Archive for March, 2012
REVIEW: ‘Limitless’ has its limits
While perusing the new DVD releases in search of a film review, I was reminded that it has been a year since the action/thriller “Limitless” was released in theatres. I missed the theatrical run and somehow missed the DVD release, so in honor of “Classics Week,” I dusted off a nearly year-old copy of “Limitless” to see if the Bradley Cooper vehicle was destined to become an instant classic.
Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper, “The Hangover”) is a struggling writer with a bad case of writer’s block and a girlfriend who is leaving him. A chance encounter with an old friend changes Eddie’s life when he’s given a sample of a drug that allows one to access 100 percent of their brain. When Eddie finds his supplier dead, he grabs the stash of pills and embarks on an incredible journey of self-discovery and success that includes finishing his novel and making millions while manipulating the stock market. Eddie ups his dose of the drug when going into business with tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), but his plan backfires and causes bleak side effects. Eddie is left trying to solve several unraveling mysteries while dealing with the dangerous effects of the drug.
I’m going to file “Limitless” in the good idea/bad execution drawer. I understand what director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) is trying to say, but it all feels contrived, like watching a paint-by-numbers project unfold. Burger uses several production tools at his disposal, and while interesting at first, they do get rather redundant. When the effects of the drug kick in, we see what the user sees through a distorted fish eye lens. This is initially unique, but after one viewing, we get the point and don’t need overuse of the contorted view. The film uses a cool, blue filter for a faded look when Eddie is in his normal state and a warm, vivid color palate when he is on the drug. They serve as contrasting visuals, but again might have worked better in small doses rather than back and forth during the entire film.
Unfortunately, the flaws in the film also appear to be limitless. Eddie constantly accesses memories he didn’t know he had once taking the drug, which begs the question of if we only use a small portion of our brain in the first place, how could so much information be available at all? Do our brains serve as the world’s largest DVR, recording every instant of our lives ready to play back at a moment’s notice? At one point shortly after discovering the power of the drug, Eddie narrates that he’s come up with a plan that requires a lot of cash, which is why he ditches his writing career for Wall Street. This grand plan is never mentioned again, though we do discover Eddie is running for a U.S. Senate seat in the film’s denouement. The audience would see Eddie as a likeable protagonist whose ends justify the means knowing all along that his end game is to make a difference in politics. Instead, we see him take advantage of his new found power at every turn, with no mention of politics or making a difference.
There are several eye-rolling moments in “Limitless,” including a ridiculous chase scene through New York’s Central Park where simply yelling “help” would suffice. For the sake of an action sequence, Eddie’s girlfriend stops to call him…is instructed to take one of the pills…and then “thinks” her way out of trouble by running through a crowded ice skating rink, grabbing a ten-year old girl and twirling her around to slash the face of her would-be attacker. It is a scene that must be viewed to be believed, or rather disbelieved. Another classic (and in this sense I mean classically bad) has Eddie slurping up an antagonist’s blood in an attempt to ingest the chemicals found in the drug — and of course it works instantly.
Ironically, the film about using every part of your brain comes off as a tad condescending to its viewers. We could do without all the visual cues throughout the film. It is as if Burger thought the film might be too confusing and needed to reinforce every nuance of the plot — a little subtlety could go a long way here. “Limitless” should have been a deep psychological thriller but instead was arranged in a fashion that appears contrite and even silly at times. Even with Bradley Cooper’s charisma and Robert De Niro’s cool, this film has its limits.
REVIEW: ‘Melancholia’ has little character development, strong message
One of the things I love about Tuesdays is the new DVD releases. With limited choices when it comes to theatrical releases, those of us who live in the Quincy metropolitan area sometimes miss out on great cinema. I understand it just isn’t profitable for AMC to fulfill the wishes of the few when they can sell out two screens of “Twilight” to the masses. That’s what makes Tuesdays so important for film lovers — when the good stuff we missed out on in the theaters finally becomes available. New to DVD this week is “Melancholia” — a unique Danish film that combines science Fiction with the feel of the German Romanticism movement.
The tumultuous relationship between sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, “The Tree”) is pushed to the limit as a family struggles to find normalcy in catastrophic times. A hidden planet is heading toward Earth and scientists are split on if it will collide with our planet or pass by. Justine’s life falls to pieces while Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) continue on as if all is normal. As the tension builds, the sisters face a role reversal in the face of impending doom, changing the dynamic of their relationship.
“Melancholia” puts a new twist on cinematic doomsday scenarios by focusing almost solely on the human drama — specifically the relationships in one small family. The narrative is broken up into two parts – Part I focuses on Justine and her depression as she self-destructs on her wedding night. Part II takes place shortly after Justine’s infamous meltdown and examines Claire’s relationship with her husband and son while helping Justine recover from the grips of her depression. While the entire film is slow developing, Part I drags on about 45 minutes too long. All of the human drama and emotion surrounding the impending catastrophe takes place in Part II, so we essentially get an hour-long exposition that introduces characters we never see again and touches upon relationships the film never revisits. If you can make it through the dull moments of Part I you’ll find a much richer narrative awaits.
The film’s score — the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” – plays a tremendous role in the film. The moody tone of the music fits the film’s theme to perfection, and writer/director Lars Von Trier (“Dancer in the Dark”) set the pacing of many of the scenes specifically to the score. It was a brilliant choice in his effort to capture the essence of German Romanticism. The setting – a Swedish seaside castle— also emphasizes Von Trier’s vision of mystic beauty.
Despite the elegant mise-en-scene, Von Trier is said to have found the inspiration for this film while battling his own bout of depression and his interest in the calm demeanor of melancholy people in the face of crises. Ultimately that is how the film plays out – more of a morose case study rather than a traditional narrative. There is little character development, only one featured location, and not much is revealed regarding the celestial body hurling toward our planet. Themes of love, fear, depression and family are explored, and despite the über-slow Part I, the film has a strong message that ultimately leaves you questioning how you would respond in the face of impending death.
REVIEW: ‘Silent House’
Some days I wonder if the saying “everything has been done before” rings true, especially when it comes to Hollywood. In the age of remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, anything that breaks new ground is a welcome sight. “Silent House” fits that bill, described as eighty eight minutes of real fear captured in real time and purported to be shot in one continuous take. While technically a remake of the 2010 Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda” (Spanish translation: The Silent House), the concept is still fairly new to Hollywood (2000′s “Time Code” is Hollywood’s only one-take film that comes to mind). While the plot didn’t necessarily draw me in – girl gets trapped in family lake house and must fight to survive – the concept of one single long take capturing an entire narrative certainly caught my attention. I visited the theatre to find out if this unique style would play out as kitschy or groundbreaking.
With the family lake house on the market, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) joins her father and Uncle to help with repairs. A family fight sends her Uncle off storming off into town, leaving Sarah and her father alone in the house. When investigating a strange noise upstairs, Sarah’s father is attacked and Sarah discovers she is trapped inside the locked and boarded up home. A game of cat and mouse between Sarah and the unknown intruder unfolds, and while attempting to escape Sarah must face events from her past that are more horrific than what is currently happening in the house.
The one-take cinematography is hit or miss throughout the film. The opening moments take us from a stylistic aerial shot of the rock-lined shore to a jerky jaunt up a path to the lake house, leaving one member in the audience behind me asking out loud if she was going to suffer from motion sickness ala “The Blair Witch Project.” At times the voyeuristic style lends to the narrative quite nicely, especially in those extreme close up moments of anticipation. Other times it just comes off as messy, with cinematographer Igor Martinovic bouncing along side Sarah as she runs from room to room. Overall I think the one-take style worked for this particular film given the narrative and location, as I don’t think the more conventional editing route would have added anything to the film.
While the cinematography concept may be novel, everything else about the film is cliché. The film is filled with what I call “eye rollers,” those moments of inexplicable stupidity by the protagonist. How one manages to get locked inside an old house is beyond me, but Sarah manages to do it…wait for it…twice. The plot twist at the end gives a bit of justification for the severe lapses in judgement, but filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau could help the audience connect with the protagonist with a few less idiotic moments.
The film uses a method of anticipation similar to the 2008 film “The Strangers.” The old lake house is a maze of doors and hallways, each one promising the possibility of a new terror to jump out at us. This is where the one-take style works best, as the cinematography throws you right in there with Sarah as her terror takes place. While “The Strangers” is a masterpiece in sound design and anticipation, “Silent House” plays out more like a less-talented cousin. There are a few moments of audio artistry – including an eerie basement scene – but not enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.
The film has a big plot twist towards the end of act two that takes it in a completely different and disturbing direction. The plot pinches come fast and furious as we move from a simple “escape from intruder” storyline to something much darker. It would have been nice to stretch this out a bit, as you question if there’s something psychological or perhaps supernatural behind everything as the twist unfolds. This was the most enjoyable part of the film – trying to figure out just what is actually happening. Unfortunately they rush to the film’s denouement and just as you’re putting the pieces together, the film cuts to black and credits roll. The real beauty in this film isn’t the plot or acting, but the choreography used with the 88-minute take. Actors weave in and out seamlessly in a complex location, with a few effects skillfully blended in. I’m not sure how enjoyable the played out plot or cliché plot twist will be for the audience, but if anything film enthusiasts should appreciate the novelty act of the unique one-take narrative.
It’s always an interesting case study when examining just why we choose to see specific films. It could be loyalty to a specific director or actor. It could be a non-stop marketing campaign that saturates the market with the best clips and one-liners from the film. Or perhaps the buzz surrounding a film is so great you just feel you have to check it out to avoid missing out. I found myself interested in “Wanderlust” after seeing Paul Rudd visit “The Daily Show” during the film’s media tour. It wasn’t necessarily the teaser clip they showed (though it was funny) or comedic banter about the film (they barely discussed it) that piqued my interest. It was two basic reasons — I find Paul Rudd hilarious and I wanted to see how Jennifer Aniston would follow up her peculiar performance in “Horrible Bosses.” Though I wasn’t quite sure what the title meant (essentially it is German for “a crave for travel”), I wandered into my local theatre to check it out.
Overworked Manhattan couple George and Linda (Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston) fall on hard times and can no longer afford life in New York City. When forced to move to Atlanta to live with George’s overbearing brother the duo accidentally stumble upon a hippie commune. Facing the options of working for his obnoxious brother or living free off the land at the commune, George chooses the commune. After persuading Linda to give the odd community a trial chance, George begins to question the unique living style and crazy characters at the commune. When the trial period is over, the couple is split between going back to New York and permanently living at the commune.
Casting director Susie Farris does a skillful job in creating the supporting cast. Justin Theroux (“Mulholland Drive”) shines as commune leader and eventual protagonist Seth, and Jordan Peele (TV’s “Key & Peele”) is perfect as the unassuming Rodney. I would argue that Alan Alda goes a bit underappreciated as the commune’s senior leader, but veteran TV and film actor Kerri Kenney is given every opportunity to steal the show as bed & breakfast host Kathy, and often does. The supporting cast actually overshadows Rudd and Aniston – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The commune serves as an important character in the film and the location and the people that live there cannot be developed enough.
Directed by David Wain (“Role Models”), the Judd Apatow production is not surprisingly filled with lowbrow humor and running gags. Some of it is effective while other parts miss the mark. Life without doors at the commune leads to some predictable but laughable moments, specifically between Rudd and Peele. Seth’s shtick as the Zen-like leader gets old after a bit. Wayne the nudist novelist provides some initial laughs in his introductory scene, but eventually fades to the background until the film’s falling action. The few “laugh out loud” moments are the central redeeming quality of the film as the plot itself is extremely predictable and filled with flat albeit fun characters.
It is the depiction of the hippies and their lifestyle that provides what little conflict exists in the film. The idea of free love is a source of both humor and tension between Rudd and Aniston. If forced to find some sort of deeper meaning to the film, I suppose it makes the audience question if we could abandon our lives full of modern comforts for a different lifestyle. I am not a hippie by any stretch of the means, though I do embrace a holistic approach to life. I rely on and appreciate modern technology too much to go rouge and become a full-fledged flower child. The film prompted this very discussion between my wife and I after seeing the film.
Getting back to my original musings of choosing specific movies – this is a case where I wish I knew a bit more about the film going in, because I probably would have avoided it. It’s nothing personal against the film or director David Wain, I was just hoping for something a little deeper. Throwing the modern urbanite into the woods with a group of bohemians would no doubt lead to some interesting scenarios, and “Wanderlust” simply exaggerates those situations. Given the scenario, this film could easily be a drama, with protagonists forced to make decisions with major life-changing implications. Themes of family, infidelity and life’s journey – or that crave of travel that the term wanderlust translates to — could be examined. Instead the film goes the Apatow-familiar route with silly situations and crude humor.