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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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Mel Gibson's got a new movie in town and its called The Captain and the Shark. No, it's not a film about a wacky sea captain and his pet shark. It's the very real account of the USS Indianapolis, the WWII cruiser that covertly transported the atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ship was hit in 1945 by Japanese torpedoes and sank in the Pacific, but because the operation was so secretive, a rescue was delayed and many men died by shark attacks while waiting for one. We all remember the chilling account Robert Shaw's character Quint gave in Jaws about this very thing. Honestly, who thinks up these titles? Is there a collective hat somewhere? Gibson is in negotiations to star as Capt. Charles McVay, whom the Navy made a scapegoat for its mistakes, including ignoring distress signals. McVay was court-martialed and eventually committed suicide in 1968 but was recently exonerated by the Navy. Barry Levinson will direct the film for Warner Bros. So, you can see, this is serious stuff and has the makings of a great movie. But somehow, somewhere, a studio development exec will have to realize that this title has got to go.
Winona has a "Secret"
Lovely Winona Ryder will don a British accent once again in the British romantic comedy Lily and The Secret Planting, a follow-up feature for director Hettie Macdonald, who brought us Beautiful Thing in 1996. Ryder will play a young woman taking care of her mother who falls in love with an Australian working at the local plant nursery. There could be some interesting possibilities as far as leading men are concerned--there's Aussies Hugh Jackman, Heath Ledger...maybe Russell Crowe. Yeah, right. Well, whoever stars opposite the actress, let's hope there's at least a little chemistry between them because Ryder hasn't shown much with her leading men lately. Autumn in New York with Richard Gere? Enough said. Production starts in London at the end of the month.
Soderbergh's "sex" lives on
Oscar-winning Steven Soderbergh has decided to return to his roots. He will re-team with Miramax Films to bring us How to Survive a Hotel Room Fire, a sequel of sorts to his brilliant sex, lies and videotape. Yes, it's true. Soderbergh wants to revisit those dark, sexy and funny characters who fumble about, trying to figure out what to do with themselves--and I can't wait. There's not much yet on what the film is about or whether Graham (James Spader), Ann (Andie MacDowell), Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) or John (Peter Gallagher) will return. But Soderbergh said in a statement, "I'm extremely happy to be working with Miramax on How to Survive a Hotel Room Fire because Harvey Weinstein and I have been apart too long and the film was always envisioned as the unofficial sequel to sex, lies and videotape." sex, you'll remember, basically started the American independent movement in 1989, putting the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax Films on the map and winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes. No pressure or anything, Steven. Promise. Soderbergh is currently in post-production on his eagerly awaited remake of Ocean's 11 and will most likely start on this soon after.
Actor Paul Walker is indeed Fast and Furious. Hot off his hit racing film, the young hunk seems to be sought after. First, there's the mob drama Wanna-Be I mentioned last week and now--SWAT. Forgive me for rolling my eyes once again, but do any of the studio development execs have a clue? It's apparent that whatever amount of action they can shove on the screen, the better, and a film about the Special Weapons and Tactics team seems just about right. This project, based on the 1970s cop series, has been long in development. The premise centers on a grizzled vet SWAT officer who is given a second chance to assemble a new SWAT team to protect a high-profile criminal. OK, now I get why it's taken so long. The project was originally an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, but has turned into a youth-oriented action movie. Don't feel too bad, Arnold, you really don't need another bad action movie under your belt.
Beam us up--again and again
Star Trek live and breathes once again--now in its 10th installment. The film, as yet untitled, will be directed by Stuart Baird (U.S. Marshals, Executive Decision) and will re-team Patrick Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and Brent Spiner as Data, for now. No word on whether any of the other cast members will join them. Veteran Rick Berman will produce for Paramount Pictures once again but the film has yet to be greenlighted. Wow, this is one franchise that certainly has enough legs to never get boring. Considered one of the most successful series in entertainment history, the Star Trek movies have grossed more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide and more than $5 billion from ancillaries such as merchandising and home video. Make it so, No. 1.
Banderas and Liu--the new Terminators?
How does a movie about two Terminator-like undercover agents who look like Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu sound? OK, I like both of them...I'm going with it. The good-looking stars are in negotiations to star in Ecks vs. Sever (another title for the annals), a futuristic tale about two undercover agents, Ecks (Banderas) and Sever (Liu), who apparently have robotic attributes. They think they are enemies but in reality share the same common enemy. What's that? A rusting agent? This one definitely sounds promising, all kidding aside, as its being described as Bad Boys meets The Professional. And Banderas and Liu have been together before in the 1999 Playing It to the Bone-but most of you won't remember that fact. I certainly didn't. Ecks vs. Sever is being produced by Chris Lee (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) and marks the North American feature directorial debut of Thai filmmaker Kaos.
Ah, the blaxploitation craze rears its ugly head again. First there was John Singleton's Shaft, an updated version of the Richard Roundtree cult classic with Samuel L. Jackson and now, Dolemite, revamped for rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J and Dimension Films. In this modernized version, LL Cool J plays a hip entrepreneur who is sent to jail when drugs are found at his swinging nightclub. When released on parole, he finds out that his rival planted those drugs and has now taken over his club. Dolemite goes into revenge mode with the help of his three female friends, who manage to wipe the place up with their butt-kicking skills. Hmmm, a Charlie's Angels-esque quality. Maybe they could get the gals from Destiny's Child to do it. The original Dolemite, Rudy Ray Moore, who is now doing standup, will advise and play a role.