Limitless (2011)

Still from Limitless

Limitless is a wish-fulfillment film fantasy about a drug that makes you a super-genius. The concept has previously been explored in science fiction stories such as Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” (1958, filmed as Charly in 1968) and Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968). In all of these stories, one of the biggest challenges is to create a convincing portrait of a super-genius — a challenge that Keyes and Disch took head-on by writing their stories in the first person from the point of view of the guy becoming the genius. On the surface, Limitless is a much glitzier, much more superficial approach to the concept, yet it does a great job at this essential task. It sells the idea that Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is smarter than anybody else in the room while he’s on the drug NZT.

Well, you do have to swallow some B.S. to get to that belief. Part of the expository explanation of how NZT works evokes the old myth that we only use a small part of our potential brain power. (Traditionally it’s said to be ten percent, but the movie doubles that.) This is nonsense, but if you can set that aside, the actual portrayal of how Eddie’s mind works when it’s on fire is very good. In fact, if the exposition had been that NZT improves your memory it would have made more sense, because that’s the core of Eddie’s improved intelligence: he can remember everything that’s strayed even on the fringes of his awareness, and he can connect the dots. “Pattern recognition,” as one of the characters puts it, which may well have been a shout out to William Gibson’s novel of the same name.

In any event, aside from selling the genius, the movie’s other strong hand is visual style and sheer momentum. There’s a recurring motif of the camera traveling straight ahead in an apparently endless zoom, which gives us a vertiginous sense of motion through an infinite (limitless!) space. This is the objective correlative of Eddie’s new-found mental powers. It gives us a visceral, disorienting sense of the rush of being the smartest guy in the room, of traveling very rapidly much further than we’ve ever been before.

The movie is a lot of fun. It’s playful, it’s funny, it’s exciting — it zooms along. Eddie hits a number of obstacles on his rising path, but he always seems to find the solution. Yet this kind of story can’t end well, can it? It opens up with Eddie standing on the precipice, ready to hurl himself to his death as killers try to break down his high rise apartment door. There’s an pervasive sense throughout the first two acts that Eddie is pursuing an empty goal, an impossible dream. His girlfriend (the smart, gorgeous Abbie Cornish) warns him against hubris. And Eddie’s pursuit of success takes him into the world of speculative finance, which these days can’t help but make us think of the Wall Street whiz kids who drove our country — and the whole damned world — into an economic abyss. Eddie is an endearingly bohemian screw-up as the film begins, but as he gets smarter he becomes more of a soulless yuppie who is only interested in greater and greater success.

This may be the secret genius of the film. I’m still not completely certain how to read the ending, which was not at all the ending I was expecting. The question is whether this is ultimately a satire. If I put myself in Abbie Cornish’s shoes in the final scene, I’ve got to think I’d be feeling ambivalent at best. I’d probably be feeling scared witless. Although this does bring up one of the film’s weaknesses, which is Robert De Niro’s merciless tycoon, Carl Von Loon. The name is an obvious jibe at the super rich, but the character actually needs to be more menacing and vicious, I think, for the final confrontation between Von Loon and Eddie to pay off. It’s still a pretty good scene, but it could have been more powerful.

As I walked out of the theater I thought I’d just seen a very slick, stylish entertainment. The more I think about it, however, the more I think it actually has a moral ambiguity at the heart of it that’s a pretty sharp comment on the USA today. The Wall Street bright boys are still running the country. Do they really have no limits?

Still from Limitless

Monsters (2010)

Alien life has infected Mexico. Two Americans — a photographer and the daughter of a media mogul — are trying to find their way north to the border and over the containment wall.

This film has gotten quite a divided reaction, and I’m not sure why. Is it because it mashes romance with science fiction? Is it too twee? The romance is perhaps not as keen as the best romances, but there’s something interesting going on in the conversation between the romantic and the science fictional ideas, and the conversation is mostly non-verbal. Love is the plan, the plan is death, right? Or am I over-interpreting the final scenes? Mating behavior …

I’m not sure why Gareth Edwards decided to shoot this as a jungle movie when it supposedly takes place in Mexico near the U.S. border. It was actually mostly shot in Belize, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Whatever the case of nonsensical geography (and ethnography, with a Mayan temple right by the border), the Mexican setting reminded me of another recent low-budget SF film, Sleep Dealer. The wall along the border takes on a new practical meaning here, but both films use it as a metaphor for the U.S.’s futile attempts to deny it has a cousin to the south. The love that dare not speak its name?

I guess if people went into this thinking that as a science fiction movie it would be heavy on the special effects, they might find it visually thin, but I thought it was quite beautiful. One for those who want a little less bombast in their science fiction.

Screen cap from MonstersScreen cap from MonstersScreen cap from Monsters

Southland Tales (2006)

I was inspired to watch this on Netflix Instant after watching Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer (2009) the same way. (I hope to write more about Gamer once I’ve watched it again.) I’d previously seen Southland Tales during its brief theatrical release, and I ended up agreeing with the critics who called it an ambitious mess. I really wanted to like it, because I’d really liked Richard Kelly’s first film, Donnie Darko (2001), and because this was a high concept science fiction film with a great cast. I was hoping that it was just too high concept for most critics to grok. However, a second viewing confirms my initial feeling that it really doesn’t hold together. It’s an ambitious mess, and Gamer is a far better (although also far crasser) movie covering similar territory.

I did like Southland Tales better the second time through, and I’m still willing to be convinced that it’s such a complex film that it takes multiple viewings for the likes of me to understand how it works. There are lots of great bits to it — the porn star chat show, the Marxist performance art terrorists, the speculative energy source and dimensional rift, the satire of the PATRIOT Act, the specter of endless war in Iraq, Pilot Abilene’s question mark scar, Bai Ling — but what I came away feeling this time is that it has no rhythm. All of these interesting elements fail to spark off each other, and it feels sludgy and static. There’s too much voice-over exposition trying to guide us through the muddy thicket of ideas.

It occurred to me this morning that one comparable movie is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). It has a similarly large, sprawling cast of characters and recomplicated plot, similar depth of backstory and rapid-fire incluing of multiple science fictional ideas, and yet it’s a much more sprightly movie. Maybe it’s because Buckaroo Banzai is more of a comedy and isn’t trying for the transcendent finale, although it certainly shifts gears into serious romance and even melodrama at times. Maybe the editing is just better, or the wit finer, I’m not sure. Southland Tales is very funny at times, very absurd, but there are other times when the absurd moments seem to just miss the mark, just miss the right timing or the telling connection.

There’s still a lot I don’t understand about the story. I still have a lot of questions. I don’t understand the whole doubling aspect. Are characters from this alternate history meeting their doppelgangers from our own reality? (The movie is set in a 2008 in which Dubya is president and we’re at war in Iraq but many details of the world are different from our own. There has been a terrorist nuclear strike in Texas, for instance.) Why is Pilot Abilene the narrator? What’s his connection with Ronald/Roland Taverner?

It’s a high concept movie, and perhaps its pleasures are more intellectual than purely cinematic. Maybe if I read the comic books that tell earlier parts of the story I’d understand more of what’s going on in the film. At this point it still feels like a failed experiment, but the challenge of it — and the good bits — may keep bringing me back.

Something deeper than reason: Canyon Passage (1946)

I’m not sure why this Jacques Tourneur Western isn’t better known. I first saw it in May 2007 in a grab bag DVD collection, Classic Western Round-Up Volume 1, and it immediately struck me as one of the most original movies about frontier America that I’d ever seen. As should be clear by now, I’m a huge fan of Tourneur, and this is certainly one of his greatest films. Tourneur may only be known to film freaks, but even amongst the film freaks he is better known for his film noir and horror films. Is it just that Canyon Passage has been so difficult to see? Or is it that Tourneur’s elusiveness and the Western genre are an odd couple, leaving fans of his thrillers and fans of Westerns equally at a loss?

Screen cap from Canyon PassageScreen cap from Canyon PassageScreen cap from Canyon PassageScreen cap from Canyon Passage

(You’re talking in riddles, Logan. What’s in your mind?)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Screen cap from I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie is a variation on Jane Eyre, so it seemed fitting to visit it again in the aftermath of seeing the new adaptation of Jane Eyre. A Canadian nurse is assigned to care for the sick wife of a plantation owner on a West Indies island. She discovers that the wife is mentally ill, and some think the wife has been turned into a zombie.

The fact that the nurse is Canadian has an unstated significance in the racial scheme of the film, which is an unusual one for a Hollywood movie of this era. There are several levels of historical transgression buried on the West Indies isle, but the original sin is the sin of slavery. The nurse is innocent of that crime of the forefathers, coming from a country that never practiced slavery. One of the remarkable things about I Walked with a Zombie is the degree to which the black characters are given a voice and an autonomy, even if none of them has a starring role. This was a rarity in the Hollywood of the Jim Crow era. Perhaps the fact that producer-writer Val Lewton was Russian and director Jacques Tourneur was French made them more comfortable dealing directly with the dark side of American history.

(You’ll find superstition a contagious thing.)

Jane Eyre (2011)

Still from Jane Eyre (2011)

It’s been so long since I’ve read Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel that I have no idea how closely this film follows it. I do know that it works very well as what it is: a masochistic wish-fulfillment romance with gothic elements. It is visually sensuous and intimate, which is appropriate in a romance. I suppose I could have used a little more gothic, but I liked what was offered. Rochester’s estate is a great pile of stone, and it is suitably dark and chilly. There’s one lovely scene where Jane’s face fades in and out of darkness as Rochester tries to light a fire. Jane’s face becomes the flame.

The success of a romance depends a great deal on the two leads, and it’s actually a little hard for me to judge how well they spark off each other here. I really liked Mia Wasikowska as Jane. She carries the movie with a combination of true grit and vulnerability. Michael Fassbender as Rochester played wounded — soul and pride — very well, although perhaps lacked an air of cruelty. Yet the story is so basic and strong, with such powerful cruxes, that quibbles seem beside the point. The performances almost seemed beside the point. The atmosphere and sense of unspoken, restrained emotions roiling against the pile of stone was enough for me.

The class aspects of the story are curious, and I’m not sure I actually understand what Jane’s class is. Did she come from money but was dispossessed by her aunt? In the end it feels that Rochester has been reduced and Jane restored, but is that a fairy tale or actual economics? And Rochester still has a housekeeper, so all he really needs is a house.

Was Judi Dench as the housekeeper a bit under-used? But I’m quibbling again. Mia Wasikowska holds the stage. All the moor’s a stage.  It feels like a dream, and the film knows it. I probably prefer dreams to swoons anyway.

The Locket (1946)

Like Inception (2010), The Locket is perhaps notable more for its elaborate structure and visual pleasures than for the somewhat banal story it tells. But instead of Inception‘s dream-within-a-dream structure, The Locket‘s structure is a flashback-within-a-flashback that goes down three levels, with each flashback from another character’s point of view. As with Inception we return to the current time frame level by level, giving closure to each flashback along the way, and the question of closure lingers over this neat narrative gimmick. For one thing, the deeper the flashback, the further the narrative drifts from the person allegedly narrating — second hand, third hand, fourth hand — thus raising the question of reliability as well. There is also a murder in one flashback that we’re never sure is actually solved. At the center of it all is the femme fatale, Nancy, a kleptomaniac living in a delusional world. Unlike other Freudian movies of the ’40s (e.g., Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945)), it’s not clear that Nancy’s trauma is healed by bringing it to the surface. In fact, the memory only seems to cause further trauma.

Screen cap from The Locket

(Inside the locket … )

More Trouble

‘Geneviève [Bujold] was the Claire Trevor character, Keith [Carradine] was the Richard Widmark character, Lori [Singer] was the Ida Lupino character, and Kris [Kristofferson] was John Garfield.’

— Alan Rudolph, interview in “Halves of a Dream,” an extra on the Trouble in Mind DVD

On the set in 1984: Bujold, Kristofferson, Singer, and Carradine.

Still from Trouble in Mind set

(He said, ‘I think I’m playing Sydney Greenstreet, and I should wear a tuxedo.’)

Seattle in Mind

When I first watched Trouble in Mind in November 2006, it wasn’t available on a Region 1 DVD. Last year Shout! Factory released a 25th Anniversary Special Edition of Alan Rudolph’s 1985 film. It’s not exactly the Criterion treatment, but it’s a good presentation and a good reason to watch the film yet again — and therefore to write about it again too. As I wrote earlier, one of the attractions of the film is that it captures a portrait of Seattle as it looked when I first moved here the year before. To some extent, 25 years later, that Seattle is gone, so here I’m presenting images of that lost city as seen in the film.

I’ve always assumed that this shot from the opening credits was from the Union Street Station, but I’m not completely sure. It could be the King Street Station, which shows up later in the film too. This is also one of numerous shots in the film that echo Blade Runner (1982) in some way. There’s a concerted effort to mix up the time signifiers in costumes and cars and so on, and the Blade Runner imagery signals a science fictional retro-future.

Screen cap from Trouble in Mind

(Everybody wants to go to Heaven; nobody wants to die…)