Limitless

A very good friend of mine gave me Neil Burger’s drug fuelled sci-fi as a Christmas present and, having watched the flick with an appropriately clear head, I’m glad he did.

The premise is simple. A disheveled writer suffering block whilst dealing with the collapse of a relationship is given a wonder drug by an ex brother in law which allows his brain to work at full capacity (Utilising the old “we only use 10% our our brains” myth) turbo-boosting his intelligence, supercharging his social skills and transforming him into an all round incredible human. This dramatically changes his life and he finds himself creatively productive to unprecedented levels with inroads into the world of the business elite. Of course it’s not all plain sailing as the side effects of the drug coupled with the dangerous attentions of a surly mysterious pursuer and a comic book cliche Russian gangster looking to get a hold of the merchandise threaten to derail his artificial good fortune.

Our protagonist is Eddie Morra, played by the very capable Bradley Cooper. My only previous exposure to Cooper was in The Hangover which was ok, if not a little over-rated. The lead performance here is just what’s required. Cooper handles the transition between the Morra’s 2 worlds with ease and is perfectly believable as a struggling writer and sharp suited business wunderkid.

Given the extreme use of voiceover in this picture and the singularity of the story, it is difficult to find any depth in the supporting characters. Even Robert De Niro, appearing as the uber powerful businessman Carl Van Loon, is a mere bit player. His place on the film poster would appear to be for box office draw as the Russian gangster played by Andrew Howard has an arguably bigger part to play in the unfolding of Morra’s story. Abby Cornish (An absolute smash in the 2004 Australian flick Somersault) is decent as Morra’s girlfriend Lindy but has nowhere to go and is fairly one dimensional.

The film is nicely shot in a way that serves the story with the juxtaposition of washed out, desaturated mire and bright, orange tinged euphoric colours being used to good effect to display where Morra is in terms of chemical assistance. There are also nice special effect flourishes, I particularly enjoyed the glowing stream of consciousness that rained down on on Morra after taking his first clear pill, the warmness of the shot with the tumbling letters really give a sense of how the character is feeling.

Let’s be honest, this flick is not going to win any Oscars, it’s not going to revered in 20 years time and it’s probably not going be discussed in any film schools. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age but this kind of fare does not seem to get on my nerves as much as it used to. I can forgive the gaping holes in the plot and I can forgive the fact that the origins of the drug are not adequately explored because the underlying point of the film is an interesting one. In a world where everyone wants everything in an instant and without effort, whether it be fame via reality tv shows, or wealth via the lottery, maybe the whimsicalness of the storytelling is simply a nod to the subject matter. In a society where face value is king, maybe that’s exactly how this film should be taken.

Amen!

“It isn’t necessarily helpful for a director to know how to write, but what is vitally important is that he knows how to read.”
(Billy Wilder)

1000 Films to See Before You DIE! #1: Ace in the Hole

Pickin’s have been slim on this here blog of late. Stuff has been happening, films and music videos have been made.

In an effort to provide some kind of structure to my movie watching and give me an ongoing feast of cinematic subject manner I’ve decided to dust off a newspaper series an ex flatmate collected for me which will provide the guidance I need.

In June 2007, the Guardian published a 4 day series titled “1000 Films to See Before You Die”. Being that I’ve just turned 36 and am quickly hurtling towards the point in life when one’s mortality becomes a reality, I have decided to systematically watch the films in order, just so that I know this existence of mine has meant something. In the list are some very famous titles, and some flicks that can only just be seen from the beaten track, cowering in the thicket but desperate for attention. I’d like you to come along for the ride, if you don’t mind…….

We start with the letter A….. Seems logical and right.

ACE IN THE HOLE
(Billy Wilder, 1951)

Wedged between the highly successful SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and STALAG 17 (1953), ACE IN THE HOLE is a cynical, uncompromising, downbeat masterpiece, although audiences of 1951 did not think so at the time. This picture brought in a loss at the box office, a rarity for a Billy Wilder film. It is reassuring to know that even back in the 50′s, box office numbers were no gauge of a movie’s artistic merits.

Kirk Douglas plays the bolshy, confident, big city newspaper reporter “Chuck” Tatum who has breezed in the the small town surroundings of Albuquerque, New Mexico in search of a job. He arrives at the offices of the Abuquerque Sun-Bulletin and quickly secures a meeting with the boss, Mr. Boot, played by Porter Hall, an old timie newspaper man who runs a tight ship secured with professionalism and sound ethics. Tatum offers his usually $250 a week services for only $50. Billy Wilder places a huge character question in the minds of the audience up front. If this guy is so experienced and good, why is he willing to work for a small town paper for a fraction of his normal salary?

The answer to the question quickly becomes apparent. It is not the salary that Tatum is interested in. He is looking for a way back into big time journalism and sees this small town rag as the perfect launching pad to reignite his career. Billy Wilder is not so forthcoming with the specifics of why Chuck has fallen on hard  times, although the negative influence of liquor is alluded to in a subtle, coded way. It is interesting to note the embroidered sign in the newspaper that yells “TELL THE TRUTH”….. What, or who’s truth is the sign referring to?

A year passes and nothing has happened. Small provincial stories have done nothing fire Tatum’s interest or progress any interest in his work. A rattlesnake hunt offers Tatum and his trusty photographer Herbie (Played solidly by Robert Arthur) the chance to get out of the office and cover some news. It is on the way to this dour assignment that they stumble across the incident that will become the dramatic core of the movie. Leo Minosa, a man foraging for Indian artifacts to sell, has become trapped down a crudely constructed mine.

It is the discovery of this tragedy that prompts Wilder to kick start his investigation into how low humans can stoop in times of adversity in the name of personal gain. Tatum sees this as his chance to get back into the favour of the journalistic main players and goes out of his way to prolong the rescue efforts. Herbie, who has for so long worked under the moralistic shackles of Mr. Boot is offered a gateway to the mainstream. Lorraine Minosa, wife of Leo, played brilliantly by Jan Sterling, quickly realises that the media furore could bring in some much needed cash to their roadside diner, and so colludes with Tatum to instigate the circus.

The circus does indeed ensue and this brings the revenue Lorraine so desires and the exposure Tatum has been striving for. Wilder shows this this very simply using a recurring shot as interest heightens.




This carnival is given extra hideousness by the actions of Tatum when he goes underground to speak to the stricken Minosa. He reassures the man that all is being done to save him, when is fully aware he instructed the rescue teams to carry out a more time laborious method in order that his story may run a few days longer. It really is brutal stuff. On watching this flick, you may be compelled to take a shower afterwards to wash all that dust and deceit off your eyeballs.

As unsympathetic and terrible the characters may seem in this film, it comments very eloquently on the thirst that the media, and subsequently the public, have for sensationalism and big headlines. It is still very much the case today and for this reason, I think this film would appeal to even those that have a resistance towards “old” movies. Go spend some time with Tatum, he’s an absolute dog.

TRAILER

Oscar Fever: Inside Job

Another film about the greed of financial industry? What does this film give us that Michael Moore’s CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY doesn’t? Well, quite a lot actually.

It seems lazy to compare this film by Charles Ferguson to the Michael Moore picture but please bear with me. An earlier picture of Ferguson’s, NO END IN SIGHT which is a searing post mortem of the decisions and mechanics surrounding the US invasion, and subsequent occupation of Iraq could be said to be the serious, more studious cousin of FAHRENHEIT 911. NO END IN SIGHT took $1,431,623 at the box office, FAHRENHEIT 911 grossed $119,194,771 (Source: IMDb)

Michael Moore pulled in $14,359,793 for CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY and as it stands, INSIDE JOB has grossed $3,985,635 to date.

More people are going to see Moore’s flicks. Which is damn shame. People should be viewing both.

The prominent differences between Ferguson and Moore’s work are style and approach. Moore infuses his anger with comedy and his films can be viewed as entertainment. Entertainment with a message but entertainment all the same. Ferguson takes an analytical, clinical look at his subject matter. His talking heads are of an extremely high calibre and give essential gravitas to the work. This IS serious stuff after all and, as much as I can get behind Michael Moore (For his heart is surely in the right place) it’s obvious that this is the type of documentary that will sacrifice the laughs in an attempt to flick a switch within the viewer.

Ferguson does not appear to be subject to the level of backlash Moore experiences. It could be there’s no point lambasting him as he doesn’t have Moore’s popular appeal and is therefore seen as less of a threat, another reason could be that Ferguson’s research and sources are so tight that there’s no point…… because he’s pretty much on the money.

And talking of money……..

This is a film designed to make you angry. Deregulation in the financial markets allowed sharp suited money brokers to gamble on stock fluctuations with YOUR money. Yeah, that’s right. You go out to work, pay your tax, pay your national insurance and bills etc but somewhere, someone you’ve never met is putting your hard earned into sometimes ridiculously risky investments. And if those investments go bad (as they inevitably did) then it’s goodbye to your savings, pension and maybe even your job.

Ferguson focuses on Iceland initially which is a nice analogy as the over borrowing from a once self sufficient stable economy which seduced by the prospect of incredible growth was a key driver in its downfall. This, of course, is the same carrot that was presented to the ordinary consumer. “Buy your own house, watch its valuation rocket, don’t worry if you can afford it or not”

The last point is the detail everyone forgot. If you have someone with a history of bad debt, are they likely to pay a mortgage they can’t afford? And if Wall St and the rest of the world’s markets are neck deep in derivative investments that rely on those debts being paid, what’ll happen when Mr And Mrs Jones, and millions of others decide to give up and have their house repossessed? You know how the story plays out.

It’s all a huge, horrible mess based on greed and unrealistic speculation.

The film is riveting however, whether you come from a financial background or not, mainly because this “crisis” has touched everyone in the civilised world. It’s also pleasing that the flick scooped the Oscar. Well done Mr Ferguson, for the award, and a finely crafted film.

Oscar Fever: Gasland

With the Oscars a mere 15 days away it’s maybe time to start casting our eyes over the flicks in the running. Last night I looked at the Best Documentary Feature nominee Gasland.

The USA is an energy hungry place, everyone knows that. The question is, how far will they go to secure and extract their own resources? Josh Fox’s film goes some way to providing the answer, and it’s not an answer that will give comfort to anyone with environmental concerns.

America’s desire to move away from it’s reliance on foreign energy (they’re maybe getting sick of all that expensive fighting) has led to the discovery and subsequent extraction of natural gas reserves held beneath US soil. The scale of these reserves are huge and although no timescale is given as to how long this bounty will last, the map coverage of the gas is immense and covers most of the US landmass.

So this is a good thing, no? Cleaner than oil and obtainable without treading on the toes of nations who don’t like you. This is surely the best option? Well, you would think so, until you witness the impact the extraction process is having on the people who live close to the wells.

Natural gas is tricky to get out of the ground and requires a process called Hydraulic Fracturing, or “Fracking”. This involves drilling into shale beds deep beneath the ground and pumping vast amounts of chemical laden water into the ground to literally fracture the shale surrounding the bore hole. This violent rupturing releases the gas. Landholders across the US were contacted and offered money by the energy companies to lease their land for drilling. For most, the promise of zero environmental impact and thousands of dollars was too tempting to pass up.

Josh Fox was also offered a deal to put a well on his land. New York state plans to start drilling and this was the catalyst for his voyage of discovery. Visiting houses with wells on their doorsteps he is shown example after example of environmental devastation. Water that comes out of the tap brown and sludge-like. Water that stinks of chemicals and is undrinkable. Water you can literally set on fire.

It’s difficult to see how they’re going to repair the damage.

And that’s to say nothing of the fumes from the drill sites. Fox meets numerous people who have respitory and brain ailments, all of which were never aparent before the drilling started.

“Prove it was caused by us” say the energy companies………

It’s an incredibly subtle, powerful piece of work. Ordinary people recount their experiences with incredible humility. There is precious little vitriol which is astounding considering what these people are going through. Every story told is a small piece of a HUGE, disturbing picture. Just like each small gas well (for there are 10′s of thousands) is a small part of a terrible problem.

The scale on which the United Stated is undertaking this programme is staggering and, thanks to George Bush and Dick Cheney (Ex CEO of Halliburton of course) the work was passed with exeptions from the clean air and water laws. Laws designed to not only protect the people, but the earth and it’s life giving commodities.

Will this film win the Oscar? Probably not. It is a fine example of direct action filmmaking though. Catch it if you can.

Trailer:

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Forrays into the cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder are often fraught with traps and dangerous corners that leave you feeling lucky to have got out in one piece. My virgin voyage into his world was via QUERELLE, his final film made in 1982. This baptism of fire had me hanging out with oiled up sailors (a look that would be heavily borrowed by Jean Paul Gaultier) in an overtly homosexual murder intrigue. The next sample was taken from earlier in his career, 1974′s FEAR EATS THE SOUL, a reworking of Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. This film saw him disregard the technicolor beauty of the original setting and decend on a grimy urban flat where frowned upon cross racial relations were added to the taboo of significant age difference. I mean, just consider the two titles: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS ….. FEAR EATS THE SOUL. 4 words each with polar opposite effects on the psyche.

Both of these flicks, for all their hard work, are strangely rewarding. As is his 1972 film THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT.

Petra Von Kant (Played by Margit Carstensen) is an apparently successful fashion designer, she has the outrageously stylish gowns, she takes the important calls, she has a long suffering PA / Maid / Co designer (Irm Hermann) who caters to her every whim without a word spoken, and I mean literally. The girl, Marlene is her name, says NOTHING the whole flick but is a constant presence. Hovering, typing, serving. All the while with a steely, unnerving calm that forces you to evaluate the importance she holds in Petra’s life. Marlene appears to show no emotion but you know she is wracked with them. She reminds me very much, from a purely expressive point of view, of the masked Alida Valli in George Franju’s eerie 1960 flick, EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

The ever loyal Marlene

The Bitter Tears is just over 2 hours long and is set entirely in Von Kant’s bedroom space. Over this time we are exposed to her every contradiction. She’s strong yet pathetic, successful yet a failure, kind yet caustic. The single location potentially creates boredom issues and there are points when the stilted dialogue demands a lot of the audience but we are rescued by a cluttered visual style which includes hugely differing wall decoration, mannequins, random clutter, bizarre costume and wig changes, (Petra’s hair changes in every scene) exquisite framing, camera movement and character placement, all of which keep the eye stimulated whilst this awkward scenario unfolds.

During the visit of a cousin, Von Kant is introduced to her friend Karin (Hanna Schygulla) with whom she immediately falls in love. On the pretense of discussing a potential modeling job, she invites Karin back where a mini courtship ensues and Karin is invited to move in. Although Von Kant’s fragility is alluded to in previous scenes, it is the arrival of Karin that proves cataclysmic. There is a real special directorial flourish here that really floats my boat and should be looked for if you happen to view the film. Look out for a HUGE power swing over the span of a single cut. One would assume that, being adapted directly from a play, this point would be an act change, and it is cinematically of course. The juddering effect of such a theatrical approach on screen is extremely pleasing.

The final act of the film is not easy to watch. There seems to be a desperation in Fassbinder’s characters. He himself was a troubled individual and this comes through in the work. Nevertheless, it is not impossible to feel sympathy for these people. The darkest recesses of the human emotional spectrum are sought out and pulled to the fore here. As an audience, we recognise, and perhaps forgive them because it is when we are at our most emotionally venerable that we are capable of actions far beyond what would be perceived as normal.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant can be rented here

Or bought here and here

Resident Evil: Afterlife

IN EYE POPPING 3D!! ……..

…….. Sheer rubbish.