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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Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
In reality, Liam Neeson might not be able to traverse entire continents, defeating bloodthirsty militias with his bare hands in an effort to rescue members of the Lost cast. We’re not saying he definitely can’t, we’re just open to the idea that skills like these are limited to his onscreen adventures. Nonetheless, the man is quite a presence. Sauntering slowly into a hotel room in midtown Manhattan to offer interviews about the forthcoming Taken 2, Neeson carried with him an effortless intimidation — I knew, logically, that he wasn’t there to exact revenge on any of us… but it still didn’t seem like a great idea to cross him.
But hulking stature and deliberate speech patterns aside, Neeson took time to prove that he’s just your average guy: a fan of Ricky Gervais, afraid of roller coasters, and close friends with a Special Operatives agent who exacts top secret missions all over the world. An average guy.
“There’s a gentleman I worked with a few years ago who is a Special Operatives soldier,” Neeson began, citing the man in question to illustrate the authenticity of his Taken character, “He works for various governments. And he’s a pal. I see him for a week, and then he disappears. I’ll see him in three weeks’ time, and he’s got a bullet wound in his side or something on his shoulder. And he’s been jettisoned into Afghanistan or Pakistan for four days to do some mission. And then he comes back out again. He doesn’t tell me details, obviously, because it’s secret stuff he’s doing. But he’s quite extraordinary.”
“If he walked into this room now, you wouldn’t notice him,” Neeson continued. “He’s just a regular guy. But he has this particular set of skills. And he’s been using them in various countries for years, for various governments. He’s walked through airports with suitcases filled with hardware — he shows a card and he has carte blanche.”
And as Neeson, 60, explained, the training undertaken by men like his friend is similar to the stuff you’ll see Bryan Mills do onscreen in the upcoming sequel to the 2008 action-thriller. “I know it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? When I first read the script, I thought, ‘Oh, come on.’” But through research, the actor came to recognize the authenticity in Mills’ abilities. “They’re based on stuff these guys learn. Obviously, because it’s a dramatic movie, for entertainment it’s somewhat heightened. But they are actually based on stuff they do — these Special Forces. Take them out somewhere, blindfold them, say, ‘Be back in two hours. You’ve got two hours to find your way back.’”
Even shooting a fictional movie about agents like these poses dangers. “I do my own fights, [but] I don’t do my own stunts,” Neeson explained. “Our stunt coordinator, Alain Figlarz, is an ex-French Special Forces soldier. Close hand-to-hand combat stuff.” The actor went on to highlight the lengths braved to film Taken 2’s high-stakes car chase scene: “They have these things called top riders, I think. You have these amazing French drivers sitting on the roof of the car with a steering mechanism, who is actually driving the car. So you’re in, driving — in this case, Maggie [Grace] was driving — there’s no CGI. You’re barreling up these streets. This amazing stunt driver on the roof of the car is actually doing the work. But it’s terrifying.”
That isn’t a particular area of the action that Neeson is likely to explore anytime soon — the man is no fan of heights. “I get dizzy on a thick carpet, for a start. That’s my way of introducing the fact that I hate roller coaster rides,” he began. “My kids have begged me over the years when we’re at roller coaster rides, ‘Dad, please come with me on this.’ Of course, as a father, you think, ‘Yeah, of course I will, son.’ No. ‘I love you to death, but there’s no way I’m getting on that f***ing ride.’”
It’s this type of vicarious thrill — the desire to live through people who can do things the rest of us can’t — that makes the original movie so irresistible. Even Neeson himself can’t resist watching it whenever he catches it on TV: “I do love the compactness of it. I’ve checked it myself a couple of times [on television], and I’ve found it’s suddenly a half-an-hour later. I’m into it … A great beginning, a fantastic middle, and a very pleasurable end.”
And he’s not alone: from the United States, to Ireland (where Neeson recounted that his own nephews downloaded the movie before it even hit national theaters), to South Korea, Taken proved itself a worldwide sensation.
“I had just come back from South Korea,” Neeson recollected, “where the first one did amazing. I felt like one of The Beatles, to be honest with you.” Of course, America had a similar attitude toward the movie: “It was Number 1, then it slipped to Number 2. Then it went to Number 3. Then it went up to Number 2 again. It was hovering all over the place for a while. Just a good word of mouth, I guess.”
But despite its success, Neeson wasn’t initially sold on the idea of a Taken sequel. “When Luc Basson approached me [with the idea of a sequel] — this was a few years ago — I thought, ‘Come on, Luc. You can’t. What can you do?’ And he said, ‘Leave it with us. We’re thinking up something.’”
And eventually, Basson and cowriter Robert Mark Kamen developed a story that encouraged Neeson. “My character kills 27 of these Albanians in the first one. All of these bad guys. But these guys are human beings who have families, and uncles, and fathers. It’s great to start a movie with a burial. The wonderful Rade [Serbedzija], a Croatian actor, in the dirt as this grieving father whose son died horribly at my hands. It’s a wonderful kickoff to a movie.”
One of the biggest perks for Neeson in the making of Taken 2 was the opportunity to visit Istanbul. “‘That’s certainly one city I’d love to see,’” the actor remembers thinking during Basson’s original pitch. “I’ve read so much about Constantinople, as it used to be, from when I was doing Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. It is the gateway from the West to the East. So many generations of conquests. And you see it in the streets. You see foundation stones that were … by generations thousands of years ago.”
Neeson affectionately recalled the city’s perpetual buzz — even while Taken 2’s cast and crew were filming, Istanbul remained alive and at work: “All those car scenes we were doing, those car chases… yes, we had a police presence, but the shopkeepers and merchants of these tiny narrow streets said, ‘You shoot your film, but we’re keeping our shops open.’” That’s not acting in the backgrounds of the movie — that’s just day-to-day Turkey. “You’d see customers crossing streets the whole time. They weren’t extras. And we’re barreling over these streets in these vans at reckless streets. They were wonderful! They were very happy we were shooting in the streets. But [they were] keeping [their] shops open.”
There was a good deal of secrecy surrounding Taken 2 during the film’s production, which Neeson affirmed is “just to satisfy the fans.” The actor stated, “There’s so much publicity now with movies, and with trailers. And you think, ‘Well, I’ve seen the whole movie now.’” But as little information was leaked about the Taken sequel, it doesn’t compare to how closed-mouth Christopher Nolan was about this summer’s hit The Dark Knight Rises, in which Neeson revisited his character of R’as a Ghul.
“[Nolan] takes it to another extreme — I didn’t know I was in the movie,” Neeson said. “I went and shot a scene for two hours with Christian Bale. There was a set, and Christian was tied up.” Neeson then shared a conversation he had with director Nolan on set, doing his best impression of the filmmaker: “I said, ‘Chris, what am I doing?’ [As Nolan:] ‘Um… well, just walk forward, and say the lines, walk back, and that’ll be it, really.’ I said, ‘What the f***? Tell me the story!’ [As Nolan:] ‘Um… I’d prefer not to, really.’ Okay, don’t mind me — I’m just an actor.”
That’s not to say that Neeson hasn’t enjoyed shooting the Batman movies — he fondly recalled filming Batman Begins, making especial note of his subarctic fight scene with Bale. “I love the fight I have with Christian in Batman Begins, because we were actually on this glacier, this real glacier, in Iceland.” If that doesn’t sound safe to you, well… it probably wasn’t. “We had these glacier wranglers, believe it or not. So when we went on fighting with a reduced crew, the glacier wranglers would say, ‘Okay, everybody off.’ So we’d all stand to the side of this beautiful, big blue glacier, and this ice. You’d hear this sound of nature just moving as this thing moved, maybe a quarter of an inch. The ice kind of went ‘Rrrrr!’ And then it all stopped, and the guy would say, ‘Okay, you can go on again.’ [I thought,] ‘What are we doing here?’”
As far as projects beyond Taken 2 go, Neeson has a couple set up for the near future: “I’m going to do a Paul Haggis film next month,” Neeson said, referring to the developing project Third Person. “Just for a week. And then I start a Jaume Collet-Serra thriller [Non-Stop] up until Christmas. And then after Christmas, I go back to the Paul Haggis film for a final two weeks.”
But what about Neeson’s future in comedy? Following the actor’s remarkably hilarious (albeit highly inappropriate) appearance opposite Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant on the pair’s HBO series Life’s Too Short, Neeson fielded questions about his interest in manning a comedy film, which he’d be interested in “if Ricky and Stephen wrote something.” He affirmed that it was a great experience shooting the scene: “I didn’t change one semicolon in that script. That was all their writing … It was fun doing that with those guys. I am a terrible corpser. If you don’t know what ‘corpser’ means, it means you laugh a lot. But shooting this thing, they were laughing more than I was, which gave me confidence.”
So while Neeson might not have any definitive plans to bring his comedic talents to the big screen, he at least has two new dramas in production — plus the Taken sequel, which hits theaters on Friday. But is there any room for a Taken 3 in Neeson’s future? “I think this is the end,” the actor said confidently. “I mean, how many times can she be taken? It’s bad parenthood, really.”
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
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