now, and by coincidence I noticed that Days of Future Past was going to be on TV late last night/early this morning, so I tuned in. Full disclosure: I don’t remember its predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011), particularly well, nor have I seen the original X-Men trilogy released between 2000 and 2006. I don’t really have much to say about Days of Future Past other than that it was passable entertainment. I gave up trying to understand what was going on after about ten minutes; the plot probably shouldn’t even matter since, like all Marvel superhero movies, you know that the story will end with the heroes saving the day. The end. (Note: X-Men: Apocalypse, the sequel which came out last year, is an improvement.)