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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In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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"In this alarming cinematic event alone you will encounter a terrible fire dim lighting high tragedy a giant snake low comedy man-eating leeches and Jim Carrey " Mr. Snicket claims--and he isn't joking. It is indeed unfortunate times for the Baudelaire children who are left orphaned by a tragic fire that burned down their luxurious mansion and killed their parents. Violet (Emily Browning) one of the finest 14-year-old inventors the world has ever known her 12-year-old brother Klaus (Liam Aiken) a voracious reader and their baby sister Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) an excellent biter are now at the mercy of unknown guardians with vague connections to their parents. They include Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) a widow terrified of almost everything but who insists on proper grammar; Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) a kind and warm herpetologist who holds a well-kept secret on the Baudelaire parents' past; and the most malevolent of them all Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) a wannabe actor who sets about a series of ill-fated events for the Baudelaire orphans in hopes of obtaining their vast inheritance. It's almost too much to bear--but these orphans rely on their keen intelligence and unique talents to escape Olaf's clutches.
The distressingly talented if somewhat over-the-top Jim Carrey is tailored made for the ostentatious Count Olaf much like he was for the Grinch in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas--but this time he does it with a lot less green makeup. With a smelly disposition and one giant eyebrow Carrey sufficiently oozes the right amount of villainy as Olaf without getting too "Carreyed" away. Streep also has a marvelous time playing the skittish Aunt Josephine who is so concerned about any fateful event that may befall her inside her house she doesn't seem to realize she lives in a precarious perch above a roiling sea full of killer leeches. Connolly too takes great pleasure wrapping snakes around his neck as Uncle Monty the good-hearted reptile lover. Even Jude Law makes an appearance thankfully only in silhouette as the narrator himself Lemony Snicket. Yet even against veterans such as Carrey and Streep the stoic Baudelaire orphans make the film. They're played brilliantly by Browning (Darkness Falls) Aiken (Good Boy!) and the cute-as-a-button Hoffman twins. Unlike the inexperience of say the young Harry Potter cast when they first started out Browning and Aiken are pros bringing a rather bright and inquisitive yet suitably morose quality to their characters.
"I begged them not to do it. I begged them not to get a good director. I begged them not to cast anyone talented. I begged them not base the movie on any of my books and they chose three of them!" exclaims Mr. Snicket. Good thing the filmmakers didn't listen to Mr. Snicket aka author Daniel Handler because the story of the Baudelaire orphans and their misadventures is too sweet to pass up. It follows along the traditions of other children's literature--from the Brothers Grimm to Roald Dahl to J.K. Rowling--of absurdly awful things happening to perfectly nice children. Taking from the first three books in the series--A Bad Beginning The Reptile Room and The Wide Window--director Brad Silberling (Casper) expertly creates the Snicket world staying true to the visions and unusual style of Handler's bestsellers. Shot entirely on Hollywood sound stages the film is virtual eye candy dripping with austere sets--particularly Count Olaf's dilapidated mansion and Aunt Josephine's rickety house--that are reminiscent of Barry Sonnenfeld's creepy Addams Family and Tim Burton's bleak Sleepy Hollow (whose production designer Rick Heinrichs designed Snicket). Can't wait to see what they do in the next Snicket installment.