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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At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
Firing a rather tepid opening salvo in Hollywood’s annual Valentine’s Day rom-com blitz is When in Rome starring Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall TV’s Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (Turistas the Transformers flicks) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider Daredevil). You read that correctly: Johnson a guy who gave us two critically-reviled comic book flicks was tapped by Disney to direct a movie entirely devoid of acrobatic fight sequences or computerized visual effects the only filmmaking skills for which he’s received consistent praise. Hmmm ... maybe this is why Dick Cook was fired.
Bell plays Beth a high-strung New York City museum curator whose frustration over her barren love life spills over at her sister’s wedding in Rome where she winds up drunkenly splashing around in the city’s fictional “Fontana D’Amore.” The embarrassing but harmless episode takes a momentous turn however when Beth absentmindedly steals a handful of coins from the fountain unknowingly triggering an ancient Italian curse. Soon she’s romantically besieged by a diverse and highly aggressive group of oddballs played by Danny DeVito Dax Shepard Will Arnett and Jon Heder — the very men whose coins she plucked from the fabled fountain.
The concept isn’t entirely without potential but When in Rome’s script takes the quartet of previously funny actors and comedically castrates them forcing them to survive this creative Dust Bowl on precisely one joke apiece. DeVito playing a sausage magnate emits only meat-related quips; Shepard’s self-obsessed model explores the comic possibilities of his washboard stomach; hapless street artist Arnett plasters the city with nude portraits of his unrequited love; and Heder’s wannabe magician mounts a series of botched magic tricks. (In a gag that might have been funny back in 2004 Efren Ramirez Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro enjoys a cameo as Heder’s videographer. He’s this week’s winner of the Jeff Zucker “How Does This Guy Have a Job?” Award.)
All of which serves to delay the inevitable coupling of Bell and Duhamel two likable leads who gamely trudge through material so inane so bland — and so safe — that it could fit comfortably in one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s increasingly soporific family comedies. In fact I’m not even sure if When in Rome made use of the standard PG-13 allotment of one F-word (used in a non-sexual manner of course). Expect to hear it used liberally however by fellow audience members as the credits roll on this middling debacle.
In the summer of 1977 disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) sat down with British TV talk show host and interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) for a series of interviews that Nixon hoped would resuscitate his Watergate-tarnished image and Frost hoped would lift his own career to another level. While it made for good TV at the time it certainly didn’t seem likely fodder for a hit Broadway play and now a major motion picture. Peter Morgan (The Queen) wrote the play and adapted it for the screen turning it into a riveting cat-and-mouse game between these two made-for-television adversaries. Director Ron Howard emphasizes the behind the scenes machinations and all the negotiations between both camps. The off-camera material is priceless based in large part on speculative research. Whatever the final truth of the story the film gains its real power from it’s the telling. Ron Howard turns to the two original stage stars of Frost/Nixon -- a wise casting decision that almost never happens in Hollywood. It’s true everyone including Warren Beatty reportedly wanted to play Nixon but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Langella in recreating his Tony-winning interpretation of the infamous Tricky Dick. He has all of Nixon’s mannerisms vulnerabilities and caginess down pat. Sheen certainly captures the confident nature of Frost but also his insecurities and the realization that this whole enterprise is one big roll of the dice. And two actors work in perfect concert with one another. Supporting roles are well played including standouts Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s trusted Chief of Staff Jack Brennan and a hilarious Toby Jones aping the inimitable book agent Swifty Lazar. As key Frost aides and researchers Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell do a nice job as kind of the Greek chorus to the situation. On the surface Ron Howard -- better known for his large scale Hollywood productions like The Da Vinci Code and Apollo 13 -- doesn’t seem the right fit for this smaller scale drama but his approach transfers what could have been a flat Broadway screen into a highly cinematic and stimulating two hours. He captures the rhythms of this chess match perfectly and chooses camera angles that catch the sweat behind the cool facades of his two principals. Special mention should go to the beautiful nuanced work of his cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Howard is such a gifted filmmaker he makes it all seem effortless easily coaxing two equally superb performances from Langella and Sheen. Frost/Nixon is a first class achievement.
Yet another in a LONG line of teenage sex comedies this one manages somehow to be fresh and appealing -- despite the formu-lay-ic premise. That’s right another horny 18 year-old boy (Josh Zuckerman) is determined to lose his virginity any way he can. Ian can’t seem to become a “man ” upstaged by a Lothario of an older brother Rex (James Marsden) and his even more successful 14 year-old younger brother. He is constantly humiliated by the giant donut costume he wears for his job at the mall and can’t even get to first base with Felicia (Amanda Crew) a girl who thinks of him only as her best friend and nothing more. With the pressure of going to college as a sexual outcast what’s a hot-to-trot young dude to do? In this case -- using encouragement from pal Lance (Clark Duke) and with Felicia along for the ride -- the threesome take off in the unsuspecting Rex’s prized Pontiac GTO for a cross-country drive Ian thinks will end with the payoff of sex with a hot blonde named Ms. Tasty (Katrina Bowden) he met on the Internet. Unfortunately the one-day outing turns into a three-day nightmare for the trio with brother Rex on their trail and friend Lance getting a little too cocksure for his own good. Oh and did we forget to mention the Amish farm they manage to work into the tour? In the obligatory Jason Biggs role Josh Zuckerman is totally winning as a sex-starved high school graduate looking desperately to tame his out-of-control libido. With sharp comic timing and no end to the ways he is willing to humiliate himself for the sake of his art Zuckerman should have a bright future. Although the casting of his friend Lance played by the pudgy Duke would seem to be an attempt to emulate the Michael Cera/Jonah Hill teaming of Superbad Duke’s go-for-the-big laughs approach feels like we are seeing this kind of goosed-up sex maniac act for the first time. As the female “best friend” Felicia Amanda Crew is very appealing and thankfully grounded in reality. Marsden is hilarious as dopey Rex who prizes his vintage GTO and his own sexual prowess even more than the love of little bro. Seth Green has some funny bits as the sarcastic Amish man who somehow seems to know how to fix hot rods. Bowden is gorgeous and devious as the Internet hottie who may not be all Ian hoped for. Special mention also to Charlie McDermott and Mark Young who as a recurring kind of geek chorus playing two inept high school girl magnets. NOT. Director and co-screenwriter (with John Morris) Sean Anders manages to infuse what could have been a stale leftover piece of American Pie with new life and that’s largely thanks to some very funny VERY raunchy situations he dreams up for these likeable and recognizable characters. The premise of a so-called Sex Drive also offers ripe opportunities in this genre and Anders gets a lot of play out of it particularly from Duke whose uninhibited acting grabs most of the big laughs. Although they crank the gross factor way up the film doesn’t lose sight that it’s mostly a coming-of-age comic look at a rite of passage most young guys -- and girls -- will identify with. Although much is predictable Sex Drive has a strong sense of what it wants to be and in the end even turns sweetly romantic something most films of this stripe rarely do.
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.