Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Most drug movies glamorize the use and/or distribution of narcotics before telling the ugly truth about the addiction or jail time that follows and the shady figures that inhabit society’s underbelly. Taking characters from point A to point B and finally to their lowest point is a formulaic but effective storyline that shows how substance abuse destroys lives. It worked for Blow Scarface and The Basketball Diaries but in Limitless director Neil Burger ignores that successful blueprint and essentially says “Do drugs kids! They’ll help you! And don’t worry it’ll all work out in the end!”
Of course a more familiar narrative precedes this self-serving unorthodox conclusion and it could’ve worked if Burger navigated the story with more focus. The film begins when struggling novelist and all around slob Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) who has a permanent case of writer’s block runs into his drug-peddling-ex-brother-in-law in Manhattan (what are the odds?) This slimy fellow gives him an experimental pill called NZT that clears its users mind and helps them focus. When he ingests it his long-gestating novel is completed in a matter of hours and his grimy apartment is made-over to look like a room at the Ritz Carlton. The pace of the picture picks up quickly as Eddie climbs New York City’s social and corporate ladders acquiring wealth power women and the attention of greedy entrepreneurs ruthless gangsters and assassins who want the drug themselves.
The high-concept premise presented storytelling potential as expansive as the title suggests but Limitless is hampered by a series of discrepancies that render it silly and disjointed. Some of the smaller ones are relatively insignificant and won’t hinder the experience but others (such as the lethal effects of the drug which conveniently don’t apply to our protagonist) defy the internal logic that screenwriter Leslie Dixon sets up. It’s also hard to ignore how useless a handful of the sub-plots are. Abbie Cornish’s character starts out as motivation for Cooper’s but her relevance lessens as the stakes are raised and Eddie slips further into the worlds of finance and crime. The same can be said of the Russian gangster whose arc begins when he lends Eddie some capital for an investment and ends in a pulpy bloodbath. Burger leads you to believe that these side-stories will have greater impact on the bottom line but by the time the film wraps it becomes clear that they’ve collectively convoluted the plot.
It is however entirely possible that the filmmakers’ goal was to make a movie that mimics the incoherent mind-bending state that hallucinogens induce and in that sense Limitless works. Burger builds on that idea by visualizing the effects of NZT with unusual camera techniques including abrupt changes in color editing tricks that revisit the action in reverse (sort of) and a great time/spatial elapsing effect that literally pulls the viewer through Eddie’s lengthy drug coma. The dizzying display of surreal imagery is the films greatest gimmick designed to draw your attention away from its weaknesses.
At its core Limitless is about excess: excess of knowledge power money etc. and fittingly excess is one of its biggest problems. The filmmakers force too much upon their movie from unnecessary fight scenes to sexual encounters with metropolitan socialites that ironically water down its potency instead of giving it more edginess. Like any drug it starts out as something refreshing and stimulating but when you come down you’re stuck wondering where the last few hours went.
Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) is a big-spending but cash-poor shopaholic who has dreams of working for her favorite fashion magazine but ironically is given a job as a columnist for a financial magazine from the same publisher. Of course not being the perfect candidate to dole out advice on managing money she butts heads with her good-looking but work-obsessed editor (Hugh Dancy) until this being a romantic comedy the sparks start flying between them. Her efforts to conquer her addictions hit her fashion career goals and find love and contentment carry this lightweight concoction. Confessions is worth the ride if only to establish Fisher as a comic star in her own right. So good in supporting roles in movies like Wedding Crashers she gets to shine showing humor heart and chutzpah as a girl who never met a credit card she didn’t like. She turns a character who could have been gratingly annoying into someone even the non-shopaholics in the audience can easily identify with and root for. Dancy is a great foil and perfect opposite in the great tradition of romantic comedies going back to the ‘30s and ‘40s. A raft of familiar faces also turn up amusingly including John Lithgow as the magazine magnate John Goodman and Joan Cusack as Rebecca’s loopy parents and the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas as a somewhat clueless French fashion editor. But pay special attention to newcomer Krysten Ritter as Fisher’s moneybags roommate. Australian P.J. Hogan certainly has shown a penchant for this kind of comedy first with the sleeper hit Muriel's Wedding and then the Julia Roberts smash My Best Friend's Wedding. He knows when to tone it down and go for heart which is key to making a broad comedy like this work overall. The film also makes New York terrific Technicolored bright and inviting. It helps that the bestselling books by Sophie Kinsella on which the script is based provide such smart core material. Whether timing in the current economic crisis is right for a movie about an upscale shopaholic is beside the point. Clearly this is more fantasy now than ever and that’s probably all good.
In Barrow Alaska there comes a time each winter when sunlight fades out and darkness rolls in like an unwelcome visitor—for a month. Many people abandon the small town without hesitation while those who stay brace themselves for a storm of inhumane relentless frigidity and a test of sanity. But this year one group keeps the town warm—with blood—for its 30 days of night. The town’s two remaining law enforcers Eben (Josh Hartnett) and Stella (Melissa George) are forewarned by a strange drifter (Ben Foster) that “something’s comin’ ” but before they can even finish scoffing the sun has set and the vampires have descended or ascended upon Barrow for blood and recruitment. With only himself and Stella to keep the few living well alive Eben is forced to go on the defensive for the full 30 days. But as he soon learns these vamps are a smart breed with a perpetual case of the munchies. Just when you think Josh Hartnett has finally chosen the right role to suit his dark features and limited range—he decides not to play a vampire. Still 30 Days' constant darkness and overall chaos would seem to accentuate his positives by drowning out his negatives much the way Sin City spun and sold his small role but that’s not quite so. It turns out he’s capable of the quickie action or momentary drama but the scenes in which he is to save the er night—well it’s a good thing the Hartnett-as-Superman rumor was just that. As Hartnett’s partner in non-crime/estranged lover George (Turistas) manages to create some tension without resorting to shrieking or the drama-school histrionics we’ve come to expect from supporting actresses in horrors. Also successful is the ever-versatile Ray Winstone (The Departed) playing a grizzly outsider-turned-insider who joins the anti-vampire crusade. In a role surprisingly tiny considering his current rate of ascension in the industry Foster (3:10 to Yuma) is the best and creepiest this movie has to offer. And in the vampire corner is Danny Huston (The Number 23) who is horrifying as hell on first look only to de-emphasize that appearance by crowing and chatting instead of simply chugging blood. On the first day of night the vampires will seem scary; by the 30th day they’ll seem more like zombies—unless that’s just you projecting onto them. Director David Slade whose previous feature (the indie Hard Candy) could not have been more different from this one will initially win over horror-philes with 30 Days. After all it starts off on a high note with an almost apocalyptic aura to the impending darkness and its consequences. The story is set up adequately and the scares to come are alluded to without getting too greedy. And Slade doesn’t let us down immediately following sundown with jolting flashes of the beasts readying to overtake the small town. But once he gives them faces and personalities it doesn’t take long for the suspense to die—and die some more. That’s almost midway in after which point it becomes clear that the movie will consist only of a heavily abridged countdown to that 30th night and predictable bloodshed. As Slade nears the film’s climax 30 Days nears videogame-like music and machismo before its slightly more compelling conclusion is reached. On a brighter note the lightless Alaskan town—although obviously not totally pitch black for the movie’s sake—does look positively bleak especially when the cinematography takes to the skies.
Jessica Biel plays London a beautiful Manhattanite moving to Los Angeles. We don’t know much about her other than that her ex-boyfriend the self-loathing Syd (Chris Evans Biel’s real-life boyfriend) is really hung up on London. Syd meets a cocaine dealer Bateman (Jason Statham) for a score and invites him along to crash London’s going-away party. Syd and Bateman hole up snorting cocaine in an upstairs bathroom all night. Syd’s self-appointed goal is to confront London one final time though he’s uninvited and zonked on drugs. London is officially Biel’s movie though she is absent from the lengthy pivotal cocaine scenes. Her presence is mostly symbolic that of the love object who’s driving Evans crazy. Biel is a charismatic onscreen sparkler who has strong convictions even if they’re a little unclear. And for your information that’s not Jessica Biel’s naked body--it’s a double. Evans best known as the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch plays against type in London as a lost drug-abusing bearded 21-year-old man/boy. The actor has many pages of dialogue and uses them to show his brooding bad-boy acting a surprising departure from the limited fluff he’s been offered of late. Statham nearly steals the show as the mild-mannered quiet coke dealer. He remains a mystery brewing with sub-surface intensity. Get Rich or Die Tryin’s Joy Bryant is given the ugly treatment with bad hair and make-up. As a onetime model with few acting credits Bryant shows natural ability. Comic Dane Cook pops up as a party guest charming the presumably single London. First-time director Hunter Richards is actually more of a writer but inveterate casting director (and London producer) Bonnie Timmerman encouraged Richards to direct the indie film. Half of it takes place in a bathroom á la Saw but with cocaine instead of weapons and Richards lapses occasionally into melodrama or relies on gimmicky title-card shots. Overall some might condemn London as a matter of taste for its nihilistic griminess. But there is an awful lot to like about the film especially its use of house music provided by DJ’s extraordinaire Crystal Method. The up-close examination of its scoundrel characters is real as a fast paced hybrid of Spun and Igby Goes Down. London should be good for a late Friday or Saturday night date finding a niche DVD audience among older teens and young adults.