Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Blade Runner (1982)

Film Noir Futurism

- Some movies remain ingrained in our minds because of how much fun we had watching them, who we watched them with or what point in our lives we first watched them. Other films are unforgettable after the first viewing and demand to be re-watched year after year because of their beauty and the way they make us think and feel. Ridley Scott's sci-fi noir Blade Runner (1982) is one of these types of extraordinary and entertaining films, leaving an immediate and permanent impression on the viewer.

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner has a deceptively simple and very captivating overall story. Set in an alternative 2019 A.D. future, a special police outfit - the "Blade Runner" unit - has the job of killing human-like androids called "Replicants" who have grown dangerous in their dissatisfaction with an unequal labor-class status and expiration date. It just so happens that four nasty Replicants have recently come back to Earth and need to be whacked - and the best needs to be called in to eradicate them: former Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). The story is a simple one on the surface but it becomes profound and complex when one looks deeper.

Harrison Ford and Philip K. Dick have described Blade Runner not as "science fiction" but as "futurism." For all intents and purposes, Blade Runner rightfully belongs inside the sci-fi genre; however, the distinction between "science fiction" and "futurism" is that the world we see depicted in Blade Runner is not supposed to be viewed as scientific fantasy but as actually containing concepts that are destined to come to fruition in the foreseeable future. The corporatism, class divide, police state and runaway technological dangers are very apparent in our society today and similar entities exist throughout Blade Runner, the film means to not simply entertain but also comment on the present state of life and society and the direction it heads. Blade Runner is deeply thematic and character-centered at the same time. Replicants are machines created by humans - but they view their existence as life and hold the same questions that humans do: "why were we created?" Clearly a film noir detective story inside a recognizable science fiction setting, themes about identity, love, the dangerous of playing God and the preciousness of life are what really define Blade Runner.

The story is excellent but the atmosphere generated by the featured setting and visuals - thanks to the amazing art-direction, score, cinematography, and, of course, the direction under Ridley Scott - is the most interesting aspect of the film. Blade Runner was not Scott's first foray into the cinematic world of science fiction; his second film, Alien (1979), was a horror/sci-fi hybrid that would become regarded a classic. The differences between Alien and Blade Runner speaks to Scott's diverse range as a director but one feels regret that Scott did not return more often to the sci-fi genre as both films are two of his finest films. Scott has a unique way of transmitting his cinematic vision and creating atmosphere through visuals. One of the reasons for this (on top of the fact that he usually chooses talented people to work with him) has to be related to the fact that Scott actually began his career as a set designer as opposed to a director and subsequently has a particularly keen eye for visuals - and Blade Runner features one of the most striking and memorable settings ever created for a film. Gathering from a number of behind-the-scene documentaries and quotes from various writing, production, cast and crew members, Blade Runner seems as if it was a tough shoot due to stress and confrontations from creative disagreements as well as time and budgetary constraints. The hard work of the cast and crew paid off however, as Blade Runner is one of the most visually-stunning films ever made.

Despite this futuristic LA being buried under a technological nightmare, a certain beauty shines through Blade Runner in a way that is simply unparalleled. The special effects (lead by the man behind the effects of such science fiction films as  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): Douglas Trumbull)) and art-direction teams put together a very interesting film universe for Blade Runner. The creative structures, brilliant effects and clever set dressings that make up a futuristic L.A. had a profound impact on author Philip K. Dick, saying that the film depicted the setting "exactly as how [he] imagined it." Likewise, the cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth (Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)) is some of the finest ever achieved in film history. Scott and Cronenweth create a futuristic film noir-like atmospheric look that compliments the very film noir-like story. The degree of light and shadow in each scene is simply stunning and many grand shots of the giant futuristic city fill the film's reels. Blade Runner works as one of the best post-1950s films noir as well as one of the best sci-fi films through the incredible look assembled by a very talented group.

The sights are breathtaking but the sounds are emotionally commanding as well. The score for Blade Runner, written by Vangelis (Chariots of Fire (1981)), is one of the most powerful and memorable elements of the film. I will even take that one step further and declare it one of the finest scores ever composed for a film, acting as both an integral part of Blade Runner and as a stand-alone piece of music. The soundtrack is almost a companion piece to the film itself; the score that can be heard in the film barely scratches the surface of the amount of music that Vangelis actually wrote. Really the only aspect of Blade Runner that is recognizably 1980s (as the film itself is pretty far removed from anything else released in that decade), some say that Vangelis' score dates the film. I disagree. The score sounds to me like the perfect type of music for a futuristic setting, especially for the very contemplative, dark and manufactured nature of Blade Runner. Then again, I like progressive rock bands like Rush, Genesis and Pink Floyd and most of Vangelis' Blade Runner score is basically a synthesized psychedelic groove - so it is practically tailor-made for my tastes. Even if one considers the score dated, it is clear that Blade Runner is not complete without Vangelis' mood-setting melodies.

The story, themes, visuals and music really define the emotional aspect of Blade Runner but the first aspect some may notice about the film is the now-recognizable cast led by Harrison Ford. As "Blade Runner" Rick Deckard, Ford is at his personal career best in my mind. Ford delivers a classic portrayal of a film noir detective set in 2019: smart, cynical, intense and unrelenting in the completion of his mission, Ford's detective Deckard fits in perfectly with other classic film noir greats like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum (who screenwriter Hampton Fancher originally thought of for the role), while also remaining unique unto himself. Ford would grumble through the grueling shoot but his largely quiet and subtle performance in Blade Runner is particularly unique among his filmography.

Blade Runner features a number of recognizable faces: M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple (1984)) is very memorable as the ball-busting, smarmy cop Bryant; Daryl Hannah (Splash (1984)) is great in one of her first film roles as the deceptive Pris, a "pleasure model" Replicant; and a Edward James Olmos ("Battlestar Galactica") had a unique contribution to the film as Gaff with a scene-stealing and almost creepy presence and basically inventing the film's street language. A very young Sean Young gives a soft and touching portrayal of Rachael in this film. Disconcerted over her recent life-changing discovery, Rachael is introduced to a life of fear and conflicting feelings for Deckard. The audience begins to really understand and empathize with the life and feelings of a Replicant through Rachael thanks to the wonderful performance from Sean Young. Rutger Hauer nearly runs away with the entire show as the dangerous and desperate Roy Batty. Unlike Rachael, Hauer's Roy is the embodiment of the frightful dark side of the Replicant. However, behind his murderous actions and feverish state of mind, Roy's passion for life and fear of death is a very powerful part of the film. Hauer gives an unforgettable performance; balancing the many different facets of Roy to create a very interesting character. Back in 1982, this extraordinary cast was made up of virtually unknown actors (outside of Ford) but all are uniquely excellent as they bring life to their characters and the film as a whole.

Blade Runner is actually available in three different versions:

1) the original theatrical cut
2) the director's cut
3) the final cut

The original cut of the film was released theatrically in 1982 but, because of dissatisfied test audiences and subsequent studio pressure, Scott was forced to add clarifying 40s noir throwback-style narration throughout the film, edit out various scenes and create a different ending than what was originally intended. Although Scott was unhappy with this original cut and many fans do not prefer it, I really enjoy the original cut. As a big fan of film noir, I dig the narration.

A "director's cut" was assembled and re-released in 1992 and is easily my least favorite of the three versions. This so-called "director's cut" is actually not much of a director's cut at all because director Ridley Scott had little to no input as it was rushed through production. The "director's cut" was important to the film's legacy however; the narration was removed and some deleted scenes were included that introduced audiences to the film's ambiguous elements that were forcibly edited out of the original theatrical cut. Unfortunately, the "director's cut" features pieces from other films, does not add in enough of the deleted scenes to make a coherent picture and subsequently looks and feels strange compared to the other versions.

A "final cut" of Blade Runner was released on DVD as a part of the film's 25th anniversary and is the superior cut in my opinion. Scott was finally able to, after 25 years, edit the film the way he wanted! This final cut features no narration (as much as I do like it in the original cut, it is not needed), many originally deleted scenes were restored and an ambiguous nature results, creating an opportunity for the viewer to come their own conclusions about the story and characters.

Blade Runner was met with a lukewarm reception by critics and audiences during its 1982 theatrical run. However, like many great films misunderstood at the time of their original release, many critics are now reassessing their earlier criticisms and new audiences are being introduced to Blade Runner with each passing year. The various versions have helped moviegoers grow to appreciate the film and, really, every cut of the film is great: all have their own merits and the fact that there are even three cuts of the film adds to its overall unmatched uniqueness. The 80s have a reputation of perhaps not being the classiest decade as far as fashion, music and artistic style are concerned but a number of films stand out as really timeless works of art. Films of the 1980s by and large had a certain discernible look and feel to them but some films, like Amadeus (1984) and Henry V (1989), have a particular timelessness about them; Blade Runner is an easy addition to this list as the cinematic crown jewel of the 1980s. Combining two of my favorite film genres - film noir and science fiction - Blade Runner is a remarkable film and one of my personal favorites no matter which way you "cut" it.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Monday, July 30, 2012

Less Than Zero (1987)

Sex, Drugs and Cheesy 80s Rock'n'Roll

- The large number of 1980s teenaged coming of age films like St. Elmo's Fire (1985) and The Breakfast Club (1985) defined a generation of actors as "the Brat Pack." While often addressing serious issues, the Brat Pack genre was known more as a genre of comedy and romance. Less Than Zero (1987) is often associated with the Brat Pack films because of its cast, timely themes and then-modern atmosphere. However, this film contains a style, subject matter and edge that makes it a unique stand-out in the company of John Hughes productions.

The story centers around three friends that grew up and recently graduated together in upscale Los Angeles, CA: Clay (Andrew McCarthy), who has moved onto college with a bright future ahead of him; Blair (Jami Gertz), dodging college for a budding modeling career and ever-growing drug habit; and Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), who has one foot in his grave and the other on a banana peel after getting in deep with the L.A. drug underworld. The three have shared good times and bad - but Julian's current situation tests the bands of friendship to the limit.

Less Than Zero is a deadly serious and cautionary Brat Pack tale; the strong sex and drug content within makes The Breakfast Club look like "Blossom." Themes prevalent in many Brat Pack films such as friendship, the responsibilities of adulthood and family troubles are present but the drug use and sexual content is depicted in Less Than Zero in a far more real and honest way than other Brat Pack films. The character and story of Julian Wells serves as a dark parable of what can happen when drugs become a problem in one's life (screaming for 80s audiences take heed!). Also, the high class L.A. backdrop makes for an interesting and noticeable setting, exposing the lifestyles of the rich and famous to contain such seedy activities as drug use and prostitution. The themes regarding friendship and the consequences of drug use seen in Less Than Zero are unique for an 80s coming of age movie but as often as the themes strike strong they often miss the mark. College, for instance, is portrayed in the film as some sort of Mecca were one must go to secure success, safety and stability in one's life and those who do not go end up drug-using losers.

Less Than Zero both benefits and suffers tremendously from its notable Brat Pack alumni cast. Although perhaps not quite as iconic as other "Brat Pack" casts, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and James Spader all have impeccable Brat Pack credentials. McCarthy attained official Brat Pack status by starring in both St. Elmo's Fire and Pretty In Pink (1986) but is hit-or-miss in Less Than Zero. As the main character, Clay, McCarthy convinces as a smart, successful young man and even has an old-school crooner-type (especially reminding me of Bobby Darin) presence that can be enjoyable. Unfortunately, McCarthy is often too dry and stiff in his delivery to really make the character work regardless of his screen presence. Jami Gertz (known for more quasi-Brat Pack films such as Solarbabies (1986) and The Lost Boys (1987)) is also somewhat convincing as the scared party girl but has the opposite problem of McCarthy in Less Than Zero: she is, more often than not, overplaying her part as the confused Blair. McCarthy and Gertz have a kind of bizarre chemistry together despite the hot-and-cold mix of stiff-and-spastic. Opposites attract though, I suppose. Also Brat Pack-certified is James Spader (from Pretty In Pink and Mannequin (1987)) who is perfectly cast as the evil Rip with his now-trademark creepy charm.

Many of the main cast members are not some of the film's strong points but if there is one reason to watch Less Than Zero, it is to catch Robert Downey Jr. as Julian Wells. Roger Ebert describes Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Julian in Less Than Zero as "so real, so subtle and so observant that it's scary." He is right, Downey took his performance to new heights of method acting; he would later reflect "I actually researched the role of Julian 10 years following the completion of the movie." Life would get tougher for Downey in the 90s but at one point during the Less Than Zero shoot Andrew McCarthy mirrored the role of his screen character when he actually had to bail Robert Downey Jr. out of jail when a night of partying went too far. One line in the film even alludes to Downey's future time at the Betty Ford Clinic!

The allusions to the real Robert Downey Jr. experience from the character of Julian Wells in Less Than Zero are staggering but this is not to say that his performance itself is not defined by some truly top-notch and amazing acting. Perhaps difficult to imagine nowadays, Robert Downey Jr. was a lesser-known member of the cast; his Brat Pack resume featured Weird Science (1985) and The Pick-Up Artist (1987) but did not compare to the fully Pack-vetted Andrew McCarthy or James Spader. Yet, today, Downey's performance as Julian is the most remembered aspect of the film. Downey's Julian is so destructive, selfish and lost that he should be impossible to like. However, Robert Downey Jr. plays him with such passionate care and nuance that Julian becomes the most real and sympathetic character of the film. Funny, tragic, warm and involved; Robert Downey Jr. delivered a masterful and altogether powerful performance that made the world take notice of his unmatchable talent.

Robert Downey Jr.'s performance of Julian is clearly the highlight of the movie but Less Than Zero is also recommendable due to its engaging visual atmosphere. Directed by Marek Kanievsk (Another World (1984)) and shot by Edward Lachmann (Far From Heaven (2002)) Less Than Zero is one of the most stylish films of the 1980s.The deep, bold color schemes are especially striking and many different camera angles and movements are employed to create a potent atmosphere. Less Than Zero really sticks out among the Brat Pack films in terms of content and theme but also in terms of quality and inventiveness of this visual style.

Of course, no 1980s coming of age film would be complete without an overbearing soundtrack. Less Than Zero is filled nearly wall-to-wall with music; memorable for its combination of the cool and the hilarious mostly then-contemporary rock, pop and hip hop tunes from the likes of Poison, The Bangles, Aerosmith and Run D.M.C. A particularly hilarious yet awesome few seconds from the underrated David Lee Roth and Steve Vai 80s collaboration is one of the most memorable musical moments for the film but "You And Me (Less Than Zero)" (written specifically for the film) is a textbook example of unbearable 1980s rock/pop. Future Hollywood heavyweight Thomas Newman (Road To Perdition (2002), Finding Nemo (2003)) adds a light synthetic orchestral score that adds a bit here and there, hinting at his future iconic style, but is also largely forgettable. One certainly has to take the good with the bad when watching Less Than Zero; this is especially apparent in the soundtrack department.

Less Than Zero is an enjoyable and interesting Brat Pack-era drama; however, its flaws operate in plain sight. The themes are poignant but also spotty, Robert Downey Jr. is amazing as Julian but the rest of the cast flounders and the soundtrack fits the times but can get very cheesy - Less Than Zero is less than perfect. Perhaps not reaching perfection, Less Than Zero is a unique and superior addition to the Brat Pack legacy nonetheless because of its ambitious themes and subject matter, striking visual style and unforgettable performance from Robert Downey Jr.  

CBC Rating: 7/10

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Brave (2012)

Fate, Family & Fun

- Disney/Pixar Studios has been a consistent source for quality entertainment, a staple in Hollywood since Toy Story revolutionized animation in 1995. But throughout the years on top of the box office and critics' lists with many incredibly entertaining and visually brilliant films, Pixar never featured a story with a lead female protagonist. The fun and moving 2012 film Brave has changed this with its story of Princess Merida. However, it would be a shame if all Brave will be remembered for is its female lead character because the entire film is very touching and beautiful.

Princess Merida is not like other princesses seen in film, waiting on a windowsill singing songs about getting married to Prince Charming. No, Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) defines tenaciousness and independence. She loathes her obligations as Princess forced upon her by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson); preferring the company of her horse and bow-and-arrow and the freedom of the Celtic countryside. Merida's strong-willed nature suits her well in the great outdoors but it ends up threatening the ruin of her father's kingdom when she defies the betrothal custom of the allied clans. Merida's bravery and dedication to her family is tested when she relies on the hidden magic and sorcery of the land to change her fate.

Brave continues the Pixar tradition of amazing audiences with a terrific balance of beauty, excitement, humor and theme. The animation seen in Brave is one of the finest feats in the Pixar pantheon. Merida's fiery locks fly through a peaceful and palatial Celtic landscape to the magical mysteries of the deep woods, carrying her dreams and our imaginations away with her. A powerful soundtrack accompanies the glorious picture. I am very biased in favor of Celtic music and Brave certainly does not disappoint with a number of toe-tapping pop/folk songs and a soaring orchestral score from the great Patrick Doyle (Henry V (1989), Thor (2011)). Within the context of the Disney/Pixar feature films, the music in Brave is only bested by Thomas Newman's musical contributions (i.e.: this and this) in my view.

What if you could change your fate? I believe Brave answers this question exquisitely; but the family element to the film is also quite moving. The DunBroch clan is the source of some incredible tenderness and humor: Merida's father King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Merida's triplet terror brothers give dimension to the love within the family and particularly embody the film's clever sense of humor. Similar to how Pixar great Finding Nemo (2003) was a powerful film about (among other things) the love between a father and a son, Brave is a very touching story about the love between a mother and a daughter. It may be a cliche but mothers and daughters often have a.... complicated relationship. Merida's youth and free-ranging spirit often clashes with her Queen mother's experience and graceful appreciation of tradition. Both love but hurt one another out of a lack of understanding; however, their adventure together opens their eyes towards a new respect for one another as well. The animation, music and humor all contribute significantly to the entertainment quality of Brave but the relationship between Merida and Queen Elinor makes the film especially emotionally investing and altogether special.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Grey (2012)

Into the Grey

- I am going to cut to the chase: The Grey (2012) is not the kind of film one might immediately expect. The film was packaged as a survival adventure - man vs. nature and all of that - but this definition is simply not accurate. Reuniting A-Team (2010) director Joe Carnahan, producers Ridley and Tony Scott and actor Liam Neeson, The Grey is a very well-made and powerful film with a lot to say.

Neeson (thankfully replacing the originally-cast Bradley Cooper) stars in this film about an oil drilling team struggling to survive in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash. These men must survive fear, injury, hunger, the cold and, worst of all, a pack of territorial wolves that relentlessly pursue them. The Grey is an explosive and intense movie containing some incredible photography and fast paced action but it is at its core an allegorical film about life and death. So before anyone complains that wolves do not really act the way that the film portrays, keep in mind what they symbolize for the characters and the overarching themes of the story.

Liam Neeson has been in allegory-heavy films before (most notably the fantastic Seraphim Falls (2007)) and is outstanding in The Grey as Ottway, a man paid to end the lives of that which now hunts him. With recent films like The Grey, Seraphim Falls, The A-Team, Taken (2008) and Unknown (2011), Neeson has, in a way, stepped into the void left by Clint Eastwood as the aged badass of Hollywood. He has a fantastic combination of natural powerful presence and genuine emotion, which makes him one of the finest and most underrated actors around. The Grey is certainly one of Neeson's best performances in years; the pain, desperation and compassion of Ottway are all gently blended inside Neeson's deep, intense performance. Supporters Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts and Dermont Mulroney (very satisfyingly playing against type) are also impressive in the film but Neeson stands the tallest in the spotlight.

Although occasionally getting lost in the wilderness of pretentiousness and theological canards, The Grey is an intense and thoughtful film that one rarely sees these days. It took some time while watching for me to realize that The Grey was not the survival adventure thriller I expected it to be but the realization opened my eyes to how the film was trying to convey its ideas through the story, which allowed me to enjoy the film in different way. This not to say that I agree full-heartedly with the clearly nihilistic message that is given in the film; Ottway's plea/challenge/curse to God at one point in the film was a moment of particular spiritual ignorance. However, the way that The Grey  spun its yarn is very thoughtful. I did not have to agree point-by-point to enjoy the examination of the ideas that Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers (who wrote the original story, Ghost Walker, of which the film is based) put forth through the story. Of course, Liam Neeson's performance and the overall impressive visual and emotional nature of the film itself is entertainment enough as it is; however, the thoughtful cinematic allegory makes The Grey that much more unique.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Monday, July 16, 2012

Jane Eyre (2011)

To Eyre is Human

- Charlotte Bronte's classic 1847 novel Jane Eyre has been brought to the screen both big and small so many times throughout the years that one doubts that a film can portray the story any differently than what has been done before. However, Cary Fukunaga's 2011 adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell and Judi Dench features a very modern take on the story that yields both positive and negative results.

I must confess that I have not read Bronte's novel but I have seen multiple screen adaptations of the story, my favorite being the 1983 BBC miniseries starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke. Jane Eyre features a powerful story with very interesting characters at the apex of it all. The story follows Jane's journey through a brutal experiences living with her aunt and then at boarding school to her time as a governess at the mysterious Thornfield Hall where she meets its prickly and damaged master, Edward Rochester. A long period of time is covered in significant detail throughout this story but this 2011 adaptation manages to trim it down to a two hour length (but the 1943 Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine version beats this one by over 20 minutes!). Screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drew (2010)) does an impressive job scaling Jane's entire life story down to fit inside the film's 120 minute runtime; unfortunately, the ending and entire romantic arc feel rushed which seriously detracts from the film. Other adaptations do not suffer from this; miniseries adaptations of Jane Eyre, of course, simply have more time to develop the love between Jane and Rochester because of the medium and subsequently feel more real.

The strong female lead character in Jane Eyre, was the embodiment of feminism before anyone knew what feminism was but her resolve, intellect and individualism are of interest and quite relatable to both sexes. Mia Wasikowska's performance of Jane Eyre is phenomenal. Not only is Wasikowska the perfect physical choice for the role but she portrays the complexity, intelligence and passion of Jane in a very moving way that drives the film forward. Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins and Judi Dench all give memorable supporting performances - especially good is Dench, which, I suppose, is hardly out of the ordinary.

Michael Fassbender has been really popular since making a huge splash in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009). Although Fassbender brings a certain amount of needed intensity to the role of Rochester here in this film, I could not help but feel that his performance was greatly lacking. Edward Rochester is a bit of a grisly fellow - but his demeanor comes from an inner pain and emptiness. Fassbender, for all the positive traits he brings to the role, never conveys this important aspect of the character and really just comes off as a jerk. Contrast this with Timothy Dalton in the 1983 BBC miniseries. Dalton's  Rochester certainly boiled over now and then with anger but he was able to bring a tangible sense of vulnerability to the character through a layered performance. Fassbender simply leaves much to be desired with his rather flat performance of Rochester.

Aside from the generally great cast, the 2011 version Jane Eyre is especially unique compared to the other screen adaptations through the way it is photographed. Director Fukunaga and cinematographer Adriano Goldman create a very beautiful but also washed out and haunting look and feel to the film through a very modern indie style of filmmaking. This direction is very unique for a film set in the 1800s; the conventional way for shooting a film set in this time period is usually to go the sweeping epic(ish) and colorful route such as Pride And Prejudice (2005) and Sense And Sensibility (1995). Although I am not particularly a dedicated fan of the indie style of filmmaking, the way that Fukunaga and Goldman used it for Jane Eyre was very refreshing and, aside from Wasikowska's performance, is the highlight of the film.

Overall, Jane Eyre (2011) is a very well shot and acted film that suffers a few notable drawbacks while also being quite moving in general. Obviously not one of the best screen adaptations of Bronte's classic novel - I will point to the 1983 miniseries one last time as the staple version in my opinion - Cary Fukunaga's 2011 adaptation is still quite worthwhile for Wasikowska's performance and the refreshing visual presentation.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Limitless (2011)


- What if a pill could deliver the American Dream of immense success to you on a silver platter? In today's society that demands instant gratification and results, the idea of a pill that could make our lives better in every area sounds very appealing. When broke, washed-up and altogether ambitionless writer Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper) gets the chance to try an experimental pill, a drug called NZT, that would allow him to use 100% of his brain, instead of the 20% norm, he jumps at the chance. The pill works better than he could have imagined, allowing Eddie to finish his book and become a star on the stock-trading stage. But on his way up on Wall Street, Eddie comes crashing down in a sea of danger as powerful people try to kill him before drug dependence does.

Ignoring for a moment that the "10% myth" (in this case, the film suggests the figure is 20%) has not been laughed at and disproved by scientists.... OK, I can't ignore it! The main idea in which the plot swivels upon - that people do not already use 100% of their brains on a daily basis - is pretty ridiculous and it is difficult to base a thoughtful plot on a fallacy. But the affects that NZT has on Eddie's life make for a good story and, thanks to this interesting aspect of the plot as well as some competent direction, Limitless (2011) is a marginally entertaining film based on Alan Glynn's novel The Dark Fields.

The story has a few problems but the specific ways that the side effects of NZT play out in Eddie's life are quite interesting; everything he could possibly want comes true when he is able to basically do anything he wants to anybody - but he faces the consequences for his actions as well.... To a point.

The ending really rubbed me the wrong way. While Eddie is briefly met with some potentially life-threatening responses to his actions throughout the film, very little character development occurs. He is supposedly able to use 100% of his brain but never really seems to learn anything! Rarely does morality factor into his actions or reactions and when it does, it quickly recedes into.... What? The one brain cell that he is not using, I suppose? This could have been part of the idea behind the theme of the film, except that the film seems to hint at the opposite: everything ends up working out for good 'ol Eddie by the time the credits begin to roll - never mind that he is permanently hooked on NZT, dedicating his life towards great power over others and gratification for his own selfish desires and gaining enemies left and right. I guess the drug worked out after all, to the point where he gets a very twisted Walt Disney ending! This is wrong on a very important level. Even if a character remains a morally repugnant character at the end of the film, it is supposed to at least register with the character that his life has been ruined or that he is at least a bad person who must limp on through the consequences that he has carved out for himself (i.e. the end of The Godfather Part II (1974)). Anything else feels disingenuous.

Anyway, what ultimately made Limitless watchable for me was the specific visual work of director Neil Burger (The Illusionist (2006)). Burger usually directs *and* writes his films but Limitless is the first film that he has simply directed. Clearly not as strong a film as the incredible The Illusionist (perhaps because Burger had no significant work on the development of the screenplay for Limitless), Burger does an impressive job crafting the visual aspect of the film. Employing a snazzy style and a lot of cinematic tricks to enhance the audience's perception of NZY, Burger effectively allows the audience to feel the effects of the drug through the visuals. No special CGI effects are required - just some old fashioned inventive filmmaking. Unfortunately, where he excels as far as style goes, Burger was unable to bring his cast to a similar high level. I am just not a big Bradley Cooper fan (he is better than the original choice of Shia Labeouf though!). Cooper, with his shallow and cocky demeanor, works OK in things like The Hangover (2009) and The A-Team (2010) but really fails to convince when portraying a character grappling with anything serious. Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro are pretty boring in their supporting roles; the character that Cornish portrays could have been played by any actress that can speak English and De Niro is simply coasting along as usual, having not given a good performance since Ronin in 1998. So although I was significantly disappointed by Limitless, I hope to see more from a clearly talented Neil Burger.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

'Impossible' Apparently Isn't Nearly Impossible Enough
for the Awesome Awesomeness of Tom Cruise

- I realize that it was not so long ago that I stated in my review of Mission: Impossible (1996) that I had no desire to watch the latest installment of the seemingly never-ending franchise. Yet here I am with my thoughts on that very film after it crossed my path not long ago. It's funny how these sort of things work out....

As predictable and natural as a leap year or lunar eclipse, Tom Cruise's career becomes nearly unsalvageable every few years. Oh sure, Cruise enjoys a short time on the top of tinsel town's food chain with critics shouting 'He's back and here to stay!' But his inevitable fall comes right on time faster and harder than the business cycle after a round of quantitative easing (ouch, arcane enough a reference?). But Cruise is one lucky bastard with something that enough people half-way care about to fall backwards on when his career heads south: the Mission: Impossible series. After a string of box office underachievers - Lions For Lambs (2007), Valkyrie (2008) and Knight And Day (2010) - following the previous Mission: Impossible film, Cruise re-returns to box office prominence as MVP MIF agent Ethan Hunt in this the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible series: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011). Hollywood, he's ack-bay (well, for a time anyway; the cycle has already begun)!

Directed by Brad Bird (Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007)), the first live-action feature for the animation authority, it is safe to say that Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was a star-studded financial and critical summer hit. Although popular, I was not thrilled by this film. Sporting a good cast and having a few memorable scenes on hand, Ghost Protocol does everything a bit too big for its own good to be taken seriously as a fun action flick or as a gritty thriller.

Although Tom Cruise clearly does most of the work, he is not saving the world by himself. Ghost Protocol boasts an impressive cast from cameos (Tom Wilkinson, Anil Kapoor and Ving Rhames who is unfortunately not playing a big role this time around) to important characters. Simon Pegg returns as Benji Dunn and, just as was the case in Mission: Impossible III (2006), is the highlight of Ghost Protocol with his unparalleled comedic timing. Also making a significant impact are Paula Patton, who is a nice addition to the series as the sexy and skilled Jane Carter, and Michael Nyqvist (of the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films), who is an excellent screen presence and one that I sincerely hope continues to show up in Hollywood projects. Unfortunately, arguably the most popular member of the cast outside of Cruise, Jeremy Renner, disappoints in his supporting role as the unpredictable William Brandt. However, to be fair, not only can one recognize Renner's cliched role in the film immediately from the film's trailer, Renner has the unenviable job of portraying the character that is grounded on the most ridiculous premise of the film (which, for the courtesy of those who may have not seen the film yet, I will not reveal in detail) and his performance suffers as would any other actor in his shoes.

Just when you thought the Mission: Impossible films could not get any more bloated and convoluted, Ghost Protocol jacks up the special effects and plot turns to unprecedented levels of 'WHOA'! The locations: BIGGER. The action: BIGGER! The gadgets: CRAZY! The plot: INVOLVED. The suspense: MORE! MORE! MORE! Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is one giant celluloid testament to over-the-top TomCruiseness. The ever inflating story is rendered obsolete by all of the obstacles in Tom Cruise's path, featuring but not limited to: Russian prisons, SVR agents, nuclear terrorists, giant dust storms (igniting the best but unintentional belly laugh of the film) and, of course, gravity. Naturally, Cruise hardly blinks at such minor inconveniences and blasts through the film with the piercing volume and near overacting that we are all accustomed to see from him in this kind of genre film.

Ghost Protocol begins on a surprisingly strong note but unravels scene-by-scene into an all-too-recognizable and, ultimately, boring ultra-modern action film. Perhaps director Brad Bird just spent too much time in animation to make a live-action film really work on all levels - or maybe Ghost Protocol is just too much of a "Tom Cruise Production" for its own good. Every few years, Cruise's career comes crashing down from the sky like a missile to a highly populated and easily exploitable major city and the populace is introduced to yet another Mission: Impossible film. Surely not the final note of the M:I series (the road to a sequel is already paved at the end of the film), Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is about as noticeably flawed and as mildly fun as the rest of the M:I movies but I am almost praying for a string of non-M:I Cruise hits so we can retire this increasingly lame franchise.

CBC Rating: 6/10