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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The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
It’s 1979 the world is changing economically and culturally and an outbreak of Lyme disease turns 15-year-old Scott Bartlett’s life inside out just as his parents — including a workaholic father Mickey and doting mom Brenda — are about to get divorced and his brother Jimmy is shipping off to fight in the Falklands war. Making life even more complicated during this time of turmoil he has fallen for his next-door neighbor Adrianna whose mother Melissa is carrying on a not-so-secretive affair with Scott’s dad as her husband Charlie is feeling the devastating effects of a bout with Lyme's.
WHO’S IN IT?
A superb ensemble cast navigates co-writer/director Derick Martini’s emotionally tricky and somewhat autobiographical screenplay in style delivering sharp-edged substantive portrayals of suburbanites in a state of flux. Rory Culkin shines as the confused but likeable Scott stuck in a coming-of-age nightmare of conflicting feelings and discovery. His virginal love scene with the wonderful Emma Roberts playing girlfriend Adrianna is poignant real and quite funny. As his father Mickey Alec Baldwin stands out in one of his best performances and his marital dustups with Jill Hennessy playing wife Brenda are blistering in their raw force. Cynthia Nixon as Melissa plays uptight and needy about as well as anyone and Timothy Hutton has some nice moments as her rather hapless Lyme-stricken hubby. Culkin’s actual brother Kieran is around as the older bro and does nice work with his real-life sibling.
Martini manages to recreate a specific time and place with ease and captures a difficult time when society was trying to adapt to an unknown new world of change. What makes it really work is the sardonic sense of humor he manages to work into the proceedings. Lymelife is edgy dark and memorable a movie that may make you uncomfortable at times but one you will have a hard time shaking off.
The relatively brief running time precludes actually developing some backstories and character arcs making some of the film feel a little rushed at times but mostly it’s solidly paced and engrossing all the way.
Developed with the help of the Sundance Institute and premiered at the 2009 festival Lymelife has indie cred up the kazoo and shows that even with close to no budget you can make a smart drama for adults.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Give these filmmakers some support and see it in a theater. Perhaps its success will inspire others to make challenging film fare in the future.
A fresh update on the Pocahontas legend. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) arrives in disgrace on the shores of the New World but he is pardoned and soon rises to lead the English settlers of what will eventually be Jamestown Virginia. Sent to trade with a local chief Powhatan he falls in love with his daughter Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher). He follows his duty rather than his heart and returns to Jamestown whose starving citizens would not have survived the harsh winter without Pocahontas’s help. Powhatan (Wes Studi) mounts an attack to force the settlers to leave but Pocahontas warns Smith leading to her banishment and her new life with the Europeans. Eventually Smith is called away to mount his own expeditions leaving Pocahontas behind with a heavy heart. She finds a new suitor a gentleman farmer who wants to marry her but she still pines for Smith. Her fame spreads far beyond the New World back to England where she is summoned to meet the king and queen. Farrell is finally delivering on his early promise momentarily setting aside noisy action films to work with a world-class director and reminding us just how subtle of an actor he can be. The amazing chemistry between Farrell and newcomer Kilcher puts nearly every other movie pairing this year to shame. Kilcher who had one screen credit to her name before this was only 14 during filming quite close to Pocahontas’ believed age of 12 or 13. Before you reach for that picket sign please note that while the romance is incredibly sensual as is the whole film nothing is shown other than longing looks and playful platonic embraces. As Pocahontas Kilcher radiates beauty and innocence and it’s easy to see why John Smith would be mesmerized by her. After Smith has left her scenes of grief are heartfelt and her later solemnity is remarkable for someone so young. I had no idea of her real age until I looked over the production notes. Christian Bale who only shows up in the last third of the film is wonderfully restrained and melancholy as the widower who woos her after her own loss. Terrence Malick has always been a very sensual director one who can capture nature so well that you feel you are in the film not just watching it. But his previous films such as The Thin Red Line often have a way of losing focus of missing the forest for the trees of throwing out the plot for yet another beautiful but pointless shot of the landscape. Here his narrative is strong enough that we aren’t impatient when the camera lingers on lush forests or a lovers’ embrace. He’s made the love triangle the backbone of the film and you don’t miss the larger picture here at all. The film is not only achingly beautiful but deeply felt. His sympathies are clearly with the “naturals ” as the Europeans call the Native Americans; it’s from their perspective that we first see the tall ships arrive. The Englishmen part from Smith for the most part are dirty cruel and petty and the less time the film spends with them the better. What Malick has made is most definitely still an art film with occasionally abstract or non-linear editing choices but one that is never just art for art’s sake.
The second feature in the planet-conquering Japanese franchise opens with an all- Pokémon all-gibberish short feature that will have parents reaching for the Tylenol even sooner than expected then we cut to the main adventure titled "The Power of One." A scheming Pokémon Collector named Jirarudan begins snatching up winged Poki with the power to control fire lightning and ice destabilizing Earth's weather patterns. It's up to brave young Pokémon Trainer Ash Ketchum his chubby yellow pocket monster Pikachu and their friends to put things right.
It's a sad state of affairs when voice actor Ikue Otani manages to steal the show chirping his character's name over and over as the floppy-eared lightning-tailed Pikachu. The thespians lending their vocals to the human characters have less chance to be impressive saddled as they are with the film's clumsy English translation of Pokémon arcana and the occasional witless pun.
Kunihiko Yuyama's team puts no special stamp on the series' generic Japanese toon work which bears a closer resemblance to primitive TV fare in the "Speed Racer" or "Astro Boy" vein than the cutting-edge artistry going into modern anime epics such as "Princess Mononoke." Computer-rendered shots of Jirarudan's elaborate flying fortress and churning ocean waves are impressive in themselves but they clash with the traditionally animated material. Not that the grade school-age target audience is likely to mind.