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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
After breaking out two years ago with the teen pregnancy comedy Juno writer-director Jason Reitman trains his keen acerbic eye on the modern business traveler in Up in the Air a bittersweet comedy about one man’s turbulent journey of self-discovery and redemption.
George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham a corporate downsizer (he fires people for a living essentially) and seasoned road warrior whose aversion to real human connection is reflected in his mammoth stockpile of frequent flyer miles the fruits of a job that calls for 300-plus days spent away from the office. Thoroughly content with a life spent in hotel bars and airport lounges Ryan begins to slowly unravel when he’s tasked with mentoring Natalie (Anna Kendrick) a fresh-faced recent graduate with a bold set of ideas for transforming the business of firing people — ideas that threaten both Ryan’s untethered existence and his budding relationship with Alex (Vera Farmiga) a fellow corporate nomad whose penchant for low-effort commitment-free relationships mirrors his own.
Enchanted by visions of a perpetual booty call replete with racy Blackberry messages and romantic trysts arranged via Outlook Ryan begins to suspect he might have found his soulmate in Alex. Inconveniencing his idealized scenario however is his travel partner Natalie a probing perceptive gal who proves a far more worthy adversary than he initially anticipated. As Ryan exposes Natalie’s real-world inexperience and naivety in a series of mildly disastrous business meetings she in turn refutes his resolutely isolationist approach to love and relationships. Soon their mutual resentment gives way to a father-daughter dynamic characterized by genuine albeit guarded affection. As his carefully crafted barriers steadily erode Ryan’s thoughts increasingly turn to Alex and he begins to contemplate the previously unthinkable prospect of putting down actual roots.
Corporate downsizing emotional detachment and the dehumanizing effects of modern technology aren’t exactly the most lighthearted of topics but Up in the Air avoids wallowing in dour Death of a Salesman territory with the help of Reitman’s sharp perceptive wit and a handful of lively cameos from comic heavyweights like Danny McBride Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons. In fact the whole affair makes for a surprisingly uplifting experience in a "saddest happy ending" kind of way. Though the latter half of the film is hampered by structural deficiencies and a pair of melodramatic sadly predictable twists that move the plot forward but diminish its overall impact it still qualifies as one of the top films of the year and Reitman’s best work to date. Consider Up in the Air a surefire Oscar contender.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.
Based on James Bradley’s bestselling book of the same name Flags of Our Fathers is Saving Private Ryan meets Stand By Me. Buried in the collective national conscious the Associated Press photo of six American soldiers raising a flag of victory over Iwo Jima is the basis of the film. Bradley’s father Doc Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe in the film) who was one of the flag-raising soldiers never fully shared the details of the experience with his son but Flags meditates on some of those unanswered questions. The Iwo Jima conflict fortified by crags of Japanese snipers lays siege to thousands of messy casualties and the tattered flag--immediately seized by U.S. government officials to rallying and recruit soldiers--emerges as a symbol for American pride while the five Marines and one corpsman who raised it are basically forgotten. Heavy dramatics are saved for Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Ira Hayes the Native American Marine who degenerates into madness. He represents the bittersweet languor of lost ambition and broken spirits. Director Clint Eastwood is actually the film’s best actor even though he isn’t in the movie. We can see his simmering restraint in the Flags’ acting ensemble as he guides his actors into finely tuned performances. From Beach to Phillippe to Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) Eastwood gets the most out of his young cast by playing them down. Similar to real-life soldiers allegiance to the team is the actors’ goal creating authenticity. Intense stress requires the actors to have genuine instincts. But by intentionally constructing a more lived-in feel there is consequently no flashy or Oscar-worthy stand-outs. To his credit Walker who usually goes for the brain-dead million dollar paychecks tries something different here while in his pivotal role Beach plays the juicy role as best as he can. Still Beach’s breakdown scene is quite honestly one-dimensional and doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as say Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise. Of Flags’ likely award recognitions the acting seems to have the least chance of reaching the winner’s circle. Vintage Eastwood is a lion in winter directing as though there’s no tomorrow. With Flags he interweaves numerous themes to create a war movie which despite its cliché-filled genre is constantly real in tone. The film is historically credible from the American perspective only but Eastwood has also directed a companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima about the Japanese side which hits theaters next year. Complex themes of celebrity worship also give the film a post-modern jaded Iraq War-era vision. Then there are the visuals. Eastwood incorporates breathtaking CGI shots of the fleet of warships reminiscent of Troy on top of an old-style photographic framing black and white and green all washed-out. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of old photos on a high-definition CD-ROM. Naturalistic scenes--sprawling in their panoramic framing with cactuses and hills of black sand--remind us we’re watching one of America’s cinematic icons at work. Flags could be Eastwood’s third Best Director Oscar--and will likely net him $100 million-plus at the box office.
Invincible is Rudy and The Rookie all rolled into one. Set in the mid-‘70s Mark Wahlberg stars as the real-life Vince Papale a blue-collar Philadelphian down on his luck after his wife leaves him. His only solace is playing football with his cronies and rooting for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles who are in a real rut. Newly hired head coach the legendary Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) decides to infuse some new blood into the team by holding open tryouts. All of Vince’s friends think he’d be perfect and urge him to go for it. He does makes it and is soon playing with some of his idols much to their chagrin. I mean who is this punk anyway? Sure he’s got some excellent instincts but can he really be a NFL player with no experience? Yes in fact he can proving to all those regular Joes out there you can live the dream. Yeah yeah. Unfortunately none of the actors really add anything either. Wahlberg is definitely a natural to play this kind of role having already done so in Rock Star. At least in Invincible he gets to show off some of his athletic abilities rather than just his bare chest in black leather pants. But the performance is run of the mill. As is Kinnear who as Vermeil takes on the headaches of turning a losing team into winners all while his supportive wife sweetly reassures him he’s doing the very best he can. Seen it. To their credit some of the supporting actors—including Kirk Acevedo (The New World) Michael Kelly (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Rispoli (Mr. 3000)—paint a convincing picture of genuine camaraderie between local Philadelphians. And Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year-Old Virgin) rounds things out as Vince’s cute love interest (and eventual real-life wife) who knows a few things about football by golly. You’d think Invincible would be a no-brainer feel-good kind of sports flick. It’s based on a real-life person has that whole underdog thing going for it and it’s football. What could go wrong with that? Nothing really besides the fact it’s been done about a hundred times over—and has now been left in the hands of newbies. First-time director Ericson Core a former cinematographer and writer Brad Gann are clearly green doing things by the play book line for line. It’s scary helming a feature film for a big studio like Disney who had such sport hits like The Rookie and Remember the Titans. Perhaps Core wanted to go more out on a limb but was reigned in. Who knows? The football scenes are definitely the highlight and Core handles the action well. I mean you do want Papale to prove himself the natural athlete he truly is and make all his homies proud. But the rest of it is just blah.
In a new twist on product placements, Sex and the City costar Kim Cattrall held a new Nikon digital camera throughout interviews carried by MSNBC, Fox News Channel and some 25 local news programs Thursday. Reporting on the Cattrall appearances, Friday's New York Post commented that she "turned a string of live interviews into a commercial." It quoted an MSNBC spokesman as saying, "Ms. Cattrall was booked for the obvious reason to talk about her role on Sex and the City. ... It was an oversight on our part not realizing she was also there to endorse a product. But once it became obvious it was turning into a commercial endorsement for Nikon, we ended the interview. ... This is not our standard practice and it will not happen again." Bill McCuddy, who interviewed Cattrall on Fox News Channel, told the New York Daily News that Cattrall talked about the camera as if she were Carol Merrill, the prize presenter on Let's Make a Deal. He said he'd like to see the network set up a screening process. "If it's going to be a blatant Nikon commercial, we would take a pass." Nikon said that it had arranged the satellite interviews and had informed the cable networks and stations that Cattrall would be talking about the camera.