This week brings two movies that deal with consciousness expansion, in forms with directors who have high-minded visual sensibilities.... and uh, here are the results:
Limitless comes our way from a director that has only proved himself somewhat before - The Illusionist (not the animated one, the one from 2006 with Edward Norton as a magician in combat with Christopher Nolan's The Prestige), a competent and interesting but unremarkable tale of magic-stuffs. But here with Limitless, which is, for all intents and purposes, a 'drug movie', takes its visual approach seriously and with innovation. As its lead character, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), takes a drug that has one of those pharmaceutical names though is on the 'Black Market' and increases his IQ into 'Four digits, director Neil Burger takes the approach of something like The Who song "I Can See for Miles": literally, the guy can seem to see for miles and miles in New York City. And with all that pollution that's something!
All kidding aside, Burger does a very good job of making an inventive use of how this character's perceptions change once he gets on this drug. Even when he first takes it the perspective, through use of a wide-angle lens and/or some computer fx and a whole lot of bright lights and possibly some undercranking with the camera, it's jarring and something we may have seen before (thanks Gilliam) but not quite like this. And once he gets hooked and, one day, forgets really where he's been or where he's going as his brain is moving at a WTF speed, the 'See for Miles' perspective pays off quite nicely. He might not be David Fincher just yet, but he's getting there, as far as a flashy-auteur who knows his camera pyrotechnics. That and his use of a certain Black Keys song 'Howling for You' makes him a smart cookie indeed.
As for the story - also very interesting, for the most part. Morra is a writer who can't seem to write his next book, after being dumped by his girlfriend and moping around in his shitty Chinatown apartment (actually many of us would want to live there, maybe, possibly, not really). He runs into his ex-wife's brother by chance on the street, him being a sleazy drug dealer in snazzy suits, and offers up the drug which starts with an NZ and ends with some number at the end. He takes it and it "opens up your mind to use the other 80% of your brain you don't use." Sure, through neurological science it's probably crap, but it's a fucking movie so you can take the ride or not. I did, and it came out as really being a kind of All-American Morality story, like if Frank Capra were plugged into the 21st century and was given a shit-ton of cocaine. And like any Good American, he goes from being a creative genius to (after that's not enough anymore and the ideas keep spinning) a financial genius.
|Bradley Cooper - not just the president of Alphabet Soup - he's also a client ;)|
How Eddie gets to where he is works very well, since his character and how Bradley Cooper (an actor mostly known for comedies and the occasional dramatic turn like Midnight Meat Train) plays him to be a sympathetic guy even when he's tweaking on this drug. His narration is also helpful, if on occasion slightly unnecessary, to illustrate where his head was at as the story's being told backwards ala Fight Club on the precipice of demise. I even liked the relationship he has with his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) who likes him, but as 'Eddie Mora', not as the super-brain who at one point instructs her to take one of the pills so she can evade some creep trying to kill her in Central Park.
By the end of the film it reaches a point I didn't expect, and really enjoyed due to how it broke with a convention I expected (albeit the last thirty seconds was unsatisfying just cause of a character's choice that didn't make sense), as Eddie basically becomes an X-Man only front and center in the American World as a success that won't give up what he's got. The only real big flaw is a sub-plot involving the Russian Mob which, while sometimes funny, kind of distracted from what else was working with this character's sorta-journey and his own sub-plot with Robert De Niro's finance veteran. Some of it is funny, but only near the end goes it becomes entertaining to see what they do against Eddie in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. Up until then, Limitless is a surprise dramatic thriller, that's sharp on what people, smart people, Americans most of all, do with their wealth of Super-Intelligence in this day and age.
That it also felt like a big-budget remake of a film I made back in college is something else... I'll link it at the bottom.
But at least Limitless has things going for it - good actors knowing what they're doing, a story that makes sense (for the most part), and a director whose visual palette is in sync with the story.
Not so much for another film I can mention... not - at - all.
What I couldn't expect, something of a surprise, was to get what Vincent Canby once described Cimino's Heaven's Gate as: an unqualified disaster. Actually, is that true? Maybe it can be qualified: Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Dawn of the Dead, that Owl movie from last year that was good but no one saw) has opened up his mental floodgates for a story that is kind of toxic in Hollywood, where an auteur's crazy but pretentious visions mesh with what Hollywood covets so much: appealing to ADD 13 year old males who have just discovered the wonderful things they can do with their genitals.
The film is a visual fiasco; even when just a little is going on screen (and, to be fair, there are certain little moments in scenes where Snyder can direct, kind of, with actors and steady camera movements, it's rare but it's there), it's a drab affair. He has three palettes he's working with, and none of them are really pleasing to the eye or express much visual imagination past geeky-WTF-Land: the first is where the main character, um, 'Baby Doll' is all she's credited as (Emily Browning) is sent to an insane asylum after killing her sister by accident (the bullet meant for her scumbag father after the death of her mother), and we see little snippets of her time there... in a minute or less I'd say, until she's sent to a room to get a lobotomy.
|You know when you have that dream where you're stuck in your underwear in a Zack Snyder movie...|
But in that second before she gets the thing drilled at her head, it suddenly flashes to... a burlesque club being run by the same creep who is the warden at the asylum (Oscar Isaac, chewing up enough scenery to make Animal the Muppet jealous), and who makes the girls there dance and slave over stuff (others include Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Abbie Cornish(!), and Vanessa Hudgenkiss).
So that's two palettes. The third... oh Jesus Fucking Christ, it's a vision I guess or some other thing that happens when Baby Doll is about to dance, the camera does this wrap-around thing close-up at her face as a bad cover of a pop song (or, GODDAMNIT, The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows") as she's flashed to a, uh, I guess video game cut-scene is the only way to describe it, or maybe the shit-end of the visual stick that was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. If maybe some of this felt real, or if there were actual stakes with the girl characters in their skirts and hot leather and swords fighting these, uh, samurai with guns and giant metal robot-rabbit things and airplanes and shit-brown-sky had some stakes, it might be fun... but it isn't, not for a moment.
|The world after their peek at Snyder's magnum opus|
I wanted to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt; he's not made a movie I've completely disliked until now; Dead was a decent romp through the familiar territory of George Romero's Zom-Mall satire; 300 is goofier in retrospect but at the time was somewhat unique as a CGI-Roman thriller with lots of blood and bare-chests for the ladies; Watchmen surprised me as a super-faithful but still somehow engaging adaptation of Gibbons and Moore's masterpiece, with actual human emotion this time with the characters, if not without its flaws; The Owls of Ga'Hoole was a fun throwback to 80's animated movies that straddled the line for kids and adults (kind of a watered down Secret of NIMH). I mention all of these films in part cause he hadn't pissed me off yet (though never blown me away) and I was curious to see what he would do with a project that wasn't an adaptation or remake or whatever. Then I saw the trailer... and tried to stay positive... then I saw the reviews, and grit my lip like Homer Simpson chasing the pig with the apple in its mouth ("It's still good, it's still good!") And then sitting there...
I was stunned, speechless, except when ready to throw things at the screen. There's nothing at stake here, nothing that really gets to the heart of the matter that these girls are in an asylum in the 1950's and are being horribly mistreated by the staff there. But until near the end, we don't know what's going on in this 'First level" so that what goes on in this second burlesque level, and then especially in the third level which is just video-game bullshit (the kind that you might glance at being demo'd at a convention but then you go on with your day). One is reminded of two 2010 movies (and both with Senor DiCaprio) which handled the style of storytelling much better: Inception and Shutter Island, both dealing with repressed emotions, multiple levels of story, and the scarring of a location like a drab mental institution. But Snyder tries to aim too high and nowhere near far enough at the same time.
His eye is mostly engaged in doing the same monotonous action that is much more suited for a music video or (again) a video game, and yet he sees this as his big personal epic of some sort, with Scott Glenn tagging along in the video-game scenes as a sort of David Carradine guru with platitudes that make fortune cookies look like fucking Slavoj Zizek quotations, and nothing about the action or settings makes much sense to how it corresponds in the various levels... until it is explained near the end, and it STILL doesn't make much sense except in a stupid logic involving I guess some kind of astral projection of the mind to "escape". But escape into what exactly? How is a girl in the 1950's - who we don't know much about anyway due to there being ZERO character development past 'oh, she's like, meek and stuff and tragic and emo and so on' since the first five minutes is like a music video in editing and staging of characters - able to conjure up this burlesque club along with all of the other girls, and THEN flashed ahead to some weird barren wasteland-planet thing? How are they connected?
Maybe they shouldn't be, but you know what, I'd rather have a director not going for logic at all, like David Lynch in Inland Empire, who can take the audience on a wild ride in the mind but has a dozen interesting things about it, than a director who thinks the audience with 'get it' or... or maybe not that either! This reeks of 'Passion Project' all over it, like M. Night Shyamalan with Lady in the Water or Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, or, again, Heaven's Gate: a director whose hubris escapes him and runs rampant, and whether the audience wants to go along it's their problem, not his. But this time I think the studio also is culpable here: it's like a meshing of what Hollywood LOVES to dish out: adrenaline stuff with hot girls (though not *too* hot, PG-13 and all) in lots of action and a thin story to appeal to the coveted Pubescent-Boy demographic, not to mention geek-related. It's like a Heavy Metal magazine lacking in anything relatable or human.
That it's also meant to be a "Woman Empowerment" movie is another slap in the face, as it's all the same a view of women through an intensely male gaze, one that sees that the way for girls to get their empowerment on it to dress in short skirts and leather and to flash their panties as their shoot guns at robots and soldiers in desaturated dreamscapes. Um... no. Sucker Punch fails as entertainment, as artistic inspiration, and as anything relating to reality. And I wanted to be 'wowed' by a video game I'd stay at home and play Bio-Shock again - moreover if I wanted to oogle at hot girls I'd just look at Carla Gugino's Sin City naked pictures again. In fact, if not for her own over-the-top performance here as a Polish(!) burlesque instructor, I would have taken that cyanide I take with me on special occasions like this and downed the motherfucker.
Bottom line: this has 'Crest of Senses' all over it (scroll ahead to 5:43 into video):