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.
Wuthering Heights is an incredible experience director Andrea Arnold having taken the Emily Brontë novel and turned it on its head in her typically nervy bold style. There's little dialogue it's shot using available natural light and like her previous film Fish Tank stars an unknown actor whose presence commands every scene.
There is moping on the moors in Wuthering Heights but the muddy meditative experience that has almost nothing in common with its predecessors. There's no romantically brooding Olivier or pillow-lipped Tom Hardy here; this is not an experience for teen girls to swoon over. As children Catherine and Heathcliff are odd playmates. Once Mr. Earnshaw dies and Catherine's older brother Hindley takes over the household Heathcliff's life changes drastically for the worse. He's physically and verbally abused and banished to the barn to sleep with the "other animals." It's clear that this is a brand-new nearly incomprehensible world for Healthcliff and it's impossible to not feel empathy for him especially during an aborted attempted at baptizing him. As a teen his relationship with Catherine is magical despite (or because?) how much he risks to just play in the mud with her. An ominous indicator of their lifelong relationship is that she doesn't grasp why her playmate isn't as free as she is to do what she wants. She's sorry that Heathcliff gets beaten for ditching work to play with her but that doesn't stop her from encouraging him. As children they romp like puppies with just a hint of their budding sexuality; they're pure selfish id.
In many ways neither of them outgrow this selfishness. Even when she's married and pregnant Catherine feels Heathcliff betrayed her by leaving. Heathcliff's ruthlessness in his pursuit of revenge is equally childish; we see him torturing dogs that mirrors the actions of Hindley's grubby-faced neglected child. Is it nature or nurture? Is Hindley's child learning by watching the adults around him or should we believe the natural tendency of children is this utterly careless cruelty? Whichever it is there's no doubt that Heathcliff's disavowal of the past and insistence of living in the present — "There's only now " he tells her — has nothing to do with Buddhist mindfulness but a total disregard for how his actions affect others. His initial plan included suicide but this seems much more interesting.
Howson's performance as an adult Heathcliff is remarkable. He's not a sympathetic character — no one is in this film. Although it's not clear whether or not Arnold was specifically looking to cast a person of color for the role of Heathcliff the fact that Howson is black adds an extra layer of complexity to the drama. In the book he's described in such a way that indicates at the very least his ethnic background isn't white but Arnold ups the ante by putting a racial epithet in Hindley's mouth. This drives home the idea of Heathcliff's outsider status; it makes his "otherness" visible.
There's something gentle in Heathcliff's face that belies the nearly sociopathic anger within. When he first seduces Catherine's sister-in-law Isabella as part of his revenge on Catherine it's erotic in a way that makes the viewer complicit in Isabella's eventual destruction. (This serves as an interesting foil to Fish Tank and its ethically troubling but arousing sex scenes with Michael Fassbender and Katie Jarvis.) As the adult Catherine Kaya Scodelario puts in a good performance. Her Catherine looks angelic but is all hard angles underneath those lacy flounces. She is the wild shrieking woman to Heathcliff's cold silence and when she is finally quiet it's only because she's succumbed to the furor of their lifelong struggle.
Throughout Wuthering Heights we are put in Heathcliff's shoes. We see Catherine through his eyes and we understand what it feels like to ride on a horse behind her with her hair whipping in our face and the warm flank under our fingers. We are immersed in this sensual experience of being Heathcliff thanks to the magic of Robbie Ryan's cinematography. (Ryan has worked as a cinematographer on all of Arnold's films including her Oscar-winning short Wasp.) The handheld camera work is intense and occasionally nauseating but its immediacy is crucial to the film. Using available light occasionally works against it as some scenes are so dark it's hard to tell what's actually happening.
Wuthering Heights gives rise to an internal debate. If it was edited down more with less lingering shots of bugs crawling across leaves or birds twinned in the sky as obvious metaphors for Heathcliff and Catherine it would be an entirely different experience. Would it be better maybe more enjoyable easier to sit through? Or is that beside the point? Andrea Arnold's talent lies in pushing the viewer past their normal boundaries of what's romantic or beautiful. In Arnold's world a mother and daughter dancing in a kitchen to "Life's a Bitch" by Nas is as loving and joyful as Heathcliff's frenzied attempts to unearth Catherine's coffin. You either decide you're all in or you're not.
For every comic geek and fanboy who will be standing in line for the midnight screening of The Avengers this weekend in a costume so realistic even the real Hawkeye couldn't tell the difference, there are probably twice as many people asking, "Just who in Stan Lee are these Avengers anyway?" Well, here is a handy inquisition that will tell you everything you need to know before seeing Joss Whedon's masterpiece and the culmination of Marvel Studios' movie efforts so far. It's the biggest (and first) superhero movie so far this summer.
What is an Avenger and why should I care about them?
The Avengers are a superhero team often known as "Earth's mightiest heroes," and have been a comic book staple since Marvel first got the team together in 1963. They're basically Marvel's answer to DC Comics' more iconic Justice League of America.
Is that the one with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman?
So that's something different?
Who is on this team?
The roster has changed significantly over the course of the nearly 50 years the comic has been around. Initially the team was made up of Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, the Wasp, and Iron Man. Captain America was introduced in issue #4 and has been the leader of the team ever since.
Ant Man? What's his power? To control Ants?
Yes. And to be small.
What a stupid character.
There's a reason he's not in the movie.
So, who is in the movie?
Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, and Black Widow.
That's a lot of dudes.
Yeah, but they got Scarlett Johansson, so that's the equivalent of like three ladies.
Not the same, and didn't all the other guys get their own movies?
Mostly. Hawkeye didn't. But Black Widow was in Iron Man 2.
You mean the lousy Iron Man? Couldn't they add Gwyneth Paltrow to the team? She was in that too, right?
No, she's basically an assistant and the Avengers have their own assistant. He's a butler named Jarvis.
Great, another dude. Is he in the movie?
Dunno. Probably. Apparently, he's voiced by Paul Bettany.
Just what we need. So, tell me about this Black Widow lady?
Well, in the comic, her name is Natasha Romanova. She was a Soviet spy who the government treated to slow her aging and make her stronger. She also trained as a ballerina, learning skills that she then employed during fighting. She's basically just a really awesome badass. Her signature weapon is a pair of bracelets that shoot a "widow's bite," an electric shock that knocks out opponents.
So there is one female and her super power is basically jewelry?
She doesn't have powers, per se, but she's an enhanced human.
She's still a Russian spy?
No. She defected from Russia and came to America to work for SHIELD.
What the heck is that and why are you shouting about it?
I'm not shouting, it's an acronym. It stands for the Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division. It's basically a CIA for the whole world and they use superheros to get the big jobs done. It's run by Nick Fury.
Is he the guy with the Howling Commandos?
Yes, they were a unit of World War II soldiers who had their own comic book. When it ended, Nick Fury went on to be the leader of SHIELD. Samuel L. Jackson plays him in the movie.
Wait. Wasn't Nick Fury white?
Well, he still is, but Marvel launched a comic called The Ultimates in 2002. It was an updated version of the Avengers in modern day America that basically started the whole thing over from the beginning. In that Nick Fury is African-American and bald just like Samuel L.
Who the hell are these other new Avengers?
Let's not get you confused, let's talk about Hawkeye instead. In the movie he's played by Jeremy Renner and he had a cameo in Thor. His name is Clint Barton and he uses a bow and arrow and he can hit absolutely any target.
So, his super power is aim?
That is correct, but you wouldn't be so mean when you watch him shoot someone in the eye with an arrow from 300 feet away.
But the other people have powers, right?
No, Iron Man doesn't have any powers. As you learned from the two Robert Downey Jr. movies, he's just a super rich smart guy who designed a really awesome suit of armor. If you read the comics, you would say his super power might be a very resilient liver. Tony Stark has been known to tie a few on.
You're telling me this is a superhero movie and none of these people have any powers? That's stupid.
They have a Hulk. The Hulk has insane powers. As most people know from the Lou Ferrigno television show, Dr. Bruce Banner was in an atomic accident and now, whenever he gets angry, he unleashes a crazy green rage beast who is huge and strong and totally invulnerable. He's basically like Mel Gibson, but glowing and doesn't hate Jews. That's power.
And he's played by Eric Bana?
No, Eric played Hulk in Hulk the 2003 movie. We're still trying to forget about that. Marvel was not happy with Ang Lee's version of the movie and rebooted it and made The Incredible Hulk in 2008.
Oh, the one with Edward Norton! He's in The Avengers?
No. Mark Ruffalo plays him. Marvel and Norton had a bit of a falling out after the movie was released.
This is the third Hulk in three different movies?
Yes, but there has only been one Captain America. He's played by Chris Evans. Captain America, in the comics, was a skinny kid named Steve Rogers who took a "super soldier serum" during World War II and it gave him super strength and speed, near invulnerability, and the ability to lead groups of men into battle. He also has one of the ugliest costumes in all of comicdom. In the funny books he fought alongside other heroes like Namor and The Human Torch to defeat Nazis. The movie followed the comic's plot where, at the end of the war, Captain America fell into the ocean and was frozen in a block of ice, only to be thawed out decades later.
Wait, Chris Evans played the Human Torch, how did he fight with him too?
That's right, Evans was in Fantastic Four, but that's a totally different Human Torch. The characters are totally different and unrelated.
How can you tell?
Evans had a hairy chest as the Torch and a smooth chest as Captain America.
Ah, that makes sense.
That leaves us with Thor, who is the son of Odin, the chief of all Norse gods. The comic book has something crazy about a doctor named Donald Blake who find's Thor's hammer, Mjolnir ...
How do you pronounce that?
You don't. Anyway, Blake finds the hammer and transforms into Thor. In the movies there is no Donald Blake. Thor is banished to Earth because of his hubris and has to live among the humans. His father was trying to teach him a lesson, but then Thor had to return to Asgard, where his deity family reigns and save everyone. He's a central character to have because the Avengers first assembled in the comics because of Thor's brother Loki.
Say what now?
Loki is Thor's younger brother and is the god of mischief and illusions. He uses an illusion of the Hulk to lure Thor into battle. This unleashes the real Hulk and they gang up with the other heroes to beat the s**t out of Loki. After the battle, they decide to form the Avengers, a team that can take on the threats that a single hero can't handle on his own. We know that Loki is going to be the big threat in the movie, just like he was in Thor. Hopefully, just like in Thor, Chris Hemsworth will also be compelled to take his shirt off a few times.
So, does all this stuff make sense.
I guess so, but what does any of this have to do with Uma Thurman?
Oh man. That's a totally different movie called The Avengers that was based on a British TV show. It has nothing to do with the comic. Any more questions.
Just one: Is this movie gonna be good?
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
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