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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Looking like it was ripped from the headlines The International focuses on the corrupt dealings of a fictional bank that will go to any means possible to serve as a conduit for illegal weapons sales to people who shouldn’t be getting them. Enter an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) who is teamed with a New York assistant District Attorney (Naomi Watts) to go after a network of suave crafty Europeans bent on carrying out their dirty business as they always have. Following their trail around the world in such locales as Berlin Italy New York and Istanbul the two become targets in an unending high stakes game of murder and intrigue.
Looking more unkempt and unshaven than ever Owen totally connects with the role of an eccentric agent who stumbles on to a worldwide conspiracy which eventually leads to a group of corrupt bankers. Who knew? It makes you realize what an ideal James Bond he would have been. Unfortunately Watts just isn’t his match. She comes across as bland and lost never able to get a beat on this lawyer who is caught up in an international scandal. Forced to utter obvious lines like “This isn’t over” at the 80-minute mark she has zero chemistry opposite Owen. German director Tom Tywker who broke out with the riveting and stylish Run Lola Run 10 years ago has his best outing since that film carefully navigating the numerous and colorful locations with just enough pacing and attention to detail to keep this from turning into yet another Bourne ripoff. He seems totally in control of the complicated and dense storyline pulling off a sensational set piece at New York’s Guggenheim Museum (actually meticulously re-created in a Berlin warehouse) where Owen gets involved in a shootout to end all shootouts with numerous bad guys. It’s a stunning scene running about 15 minutes -- and a textbook example of how to shoot an action sequence. It’s reminiscent of some of the best cold war spy thrillers of the ‘60s and ‘70s and that’s a high compliment. See it.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
In the beginning of the Dark Ages the warlords of England are brutally kept in line by the Irish King Donnchadh (David O'Hara). Tristan (James Franco) has grown up hating the Irish for killing his family and has made a strong allegiance to father figure Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) while Isolde (Sophia Myles) Donnchadh's daughter has grown up under her father’s thumb. After a fierce battle that leaves Tristan near death he washes up on Irish soil and is nursed secretly back to health by Isolde who tells him she’s someone else. The two fall madly in love but Tristan must return to England before he’s discovered. Meanwhile Donnchadh decides to stage a tournament between all the champions of England with his daughter as the prize. Tristan ends up winning the princess' hand for Lord Marke but is horrified to find out she’s his own true love. Tristan and Isolde now must suppress their love for the sake of peace and the future of England. But despite their best efforts to stay apart the lovers are driven inexorably together. Despite the fact that Franco (Spider-Man) and Myles (Underworld) look lovely rolling around on the ground in romantic trysts and gazing forlornly at one another you don’t necessarily feel any heat between them. That seems to be mostly the fault of Franco who plays the young Tristan far too stoically. We understand he’s a tortured soul torn between duty and love with his eyes perpetually half-filled with tears. But couldn’t he have shown a little more passion (and while he’s at it washed his hair)? The luminous Myles is better at showing her burning desire but she too is left many times sad and weepy. Only Sewell (Legend of Zorro) who is usually delegated to playing bad guys shows any kind of raw emotion as he first falls genuinely in love with his bride--and then is betrayed by her and the only son he ever knew. He’d probably make a great King Arthur. As the Celtic myth of Tristan and Isolde predates the Arthurian legend as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet you can easily see how those two more famous stories were possibly formed. Tristan & Isolde is a classic story of forbidden passion set against political upheaval as well as a tale about a tragic love triangle. Producers Ridley and Tony Scott had been fascinated with the legend for many years and finally got the opportunity to bring it to the big screen. Ridley however who directed last summer’s medieval fare Kingdom of Heaven wisely chose to hand over the directing reins to Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) who adequately paints a picture of a time when chaos reigned. Maybe Tristan & Isolde is not as compelling or romantic as the king of them all Braveheart but it is certainly far more accessible than say Kingdom of Heaven. Sorry Ridley.
The heart of Whale Rider centers on an ancient legend of the Maori (indigenous people of New Zealand) who believe their ancestry dates back a thousand years to a warrior named Paikea. Legend has it Paikea escaped death after his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale and since then his male heirs have each assumed the responsibilities as Maori chief. That is until now. Set in the present Whale Rider tells the story of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) a feisty 12-year-old girl who lives in the fishing village of Whangara off the east coast of New Zealand with her stern but loving grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) who is a direct descendent of Paikea and her grandmother the kindly Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). Although granddaughter and grandfather have a special bond there is a sadness in Koro. He mourns the loss of his grandson Pai's twin brother who died in childbirth along with Pai's mother. Koro also has a hard time accepting the fact his own son Pai's father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) has not chosen to follow his destiny but instead has fled Whangara in grief. Though he loves his granddaughter dearly a thousand years of tradition is hard to buck in this unyielding man's eyes; Koro refuses to see Pai as a rightful Maori chief and instead begins to look for an outside heir to the throne by training local village boys. But Pai isn't your ordinary blossoming adolescent girl; she embodies many of the qualities of a great Maori warrior--courage determination wisdom and an irrepressible spirit. Against all odds including the hurtful rejection from her beloved grandfather she finds a way to prove herself as the true heir to her rich ancestry--and your own spirit will soar as she succeeds.
The mostly Maori cast brings truthfulness to their words and actions making the Maori culture come alive. Yet the film solely belongs to Castle-Hughes who is so amazingly poised and beautiful it's hard to believe she's only 11 years old. She simply radiates as Pai showing a depth of emotion rarely seen in a first-time actress especially one so young--she joins a short list that includes Oscar winners Tatum O'Neal (Paper Moon) and Anna Paquin (The Piano). Every scathing word and scornful reproach Pai receives from Koro registers clearly on this little girl's face and it truly almost breaks your heart to watch her. Still it's tremendous strength that shines through in Castle-Hughes' performance. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene Pai gives a speech in the wharenui or the town's sacred meeting house dedicating it to her grandfather who has not shown up. Despite the pain her grandfather has caused her Pai bravely gulps down tears and recounts her family's history. By the end you're in a puddle of your own tears. As the young actress' counterpart the elderly Paratene (Rapa Nui)--one of New Zealand's most prominent actors--also turns in a finely tuned performance as Koro. You really want to hate this man but Paratene makes you understand Koro's grief--and how attached he is to his own deep-seated roots. Koro believes there isn't any other way to be but when the old man finally sees how wrong he has been how Pai is the only true heir to the throne Paratene plays the moment brilliantly as you see his steely resolve dissolve into painful realization.
Having won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year Whale Rider has been steadily gaining momentum and has made already made over $2 million playing in only 163 theaters nationwide. Based on a book by Witi Ihimaera who has tribal links to the Whangara community New Zealand writer/director Niki Caro--who is not Maori--had to treat Whale Rider with kid gloves in order to preserve the great Maori traditions while at the same time craft an entertaining film. In adapting the book Caro delicately handles the legend of Paikea but centers the film on the relationship between Pai and Koro giving Whale Rider an emotional core and contemporary feel. Not since the gritty and powerful 1994 film Once Were Warriors which gave audiences their first glimpse inside a modern-day Maori family has a story about the indigenous people of New Zealand been so vividly played out. Caro also had to convince the elders in the Whangara community she was right for the job and that using their town and their sacred Maori grounds was the only way to effectively tell this story. Luckily they agreed. Caro captures the spirit of this rocky and magnificent coastline and its people showing how the rugged surroundings influenced this once-great warrior nation's customs and rituals. In the final scene the men perform a traditional warrior dance while the women chant and the community as a whole heaves off a long Maori boat symbolizing the rebirth of another rangatiratanga--or leader. It's a fitting end to a truly inspiring film.