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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Do the Bourne movies make any sense? Enough. The first three films — The Bourne Identity Supremacy and Ultimatum — throw in just enough detail into the covert ops babble and high-speed action that by the end Jason Bourne comes out an emotional character with an evident mission. That's where Bourne Legacy drops the ball. A "sidequel" to the original trilogy Legacy follows super soldier Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) as he runs jumps and shoots his way out of the hands of his government captors. The film is identical to its predecessors; political intrigue chase scenes morally ambiguous CIA agents monitoring their man-on-the-run from a computer-filled HQ — a Bourne movie through and through. But Legacy has to dig deeper to find new ground to cover introducing elements of sci-fi into the equation. The result is surprisingly limp and even more incomprehensible.
Damon's Bourne spent three blockbusters uncovering his past erased by the assassin training program Treadstone. Renner's Alex Cross has a similar do-or-die mission: after Bourne's antics send Washington into a tizzy Cross' own training program Outcome is terminated. Unlike Bourne Cross is enhanced by "chems" (essentially steroid drugs) that keep him alive and kicking ass. When Outcome is ended Cross goes rogue to stay alive and find more pills.
Steeped heavily in the plot lines of the established mythology Bourne Legacy jumps back and forth between Cross and the clean up job of the movie's big bad (Edward Norton) and his elite squad of suits. The movie balances a lot of moving parts but the adventure never feels sprawling or all that exciting. Actress Rachel Weisz vibrant in nearly every role she takes on plays a chemist who is key to Cross' chemical woes. The two are forced into partnership Weisz limited to screaming cowering and sneaking past the occasional airport x-ray machine while her partner aggressively fistfights his way through any hurdle in his path. Renner is equally underserved. Cross is tailored to the actor's strengths — a darker more aggressive character than Damon's Bourne but with one out of every five of the character's lines being "CHEMS!" shouted at the top of his lungs Renner never has the time or the material to develop him.
Writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton Duplicity and the screenwriter of the previous three movies) is a master of dense language but his style choices can't breath life into the 21st century epic speak. In the film's necessary car chase Gilroy mimics the loose camera style of Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass without fully embracing it. The wishy washy approach sucks the life out of large-scale set pieces. The final 30 minutes of Bourne Legacy is a shaky cam naysayer's worst nightmare.
The Bourne Legacy demonstrates potential without ever kicking into high gear. One scene when Gilroy finally slows down and unleashes absolute terror on screen is striking. Unfortunately the moment doesn't involve our hero and its implications never explained. That sums up Legacy; by the film's conclusion it only feels like the first hour has played out. The movie crawls — which would be much more forgivable if the intense banter between its large ensemble carried weight. Instead Legacy packs the thrills of an airport thriller: sporadically entertaining and instantly forgettable.
The trailers for Hope Springs might lead you to believe it's a romantic comedy about a couple trying to jumpstart their sexless marriage but it causes more empathetic cringing than chuckles. Audiences will be drawn to Hope Springs by its stars Meryl Streep Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell and Streep's track record of pleasing summer movies like Julie & Julia and Mamma Mia! that offer a respite from the blockbusters flooding theaters. Despite what its marketing might have you believe Hope Springs isn't a rom-com. The film is a disarming mixture of deeply intimate confessions by a married couple in the sanctuary of a therapist's office awkwardly honest attempts by that couple to physically reconnect and incredibly sappy scenes underscored by intrusive music. Boldly addressing female desire especially in older women it's hard not to give the movie extra credit for what writer Vanessa Taylor's script is trying to convey and its rarity in mainstream film. The ebb and flow of intimacy and desire in a long-term relationship is what drives Hope Springs and while there are plenty contrived moments and unresolved issues it is frankly surprising and surprisingly frank. It's a summer release from a major studio with high caliber stars aimed squarely at the generally underserved 50+ audience addressing the even more taboo topic of that audience's sex life.
Streep plays Kay a suburban wife who's deeply unsatisfied emotionally and sexually by her marriage to Arnold. Arnold who is played by Tommy Lee Jones as his craggiest sleeps in a separate bedroom now that their kids have left the nest; he's like a stone cold robot emotionally and physically and Kay tiptoes around trying to make him happy even as he ignores her every gesture. One of the most striking scenes in the movie is at the very beginning when Kay primps and fusses over her modest sleepwear in the hopes of seducing her husband. Streep makes it obvious that this isn't an easy thing for Kay; it takes all her guts to try and wordlessly suggest sex to her husband and when she's shot down it hurts to watch. This isn't a one time disconnect between their libidos; this is an ongoing problem that leaves Kay feeling insecure and undesirable.
After a foray into the self-help section of her bookstore Kay finds a therapist who holds week-long intensive couples' therapy sessions in Good Hope Springs ME and in a seemingly unprecedented moment of decisiveness she books a trip for the couple. Arnold of course is having none of it but he eventually comes along for the ride. That doesn't mean he's up for answering any of Dr. Feld's questions though. To be fair Dr. Feld (Carell) is asking the couple deeply intimate questions so if Arnold is comfortable foisting his amorous wife off with the excuse he had pork for lunch it's not so far-fetched to believe he'd be angry when Feld asks him about his fantasy life or masturbation habits.
Although Arnold gets a pass on some of his issues Kay is forthright about why and how she's dissatisfied. When Dr. Feld asks her if she masturbates she says she doesn't because it makes her too sad. Kay offers similar revelations; she's willing to bare it all to revive her marriage while Arnold thinks the fact that they're married at all means they must be happy. Carell's Dr. Feld is soothing and kind (even a bit bland) but it's always a pleasure to see him play it straight.
It's subversive for a mega-watt star to play a character that talks about how sexually unsatisfied she is and how unsexy she feels with the man she loves most in the world. The added taboo of Kay and Arnold's age adds that much more to the conversation. Kay and Arnold's attempts at intimacy are emotionally raw and hard to watch. Even when things get funny they're mostly awkward funny not ha-ha funny.
The rest of the movie is a little uneven wrapped up tightly and happily by the end. Their time spent soul-searching alone is a little cheesy especially when Kay ends up in a local bar where she gets a little dizzy on white wine while dishing about her problems to the bartender (Elisabeth Shue). Somewhere along the line what probably started out as a character study ended up as a wobbly drama that pushes some boundaries but eventually lets everyone off the emotional hook in favor of a smoothed-over happy ending. Still its disarming moments and performances almost balance it out. Although its target audience might be dismayed to find it's not as light-hearted as it would seem Hope Springs offers up the opportunity for discussion about sexuality and aging at a time when books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike are perking up similar conversations. In the end that's a good thing.
The Expendables is being sold as the ultimate action flick: the alpha and omega of explosions, the Ur-muscle flick, the action film to end all action films. It has all the stars, all the cliches, and all the genre trappings - from the bandoliers of bullets to the the scantly-clad, vaguely ethnic love interest. Sylvester Stallone's movie is poised to take off, and when it does, you know it’s only a matter of time before rival producers, directors, production companies and distributors jump on the “ultimate film” band wagon. After all, why make five formulaic, derivative romantic comedies when you could mash them into one (just think of the money they’ll save on writers!)? In honor of The Expendables' approach to filmmaking, we’re bringing you pitches for ultimate Horror films, Rom-Com chick flicks, and Oscar-Bait tearjerkers. If you happen to be the head of a major production company and are reading this, feel free to give us a call.
The Horrifying Horror Flick
This April, you're only a fool if you're not afraid. From legendary horror directors John Carpenter and Wes Craven comes April Fools, the harrowing tale of a prank gone wrong and one man's psychotic reign of terror…
Jonestown, Iowa: April Fools Day, 1990. When brilliant but misunderstood Malachai Lester's (Paul Dano) beloved girlfriend Mira Lowen (Ashley Greene) accidentally decapitates herself on April Fools Day attempting a harmless prank, Lester is blamed for her gruesome death and chased to the outskirts of town by a mob led by Mira's aggrieved father, the Reverend Tim Lowen (Bill Moseley). Though Lester manages to hide in the old abandoned psychiatric ward, Hollen Asylum, the deranged preacher incites the mob to set fire to the building, despite the protestations of his son, Abel. Consumed by the flames and the town's thoughtless hatred, Lester is scarred beyond all recognition but somehow fails to die.
Twenty Years pass. Surviving on the meat of rats caught in his twisted, elaborate deathtraps, and kept alive by his crazed desire for revenge, Lester (Crispin Glover) emerges from the wreckage of the asylum prepared to play a series of nightmarish April Fools jokes on the children of Jonestown.
Zeke Carlson (Ving Rhames)'s son Trip (Bow Wow) is the first to be found dead, followed shortly by blonde cheerleader Kate (Hayden Panettiere), the daughter of Jonestown supermarket magnate Don Coleman (Robert Englund) and wife Laura (Jamie Lee Curtis). But Lester is only warming up, and he's saving his best prank for last.
As Jonestown's murder toll rises, the clues begin to come together for grizzled but warm-hearted divorcee Sheriff Abel Lowen (Timothy Olyphant), who believes he recognizes a pattern in the deaths of the children of Lester's old assailants. But the lynching of Malachai Lester remains a stain on Jonestown's collective memory, and the town's elders still refuse to mention his name. Only Lester's former psychologist, the eccentric Rube Rosenberg (Jeff Goldblum), is willing to help the Sheriff as they come to the harrowing conclusion that there remains only one way to stop The April Fools Killer before his psychopathic reign of terror reaches its terrifying, final conclusion…
The Rosy Rom-Com
This September, Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant star in Love Knows, the heartwarming romantic comedy from Rob Reiner that critics are saying "will make you believe in true love again”.
Beautiful but controlling, career-oriented Kate Cartwright (Bullock) works as an editor at a prestigious, family-owned magazine, where she works under the fatherly direction of her editor-in-chief (Ted Danson). Unfortunately, her personal life is falling apart: while she has the support of her three best friends (Lizzy Caplan, Jennifer Hudson, and Ethan Embry), her former model boyfriend Ryan (Orlando Bloom) dumps her and runs off with a much younger woman. Meanwhile, brash, attractive and slightly misogynistic freelance journalist Sean Falco (Grant) gets a big break from the spiteful editor of a successful blog (Stanley Tucci) when he’s given the opportunity to write the site's biggest feature yet, an article on the decline and fall of print journalism. In order to get a new angle on the piece, Sean decides to ingratiate himself with Kate by taking work at her magazine. Though the two are initially repulsed by each other and hate working together, they bond when they try to cover a prestigious political function but instead get stuck outside in the rain. Despite their differences, the sexual chemistry becomes too much to deny.
Against the counsel of his two immature best friends - the loud, obnoxious Brad (Matt Dillon) and the awkward, nerdy Renton (Jason Segel) - Sean begins to pursue a serious relationship with Kate. But tragedy strikes when Kate learns about Sean’s article, and believes their entire relationship to be a ruse. After she dumps him, Sean tries to get back to his womanizing ways, but realizes that his feelings for Kate run deeper than he had known. Can Sean ever convince Kate to take him back? Is there some sort of grand gesture that can save their relationship?
This September, only Love Knows...
The Dramatic Oscar Contender
Based on a compelling true story, Daniel Day-Lewis and Ed Norton star in Cole’s Mine, a heartrending tale of love and redemption that critics are calling a “triumph of the human spirit.”
Cole Danwoods (Day-Lewis) is a teacher at a prestigious New York City prep school in 1954, who has struggled for years to distance himself from his roots in rural coal-mining West Virginia. But after the death of his father, a tough-as-nails yet caring patriarch (Robert Duvall), who could never truly express his love for his sons, Cole must return home to care for his family. he returns to the hostility of his younger brother, Leopold (Norton), who has followed his father’s sooty footsteps into the mines; his tough-as-nails yet caring mother, Mary (Dame Judi Dench), who is secretly dying of cancer; and his older brother, Kenneth (Sean Penn), who was tragically mangled rescuing a canary from a collapsing mine, and now has the intellectual capacity of a 8-year-old.
Cole settles in to life in West Virginia by taking a job at the local school, where he tries to reach a group of tough, underprivileged mountain children with his unorthodox teaching methods, like using puppets constructed from common household implements to explain complex mathematical theory. He also reconnects with his tough-as-nails, yet caring high school sweetheart, Jolene (Meryl Streep) whose daughter is one of his students. The pair slowly rekindle their romance, though Jolene is trapped in an unloving marriage with an abusive bootlegger (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
While Cole tries to rebuild his relationship with his brothers, Leopold must struggle to reconcile his love of mining with his love of his supervisor, Larry (Paul Giamatti). But when tragedy strikes and the pair are trapped in a cave-in, Cole must rally the community together and return to his coal-mining roots to free them from a sooty grave.
This December, you’ll learn that love burns brightly even in the darkest of places...