Brains at the Movies
Aside from the ones we take with us, allegedly (and despite some of the bad…*cough*…“Twilight”…*cough*…decisions they sometimes make), brains are also often the focus of movies. Whether they be the food for zombies or the subject of science fiction and fantasy, they’re frequently front and center in plots and themes, and the current crop of movies is no exception.
One of this week’s opening movies is based on an essay entitled “The Last Hippie,” written by Oliver Sacks who also wrote “Awakenings.” In “Awakenings,” a drug offers hope for previously comatose patients and the new movie, “The Music Never Stopped,” has similar themes. In it, Lou Taylor Pucci plays a young man who left his parents’ home on less-than-ideal terms and wasn’t seen for years. That is, until reappearing with a massive brain tumor and with complicated cognitive disabilities, primarily related to memory formation. Rather than a drug, his almost catatonic state (he’s vaguely aware of his surroundings but not engaged) is profoundly affected by music. This comes with its own set of problems that I shouldn’t describe in too much detail, but suffice to say that the earlier stormy relationship between parents and son continues to affect them as they cope with his post-operative condition.
As a professor in a department that includes a degree program in recreation therapy, I was especially interested with the role of the music therapist (Julia Ormond) in the movie. While music therapy is its own specialized profession, there are parallels with recreation therapy intervention techniques and it goes a long way to demonstrating how mysterious the brain and its functioning are to the majority of us. The parents are well-played across decades by Cara Seymour and the always excellent J.K. Simmons. It’s a story that seems a little too far-fetched at times, but for the fact that it’s based in reality – and while not flawless, it’s both fascinating and moving.
In a less realistic but also thought-provoking story, Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the new film “Source Code” from the director of 2009’s “Moon.” In it, he plays a pilot who is alarmed to wake up on a train and in a body, neither of which he recognizes. As time progresses, in eight-minute increments, he discovers that he’s part of a government program that enables a subject’s brain to be tapped into the last memories of a victim who’s died, in an attempt to investigate the cause of that death. Again, there’s a lot more to it than that, including a bomb on the train, but it’s best to let them play out on the screen rather than on the page.
Gyllenhaal is supported by Michelle Monaghan, as a passenger on the train who seems to know the person whose body he’s inhabiting, Vera Farmiga plays his controller at the military installation, and Jeffrey Wright plays the scientist (and brain) behind the program. Much of the intrigue has to do with the subject’s brain being able to interact with the victim’s memories, and the story works well up to a point, entertaining as it unveils itself. There’s a certain “Groundhog Day” element to the reliving of the same sequence of events, although the movie is far more action-oriented. But the problem for me was that it seemed to go at least a step too far, and I would have preferred the movie if it had stopped a scene or too earlier. In my opinion, the internal logic of the plot holds up well until just before the end and then crumbles, along with the tone – but it still remains a fun ride.
What’s neither fun nor especially internally logical, is last week’s “Sucker Punch.” Here the brain element has to do with young women who are committed to a mental hospital (at a time when that title was OK) and the ability of one of them to develop alternate realities as a means of escape from the ugly realities around them. The first level of these alternate scenarios transforms the institution into a burlesque-style brothel, apparently primarily to provide director Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) with the opportunity to have the young female cast dressed in scanty outfits as gratuitous eye candy for the targeted young male audience.
Beyond that, further delving into the imagination takes us to a series of extremely elaborate battle sequences in which the central character and her fellow patients/prostitutes are required to seek out assorted objects ostensibly for the purposes of their real world escape. These scenes are premised upon the idea that she would conjure them up – but they are clearly the outcome of Snyder’s imagination, including dragons and Tolkeinesque orcs, futuristic robots on another bomb-toting train, steampunk Nazi zombies, and a detailed cataloging of military planes from the first World War (as well as another from the second). There’s nothing that ties any of this back to the young women, or that would suggest they might have any knowledge or interest in them, and the battles that ensue seem so divorced at first from their reality that despite phenomenal visuals, they somehow manage to veer towards tedium as they play out in their episodic fashion. In short, it’s a mess.
Another “brainy” movie, “Limitless,” opened a couple of weeks ago. It’s a story about a man who’s given a drug that enables him to tap into previously under-utilized areas of his mind, causing him to become an ultra-genius who can write books and conquer the stock market in a matter of days. What’s interesting, aside from the movie itself, is how both “Limitless” and “Lincoln lawyer,” another film introduced at the same time about a smart defense attorney, are doing at the box office. Their week-to-week performance has dropped less than might typically be expected, indicating strong word-of-mouth from movie-goers, along with, perhaps, a lack of mature and interesting stories (and they are both of those things).
Certainly, “Sucker Punch” isn’t a viable alternative for anybody who wants to exercise their own brain while being entertained. I enjoyed both “Limitless” and “Lincoln Lawyer,” and I’m happy to contribute to their positive word of mouth.
Meanwhile, in another interesting box office twist, “Sucker Punch” was actually soundly beaten in its opening weekend by the subject of last week’s column, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules.” By most estimates, “Diary…” has probably already made back its production budget after only one weekend and the franchise seems even more likely to continue. As we thought, not so wimpy after all.