A Clockwork Orange

Every now and again, a film will come along that changes the way I look at cinema. When I was still in my teens, I attended a cinema on Bourke Street late one evening to see a motion picture I had long been curious about: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), adapted from the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel. It had been parodied in Mad magazine, it wasn’t available at my local video store, and it didn’t screen on television. The film had been around for nearly a quarter-century by that stage, but as someone who has always been fortunate enough never to have that terrible aversion to old films, I didn’t care. I had to see it.
imageIn short, I was flabbergasted. It was around about the time that I started going to see films by myself, and it was the first revival screening of a classic film that I can vividly recall attending. Okay, so I may have attended some Disney screenings as a wee child, I can’t recall, but if I did, those don’t count because (a) as a small child, I thought all films at the cinema were new films, and (b) they were suggested by my parents, and as such weren’t “entertainment electives”.  After experiencing A Clockwork Orange for the first time…well, I was shocked, horrified.

So much so that I ended up returning to the cinema on Bourke Street twice the next week for another couple of go-arounds. For many years, it was my favourite film. The only reason it’s no longer my clear-cut favourite is because I’ve been exposed to so many cinematic masterpieces, I couldn’t possibly choose one film to stand alone as my most beloved.


Pauline Kael was not so pleased with A Clockwork Orange. She had the following to say about Stanley Kubrick’s nightmarish science fiction classic:

At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de-sensitizing us.

With that comment, I disagree entirely. A Clockwork Orange, if anything, re-sensitised me to violence on celluloid. I grew up watching action flicks like so many others in the 1980s and 1990s. I didn’t think I could be disturbed by any act of simulated violence on the silver screen, because they’re just movies…right? Stanley Kubrick changed that.

There are very few films on my list of favourites that I wouldn’t recommend wholeheartedly to anybody, but A Clockwork Orange is an exception. Recommend to most, absolutely, recommend to all, no. The infamous home invasion scene shall be deeply disturbing to the first-time viewer, especially if you’re a fan of Gene Kelly. And it’s not exactly the world’s greatest first-date movie (I know this from personal experience). Having said all that, if you’re up for some challenging cinema, attend the movies by yourself, and don’t mind having your rose-coloured memories of Singin’ in the Rain (1951) spoiled for life, then by all means, please do see Clockwork on the big screen.


Notice that I haven’t raved at length about Malcolm McDowell’s charismatic central performance as Alexander DeLarge, the unforgettable electronic musical soundtrack by Wendy Carlos, John Alcott’s stunning cinematography and all the rest of it. I haven’t even delved into the film’s storyline. A Clockwork Orange is a film that can speak for itself.

Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.

A Clockwork Orange screens in a double bill with Full Metal Jacket on Monday 23rd March, 7.30pm




Whenever I learn that a Hollywood remake of a classic film is about to reach the big screen, I think to myself “Hollywood has run out of ideas” (but it’s not just Hollywood). With very few exceptions, remakes are  passable at best, horrendously offensive at worst. However, every now and again (not often enough, for my liking) there comes a remake that is not only a superb piece of cinema on its own terms, but can also be compared favourably to its predecessor. Such can be said of Scarface (1983), the epic crime drama directed by Brian De Palma; the film where Al Pacino portrays his most over-the-top character a Cuban refugee and notorious underworld figure Tony Montana.


Perhaps there are readers who have visited the Astor Theatre numerous times to see Brian De Palma’s Scarface yet haven’t seen the original film version, released in 1932, or, until now, have been totally unaware of its existence. If you are one such reader, then you would be correct in guessing that the Depression Era edition is nowhere nearly as graphic as its 1983 counterpart. That said, for its time, the original Scarface was extremely controversial, a product of what is known as the Pre-Code Era.

The Great Depression swept across the United States, causing severe financial hardships for countless Americans. The joyful ritual of visiting the cinema suddenly became a luxury for working class Americans and, in times of economic disarray, such luxuries are often sacrificed in favour of necessities. Desperate to lure audiences back to the cinemas, Hollywood took advantage of the relatively lax censorship guidelines (prior to rigid enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934) to present films with taboo subject matter. Numerous films about organised crime, Scarface among them, exhibited levels of simulated violence previously unseen on the big screen, as millions of Americans who had only read and heard about the criminal exploits of real-life gangsters, such as Bonnie and Clyde and the real “Scarface”, Al Capone, flocked to cinemas to see hard-boiled fictional gangsters played by Hollywood actors. Directed by Howard Hawks, the original film (Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, based on the novel by Armitage Trail) is one of the most celebrated of these Pre-Code crime films.


It is worth noting that in the 1960s, the Code was revised, then abandoned in favour of a ratings system—with the rapidly burgeoning popularity of televised entertainment in loungerooms across the United States, Hollywood again changed tack to lure audiences back to the cinemas, picking up where the Pre-Code period left off several decades earlier. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was one of the first films to take full advantage of Hollywood’s increased liberalism—and how fitting this was, as the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, legendary outlaws of the Great Depression, were at their most active in the early 1930s, the Pre-Code period, before their demise in 1934. An especially graphic film in terms of its depiction of violence, Bonnie and Clyde started the modern trend of ultra-violent crime cinema that would reach new extremes with the release of the Scarface remake in 1983.

Readers who have seen the 1932 version as well as its 1983 successor will note, despite the obvious stylistic differences between the two, numerous similarities that link them together,  a few of which are mentioned below. Most obviously, both films feature a dangerously ambitious protagonist named Tony (Tony Camonte, as played by Paul Muni, in the 1932 original, Tony Montana in the 1983 remake) who is determined the become a major player in the criminal underworld. Tony Camonte seems obsessive about protecting the sexual purity of his younger sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak), as is Tony Montana in regards to his junior sibling Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). In both cases, it is suggested that Tony’s motivation for steering his sister away from potential suitors is less about protecting her virtue and more about his own taboo desires (those readers who have seen Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 classic Sweet Swell of Success, and recall Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker character and his possessiveness regarding his teenage sister Susan, will understand what is being implied). Even the scene in the 1983 remake where Tony Montana gazes at a Pan-Am blimp, with its advertising slogan “The World Is Yours”, is a direct hommage to its 1932 predecessor, as illustrated below.

tumblr_m33uxuVIEH1rtdyilo1_1280Despite these and other similarities between the two films, Brian De Palma’s Scarface, like any great remake, refuses to be a carbon copy of its predecessor. Running more than one hour longer than the original, De Palma’s version has plenty of time to expand its storytelling boundaries and add ingredients not present in the 1932 Pre-Code classic. Instead of being a hoodlum of Italian descent and living in Chicago, as was the case when Hawks filmed the story, the protagonist in De Palma’s 1983 film (written by Oliver Stone) is a refugee from Cuba, one of the countless emigrants from the small nation who didn’t share in the spirit of President Fidel Castro’s revolution, and like so many others enters the United States by landing in Florida. Determined to never again go wanting for anything, having suffered enough under the statist-socialism of Castro’s Cuba, Montana and his closest friend Manolo (Steven Bauer) enter the criminal underworld as small-time hoods. Soon, Montana, his ruthless nature matched by extreme cunning, becomes a major player in the illegal narcotics trade, and rich beyond his wildest dreams, his palatial abode reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941). However, the richer Tony Montana gets, the more dangerous he becomes. Consequently, Montana, not exactly the most stable personality when we meet him at the beginning of the film, becomes extremely paranoid, spending an inordinate amount of time watching the security monitors inside his home (video surveillance being a motif that appears in several of De Palma’s films.)


They say that money can’t buy happiness. This is definitely true in the case of Tony Montana. The more influential he becomes in the criminal underworld, the wealthier he gets, but of course it also means that he makes more enemies for himself, which then makes Tony even more distrusting of others. Almost nobody is safe from Tony Montana and, as we shall learn before the conclusion of this epic crime thriller, Tony Montana is safe from almost nobody else. The world might belong to Tony, but after a while, he questions, loudly and profanely, if it’s a world worth having, in a drunken restaurant monologue that is one of the highlights of the film.

While some will claim that Tony Montana is a self-made success – which is to say that his millions of dollars is all that matters – the reality is that Tony is a loser, a victim of his own insatiable avarice. It’s easy to fall under the spell of Tony’s larger-than-life personality, a testament to the charisma of Al Pacino (let’s face it, Pacino, who disappears into his role, is rather funny as Montana—I have a Tony Montana talking keychain somewhere, he’s one of the most quote-worthy characters in the history of cinema!) But despite being a psychotic killer and drug baron, Tony his own moral boundaries, refusing to commit to any assignment that may directly endanger the lives of women and children. Of course, Tony seems to forget that the men he either kills personally or has killed by his goons may be partnered with children of their own. There is no telling how many children Montana has left fatherless, no guessing how many widows he has made, and no way to count how many women and children have become addicted to the thousands of kilos of poisonous white crystals that he has sent flooding into the cities of the United States. But in the mixed-up mind of Tony Montana, he is a criminal with a conscience.

scarface remake

But going back to the restaurant scene, for those who have seen it, we must ask ourselves, is Tony Montana really “the bad guy”? This is to ask, is he really any worse than the countless “respectable” types typically adored by society, who screw and manipulate their way to the top legally, albeit no more ethically than the likes of Montana? Remember, this film was released in 1983. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and along with his wife, Nancy Reagan, declared the “war on drugs” which, unfortunately, was not accompanied by a “war on poverty” and a “war on greed”. The so-called “war on drugs”, much like the current “war on terror”, was merely an empty promise designed to draw favour from the more reactionary elements of American Society. Let us not covet Tony Montana’s tragic lifestyle, fuelled by a certain misguided desperation to escape the clutches of poverty, but at the same time, let’s remember that so many “self-made” success stories are anything but self-made, and an overwhelming percentage of the “respectable members of the social elite”, whether they be politicians, casino owners, world bankers, diamond barons, you name it, profit greatly from the misery of others. It’s just that unlike Tony Montana, they don’t get their hands dirty.

De Palma’s Scarface is a masterpiece of modern cinema. If you have not yet delved into the blood-soaked, drug-polluted, money-grubbing world of Tony Montana, you have the opportunity to do just that (at a safe distance that cinema affords, of course) at the Astor. And, if you ever have the chance, please do take a look at Scarface: The Shame of a Nation as directed by Howard Hawks, one of numerous classics available from the world of Pre-Code cinema.

Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.

Scarface screens Monday March 16th 7.30pm

Maps to the Stars

Hollywood cartography is, like everything else in those buoyant hills, a version of something, that knows both truth and artifice. Tightly bound; entwined, to mask any division between the two; Hollywood relationships form a constellation. There are personal and professional personas in its midst but they all exist for us, mere mortals, to admire.


In David Cronenberg’s savage satire, Maps to the Stars (2014), he explores these lethal connections. It is not, however, from a distance that we see the fascinating, brightly shining stars of a vast universe. Rather, Cronenberg gives us extreme close-up, so that what we see is flames. Each of these stars can be reduced to burning gases, sucking up all of the available oxygen.


When Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Hollywood, she jumps straight into a limo; it’s driver is Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison). She has made friends with Carrie Fisher (Carrie Fisher) on twitter and is hoping to find work in Hollywood – perhaps as someone’s personal assistant. Her first stop is star gazing at the nothingness left behind. It is the site of the family home of child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). We soon learn that he is her brother and that their home was burnt to the ground.

As the connections between this nothingness and Agatha’s past are slowly revealed, her story turns from ‘burn victim from a small town moves to Hollywood to find a job amongst the stars’ to ‘return of the repressed, and battle between multiple and incestuously formed mental illnesses in a troubling family home’. Agatha’s physical scars mirror the much deeper emotional ones that she has suffered through childhood. Her backstory greater resembles the reality of a reality tv show than the reality of real life.


Alongside this, and true to her twitter word, Carrie Fisher introduces Agatha to a big star: Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Agatha’s impish, pathetically plain nature is just what megalomaniac Havana is looking for in a new personal assistant. Though their relationship has several moments of faux sentimentality and the sugary sweetness that only a narcissist baiting prey is capable of producing, theirs is mostly sado-masochistic. There is some violence, and much humiliation.

If this sounds subdued for Cronenberg, I can assure you that it’s every bit as savage an attack on Hollywood as any of his earlier works are on conventional ideology and societal values.


Maps to the Stars follows Cronenberg’s trajectory of body horror well: still concerned with Freudian womb fantasies, only this time showing us the horror of what Hollywood has birthed, he makes us want the characters to return to an impossible state of regression. This is well explored through Havana’s obsession with her late mother, the beautiful movie star Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), whom Havana hopes to play in a brand new Hollywood remake of her fictitious famous film, Stolen Waters. To this end, Havana is in therapy with Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a popular television quack whose methods include an intense physical therapy that seems to require dubious closeness. He is also Agatha’s estranged father.


The incestuous relationships between characters – chartered like a constellation out of control, one that can’t help but burn up every other shining star in its wake – are overt and covert. They involve generations, and are linked through an inability to escape the grotesque reaches of intense narcissism.

Cusack and Moore are admired but their fame masks hideously disfigured personalities. Agatha, our physically scarred and emotionally damaged protagonist, is their casualty and their biggest fan. She eventually charts her own way into the centre of their constellation. Inside, it is rotten. Somehow, it is still beautiful. It is true and it is false.

And it really should be seen with its David-Cronenberg-film-featuring-Robert-Pattinson-in-a-limousine companion film, Cosmopolis (2012). Screening in a double bill on Thursday January 15, 7.30pm. All tickets $13

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.

Blade Runner – The Final Cut

Blade Runner: The Final Cut simply refuses to fade into the vast catalogue of forgotten film history. Its persistence as film’s pedestal sci-fi owing to its innovative and intelligent contemplation over ontological questions of authenticity and artificiality as they pertain to a rapidly, and terrifyingly, techno-advanced, mechanized, global future society.

Set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, Blade Runner depicts, through its neo-noir aesthetic, a dystopian future where humans have created their own robotic slave-race known as Replicants. In one sense the Replicants act as soldiers, in a time of hyper-universality on “Off-world” human colonies of other planets. Four dangerous Replicants have returned to earth in the hope of confronting the corporation responsible for their very questionable existence: Tyrrell Corporation. Alerted to their illegal activities in a hyper-modern police state, Blade Runner Unit enlist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to find and “retire” (kill) the four who are merely desperate to prolong what they think are their “lives”.

That the film is set in Los Angeles is far from incidental. Although New York is America’s foremost “global” city with regards to economic and cultural growth/wealth, LA is its “expansive” counterpart in that its spatial development and the sheer scale of its urban planning exemplifies the artificial “constructedness” that the film is concerned with in the first instance. As such, the dark, seemingly boundless sprawl of the dystopian LA landscape operates in the film as a psychogeographical reflection of the labyrinthine, almost indistinguishable cerebrally sound constructs of the Replicants’ cognitive minds.

Beyond their declared “at least equal intelligence to the genetic engineers who created them”, the Replicants, also described as “virtually identical” to humans, are suggestively “evolved” rather than “constructed” beings. The implication of their proverbial “evolution” affords the Replicants with organic rather than robotic capabilities, creating from the outset a distinct atmosphere of ambiguity; blurring the boundaries between the human/non-human attributes they are imbued with, rendering them, in some advanced cases, as liminal beings even unto themselves. Furthermore, following the “bloody mutiny” on Off-world colonies, Replicants have been “declared illegal on earth, under penalty of death”. In light of a Derridean comprehension of binary oppositions the very notion of “death” here suggests “life”, providing further substance to the idea that the Replicants are “living” beings. Moreover, the final two sentences of the prologue to the film read; “This was not called execution. It was called retirement.” The two sentences appear onscreen isolated from one another and from the paragraphs that came before. In using “called” twice in such close proximity Scott emphasizes the semiotic construction of a concept based upon two otherwise abstract things. That is to say that we (human viewers) comprehend the action as one thing and not another through a system of signifiers and signifieds that links the action to its name. This subtle note at the outset is designed to make the viewer think through the implications of the Symbolic Order itself, and therefore the constructedness of everything human, including something that mistakenly considered natural: language. The reminder so early on that almost everything is constructed and/or performed already alludes to Scott’s overarching provocative contention.

But what exactly does it mean to be “living” and where does that leave the boundary between legitimate “born” human beings and illegal “created” Replicants? For the purposes of distinguishing between the two (primarily so as not to accidentally “retire” a human), the Blade Runner Unit have created a test that is “designed to provoke emotional response” from its recipients, measuring their levels of empathy through indicators such as response time and pupil dilation. The only obstacle here being the fear that after a few years they would – in line with the aforementioned process of evolution – “develop their own emotional responses” and it is, for this reason, that their life-span is restricted to a short four years. Moreover, the more advanced and indeed “experiment” Replicants of which Rachael (Sean Young) is one, are given greater access to the concept of humanity through programmed memories which act as a “cushion” for their own subjectivity helping them to believe they are human. It is at this moment in the film that the true nature of every character, including Deckard himself, is brought into question.

Ignoring the extensive implications of this revelation, Deckard denies Rachael’s inference when she asks him if he has ever taken the test himself. Clearly hurt by the determination that she is a Replicant, implanted with memories from Tyrrell’s niece and believing them to be her own, Rachael sheds a solitary tear, displaying clear and unmistakable human emotion. Following this display the two become romantically involved which, if he is human and she is not, is dodgy ethical ground at best, but, if (as Scott certainly intended it to be) they are both Replicants who merely believe themselves to be human is an equally consensual union. The inclusion of this scene operates as reiterative of the Replicants’ ability to experience human desire and also to provide a strong ethical questioning of the resultant actions of a Replicant who considers him/herself to be human.

Like Deckard and Rachael, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) are “coupled” Replicants, only in this case they know themselves to be so. The difference here is that along with their knowledge of what they truly are comes another human desire: the will to live. Their mission is to have their lives extended at any cost, their fear of death very human indeed. But it is Roy who goes to see Dr Tyrrell, leaving Pris to defend their newly acquired “home”. His presence at Tyrrell Corporation is met with a combination of kindness and cruelty as Dr Tyrrell lovingly refers to him as the Prodigal Son returned. At this moment Roy becomes Jesus to Dr Tyrrell’s God and Roy’s anger towards his maker results in a murderous crime of passion – yet another decidedly human action. Dissatisfied and disillusioned with the God who created him, Roy returns home to find Pris has bled to death, and Scott lingers on her blood to reiterate yet again the very human qualities of the Replicants.

In the final showdown between Roy and Deckard, Roy makes an ultimate sacrifice of himself, accepting the inevitability of his life cycle. Mirroring his surroundings, like the rain that gushes into the house, Roy is in many ways an organic being trapped into a constructed environment. As he forces a nail through his hand and then his own head through a tiled wall, he further blurs the boundaries between natural and unnatural, removing the confines and limitations that one necessarily holds over the other. In this way the final scenes of the film move towards breaking down Derridean binary oppositions, suggesting that there are grey areas and ultimately that humans are the result of both organic evolution and the extraneous influences and input that are responsible, at least in part, for their existence.

The Directors’ Cut (and with very minor differences this Final Cut) in particular, is the version of this film that led to the discussion surrounding whether or not Deckard was human or Replicant. Ridley Scott has himself professed that Deckard is a Replicant and if we take this reading at its word then he is, by his own admittance, justified by the system: “Replicants are like any other machine: they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” Ultimately serving the system and its self-perpetuating myth surrounding the significance of authenticity versus the threat of artificiality, Deckard is the exemplary product of a well governed police state; unwittingly serving its needs to his own detriment; ignorant of its ideology and only able to see through its constructedness so far as it allows him to. If we however, do not take Scott at his word and allow Deckard to remain ambiguously human then the film does not fail, it merely suspends itself and its determination in the liminal space that it so brilliantly creates.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre. Originally published in an Astor e-newsletter in 2010.

Blade Runner – The Final Cut screens at the Astor Theatre Friday January 9th, 8pm.

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s crime thriller has been flying off the shelves in bookstores since it was first published in 2012, and it soon after made the New York Times Best Seller list.

For some, the story is about the performative aspect of gendered roles within a marriage and how they might falter or even threaten one another over time. For others it’s about the psychology of spectacle and the problems associated with assumptions made by society’s gatekeepers: the media, the economy and the law. Both aspects of the book have been very well received across critical and populist plains. But the movie seems to have sparked something else, a more sinister and controversial lie, lurking beneath the veneer of normalcy in middle American suburbanality.


It’s not entirely surprising that once David Fincher had at it the lens was more aligned with masculinity in crisis than Flynn focused on in the book – he is best known for directing Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999). But the words, structure and weight of the argument is still all Flynn, who adapted her own book for the big screen, keeping savage satire high on the agenda.


Though I don’t plan to pit arguments against one another in this blog post, suffice it to say that there is room for reading the filmic text in more than one way. And this is where both Flynn and Fincher’s brilliance lies. There’s no doubt that some of the content in the film should make you feel uncomfortable. You should also wonder about what it means to make the assumptions that you might make after you see that material.

gone girl

The film stings like a bee – after it pricks you, everything falls apart and the facade is irrevocably ruptured. In essence it dies and leaves the after effects to the viewer. How you respond may be to spiral into full scale shock or, it may be mild and even a little amusing. Whatever your reaction, it will certainly stay with you for days after you’ve seen it. So, if you’re weary of the stock standard crime thrillers Hollywood usually pumps out, maybe it’s time to let yourself feel the sting of something a little more dangerous. Go on, meet Nick and Amy Dunne…


Gone Girl screens Wednesday November 26 at 7.30pm.

Wicked Wednesday – all tickets $11

Time, birth, double bills

Sometimes the links between the films we’ve put together in a double feature are hard to see. Aside from both films being recent releases and coming from the same distributor, the similarities can be difficult to spot. Maybe it’s tonal, perhaps it’s just a question of matched quality? Tonight’s double feature, Locke (2013) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is one that seems, on first glance, to be haphazard. ‘What do weary vampires have to do with impending fatherhood?’, I hear you ask. Well, there might be something…


As Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) drives along what is either the M4, M40 or M1 (his job is in Birmingham and he’s on his way to London, but he seems to be putting on a Welsh accent?) leaving his wife, sons and impending concrete pour behind, he contemplates fatherhood. From the imaginary conversations he has with his own father inside the car, to the distant conversations he has over the phone with his living sons, and finally, to the anticipated conversations he will have with his newborn child when he gets to London, Ivan Locke is trapped in a confluence of time of past, present and future.

Though Jim Jarmusch’s hipster vampire flick is not quite so concerned with fatherhood, I would argue that it is very much preoccupied with the live passage of time. For beings who have lived through centuries of so-called humanity, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have become apathetic. Adam is a recluse whose creativity persists despite his reluctance to support it in any embodied kind of way, and Eve, though the stronger of the two, is also weary of engaging with the human world; the pair don’t even dare take human victims for fear of ingesting contaminated blood. For them, time is not so much a trajectory as it is an endurance. Its infinite nature reflects their own. They represent, through their immortality, past, present and future at once.


In addition to time, both films are concerned with birth: Locke explicitly and Only Lovers metaphorically. While Locke is on his way to a birth, all the while birthing himself; from his demons, his past life, his worldly constraints, and the not-yet-set-in-cement person he sees himself as, Adam and Eve have and will again give life (through a sort of death, but leading to immortality) to others; they are the proverbial beginning and end of humanity.

So while the two films screening tonight don’t share a filmmaker, writer, actor or actress in common, they do share something. Their reflection over time, humanity and what restrains us in our search for something better is certainly shared. The best thing about a double bill at the Astor is that the links are often different for all of us. The best way, then, to work out what the films mean to you, is to come along and see them side by side. Sometimes a pairing can offer a new lens through which to see something you already think you know.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre

Locke and Only Lovers Left Alive screen as a double bill on Wednesday November 5 at 7.30pm

Lucy CGIs her way towards 100%

It is a popular notion that humans utilise only ten per cent of their brain capacity, a notion that according to modern neuroscience seems to be more urban myth than scientific fact. But let us suppose it were true. One then wonders what might be possible if humans could tap into the remaining ninety per cent of their cerebral potential. This is the premise for Luc Besson’s latest motion picture Lucy (2014), a rambunctious blend of science-fiction and action from the director of The Professional (Leon, 1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Angel-A (2005) and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010).


Without divulging too many particulars of the plot, the story concerns a woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who, due to being contaminated by a powerful narcotic stimulant, acquires the ability to access an ever-increasing amount of her mind. The potentialities of tapping into the supposedly unused ninety per cent of cerebral matter are foreshadowed in a series of speeches from neuroscientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Lucy launches a one-woman assault on the drug traffickers responsible for her unstable condition, as she becomes ‘superhuman’ in her mental abilities, blessed with powers such as telekinesis (the ability to move objects without contacting them physically – the same talent exhibited by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 film Carrie) and extra sensory perception (also know as the sixth sense).

Although it makes for a dazzling sci-fi action spectacle, one flaw with Lucy is that due to the increasingly invincible state of its eponymous character, suspense and drama are quickly deflated, as Lucy’s nogoodnik adversaries go from being genuinely menacing to comically pathetic – and a heroine is only as good as her opponents. Another liability is Besson’s over-reliance on computer-generated imagery (CGI). One may argue in favour of such cinematic technology when it’s in service of the story or no other options are available, but here it just feels like overkill. Also, CGI, more often than not, has a tendency to look somewhat inauthentic. Nowhere in Lucy is this more apparent than the appearance of the title character’s namesake, the simian creature believed by evolutionary scientists to be humankind’s original ancestor (if you want to see what such a being should look like, I refer you to the cave dwellers in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey).


On a related note, I recall a television interview with Star Wars creator George Lucas, where he responded to the critics of his heavy dependence upon computer-generated special effects for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), with a condescending “Duh, movies aren’t real!” Well, “Duh!” right back at you, Mister Lucas – no kidding movies “aren’t real”, but they’re at least meant to appear authentic; otherwise, nobody would care about silly little things such as appropriate period detail and thespians remaining in character. Yes, we know that a man can’t fly, but we don’t want to see the wires that allow Superman to remain airborne. And this is the problem with films such as Lucy. As impressive as the special effects might be, it’s all too obvious that they are special effects. Those viewers who were fortunate enough to experience Luc Besson’s marine life documentary Atlantis (1991) this past week at the Astor know that the French filmmaker requires little if any hi-tech trickery to astound his audience. So the CGI overload presented in Lucy is somewhat puzzling to say the least. Ultimately, it distracts rather than engages.

Still, despite its numerous flaws and excesses, Lucy does manage to keep us guessing as to what might become of its heroine once she connects to 100 per cent of her mind’s abilities (inter-titles appear at various points in the picture to inform us of the percentage of Lucy’s accessed brain capacity), so it does retain at least some sliver of intrigue. For those viewers who typically enjoy Luc Besson’s directorial output, Lucy is a worthy of at least a once-around. Even though its premise is scientifically suspect, this is a science fiction picture (you will need to accept it on its own terms) and it does raise some interesting ideas as to what human beings might be capable of realising as the species evolves over the next several thousand years – unless, of course, we outsmart ourselves and wipe humankind from the face of the planet.

Written by Mark Vanselow for the Astor Theatre

Lucy screens on Sunday September 14 at 4pm.