Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Limitless (2011) *** ½

Within 60 seconds of the start of “Limitless” I was asking, “Did David Fincher direct this?” Turns out it was a guy named Neil Burger, but he is clearly influenced by Fincher movies like “Fight Club” and “Phone Booth.” I mean that as a compliment. “Limitless” is not quite up to the level of “Fight Club,” but it has that kinetic, intelligent action feel.

Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a failing writer who stumbles into a stash of experimental, intelligence-enhancing pills. The results are astounding. Not only can he recall everything he has ever seen or heard and synthesize all that data into useful conclusions; his writer’s block is completely cured, and the drug improves his ambition and confidence. Eddie cleans up his apartment, writes a bestseller, then moves on to the stock market. The future is wide open, but other people want the drug, too, and then of course there are the side effects…

The thing about watching “Limitless” is that it makes you feel smart, kind of like watching a porno makes a guy feel well-hung. It’s the opposite of what you would expect, but it happens, and it just adds to the fun. Otherwise, the movie is edge-of-your-seat thrilling, with excellent performances all around. I have to admit that I have been a bit slow to get on the Bradley Cooper train. I guess I just think the guy looks like he would be a dick. I’m ready to declare myself a fan, though, because he is excellent in “Limitless.”

As enjoyable as “Limitless” is, the plot is not quite as tight as it should be. The “big twist” is something you see coming from miles away. Also there are a couple of scenes that strain credulity to the breaking point, such as when Eddie gets a much-needed dose of the medication by drinking the blood of a crook who is on the drug. The final scene also felt a bit off; not bad enough to ruin the movie, but it wasn’t up to the level of the rest of the film. Still, it’s a fun ride, and a vicarious look at what it might be like if you could unlock the full potential of your brain.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Never Let Me Go (2010) ****

“Never Let Me Go” is a science fiction story of sorts set in an alternate present that is different from ours only in that the science of organ and tissue transplantation has been perfected so that it is widely used to greatly extend and improve most people’s lives. To meet the demand for organs, cloned human beings are created and raised in special schools so that their organs can be harvested when they reach adulthood. This heartbreaking film is their story.

The tale starts with Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) as children. They have no idea that their life in a boarding school is any different from anyone else’s reality. They just know that they are never allowed off the school grounds, and that a couple of times a year a truckload of used toys, books, and clothes is brought around…a very exciting time for them. Kathy and Tommy develop a natural bond and seem destined for young love, but Kathy’s jealous friend, Ruth, steps in and makes Tommy her boyfriend first. Locked in this unyielding love triangle, the three grow into young adults, and the time approaches for them to start making the organ “donations” that will weaken and then kill them.

Interestingly, the young clones never openly question their status as cattle. They are allowed to wander freely, but none seem to attempt to escape their surgical fate. Still, their yearning for a human identity comes out in various ways, such as their widespread desire to find their “original,” the person from whose genes they were cloned. There is also a widespread myth among the clones that if a young couple can prove that they are truly in love with each other, they will be given a deferral of a few years to live together before beginning their donations.

As a young woman, Kathy is given the job of a “carer,” a clone whose donation time is delayed while they help other clones recover from their operations. This system presumably helps maximize the number of healthy organs that can be used from each clone before they die. In this job, Kathy is reunited with her old friends Tommy and Ruth, both weakened from organ removals, and the three get a chance to resolve some of the issues of their youthful friendship against the bitter backdrop of their foreshortened adult lives.

The question that immediately comes to mind is, “How can people allow a system like this to exist?” The answer, of course, is to look at slavery or segregation. Seemingly good people will do incredible ethical acrobatics to justify to themselves an arrangement that benefits them. In “Never Let Me Go” we eventually learn that there was initially some public outcry against the cloning, but that the public was so pleased with the health benefits of the transplants that such resistance eventually subsided. Meanwhile, one would think that the clones would try to escape their fate, but it seems that a lifetime of being told what their place is keeps them quiescent enough.

“Never Let Me Go” is an atypical sci-fi movie, set as it is in a gray, quaint, recent-past England, but parallels can be drawn to “Bladerunner.” Like the replicants in “Bladerunner,” the clones are created for the uses of others, and they face an untimely death surrounded by an uncaring world. Their desperate efforts to love and live as much as they can in the little time they have, and to make some sense of their cruelly short lives is, of course, a mirror of our own struggles. In the joy, regrets, bitterness, and even acceptance of Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth we see our own lives.

“Never Let Me Go” is a wonderfully made, well-acted film. It isn’t something to watch if you are looking for a barrel of laughs, but when you are ready for a thought-provoking drama, this is one to check out.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Trip (2011) ****

The thing you need to know about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is that they are beloved comic actors in the U.K., and have frequently worked together. As such, they often play off of their own public personas in their work, presumably exaggerating and playing off the public perception of Coogan as a bit of a self-important jerk, and of Brydon as the humbler, long-suffering friend. I have no idea what these two would be like in real life, but in “The Trip” they play these stylized versions of themselves as they travel around the English countryside, trying out country restaurants for an article Coogan is supposedly writing.

No need to worry too much about the plot of “The Trip,” because the important part here is all the little things that happen on the journey itself. The conversations, jokes, and songs that pass between these two had me rolling, and you can tell that much of it is improvised. In one particularly brilliant scene, the two bicker over their competing Michael Caine impressions (with Rob Brydon clearly the winner to my ear.) There are also some very poignant insights, as in this exchange:

Brydon: “Don’t you find it exhausting chasing and bedding all these young women?”
Coogan: “Don’t you find it exhausting taking care of a baby?”
Brydon: “We’re forty; everything is exhausting.”
Long silence.

As much as I loved “The Trip,” it is clearly not for everyone. It is very talky, very British, very dry. It’s the sort of thing you will like, if you like this sort of thing.

4 stars

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Starter for 10 (2006) ***

“Starter for 10” is weighed down by the worst title since “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.” Outside of that, it’s a charming, if formulaic, romantic comedy.

James McAvoy plays Brian, a lad from a working class, Essex family who gets an opportunity to attend a prestigious London university. Essex is sort of the New Jersey of England, so he’s a bit lost in the big city at first, but he quickly adapts. He joins the school’s University Challenge team, which is a quiz competition where the best teams compete on TV. Brian also finds himself vacillating between two gorgeous girls. The first is a lanky hippy named Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and the other is a posh, blond bombshell with a thing for dangerous men named Alice (Alice Eve). While these beauties distract Brian from his academic goals, his thuggish Essex buddy Spencer (Dominic Cooper) shows up at college to explain that he may have to go to jail for theft and fraud.

If you can’t guess what happens next, then I’m not gonna tell you, but the main weakness of “Starter for 10” is that every plot twist is completely predictable for anyone who has seen a couple of movies before. For such a well-acted movie, it couldn’t be more formulaic. There are the meet-cute scenes. There are a couple of classic, running headlong through the university campus scenes. There’s even some older-people-naked humor, a staple of British comedy.

Other than having a plot that is exactly the same as every other romantic comedy/coming-of-age movie, “Starter for 10” is quite enjoyable. The jokes are good, the acting is excellent all around, and the lead actresses are very easy on the eyes. It’s a British movie, but the accents are mostly understandable, and really the only thing standing between this movie and an American audience is the title, which I think refers to something the quiz show announcer might say.

3 stars