Monday, March 28, 2011

Limitless, Sucker Punch and maybe a little Lincoln Lawyer

Limitless is, despite some key details left out, far better than it should be. It has a great visual style, using some interesting zoom shots and fisheye lens bits to alter the audience’s visual sense of the world within the film. It does  a great visual job putting the audience into the head of the the protagonist when he takes NZT… for those who haven’t even heard of the film, taking this drug increases brainpower, making connections between casual observations, long lost memories and new ideas. It allows Eddie, the main character, to write a novel in a matter of a few days, to make a name for himself in stock trading in less than a week, and to be running for senate by the end of the film when he started as a nobody writer whose girlfriend dumps him, among other reasons, for using her as his bank account. And, that girlfriend (played by Abbie Cornish), when she takes NZT during a key sequence in the film, she manages to make creative use of an ice-skating child that is the best use of a kid as a weapon in any film (not that there are many examples… the only one that comes to mind outside of this is actually from television, from the pilot episode of the soon to be short-lived Mr. Sunshine, in which Alison Janney throws a small child at some clowns with chainsaws—like this film being far better than it should be, that clown scene was far better than Mr. Sunshine is, for the record).

The primary fault with Limitless is that, in the end, we don’t know who Eddie is on a personal level, on a moral level, on a political level; he is at times a mere personification of ambition, a cipher… but maybe that’s the point. Eddie is writing a science fiction novel about a future utopia early on in the film, but we are never told what his notion of utopia is. He’s played by Bradley Cooper, an actor that is very easy to watch for a couple hours, so it’s very easy to be charmed by him and root for him when the plot gets going and mob guys and businessmen are out to get him, but ultimately, when we learn in the end that he’s running for senate, one has to wonder if this is a good or bad thing. Various antagonists resort to violence, so by cinematic shorthand, that makes them bad, but it is certainly possible that our lead killed a woman (considering, I also saw The Lincoln Lawyer this weekend, I am having trouble recalling if with whom he had a one night stand while in one of his high-dose blackouts… these blackouts reminded me briefly of  the Adam Sandler film Click, not necessarily in a bad way, but up until this point Limitless had been coming across as fairly original, so briefly, I was wondering if the film would take this into interesting places. Now, the film DOES take the story into interesting places, giving us easy visual cues (alterations of the color timing) to transition between non-drug periods and drug periods, much as Sucker Punch uses color palettes to differentiate between its levels of reality, but more on that in a bit. It allows Eddie to make huge changes, to take advantage of his NZT-heightened brain but also allows us to see why he makes the choices he makes, shows us how he puts things together, like those brief bits in A Beautiful Mind where the various letters light up and suddenly Nash can see a hidden message except actually a little easier to follow. Eddie knows how to fight because he can recall various martial arts films as if he just watched them. He can deduce that his landlord’s wife is a law student because he sees the corner of a bookcover in her bag and recalls seeing that same book back when he was in college. The film lets us see the connections he’s making, which is not necessarily an easy task. But, it does it, and it does it well, and despite a rather open ending (and for me, at least, a question about whether or not Eddie is lying when he says he’s no longer taking NZT) because we don’t really know where Eddie will take his political career, the movie is definitely one of the better ones so far this year. Robert De Niro doesn’t do anything too interesting with his role (but, then again, since he turned to comedy, he hasn’t done any real acting, has he?), Abbie Cornish, aside from the sequence where her character takes NZT, is wasted a bit. Bradley Cooper gets almost all the screentime, and that’s ok. Despite its flaws, Limitless is a great movie, with a subtle critique of our always-on-the-go culture that occasionally gets lost beneath the stylish veneer…

And, speaking of critique getting lost under the stylish veneer, Sucker Punch, like Limitless, pretty much tells you outright what it’s about early on. In Limitless, early on, Eddie explains what his novel is about, a future utopia except it’s really about the condition of man in society today (or something like that), and Sweet Pea spells out the central idea of what Sucker Punch is about early on as well. She says she gets the helpless schoolgirl act, but wonders if the asylum exploitation (specifically, lobotimization) takes the exploitation too far. And, the film has a tough time balancing between commenting on the exploitation of females and exploiting them itself. Plotwise, the film is a series of setups for putting women (first, just Baby Doll, then she and the four other girls, including Abbie Cornish’s Sweet Pea) into roles usually held by men, playing on cinematic stereotypes and archetypal roles, making an effort to deconstruct them and reconstruct them but not going far enough in that regard. The spectacle keeps getting in the way… but, like with Limitless, that is perhaps the point. Grab the male audience with the awesome visuals, the anime-style fetishized females fighting zombie soldiers, supernatural samurais, a dragon, medieval knights and defusing a bomb on a speeding train, but populate the film with empowered females (except when their depowering is necessary to the plot of course) and males who amount to little more than slavering dogs, intent on committing abuse or getting sex, or more often mixes of the two.

The film is deliberately simplistic in its characterization. Even the lead, Emily Browning’s Baby Doll, has little depth except where the plot necessitates… SPOILERS AHEAD, LOTS OF THEM …in that she doesn’t even really know who she is or what she’s doing until she realizes she’s the fifth plot coupon necessary for the breakout, and this at the point that she and we realize this isn’t actually her story but Sweet Pea’s. Unless, of course, the second level of reality, the orphanage/brothel, is not a good measure of what actually happened in the first level of reality, the mental hospital… though there is evidence presented (the burned out closet, for example, the mention of Baby Doll helping another patient escape) that the basic events of the second level happened on the first, we can’t know the details. As far as we know, the details of the first level are as far from the second as the various third levels (the samurai one, the war one, the medieval one, the train one)…

It occurs to me, though, that the bomb sequence and the level two kitchen scene that frames it demonstrate several direct iterations of events between levels, but this isn’t Inception. The exact ratio of events one level to those on another are not the point. The question is, does inserting these otherwise helpless girls into stereotypical masculine roles, with all the usual phallic weaponry—Freud would have a field day with this film—betters or worsens the female cinematic role. Seriously, this film succeeds or fails, in my opinion, on whether one buys the commentary on exploitation more than the exploitation. There is room for serious study of the various roles from level to level in the film (and the opening for study is a good sign that the film is doing a good job), how Baby Doll connects to Baby Doll connects to Baby Doll, how the female psychiatrist (Carla Gugino as Gorski) whose signature is being forged to lobotomize helpless girls becomes the madam out to teach these girls to survive in a male-dominated world in level two, how Baby Doll has been responsible accidentally for the death of her younger sister in level one, yet Rocket willingly (sort of) sacrifices herself for her sister, Sweet Pea (I’m not sure if the film ever establishes which sister is older here, and, while Abbie Cornish looks (and is) older than Jena Malone, I’m more familiar with Malone so think of her as being older), how the High Roller (barely seen) is the lobotomizer (also barely seen, but given some possibly key dialogue in the interpretation of Baby Doll’s willingness to be lobotomized), how Blondie and Amber are unknown quantities in level one, are expendable in level two, and cannon fodder in level three. And, especially, there is something to explored in how the orderly who is secretly running his own game behind the scenes of the mental hospital in level one is the master of the brothel in level two. The man who should be nothing is really in charge—at least inasmuch as his power over the girls—and so in brothel level, he really is in charge, so much so that the promise of violence we get in level one in the end, is only actually shown here, when he seems on the verge of raping a just-lobotomized Baby Doll.

But, then, one must wonder why Wise Man (played by Scott Glenn) is, well, a man. Gorski is the one ordering and training (though we never really see the latter) the dances, and the dances are excuses for/entrances into the level three fantasy sequences, so why is it Glenn’s Wise Man who is the cliché-spewing captain over the girls and not, for yet another example of sticking a female in a male role, Gugino’s Gorski instructing them? Is it because in level two she is teaching them to survive in their submissive roles rather than teaching them to break out of them? Is it because in level one, she is herself being used by a male to further dominate the girls? Despite being a female, is Gorski’s role actually a male one? And, for that matter, why, in the end, is the final rescue of Sweet Pea by Wise Man and not Baby Doll or, God forbid, her own ingenuity? Is this one last comment on the female role, that even in a film arguably about empowering females, a male has to intervene in the end?

Or, am I overthinking it?

Is Sucker Punch simply a lot of eyecandy, an excuse to get the masculine action with scantily clad females on screen at the same time? The level one sequence before we get inside the mental hospital plays out like a music video, could easily be excised from the film to stand on its own as a tragic short, and the various level three fight sequences also play out like music videos, with almost no dialogue (some subtitled dialogue in the war sequence, and a few rather unnecessary lines of dialogue in the train sequence are all that come to mind), just action and violence and visual effects and cute girls in small outfits… it’s what every geek guy wants and what every geek girl needs. It’s marketed more toward the male audience—and arguably they could use the lesson it’s trying to impart—but deserves to be discovered by the female audience. Director Snyder had to cut some sequences (including, supposedly a sex scene, which could completely upset the balance between commentary and exploitation, depending how it plays out) to get the PG-13, but ultimately, I think the film will be better off having a PG-13 version available, as teenage girls are probably the ones who should be seeing this. Still, I look forward to the R-rated version, hoping the Director’s Cut clarifies the balance a bit more.

In the end, one must wonder if is important that Sweet Pea, the girl most reluctant to escape (and crossing level two to level three, the most reluctant to fulfill the male role?) is the one who actually gets free (if being rescued by Wise Man and getting on a bus home to presumably a paternal household (from which she and Rocket already ran away once) can be called “free”).

Sucker Punch is a fantastic film, literally, full of awesome visuals and trying its darnedest to really say something about male and female roles, just as Limitless is mostly saying  but occasionally forgetting to say, something about how are brains are being altered by our interactions with the modernizing world, how a crash is inevitable if we aren’t careful. These two movies are good for the medium of film. They are not simple stories out to entertain us. Whether they succeed or fail at it, both of these films are trying to tell us something, trying to get us to think about our society and how we interact with it.

The Lincoln Lawyer, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to say about our world or our society. It includes a lot of the tropes of the modern legal thriller but holds up well because of a good cast and a well put together (though still complicated) conclusion. It’s a great legal thriller, but it is deeply steeped in its genre, doing nothing to break out of its mold, and with a few of its subplots (notably Martinez in prison and Gloria in rehab) it could have taken more time and I’m guessing the book on which the film is based lends more space to these two. Still, like Limitless, like Sucker Punch, The Lincoln Lawyer has a great lead, good looking and easy to root for. And, as far as Chekov’s guns go, a motorcycle gang is a good one.

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