In 2012, Jafar Panahi, the celebrated Iranian director banned from filmmaking by his government, gave us a peek at life under house arrest in the cinematic art-object "This is Not a Film," one of a trio of films that year (including Joshua Marston's superior "The Forgiveness of Blood" and Marc Simon's four-star documentary "Unraveled") to explore the subject.
In the arbitrary and absurdly attenuated "Closed Curtain," Panahi plows the same field, rendering it fallow and digging himself into an inextricable creative rut. The film begins with an unnamed screenwriter holing up with his dog at his seaside home after the regime declares dogs impure and vows (in stomach-turningly graphic state TV news reports) to eradicate them from the streets. After we watch him for half an hour, a suicidal young woman and her brother enter the house under false pretenses, themselves on the run from the police. Then the brother leaves and the woman allows herself the run of the place. After another half hour, Panahi himself appears, apropos of nothing, for more scenes of silence pierced by pseudo-intellectual philosophizing worthy of a commercial for Obsession. I tried to stay with "Closed Curtain," really I did, but after two-thirds of its 106-minute runtime, I checked out - and there was no going back.
Luc Besson's "Lucy" uneasily mashes a drug cartel shoot-'em-up with a sci-fi take on how it might look and feel to use 100%, rather than 10%, of one's cerebral capacity. Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, an American studying (and partying) abroad in Taiwan who, against her will, becomes a mule assigned to transport a crystalline blue drug called CPH4 to a syndicate's distributors in the West. A bag of the substance is sewn into Lucy's abdomen. When she mouths off to the wrong bad guy, he kicks her in the stomach, unleashing the CHP4 throughout her bloodstream. With that, the countdown is on, with Lucy's percentage of brain function shown on title cards like a contestant's heart rate on John McEnroe's short-lived game show "The Chair." Lucy makes contact with Morgan Freeman's Professor Norman (who needs a first name?), the world's leading academician of the brain (though his lectures, set to videos straight out of Animal Planet, are no more convincing than 99% of movie writing for teachers). As Lucy transforms, you'll have time to wonder what became of Freeman as an actor. He commanded the screen with raw force in his Oscar-nominated performance in "Street Smart." He imparted the experiential wisdom that gave "The Shawshank Redemption" its emotional core. And for the better part of two decades, he's chosen to play God and cash paychecks. As for Besson's 100% moment? You'll be amazed how much less compelling it is than it might have been. "Lucy" is watchable, but silly and insubstantial in hindsight. Check out ScarJo's more gripping "Under the Skin" from earlier this year instead.