Wouldn’t it be great to have limitless access to all the cells in your brain? To have a Google feature of sorts that would allow you to immediately call up just the right fact or memory that you need at any given moment, and the ability to synthesize and analyze all that information instantly?

That’s what the drug NTZ does for characters in the film Limitless, a mystery thriller in theaters now. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a sci-fi writer with a contract for a book, but a debilitating writer’s block has prevented him from writing a single word. His life is a mess, his apartment is a mess, he’s a mess, and his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has just broken up with him because of it.

Then he meets an old friend, Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth) who gives him a tab of NTZ. Within minutes Eddie experiences a rush of insight and intelligence. He can remember books he thumbed through in college, television shows he saw in childhood, and math equations he learned in high school. Within hours he has cleaned his apartment, resolved his back rent, and written 50 scintillating pages of his novel. But the next day, he is back to being the same sloppy Eddie who can’t write a single word. More NTZ is in order.

If this story line sounds familiar, it is.  Daniel Keyes explored this idea of artificially stimulated intelligence  in his “Flowers for Algernon,” which was later made into the movie Charlie starring Cliff Robertson.  Phenomenon, a John Travolta film, uses the same premise. Even the spy spoof television show “Chuck” uses a similar premise when the title character is able to access information stored in “the intersect,” as though his brain were a remote computer. What makes this film stand out, however, is its jazzy musical score, witty script, engaging mystery, and skillful cast, not to mention its unexpected ending.

The film begins with the resounding thump of a sledge hammer against a metal door that jars the audience out of its seat. The throbbing musical score (by Paul Leonard-Morgan) drives the story forward, lifting the audience into a feel-good mood.

Eddie’s brain on NTZ is simulated artfully for the audience through special camera effects that make Eddie’s consciousness seem to speed not just down the road but also through cars, down sidewalks, into buildings, and out of them again at dizzying roller-coaster speeds. When he begins to write, letters appear from his ceiling and drop like rain into his room. Later, when he starts using his newfound skill to make money in the stock market, his ceiling tiles become a ticker tape, composing themselves into the stock symbols that he should buy. Intensified color is also used to portray his intensified awareness; even Cooper’s intensely clear blue eyes add to his character’s altered sense of reality. These techniques are very effective in creating a sense of what Eddie is experiencing.

The story’s suspense is driven by Eddie’s shady relationships with a drug dealer (Whitworth), a loan shark (Andrew Howard), a stalker (Tomas Arana), and an investment banker (Robert de Niro).   Eddie cleverly draws on all the memories stored in his brain to thwart the bad guys, but when he unwittingly comes across a dead body, he reacts in the way a normal person would–completely terrified, knocking over a chair as he collapses, then hiding in a corner with a golf club for protection as he calls the police. It’s refreshing to see a character react as we probably would, instead of displaying unrealistic aplomb. 

Limitless is a surprisingly entertaining film, with its fast pace, skilled cast, creative camera work, and interesting plot. Well worth the price of a ticket.

Limitless, directed by Neil Burger.  Many Rivers Productions, 2011, 105 minutes.

Doing Time at Sing Sing

     Rivers are almost always symbolic in literature. In mythology, the river Styx separates mortals from immorality; in “Siddhartha,” the river represents the discovery of truth; in “Huckleberry Finn,” the river represents freedom and honesty–only on land does Huck encounter bigotry, hypocrisy and deception.

     In the 19th century two phrases developed that struck fear in the hearts of certain men: “down the river” and “up the river.” To a slave, “down the river” meant being sold down the Mississippi toward New Orleans, where plantation owners were poorer and thus harsher and more demanding. To a Manhattan thug, “up the river” meant up the Hudson to Sing Sing, the most brutal penitentiary in America at the time.

     In January 2008 my husband and I went up the river to Sing Sing, once the notorious state “penitentiary” (literally, to turn away from sin) and now called a “correctional facility” (literally, to make right, to free from error) where conditions are no longer so brutal and education is now available to inmates who qualify through placement exams and previous educational experience. We went as educators, Mark teaching economics and I teaching the drama/literature/writing course. The program, taught by Mercy College professors, is privately funded through donations to the Hudson Link Program for Higher Education. I’ve wanted to teach in this program ever since I first heard of it. Now was our opportunity.

    It was drizzling as we approached the prison that night, and dark. The fog created an eerie effect as we looked at Sing Sing for the first time. I shuddered, thinking of all the men who have spent their lives here, the earliest ones under the cruelest of circumstances, many of them convicted of crimes they did not commit. I was apprehensive about what we would find inside, but grateful for the opportunity to teach the inmates and perhaps change their lives.

     As we entered the “big house” in front, the most noticeable feature was the heavy iron bars blocking the way into every room off the entrance. After passing through the most sensitive metal detector ever (I even removed my wedding ring and eyeglasses, and still set it off) we went through a series of double-locked sully ports. After waiting in an austere holding room for half an hour, the gate guard calls out, “Bus!!” A guard pulls out a massive key to open the first gate; the evening’s volunteers step through, scrunch together to stand in a small passageway, and wait while he locks us in. Then another guard opens the next gate with another massive key, and we pass through into another corridor leading to even more gates going in various directions.

     The decrepit hexagonal guard towers and high barbed fences seemed eerily familiar as we walked the old path between the buildings and the fence to the van that would take us to the school building. We’ve seen this prison many times in movies, and I half expected to see James Cagney step out from the shadows. Finally we boarded a prison van for the short drive to the classroom building, the same van that is used to transport inmates when they need to leave the prison. It was cramped, barred, and smelled like despair.

      Mark had some apprehensions about what we would find in the classrooms, based on comments made by his friends and colleagues when he told them what we were going to do. “You’re crazy!” they said. “Sing Sing is a maximum security prison. These are vile criminals. You could be attacked or held hostage. What are you thinking??” My expectations were more reasoned, based on conversations with my colleagues at Mercy College who have taught in the prision system at Sing Sing and Bedford, the women’s correctional facility, for several years. “These are some of the best students you will ever encounter,” they have told me. Which of our friends would turn out to be right?
      Mine, of course. Both of us walked away from our first evening of classes exhilarated. These students are golden. Bright, eager, cooperative, engaged and engaging, they want to learn. They know that a degree will change their lives and the lives of their families. It’s true that some of these students are lifers who will never leave Sing Sing, never “use” their degree to get a job. But it matters to them anyway. They are earning a degree for the right reasons: to change themselves and their families. Many of these students are the first in their families ever to go to college, and their children are now following their examples.

     Several impressions struck me on the first night of my first class. First, I had a stereotype of my own to overcome. I expected my students to be dressed in bright orange jump suits and perhaps shackled for my protection. They laugh now when I tell them what I expected. They all looked like they came to school from their jobs as lawn care workers or road crew. They all wear dark green slacks, but their shirts are completely civilian polo shirts and sweatshirts made by gap or izod or Old Navy. I was surprised to see how normal they looked, as though they could be any young men in any night class. My next impression was that they are so polite, helpful, and friendly. And prepared! Every student arrived on time, with a book and a notepad, ready to learn. And they used those notepads without being told! (That may seem like a given, but at Mercy on the outside I have to remind my students constantly to take notes. They arrive whenever they feel like it, sometimes half an hour late, and they turn in their homework when they feel like it. My “day students” want a degree, but they don’t seem to want an education.)

     My Sing Sing students seemed mostly in their 20s or early 30s. One seemed to be about 60, although it’s hard to tell when you live that kind of life. Pprison life seems to have a way of not aging a person; most of them are ten years older than they look. I noticed that the three white men sat on the periphery, one in each corner, outside the group of mostly Latino and black students but not inside their own group, either. It made me wonder about the level of racism inside the prison. I resolved that night to ask about it during our study of “Othello,” since that’s one of the issues in the play.

     The most stunning reaction that first night was my overwhelming feeling of sadness for their situations. I can go home; they can’t. Of course, I don’t know why they are here, or what they have done. But throughout that first night I kept thinking, You don’t belong here! That’s what education can do for the inmates fortunate enough to have made it into this program: they are literally changed, penitent, corrected. I was struck by their calm self-assurance and willing participation in discussions. I asked them how many wanted to be writers, and every hand went up.

     Two students finished their in-class essays early, so I began reading them while the others continued writing theirs. I noticed Dennis watching me as I read his essay, and how anxious he was to see the comments I was writing in his margins. When I handed it to him (a check+) he smiled and showed it to Sheldon, the student next to him whose essay I was then reading. That one was full of “legalese,” a phony academic voice students often adopt when they don’t trust their own voice. I called Sheldon up to my desk and talked to him about how to create his own voice. He eagerly nodded and said he would try. Here was an opportunity for me to truly teach, and not just add a few credits to a transcript.

     No bells ring to announce the end of class; instead, a loud gruff voice yells into a squawk box that it’s time for visitors (that’s us) to leave. Our students hurriedly hand in their assignments and urge us to go. Outside, the regular inmates congregate in the yard, walking in small groups to stay warm, or standing around the television sets that are on display in wooden enclosures in each corner of the yard, each tuned to a different channel to avoid fights. The sun has gone down, and it’s dark in the yard. Inside the lighted school building, our students mill around the classroom building, warm and relaxed among the books, the teachers, and the students–their peers. They’ll be here again tomorrow night, and every night, working toward a degree that may never turn into a job. But it will indeed correct them.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

The hardest part of making a film is not writing the script, hiring the cast, choosing the locations, planning the shots, or editing the footage down to a moving and entertaining feature that tells the story in under two hours. The hardest part of filmmaking is finding the funding. It takes money to make a movie. Lots of money.
Ideally, the consumers (movie goers) should pay for the product (the movie on the screen). And ultimately, they do, $10 at a time. But filmmakers need money upfront to make the product. Piles and piles of money. This is just Capitalism 101 for libertarians, and it makes me stare in disbelief when Americans glibly criticize the capitalist system for being corrupt and selfish. What could be less selfish than deciding to forego current consumption in order to invest in someone else’s dream?
From the earliest days of filmmaking, films have been financed in several ways: using personal funds, either from one’s own pocket or that of a rich friend or relative; applying for business loans; studio investment; and selling product placement. In recent years, product placement has become increasingly important as a way to fund the burgeoning cost of producing a movie, where a million dollars can be considered little more than chump change.
Morgan Spurlock, the new darling of the political-agenda documentary, exposes the process of selling embedded advertising in his new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which opens later this month. But, as I said, product placement is nothing new. From the start, radio programs and TV shows were “brought to you by” a particular sponsor; product placement was simply a way of getting the product into the show itself. Today product placement is a multi-billion dollar undertaking. Also called “co-promotion” and “brand partnering,” this marriage of convenience provides money for the movie makers and brand recognition for the product. According to the documentary, businesses spent $412 billion last year on product placement ads, from the Coke glasses placed in front of the judges on American Idol, to the Chrysler 300s driven by Jack Bauer on 24 (after Ford withdrew its F-150’s), to the kind of phones that Charlie’s Angels carry.
The film is informative, intelligent, and laugh-out-loud funny, largely because of Spurlock’s dry, self-deprecating humor as he goes about looking for sponsors for his film, which is simply a movie about Spurlock looking for sponsors for his film. Where Michael Moore made his mark in documentaries by humiliating his subjects through ambush journalism, Spurlock is gleefully upfront about what he is doing, treating his subjects with serio-comic respect and appreciation.
Spurlock doesn’t just walk into business meetings unprepared, and beg for money. He does his homework, as good filmmakers (or any salesperson) should. He begins with a psychological evaluation to determine his “Brand Personality,” which helps him identify what kinds of products would be a good fit for his film. Not surprisingly, his brand personality is “mindful/playful,” so he looks for products whose makers think of themselves as appealing to consumers who are mindful and playful. He arrives at meetings with high quality story boards and mockups to make his pitch. He listens carefully to the producers and accommodates their concerns. After all, if their needs aren’t met, they won’t fund the film. They are his consumers as much as the ticket buyers at the multiplex will be.
The film is liberally peppered with products, all of them described, worn, eaten, or presented with Spurlock’s respectful glee. We all know we’re being had, but he does it so openly that he makes us enjoy being had. Even his attorney is a product placed in the movie; after discussing a contract, Spurlock asks how much the consultation will cost him, and the attorney replies, “I charge $770 an hour. But the bigger question is, how much is it going to cost me to be in your movie?” (I wrote the attorney’s name in my notes, but I’m not repeating it here. He hasn’t paid Liberty anything to be mentioned in our magazine . . . . )
Spurlock likens his movie to a NASCAR racer, and accordingly wears a suit covered in his sponsors’ logos for interviews. The official poster shows his naked body tattooed with the logos, with a poster board of the film’s title strategically placed across his crotch. (Nudity sells, but I guess his manhood didn’t pay for product placement.)
The film is funny but also informative. Despite Spurlock’s gleeful presentation, he offers many serious ideas about product placement in movies and about advertising in general. For example, he discusses the potential loss of artistic control when the sponsoring company wants things done a certain way. This isn’t new; Phillip Morris reportedly told Lucy and Desi they had to be seen smoking more frequently on “I Love Lucy,” the most popular show of the 1950s, and they complied. A filmmaker has to weigh the money against the control, and decide how much to compromise.
Truth in advertising is also discussed. Spurlock visits Sao Paolo, Brazil, where outdoor advertising has been completely banned by a new “Clean City Law.” Now store owners rely more heavily on word-of-mouth referrals for new customers, which may indeed be a more honest form of testimonial, but highly inefficient–and inefficiency is generally passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices. In the film, local Brazilians glowingly praise their ability to “see nature” now that the billboards are gone, as Spurlock’s cameras pan to the high-rise buildings that overpower the few shrubs and trees in the downtown area and block the view of the sky. Subtle, and effective.
Spurlock also interviews several people to get their opinions of truth in advertising. Ironically, one of the interviewees has bright magenta hair taken from a bottle, another has the unmistakable ridge of breast augmentation, another is wearing a sandwich board advertising a nearby store, while a fourth is pumping gas at the chain that has made a brand-partnering deal with Spurlock. Once again Spurlock is making gentle fun of his subjects, and we laugh gleefully along with him. (But I’m still not willing to reveal the name of the gas station until the pony up with some advertising money for Liberty.)
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold may not be the greatest documentary ever made, but it is mindful and playful, like its maker. If it comes to your town, don’t miss it.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, directed by Morgan Spurlock. Snoot Entertainment/Warrior Poet, 2011, 90 minutes.