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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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
Idi Amin was the ruthless dictator of the African nation of Uganda throughout much of the 1970s. He was ultimately blamed for thousands upon thousands of deaths (some estimates place the death toll in the hundreds of thousands) during his tenure. The Last King of Scotland is a fictionalized version of Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) reign of terror. Giddy after graduating from med school in Scotland Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) randomly picks Uganda to be his first post-college destination. When he gets there the locals are abuzz after the new leader has been sworn in and vows to right all that is wrong with the country. After a chance encounter with Amin Garrigan bears witness to his dichotomous personalities as the ruler goes from threatening to charming on a whim. Amin is so taken with the young doctor--and vice versa--that he invites Garrigan to become his personal physician. A doctor-patient relationship leads to close friendship and before long Garrigan is the very center of the dictator’s inner circle. And not long thereafter he learns that there is no worse place to be. For over 20 years now we’ve all bore witness to Whitaker’s mastery of acting. His choices have been eclectic and his performances consistently great but it’s always been a case of “And oh Forest Whitaker’s great too.” Until now. Whitaker makes what can only be described as an earthquake of an entrance. It’s clear in the movie when Amin will first appear and yet the actor still manages to catch us off-guard. Amin’s manic personalities are child’s play for Whitaker but he never has fun with it which is where other actors might have gone overboard. He is now leading the race for the Best Actor Oscar too. Not that the supporting players are too shabby though. McAvoy's (The Chronicles of Narnia) Garrigan is actually the heart of the story allowing for more screen time than Whitaker and the Scotsman soaks up every second. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the film but not only because he’s from the opposite side of the earth; it’s because McAvoy the actor makes sure to react differently to everything. In addition former X-File-r Gillian Anderson turns in a solid if short apperance--and you’ll be surprised how amazingly hot she is! Kerry Washington (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) as one of Amin’s countless neglected ex-wives is superb as well.
The contrast between Last King's first and second half is as night-and-day as Amin's personalities. In the first half director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) allows the story to simmer to the point of perfection; in the second half he gets sloppy as though in a rush to finish a different movie than the one he started. The ending also a mix of truth and fable (plucked from the highly acclaimed book by Giles Foden) quickly spirals towards its conclusion which is tough to watch for very different reasons. But prior to that--even at some points in the uneven second half--MacDonald paints a beautiful monster out of Amin. Maybe more importantly he paints a beautiful picture of African ambiance an indirect thank you to the Ugandan people that allowed unprecedented access to their country for the sake of Last King. Even with MacDonald's occasional blunders it's hard to deny the power of his film.
When retired U.S. Special Forces Soldier Chris Vaughn (Johnson) returns to Kipsat County Wash. it's only to find his hometown overrun with crime drugs and violence. The old mill where Chris's father (John Beasley) worked for most of his life is closed and the town's only thriving industry is the Wild Cherry casino. Even Chris' high school sweetie Deni (Ashley Scott) couldn't resist the Wild Cherry's lure; she's become a peepshow dancer to "pay the bills." But Chris really loses it when he discovers the casino's dealers are using loaded dice--and he starts a brawl that ends with the security team carving up his chest and abdomen with a rusty Exacto knife. Chris also learns that that his old high school rival the casino's owner Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough) has transformed the mill into a crystal meth lab and is using the casino's menacing security staff to sell the drugs to innocent kids. Chris strikes back by running for sheriff firing the entire police department on his first day and with the help of a cedar two-by-four and his deputy and buddy Ray Templeton (Johnny Knoxville) restores peace to the Pacific Northwest.
Johnson looking buffer than ever is well cast in the role of Chris: He's a fearless and determined soldier with beyond-human fighting skills. But while the film takes advantage of Johnson's brawn it fails to take advantage of his brain. In last year's comedy The Rundown Johnson proved he was more than a muscle-bound action star; he oozed charm and was surprisingly witty. With Walking Tall he never gets a chance to flex his acting muscles; if anything they atrophy. The only skills Johnson gets to show off are his ability to swing a plank at someone's shins and his unique way of bashing skulls against slot machines. Johnson's sidekick Ray played by Knoxville of MTV's Jackass fame is an ex-junkie who after spending a couple of years in the slammer is content with living in a camper and doing odd jobs around town. With his scraggly appearance and klutzy demeanor Knoxville supplies the film with brief interludes of humor amid the slam fest including a scene in which he stabs a bad guy with a potato peeler. Johnson and Knoxville would have made a first-rate action team had they had more screen time together.
A WWE production with Vince McMahon serving as executive producer Walking Tall has none of the subtlety of director Kevin Bray's last film All About the Benjamins and all the elements of a wrestling match. As with wrestling the film begins by melodramatically establishing the story (Chris and his family's lives are devastated by the mill's closure) and just like rival pugilists who publicly taunt the favored wrestler Chris challenges Jay--not for the world title but at least for control of Kipsat County--in a never-ending battle between good and evil that mimics wrestling to a T. But what's entertaining in the ring doesn't translate to film especially when the good guy running the town is a maniacal meathead. Chris is supposed to be the protagonist who single-handedly saves the town but who's responding to the citizens' domestic violence calls for example when the sheriff fires the entire precinct and spends 24 hours a day casing the casino? Never mind the fact that he has sex with his girlfriend in his office while he's on the clock.