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Slickly Sci-Fi, Lucy Only Feigns at Depth

Scarlett Johansson has always seemed more human than human, her round lips and hips signaling something primordial to us cavemen huddled in the dark of the movie theater. How odd then that her last three films have reduced her to a robotic destroyer of men: as an operating system in Her, a man-eating alien in Under the Skin, and now Lucy, in which an overdose of CPH4 — the chemical that develops embryos in the womb — turns her into a blank-eyed assassin with 100 percent mental control over her brain, as opposed to the 10 percent that merely allows us mortals to solve Rubik’s Cubes and blast astronauts into space.

Director Luc Besson must think the audience is operating with even fewer synapses. Here, his style is slick but hand-holdingly literal. In the opening when Lucy’s boyfriend-of-the-week (Pilou Asbæk) forces her to deliver a briefcase to a Taiwanese gangster (Min-sik Choi), Besson edits in a shot of a mouse in a trap. When that gangster sews drugs in her stomach, he splices in a cheetah snapping the neck of a gazelle.

Later, as the newly bionic Lucy seeks vengeance, Besson even tries to convince us she’s a strong female character, which to the majority of male action directors simply means a sexy, silent badass. The real females in the audience may wonder why a genius would limp across a multi-continental gunfight in five-inch Louboutins. (Hey smarty-pants, wear sneakers.)

There’s enough mumbo jumbo about space and time and cellular division to allow Lucy to feign depth, but what lingers is Besson’s regressive belief that even the most intelligent woman on earth can’t figure out how to get her way without a miniskirt and a gun.

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Scarlett Johansson Effortlessly Carries the Fun, Unscientific Lucy

With his stately drawl, Morgan Freeman has narrated nonfiction documentaries about penguins, slavery, the lemurs of Madagascar, ancient Egyptian pharaohs, and the expansion of the universe. His is a voice of authority tempered by warmth and wisdom, capable of evoking felt human experience and the majesty of creation. In writer-director Luc Besson’s taut, fun Lucy, Freeman narrates several documentary sequences of soulful, unscientific horseshit about the human brain.

It’s not as if anyone will go all “Mythbusters” on Lucy as Neil deGrasse Tyson does on Gravity, but it’s fair to say that only people who actually use 10 percent of their brain capacity still believe that humans only use 10 percent of their brain capacity. But that’s the whole premise of Lucy, in which Besson classes up a pulp-superhero plot with half-understood evolutionary science and that old, smelly, percentage-based chestnut about brains.

None of that matters; it makes exactly as much sense as a radioactive spider bite or an overdose of gamma radiation. Besson’s film is about a woman who needs to find the meaning of life in a serious hurry. He opens Lucy with the image of a woman manipulated psychologically and physically by a man, who keeps grabbing her arm so she can’t walk away; he concludes with the image of a woman who men literally can’t touch.

Scarlett Johansson carries the film effortlessly, bridging Besson’s narrative and logical ellipses by fully embracing his crowd-pleasing intentions and convincingly depicting Lucy’s psychological transformation. While Johansson is a high-status figure and a giant movie star, she lacks Maleficent-grade remoteness, alternating between accessible vulnerability and dispassionate violence without losing the audience’s empathy.

Probably because she only uses 10 percent of her brain’s capacity, Lucy, an American student living in Taiwan, fails to recognize her new boyfriend’s corn curl–shaped cowboy hat as an obvious creep signifier. Bullied into delivering a mysterious briefcase to a Taiwanese syndicate boss (Choi Min-sik), she’s knocked unconscious and wakes up with a bag of an experimental drug sewn into her abdominal cavity.

It’s a synthetic version of a human growth factor and when the bag breaks open, the overdose stimulates Lucy’s brain into an evolutionary process that heightens her senses and gifts her with superhuman powers of cognition and memory. Besson tracks her cognition meter’s increase with title cards — at 20 percent brain capacity, she can shoot around corners; at 30 percent, she can see through walls. Ultimately, she controls physics and matter with her mind. So that’s the mob’s plan: to sell a transhumanism-inducing drug to club kids, which futurist Ray Kurzweil probably never saw coming. Chased by police and the mob, Lucy travels halfway around the world in pursuit of the other drug mules.

However gaudy and baroque Besson’s films can become, the director has a core of sincerity that drives (and sometimes overpowers) his films. Lucy, with her enhanced neurology burning brightly and quickly, becomes aware that the drug will kill her in 24 hours. Amid the film’s cross fire of revenge confrontations, shoot-outs, and gravity-flouting car chases, Besson includes a surprisingly poignant moment in which Lucy, whose personality is evaporating in the heat of her transformation, makes a sad, final telephone call to her mother.

In a hurry to find the meaning of life before the drug burns her up, she turns to Freeman’s Professor Norman, a famous evolutionary biologist and stirring voice-over narrator. He tells her that the meaning of life may be to do what individual cells do: pass on their genetic knowledge to a new generation. This Promethean task becomes Lucy’s quest and the film’s arc, which vectors toward an unexpectedly huge and cosmic finale — one perhaps best explained in the warm, sonorous tones with which the best life-affirming, science-y bullshit is conveyed.

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IN FOCUS

Chuck Close: artist extraordinaire, master of the selfie. After almost 50 years and hundreds more megapixels on the image resolution front, his Big Self Portrait is still pretty hard to distinguish from a snapshot. But photorealism was only the beginning, as is illustrated in Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration (Strand) by Terrie Sultan. From reviving ancient European techniques to working in new materials like sunscreen (it helps control light), the iconic artist has not always been recognized for his prints but often dedicates the most time to them, sometimes up to two years on a single piece. He and Sultan appear in conversation at the book’s re-release party, providing a rare opportunity to hear Close speak about the medium he’s said has “moved me in my unique work more than anything else” — and this guy’s photographed Obama and Scarlett Johanson.

Thu., May 1, 7 p.m., 2014

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Under the Skin Is Alluring, Creepy, and Great

The promise of seeing Scarlett Johansson fully nude is probably enough to lure lots of people into Jonathan Glazer’s alien-among-us fantasy Under the Skin, and the vision doesn’t disappoint: Her figure, seen in long shot, is a grand and glowing thing; she has one of those butts shaped, adorably, like an upside-down heart. But her nakedness is the opposite of a sleazy thrill. As Glazer presents it to us, an Eadweard Muybridge nude miraculously come to life, it’s so unadorned and purely human that it’s entrancing on a whole other level. That Johansson’s character is not human at all only adds to the pathos, and the terror, of it all. She is, as we learn early on, a killer from another world masquerading in womankind’s touch-me skin. In her nakedness, she hides everything and nothing; she’s treachery and softness rolled into one.

You could say the same of Under the Skin itself, a science-fiction rhapsody laced with thorns. Adapted — though maybe “morphed” is a better word — from Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, this is the story of a girl who fell to Earth, or who was, perhaps, put here to do a job. The exact motivation of Johansson’s character is never made clear, though she seems to be harvesting male flesh for either herself or her race. Really, very little in Under the Skin is clear at all. Its secrets unspool in mysterious, supple ribbons, but that’s part of its allure, and its great beauty. This picture is often mesmerizing and sometimes almost unforgivably cruel: The image of an infant crying on a cold, savage beach appears onscreen for just a few seconds, though it takes much longer to shake it off. But if Glazer is only just resurfacing with his first movie in 10 years (the last was the 2004 arty-elegant reincarnation romance Birth), at least he’s coming back with a great one. Along with his actors, cinematographer Daniel Landin, and composer Mica Levi, he’s made a work of quiet audaciousness, half-soothing, half-jolting. This is a dream-state movie that’s always fully awake and alive.

Johansson’s character has no name, and though she speaks in a reasonably proper English accent, she seems to have come from nowhere. This enigmatic creature, with her short crop of dark curls and mischievous half-moon of a smile, drives around Scotland’s bramble-gray countryside and its chattery, bustling cities, using her sexual magnetism to lure men to their doom. She wears everyday mall clothes — skinny jeans, a faux-fur jacket — and banters casually with her marks to determine how much they’ll be missed by anyone at home, or if they’ll be missed at all. They’re all regular guys, sporting jerseys of their favorite football teams, some of them rabbiting on in such thick Scots that they may as well be speaking the language of another planet. Our alien beauty leans in close to hear what they’re saying, to determine if they’ll suit her purposes. Some of them immediately remark on how pretty she is; others seem to avoid even looking at her, before stumbling to tell her they find her attractive.

What Johansson is working here is “glamour” in the original and ancient sense of the word, not the Hollywood one, a point brought home by Glazer’s working methods. Most, though not all, of the men in the film are non-actors, unaware that they’re being chatted up by a bona fide movie star, the proceedings captured by a small hidden camera. On the surface, at least, it’s an approach that invites some moral queasiness: Even though all of these “performers” were clued in after the fact, and signed the required release forms, it doesn’t seem right to make human beings the unwitting pawns of movie artistry. But I think the way Glazer uses these performers is ultimately respectful. We’re on their side — we can’t blame them for falling for this not-quite-Scarlett Johansson, because we’ve fallen, too. Watching them respond to alien Scarlett is fascinating; some of them are so shy they seem reluctant to look at her directly. But watching her coax them into her net is the real wonder here. When she’s being observed only by us, the character’s stare is simultaneously hungry and blank. When she’s working her wiles, her eyes are bright and reflective: “I’m far more interested in you than I am in myself,” they seem to say, and weirdly, tragically (for the alien’s quarry), she’s not even lying.

There are dozens of mysteries in Under the Skin that don’t cohere in any logical way but work like gangbusters on the imaginative subconscious. Where, exactly, does alien Scarlett lead her victims? Who knows? But we do see them, following her lead, stripping themselves naked as they stride deeper and deeper into a pool of what looks like inky black oil. They sink, while she pads across the surface with a panther’s muscular grace. What happens to them after that is the stuff of Francis Bacon paintings, a loss of self that Glazer captures with disturbingly hypnotic imagery. And Levi’s score is a small, weird miracle in itself. The opening sequence, in which an orb of light is used as a kind of visual shorthand to fill us in on some otherwise incomprehensible alien backstory, is accompanied by a chorus of anxious violins like 1,000 obsessive crickets. This is the music of unease, the sound our neurons might make if we could listen in on their workday.

Alien Scarlett goes through one man after another, until one of them, a young man with a facial disfiguration (played by Adam Pearson), touches a seemingly human nerve in her. She never voices the thought, but we can see her wondering: Could she ever live as a human? Could she feel desire, and make real love with a man instead of destroying him? This particular pick-up, thinking he’s hit the jackpot by finding a woman who’s sexually interested in him, pinches himself to make sure it’s all real. “Dreaming,” he says numbly as he follows in her deadly footsteps; he can barely bring himself to articulate the question mark. In her molten honey voice, alien Scarlett answers the half-asked question: “Yes. Yes, we are.”

At this point, which is also, incidentally, the moment Johansson finally strips bare, Under the Skin becomes less sinister and more about some unnameable longing. Alien Scarlett seems annoyed by Earthlings at first — they’re a necessary inconvenience — but the longer she wears the skin of a human, the more she yearns to become one. She doesn’t have penis envy; she has soul envy. Even in her not-human state, she wants what we all want, and just like us, she has no idea how to name it. Maybe the key is to just keep walking toward it. Dreaming. Yes, we are.

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Her: iLove, American Style

The terrible reality of modern life is that even beautiful young people on a first date can’t go a whole evening without checking their phones. We need to be potentially connected to every possibility at all times; just allowing the present to happen is becoming increasingly foreign. That’s the idea Spike Jonze is scratching at in his futuristic romance Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, an about-to-be-divorced Los Angeles writer who falls in love with an operating system, one designed not only to run his laptop and devices but to help him get through life; it intuits and meets his every need. That setup might sound weirder than it is: The voice of this OS — she calls herself Samantha — is Scarlett Johansson’s, and if you heard it, shimmering into your brain through an earpiece all day, every day, as Theodore does, you’d fall in love with it, too.

That voice is very real. The complication is that it belongs not to a real woman but to an algorithmic construct. In case you haven’t guessed, Theodore is using technology to avoid the pain of real human connection. And that’s the problem with Her, too: Jonze is so entranced with his central conceit that he can barely move beyond it. This is a movie about a benumbed person that itself feels chloroformed, zonked out, even in those moments when Jonze is clearly striving for depth of feeling. Its metaphors are more obvious than the bricks that cruel mouse Ignatz used to hurl at poor, lovelorn Krazy Kat, and yet not nearly as direct. Instead of just being desperately heartfelt, Her keeps reminding us — through cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s somber-droll camera work, through Phoenix’s artfully slumped shoulders — how desperately heartfelt it is.

Theodore knows, just as you do, that real-life relationships are messier than anything we can channel through a handheld device. He still misses his soon-to-be-ex-wife (a desperately human prickly pear played by Rooney Mara), and his close platonic confidant (a colorlessly likable Amy Adams) has plenty of troubles of her own. But he just can’t help his infatuation with Samantha. She isn’t supposed to have feelings, but thanks to some miracle of science, she returns Theodore’s affections. The two embark on rambling adventures through the city — Theodore tucks the Samantha-pod device in his shirt pocket, so she can peek out at the world through a little lens. She’s a girlfriend you can literally keep in your pocket. The relationship is too good, and too wrong, to last.

But even as he acknowledges the uncontrollability of human relationships, Jonze never does anything so passionate as let go. There are many, many feelings stuck into Her, pin-cushion-style, but the result is a kind of overstuffed stupefaction. Jonze and Van Hoytema take great care with the visuals, working hard to hit notes of longing and mournfulness. At one point, a shot of airborne, sunlit dust motes transmutes into a field of falling snowflakes. How serene! How lovely! But what do dust motes have to do with snowflakes? Sometimes a technical trick can be too gorgeous, so previsualized that it comes off as a contrivance.

Much of the dialogue sounds premeditated, too. (This is the first picture Jonze has written as well as directed.) There’s an old journalism rule about always using “says,” never “opines” or “sighs.” Her opines and sighs all over the place. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever going to feel,” Theodore confides glumly to Samantha. “And from here on out, I’m not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” In the guise of being direct, the movie is actually maddeningly coy.

We’re supposed to feel so much for Theodore in his Tom Selleck mustache, oh-so-winsomely plucking at a ukulele as he lounges in his underfurnished bachelor apartment; his life is as empty as his bookshelves. Phoenix is sometimes an astonishing actor, and not just when he’s playing Johnny Cash; working with director James Gray in particular, in pictures like Two Lovers and We Own the Night, he has given astute, resonant performances, stripped of fussy mannerisms. But in Her, he’s a stylized, mumbly drifter, so attached to his performance that he’s barely attached to us. Johansson’s voice, as plush and light-reflecting as velveteen, is the movie’s saving grace; Samantha is the one character in Her who seems capable of delight. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role and had completed the movie when, at the last minute, Jonze substituted Johansson. Morton is a terrific actress, but in this instance Jonze’s instincts were golden. The movie isn’t just unimaginable without Johansson — it might have been unbearable without her.

Theodore doesn’t know what he wants, and probably fears that even if he knew, he wouldn’t be able to get it. What human being hasn’t felt that way? But it’s hard to respond to onscreen romantic trauma and feelings of disconnection when they’re so wan and wispy. There are whole chunks of Her, so arduously layered with soft-focus pain and cautious happiness, that could have been lifted from those ’80s phone commercials touting the benefits of “staying connected.” Theodore, like James Stewart in Vertigo, is in love with an illusion. The difference is that this spectacle and all its ideas would fit on the screen of your iPod.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt Triumphs Over Online Porn in Don Jon

To paraphrase the Bee Gees, Joseph Gordon-Levitt should be dancing. He’s already done it in (500) Days of Summer, where he led an exuberant ensemble routine that out–Dr Peppered any Dr Pepper commercial. Then there was his smashing Saturday Night Live re-creation of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh”—like O’Connor, he has springs where his joints should be. If you can dance on a bike, he’s pretty much done that, too, in David Koepp’s crackerjack bike-messenger thriller Premium Rush. When we talk about dazzling physical actors, like Douglas Fairbanks or Marlon Brando, we might be thinking about people who use their bodies as brush strokes, as the beats between the notes, or as physical manifestations of submerged feelings, but there’s another kind, too: Even when Gordon-Levitt isn’t moving very much, he throws off the illusion of movement. Everything about him is alight; even his nerve endings seem to have a sense of humor.

There’s no dancing in Gordon-Levitt’s writing-directing debut, Don Jon, although the movie is so heavily reminiscent—in the good way—of Saturday Night Fever that an arm-swinging paint-can reverie wouldn’t be out of place. But the picture is agile in every other sense. It’s a comedy that moves with a sense of purpose, as Gordon-Levitt does in the title role. His character is a Jersey lothario named Jon who’s earned the prefix “Don” because of his success with the ladies. Jon spends his days polishing his brawn at the gym—he looks almost unreal, like a Marine-turned-crocodile-hunter as imagined by a video game designer. By night, he and his friends trawl the hotspots, looking for the most babe-o-licious girls. Jon’s dirty little secret, though, is that while he thinks sex with real live women is OK, he prefers porn—not, it turns out, because the women he sees in porn are better looking, or more controllable, or willing to do nastier stuff, but because he doesn’t have to be anything for them. They free him in a way that the real women he meets don’t.

Then he’s bowled over by a bombshell at a local club, Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara Sugarman, who he thinks might be “the one.” Barbara toys with him from the beginning, though in some ways her approach is sensible: She doesn’t rush into bed, instead making him take her on a few dates beforehand. She loves romantic movies; Jon couldn’t care less about them. (One of Don Jon‘s funniest bits involves the movie-within-a-movie Jon has to suffer through—it’s called Special Someone, and it features Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum cavorting and leaping like love-crazed morons.) Barbara’s a knockout, all right: Her nails are filed into pale, exquisitely varnished rectangles; her hair is styled into perfect dual spirals framing her fresh-from-Sephora face. But she’s high maintenance in all ways. “You’ll be much happier if you tell me the truth,” she tells Jon on their first date, but what he doesn’t realize is that her idea of the truth is as restrictive as the squeeze of a boa constrictor.

At Barbara’s behest, the somewhat aimless Jon begins taking night classes, where he meets a mysterious and obviously older woman—her name, as unglamorous as it gets, is Esther, and she’s played by Julianne Moore. After catching Jon watching some downloaded smut on his iPod, Esther, amused rather than repulsed, presents him with a gift: a relic of ’70s porn on DVD.

Esther explains the gift as if it were a dinosaur fibula, but she also wants Jon to know that his fixation is nothing new. And her entrance is also the point at which Gordon-Levitt’s characters shift from being obvious, intentional cartoons into people with feelings. Even when his story starts getting serious, Gordon-Levitt always keeps it funny, and his cast is in on the joke. Jon’s Italian-American family is played by a killer triumvirate of Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, and Brie Larson: They’re stereotypes with beating hearts. Johansson is marvelous—her Jersey-girl diction is as precise as her character’s guided-missile approach to courtship and marriage. And Moore, whose role at first seems thinly sketched, becomes the spirit of the movie: As Esther, she changes the story’s course not so much with words or action, but with a vibe. She underplays, as usual, and she’s mighty like a rose.

Gordon-Levitt may be the movie’s star, but he doesn’t direct himself as its center. He uses his character as a kind of human flashlight, casting his beam on the people around him before looking inward. He plays Jon as egotistical, preening, and, until the end, anything but sensual—he’s ridiculous at first, a stylized man-panther who needs to dictate all the steps. Eventually, though, he gets the hang of what it means to be a dance partner. Someday soon, someone needs to cast Gordon-Levitt in an honest-to-God musical. For now, Don Jon comes pretty close. It’s not so much what Gordon-Levitt does; it’s just something in the way he moves.

 

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Venice Update: The Wordless Beauty and Brutality of Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius and Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

It’s 8:20 and you’re in the breakfast room at your hotel, having your customary bowl of muesli. By 9:20, you’re watching a spurned wife cut off her teenage son’s penis–and eat it–as retribution for her husband’s infidelity. Ah, Tuesday.

But wow, Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius is some movie! If you have a low tolerance for castration, incest, gang rape, and rocks being used for autoerotic stimulation, you probably shouldn’t see it. But as with all movies, particularly Kim’s, it’s largely the how and not the what that matters: Moebius is so gracefully made–and in places so very funny–that at times I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

But then, that’s Kim’s stock in trade; he’s a strange one, all right. (His Pieta, controversial for its over-the-top violence and sexuality, won the Golden Lion here last year.) And yet somehow, the plot of Moebius, playing here out of competition, sounds stranger in the telling than it does while you’re watching the movie. The picture opens with a bitterly funny wrestling match between a husband and wife (Cho Jae-hyun and Lee Eun-woo) over a ringing cell phone–it’s the mistress calling, and the missus doesn’t like it one bit. (Intriguingly, Lee plays both characters.)

After attempting and failing to sever her husband’s penis with some sort of sacrificial knife that the family keeps stored under a Buddha’s head in the living room–where else?–she moves on to her impromptu Plan B, thus ruining her son’s life. (Or so it would seem.) This act of vengeance is followed by an instance of parental sacrifice that’s both horrifying and grimly hilarious, which pretty much sums up the shifting tones of Moebius. It could almost qualify as Kim’s take on Pedro Almodóvar, though unlike Almodóvar, he doesn’t temper his perversion with human warmth.

Did I mention that there’s not a word of dialogue in the movie? There’s sound–grunting, moaning, cries of dismay–but it’s so restrained it almost seems to be shimmering beneath the picture’s surface, like fish bubbles rising to the top of the water. In a wordless world, images and gestures mean more, and Kim takes great care with his: They’re definitive and potent, almost like pantomime. Moebius isn’t particularly graphic, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Relentlessly, Kim plucks away at certain visual notes–a knife’s handle sticking out of a shoulder blade, a patch of skin being rubbed raw and bloody. You kind of wish he would stop, but you understand why he doesn’t: In a movie about obsessions, his obsessiveness is a way of keeping order.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, screening here in competition, explores sexual obsession of another sort: Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, an alien disguised as a human being, tooling through Scotland in a van. She picks up random men and lures them to their doom.

Maybe that all sounds rather ordinary. But in Glazer’s hands, it isn’t. Under the Skin–adapted from Michel Faber’s novel of the same name–is Glazer’s first film since the odd little supernatural romance Birth nearly 10 years ago; it’s an even stranger film, and a better one. Johansson’s character has arrived from outer space–we know this because Glazer opens the movie with a glowing orb, a kind of shorthand signifying a planet far, far away. Her Earth garb consists of tight stonewashed jeans and a tatty fur coat; her hair is a dark, tousled mop. She looks like a tough girl out for some fun, but when she picks up her conquests, she asks them questions about themselves in soothing, seductive tones. Every man she encounters is up for whatever she’s offering, but woe betide the sailor who heeds her siren’s call.

What does she do to them, exactly? We don’t really know, but it’s not pretty, and Glazer stages these seductions magnificently: Suddenly, the craggy landscape of Scotland–a very weird place in itself–gives way to a lake of what appears to be black oil. We see Laura stripping down as she walks, barefoot, across the top of this sinister sea, beckoning the captive male of the moment to follow her. But while she glides and sways on the surface, the men are pulled under. By the time she’s stripped herself totally and gloriously bare–she’s like an Eadweard Muybridge nude, aglow like the moon–the man unlucky enough to walk in her wake has been swallowed whole. It’s as if she has consumed him in some primordial swirl of sex that requires no physical contact.

Laura goes through one man after another, until one of them touches a seemingly human nerve in her. She never voices the thought, but we can see her wondering: Would it be possible for her to live as a human? To feel desire, and make real love with a man instead of destroying him? The movie becomes less sinister and more about some unnamable longing; it’s helped along by an astonishing, sonorous score by the young English songwriter, composer, and performer Mica Levi, which is hypnotic and threatening at once.

And Johansson, always a likable and fully alive presence, is extraordinary here. She appears to be all eyes, not just undressing her male victims with her gaze but virtually peeling their skin away. She’s spooky and erotic, a girl who fell to Earth and decided that she might like to stay.

* * *

I write this on my last night in Venice, a place that always makes me wistful, especially right before I have to leave: I’m always homesick for it in advance. A few evenings ago I was crossing Piazza San Marco, a space so gorgeous and otherworldly that not even hordes of tourists can diminish its magic, when I heard a song that I love, being played by one of the mini-orchestras set up outside the cafés that dot the perimeter of the square. I usually don’t pay these musicians much mind; it’s tourist stuff, your average random Vivaldi or whatever. But this was a pop song, one that always inspires in me a mix of joy and longing that somehow seems very Venetian: “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” a hit for Dusty Springfield in 1966.

I’ve always loved Dusty’s version of the song, but what I didn’t know–and which I learned thanks to the wonders of Google–is that the melody was co-written by the marvelous cinema composer Pino Donaggio, a Venetian himself. The song’s original name, with lyrics in Italian, is “Io che non vivo,” and in 1965, Donaggio, a singer-songwriter at the time, made it a hit in Italy. Of course, the mini-orchestra would know this–leave it to the clueless American tourist to have to look it up on Google. But now I know that a song I’ve loved since I was a little girl has Venetian roots. And that makes it easier for me to say arrivederci.

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Scarlett Johansson Stars in a Blaring Revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Many people have worked very hard on the new production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Rodgers Theatre), and I feel extremely sad for them, since all their efforts have added up to nothing but a confused, noisy mess, which has less to do with Williams’s play than any production of Cat I’ve ever seen. I feel saddest of all for Scarlett Johansson, who made a powerful and lasting impression a few years ago as Catherine in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, and who still, I think, could prove effective as Maggie, Cat‘s heroine, if somebody would direct her in an actual production of the work.

That this is no such production, and that Rob Ashford is no suitable director, is evident from the start: The show opens with a gigantic crashing chord that suggests a flying saucer may have landed on the roof of “Big Daddy” Pollitt’s mansion in the Mississippi Delta. You expect space aliens to appear, but the only arrival is Johansson’s Maggie, dashing upstairs to change her dress, stained at dinner when one of her brother-in-law’s little “no-neck monsters” threw a buttered biscuit at her. She shouts this news to her husband, Brick (Benjamin Walker), offstage in the shower, and she mostly goes on shouting for the rest of the evening, as does everyone else.

You can’t blame them. The Rodgers, mostly used for musicals, makes an inhospitably large home for a play of Cat‘s intimacy, and the rest of Adam Cork’s sound design, presumably at Ashford’s prompting, matches that opening crash in volume. When a scene ends with offstage field hands serenading Big Daddy on his birthday, their amplified voices swell till you wonder if he has hired the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to pick his cotton. The final scene’s thunderstorm breaks with an apocalyptic roar that leaves not one line of dialogue fully audible; skilled artists like Debra Monk (Big Mama) have to scream their lungs out to make themselves heard.

This deplorable situation obviously stems from Ashford’s inability to grasp the most basic sense of the text. Johansson’s Maggie even shouts while on the phone with Brick’s deaf aunt, explaining immediately afterward that she has learned never to shout when talking to the deaf. She shouts even while pointing out to Brick that their bedroom walls are thin, and that his malicious brother, Gooper (Michael Park), and sister-in-law, Mae (Emily Bergl), have been eavesdropping on them.

Though conducted at top volume, this Cat provides dishearteningly little worth eavesdropping on. Intent on establishing Walker’s Brick as a self-punishing, wounded soul, unremittingly bullied by his hard-edged, increasingly desperate Maggie, Ashford overlooks one of the play’s central components. If these two people feel no attraction for each other, the story contains no tension. Brick is a man who has caused his best friend’s suicide, partly out of fear that he himself might be gay; he blames his wife for having precipitated the event. But their own sexual relations, the text makes clear, have never been a problem; Brick’s reasons for finding Maggie repugnant are moral and psychological, not physical—though his furious denial when Big Daddy (Ciaran Hinds) confronts him on the point may suggest the opposite. His relationship to his father, too, is uncomfortable, although both his parents openly prefer him to his respectable, responsible elder brother.

The story follows taciturn Brick, who, while trying vainly to drink himself into a stupor, has to confront, in turn, his wife, his father, and his mother. As narrative, it has a somber, inward, even philosophic quality, bookended as it is by Brick’s self-destruction and his father’s impending death. The rowdy family conflicts, with the celebration of Big Daddy’s birthday masking the struggle to inherit his wealth, provide peripheral color and variety. Preoccupied with these, Ashford barely notices the emotional transactions at the drama’s center. On Christopher Oram’s set, which gives Brick and Maggie’s bedroom the loftiness of a hotel’s grand ballroom, family members and servants dash incessantly to and fro, as if in a Feydeau farce. Granted no quietude, the actors strain. Walker pulls and pushes at his role as if it were a stuck door; Hinds, miscast in his, puts strenuous effort into underscoring Big Daddy’s coarseness. Only Monk strikes a credibly human—and Southern—note. The rest is noise.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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SOUTHERN COMFORT

When we first saw Scarlett Johansson on Broadway two years ago, she played the sweet 17-year-old orphan Catherine in 
Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge—and won a Tony for it to boot. Now she’s back and anything but sweet as feisty Maggie the Cat in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She’ll be burning up the stage alongside Benjamin Walker (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), who stars as her loveless alcoholic 
husband, Brick, in this tale of greed and deceit surrounding the family of a wealthy plantation owner on the eve of his 65th birthday. Tony and Emmy winner Rob Ashford, who most recently directed Jude Law in Anna Christie in London, directs.

Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Dec. 18. Continues through March 30, 2012

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Gasland

Dir. Josh Fox (2010). You know what would be more effective than liking anti-fracking posts on Facebook? Hauling your real-life friends to the IFC to catch the urgent, sinks-on-fire doc that exposed the dangers of this newfangled natural gas drilling tech. Director Fox will be there, along with half of Cibo Matto, Sean Lennon, and for some reason Scarlett Johansson, who never gets credit for having been great in Ghost World.

Thu., Oct. 18, 7 p.m., 2012