Review: Limitless

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The Pitch: Forget the red or blue ones, the smart people take the clear pill.

The Review: Bradley Cooper really did seem to be the only possible choice to play Templeton Peck in last year’s A-Team remake. The dashing looks and grin that errs just on the right side of sleazy had already been put to good use in films such as The Hangover and Yes Men, and those rare qualities have now given him a big leading role of his own. But what if that potential lays within us all? To be smart, funny, to look effortlessly cool and to be one step ahead; and all it would take is a little clear pill. For normal Bradley Cooper it would take a lot of work to undo that, but here he’s rocking the grunge look and hitting deadlines with the accuracy of a blind man with no thumbs trying to pin a tail on a fast moving donkey. So when one clear pill comes his way, it doesn’t feel like there’s much to lose.

But by then we’ve already had a taste of what’s to come, and with every pill come choices and consequences. (That said, if I could take one pill and end up meeting Robert De Niro, I’d probably swallow now and ask questions later.) The consequences soon start piling up for Cooper’s Eddie Mora, from the side effects of the drug to the possibility of those who want the drug themselves coming knocking, and those risks come increasingly with the threat of violence. As parable for conventional drug use, it’s pretty effective in its clear demonstration of both the attraction and the risks, and indeed the lengths that Eddie, or any other addict for that matter, will go to in order to maintain their habit.

Bradley Cooper does exactly what you’d expect of him in the role, but he earns his money because he does what he does very well indeed. He’s on screen almost constantly, and there are only two others that have any significant screen time. Abbie Cornish gets the girlfriend role, and is a little anonymous (unfortunately for her, Anna Friel gets much more to do in less screen time), but the big disappointment is Robert De Niro. At his best when either raging or quietly simmering, here he’s congenial but fails crucially to convey any weight to his acting, or indeed much interest in what he’s asked to do. So much of the work in keeping us interested falls to Cooper, and thankfully he’s up to the task.

The other people hard to keep us interested are screenwriter Leslie Dixon, whose script doesn’t always follow the predictable path (apart from a flash-forward opening on a high rooftop that feels a little clichéd), and director Neil Burger. Burger is best known for the Edward Norton starrer The Illusionist, which had a stately, period feel; in the more contemporary setting, he makes use of a variety of different visual tricks and creates a visceral thrill ride which keeps Limitless moving forward quickly enough that you can overlook the odd flaw or cheesy moment in the plotting. It’s only late on, when De Niro comes more to the fore and consequently the plot’s creaking becomes more apparent, that things sag, and it doesn’t help that the ending feels slightly like a cheat. Still, while not limitless, Bradley Cooper still has plenty of potential still to exploit, and on the strength of this should go further.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s a real Fight Club vibe in the use of the visuals early on, and Burger makes fantastic use of the screen. Just a shame he runs out of steam late on.

The Score: 7/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Enter The Void

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The Pitch: Ghost Trainspotting.

The Review: Gaspar Noé is a moviemaker who is not unaccustomed to controversy. But when your movies feature such extremes of human behaviour, with violence and immorality not uncommon, then you’d be a little disappointed not to generate some controversy. So in theory we should know what to expect from his latest, except no-one could be prepared for the assault on the senses that Noé has lined up, and that’s just the opening credits, a whirling flash of neon that will likely cause most viewers to develop either epilepsy, ADHD or both.

Once your mind has adjusted to the shock, we’re taken down several notches, for Enter The Void is a trip – one long trip in the mind of a drug-dealing teenager called Oscar, who’s wound up in Tokyo and is now deep into the drug culture and gets high the moment we see him. Events are played out from his first person perspective, but when Oscar is seemingly double crossed by a friend, he’s shot and killed. For mere mortal movies, this would be a problem, but this is merely the start of Oscar’s trip, as he then views the lives of those around him from his unique out-of-body perspective.

Thankfully, the script had shoe-horned in numerous references to a ‘Tibetan Book Of The Dead’ which conveniently describes the events to come – Tibetans are the go-to guys on death and the afterlife, it seems, as they’ve laid out a three act structure which Oscar conveniently follows, broadly consisting of floaty head trip, life flashing before your eyes and search for meaning in existence. We swap between the first and third person in perspective, but we are Oscar for the duration. This does make Enter The Void something to be experienced rather than enjoyed from a narrative perspective, but Noé remains a supreme visual stylist and there’s enough invention and trickery on display here to fuel a dozen smaller movies.

On the positive side this is a visual feast, ranging from the fractal dreamscapes of the initial trip to the visceral gut-punches of some later sequences – nothing quite at the level of Irreversible, but there are still some indelible moments and a couple of recurring motifs that will leave a firm impression. However, this is counterbalanced by the early heavy-handedness of the script, the generally unexceptional quality of the acting but more than anything else by the length. There’s a couple of versions around and I was “lucky” enough to see the longer – even the shorter, currently checking in at around two hours twenty, would be at least twenty minutes too long. It’s probably the last section that dwells too long, but frankly the best drug to make it through this would be a strong dose of caffeine. Noé’s provocative style continues, but on this evidence it’s as likely to prompt frustration as anything.

Why see it at the cinema: If you have any intention of seeing this, then you absolutely must see it inside a cinema. From the opening credits, you have to completely immerse yourself in the experience to give it any chance, and unless you have a 200 inch home cinema, there’s only one way to do that.

The Score: 6/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Winter’s Bone

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The Pitch: In The Bleak Mid-America.

The Review: The Sundance Film Festival has now been running for over 30 years, but in that time, although it’s initiated and promoted the careers of many illustrious film makers, the movies picking up the jury awards have generally found life a little tougher. But rather than being the kiss of death, receiving the Grand Jury prize seems to have given Winter’s Bone momentum, and talk of much bigger awards in next year’s season is already being banded around. In this case, that talk is justified, because what Sundance has discovered is a movie of real power, and within it a number of potential talents for the future.

At the centre of Winter’s Bone is Jennifer Lawrence. She portrays Ree Dolly, effectively left as head of the family despite being only seventeen, due to her mother’s spiral into illness and her father having disappeared after his seemingly only talent, for making crystal meth, has gotten him into trouble and leaves him facing a long jail term. Despite her age, she seems more than capable of caring for the family, although she has become reliant on the charity of neighbours due to their dire financial situation; when the bail bondsman arrives to announce that Dad used the family farm as part of his bail bond, it becomes apparent that finding him is the only way to ensure that she’s not protecting her family from somewhere in the woods.

The local community is isolated, with a division of roles down the line of the sexes that Ree finds herself on the wrong side of if she hopes to gain attention to her plight. But there’s a steely determination about her that keeps her on the path to finding the truth, and a willingness to consider any option. Unfortunately, this only serves to put her increasingly into harm’s way and she finds herself unsupported and challenged at every turn; not only does no-one want her to find her father, but it seems whatever’s happened is enough for them to be uncomfortable asking questions.

Given that she’s only a little older than the character she plays, Lawrence’s portrayal is remarkable. She perfectly embodies the resilience needed to stand up to the masculine hierarchy of the community who barely want to acknowledge her presence, but also shows her tender side when supporting the family, and the family’s plight feels all the more real for it. Those confrontations have a real edge from the start, but as matters escalate and the locals show their hand, or indeed their fists, Ree’s intractability shines through and is expertly balanced in all of the performances.

The other significant credit must go to director Debra Granik, who also contributes towards the screenplay adaptation. The bleakness of the community settings is thoroughly captured, and Granik uses this in conjunction with the tone of the performances to create an air of tension that threatens, and ultimately delivers, true menace. The pacing is unhurried but this just allows for the movie to apply its vice-like grip with that tension, and as events unfold there are some genuine edge-of-the-seat moments, before the narrative reaches its unflinchingly brutal resolution. But don’t be put off by the thought of that – although bleak, there is still a sense of hope, if not optimism, couched within that resolution. There is also an occasional sense of humour tempered through the bleakness, but more than enough to want to encourage you to become trapped in their world. Lawrence and Granik deserve all the plaudits they’re getting, and you owe it to yourself to experience this stunning adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel.

Why see it at the cinema: The stark cinematography is well complemented by the intense performances, but the fact that the performances are understated, but effectively so, means that the big screen is the best place to capture all the subtleties.

The Score: 10/10

Review: Get Him To The Greek

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The Pitch: The Forgetting Sarah Marshall Spin-Off Showcase.

The Review: Ah, Russell Brand. About an hour before writing this review, I was making my weekly call to my mother to tell her about all the things I haven’t yet done with my life, and her one and only reaction to Mr Brand’s mention was “Eurgh! Oh! He’s disgusting.” And it would be fair to say that this British dandy splits tastes, and has managed to get himself a partly sullied reputation in the UK for some of the things he’s done in the past few years. Which is what makes him absolutely perfect to take on the role of a middle aged rock star who swans around looking like the scruffier end of the upper classes and uses phrases like “affable nitwit”. At times, Brand is so good in the role that you forget he’s actually playing a role.

But the fact that he’s so suited to the role may be what’s driven this spin-off from Forgetting Sarah Marshall which, like me, you’ve probably forgotten most of, apart from Russell Brand’s English rocker Aldous Snow. You may have also forgotten that Jonah Hill was in the original as well, but gets a different role here, as the man charged with bringing Aldous from London to LA with only three days to do it. This should give a road movie feel with added jeopardy, but mainly thanks to Aldous’ relaxed attitude, at no point do you ever really feel that he’s not going to get to the Greek on time.

The real problem is that this rock star takes an awful long time to truly find his groove. While both Hill and Brand are affable enough, there’s maybe too many sequences in the first half of the movie that are of the uncomfortable social situation kind, where you’re expected to laugh through your empathy with the characters predicament, rather than actual jokes. There are a sprinkling of Aldous’ rock star videos and songs, all of which are great, and a succession of celebrity cameos, most of which are not. There’s also maybe a little too much dwelling on the serious side of Aldous’ troubled life. But what really gets this movie into gear is a diversion to Vegas to see Aldous’ dad (the always reliable Colm Meaney).

This also brings the other central character, Sean Combs’ slightly deranged record exec Sergio, into the mix properly, and he’s a revelation. (Before you say it, no, we don’t need another spin off, he’s fine with what he’s done here.) From this point on the movie is laugh out loud hilarious, only occasionally flirting with the serious again, but the Vegas sequence and a trip to Aaron’s apartment are both real highlights. Thankfully the script doesn’t feel the need to hand out too many happy endings, but the real happiness would have been seeing a movie that was the consistent quality of the last third.

Why see it at the cinema: The early uncomfortable laughs will be made that much less painful with a large crowd in attendance, a few of whom will hopefully laugh. Then you can share that experience when the big laughs kick in later.

The Score: 6/10

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