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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2009’s Sherlock Holmes found unexpected synergy in the pairing of Robert Downey Jr.’s impish charm and Guy Ritchie’s macho kinetic visual style reinventing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective for a modern blockbuster audience. The follow-up Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows employs the same winning formula while adhering judiciously to the Law of Sequels and its more-more-more dictates: more action bigger set pieces higher stakes and a darker more convoluted plot. But more as so many past sequels have taught us is rarely better.
Game of Shadows marks the emergence of Doyle’s most famous villain James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Glimpsed only in darkness in the first film Moriarty takes center stage in the sequel as Holmes’s foremost criminal foil a genius-level university professor whose extracurricular interests range from horticulture to homicide. Holmes has deduced him to be at the center of a wave of terrorist bombings as well as the seemingly unrelated deaths of various titans of industry but can’t quite discern just what the professor’s endgame might be. Composed and calculating to a menacing degree Harris makes for a promising counterweight to Downey’s manic verbosity. But as in the first film Game of Shadows’ best moments are found in the comic interplay between Holmes and his reluctant sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) who is plucked from his honeymoon to accompany the detective on a trans-continental trip in search of clues to Moriarty’s machinations.
And it’s very much a boys-only trip. The female leads from the first film Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly are tossed aside – literally in the case of the latter – in Game of Shadows while the cast’s highest-profile new addition Swedish star Noomi Rapace (best known as the original non-emaciated Lisbeth Salander) is a curious non-factor in the role of a Gypsy (or Roma if you prefer) fortune-teller. The film maintains only the slimmest pretense of a romantic subplot between her and Downey. Rapace looking perhaps a bit lost in her first English-speaking role can’t hope to eclipse the Holmes-Watson traveling road show.
Ritchie’s technique with its signature blend of rapid cutting and slow-mo and super-high frame-rates – perfect for admiring the odd apple tossed in the air or a piece of bark shot off a tree – is once again evident in the film’s awe-inspiring (and occasionally coherence-defying) set pieces the most memorable of which is set in a munitions factory with Watson wielding a gatling gun like an early T-600 prototype. But some of the novelty of the stylistic juxtaposition has faded since the first film. Ritchie tries to compensate by ramping up the firepower to limited effect. Absent amid the hail of mortar blasts and automatic weapons fire is any real sense of intrigue or suspense which proves to be Game of Shadows’ most vexing mystery.
I hope that if alien cultures are monitoring our entertainment they take a pass on the film Planet 51. It may reverse the human/alien traditional roles by having the human astronaut be the fish out of water on an alien planet but xenophobia stopped being a funny or useful plot device by the mid-'80s. Any mildly cognizant alien intelligences would take one look at this movie and decide to check back on the human race in another hundred years.
Justin Long plays Lem just another awkward teenager a role Long is too long-in-the-tooth to play in person anymore but shortly he could (and very well may) make a career out of doing it in voice work. Lem wants to be an astronomer and is vying for a job at the local observatory. He wants to score with neighborhood hottie Neera (Jessica Biel) but he can never quite muster up the confidence to make his move. His friends obsessed with comics and science fiction movies of the googly-eyed alien invasion ilk aren’t helping either. The catch is that these are all green-skinned tentacle-haired no-genitaled aliens on a distant planet who without a hint of explanation are living their lives parallel to Earth’s 1950s.
Lem is finally starting to get his game on when his life is turned upside down by the inconvenient entry of Captain Charles “Chuck” Baker (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson). Chuck is a human being and an astronaut who has landed his ship on the titular planet expecting something more barren only to find himself on the run from a culture living in fear of invasion because of a popular series of alien invasion films. His only help to get back to his module and dock with his mother ship in orbit before his countdown runs out (?) is Lem and his group of nerdy friends. Adventure ostensibly ensues and lessons are eventually learned by all: The cowardly Lem learns self-confidence the arrogant Chuck learns humility and we’re all supposed to learn tolerance towards those different from us. Unfortunately the only lesson actually imparted here is to be more careful when choosing an animated sci-fi film on which to spend your money.
While the premise here -- turning a cliché on its head -- shows promise Planet 51 has only switched the players. Every dumb alien joke since E.T. flew in front of the moon (and of course that’s here too) is included in the unimaginative script penned by the presumably sleep-writing Joe Stillman (Shrek Beavis and Butt-Head Do America). There’s not even anything fun and fast-paced here to take advantage of the animated CG format and make up for the crushing boredom. Why even do this sort of thing without an eye-candy chase scene or two?
The cast members as talented as they may be fare no better with the nothing they’re given. Johnson sounds as if he was reading a children’s book out loud to kindergarteners and it’s exhausting listening to him pander. Long is going through the same ol’ motions that have made up the majority of his career thus far and Biel is ridiculously unnecessary since she is given practically nothing to say or do. You’d think appearances by John Cleese as an alien scientist or Gary Oldman as the general leading the search for Chuck would bring some creative juices or some (sadly lacking) clever humor to the affair but they never manage to get past the tedious nature of the material written for them.
If there was ever an animated film that needed a clever punch-up team it’s this one. Planet 51 lacks both style AND substance which is surprising given the wealth of opportunities you’d think would be presented here. Perhaps first-time Spanish director Jorge Blanco and new Madrid-based studio Ilion Animation were overconfident about making a children’s film. All I can think is that they must have assumed this was going straight to DVD anyway and no one would notice. Planet 51 deserves to be packed up in a dusty crate in a corner of the Area 51 warehouse never to be seen again.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Christine has a doting boyfriend a good job and much promise until she refuses to extend the overdue home loan of Mrs. Ganush a strange one-eyed Gypsy woman who literally begs to keep her residence of 30 years. The ambitious Christine doesn’t budge and the woman unleashes the horrendous curse of the Lamia on the unsuspecting banker turning her life into hell on Earth. When she goes to a psychic to reverse the curse her entire existence is turned upside down becoming a living nightmare with no light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
WHO’S IN IT?
As Christine Alison Lohman gets to chew the scenery like there’s no tomorrow. Living an actor’s dream Lohman gets under the skin of this wickedly cursed girl and gives it her all in one harrowing sequence after another. Justin Long has the standard thankless role of her understanding but perplexed and confused boyfriend. Playing it straight he basically stands on the sidelines watching his girlfriend go slowly mad. As Christine’s boss David Paymer is all business while Dileep Rao as the all-knowing seer Christine turns to in her most dire time of need is quite effective in a handful of scenes. Stealing the show lock stock and barrel though is unquestionably the veteran TV character actress Lorna Raver who is aptly named Mrs. Ganush she is stark-raving mad. The character is blissfully over-the-top (and then some) and Raver under mounds of scary-as-hell makeup hits it out of the park.
Returning to his celebrated roots in horror Spider-Man director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) is clearly in his comfort zone as he delivers one of the best examples of the genre seen in many years. Although some CGI trickery and puppetry is employed to full effect Raimi manages to get his best jolts with expert use of camera angles creeping shadows blowing wind strong visual flourishes amped up sound effects and a brilliantly vivid musical score from Christopher Young. Raimi shows today’s purveyors of “torture porn” you don’t need graphic violence to scare the crap out of an audience — just talent. Hitchcock would have approved.
The PG-13 rating probably forced Raimi’s hand in turning on the juice and REALLY dragging us through hell in a couple of scenes so we’re hoping there’s an uncut DVD special edition coming along eventually.
There are many to choose from including a classic dinner scene with the boyfriend’s parents but for pure intensity the initial bank and parking garage encounter between Lohman and Raver has lots of teeth (so to speak) and is still sending chills down our spine. Also the creepy use of a "nosey" fly pays dividends through the entire film for the ultimate audience freakout.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Drag yourself to a multiplex. A fright flick that is this much fun deserves to be seen in a packed theater.
In the late 19th century Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) a misunderstood monster hunter is summoned to Transylvania to ferret out Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and kill him once and for all. When Van Helsing gets to the small village where the vampire was last spotted he discovers he also must contend with Dracula's three seriously twisted vampire brides Dracula's angry henchman/werewolf--and a lovely gypsy princess named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) who is hell-bent on eradicating Dracula and his bloodsucking kind for slaughtering her entire family. Oh and let's not forget Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) who holds the key to Dracula's evil master plan--something about releasing his minions of unborn bat-like children from their goo-filled cocoons so they can wreck havoc on the world. Yuck. Sounds like our resident monster stomper and his sword-swinging gal pal have their work cut out for them. If Van Helsing does manage to kill all his monster foes does that mean he's out of a job?
Jackman has the whole antihero thing down pat. He adequately embodies the younger more virile Van Helsing dishing out as much pain and torture as he can on the undead--but the Aussie actor isn't given nearly as much meat to chew on as he did say delving into the complicated Wolverine in X-Men. Instead the monster hunter is relegated to carrying big weapons wearing a big hat and muttering something about having bad dreams to a past he can't remember. Same goes for Beckinsale. The British actress was oh-so-cool on the other side of the fence playing the chic vampire Selene in Underworld cutting her way through a myriad of werewolves. As Van Helsing's heavily accented female counterpart Anna however she just runs around with her sword blurting out such pathetic dialogue such as "Dracula took everything away from me and now I'm alone in the world" while Roxburgh's Dracula--who can't hold a candle to other far more charismatic Draculas before him--wails about being so very alone as his luscious brides hang upside down in front of him. Give me a break. At least Australian actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) provides much-needed comic relief as Van Helsing's sidekick Carl a Catholic friar who doesn't much like playing hero.
With the requisite dark mood and tone action sequences and snazzy CGI-creations including the winged vampire brides and formidable werewolves you can see exactly where writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) spent Van Helsing's nearly $150 million budget. But even all the bells and whistles can't tie together the film's vacuous nonsensical mumbo jumbo as Sommers attempts to bring classic movie monsters together in the same movie. Maybe in a tongue-in-cheek Abbott and Costello movie it could work but as a serious action-packed thriller clearly Dracula Frankenstein and the Wolf Man do not need to meet. On top of that Sommers steals from other movies as well such as recent films Underworld (the whole vampire vs. werewolf conflict) and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (Van Helsing defeats a rather familiar-looking Mr. Hyde at one point). Whatever originality there is in the film leaves you either scratching your head--Dracula has kids?--or rolling your eyes--Anna needs to kill Dracula so her nine-generations of family can reunite in Heaven? Please.
The Whole Ten Yards picks up about two years after the events that changed the lives of Oz (Matthew Perry) Jimmy "The Tulip" (Bruce Willis) Jill (Amanda Peet) and Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge)--and made them a whole lot richer. Nice-guy dentist Oz is now married to Jimmy's ex-wife Cynthia and living in Brentwood Calif. where he still practices dentistry. They seem happy but Oz is so paranoid someone will come after him that he keeps an arsenal of weapons in his home which is teeming with high-tech surveillance equipment. His suspicions however are not so farfetched: Turns out Cynthia is in cahoots with Jimmy who is now married to Jill and living in Mexico and they're planning to rob Hungarian mobster Lazlo Gogolak (Kevin Pollak) who's just been released from prison. But Lazlo has an agenda of his own. He wants to kill Jimmy for the murder of his son rival hitman Yanni Gogolak a couple of years ago. When Lazlo kidnaps Cynthia to get to Jimmy (he figures Oz will spill the beans on his whereabouts) poor Oz runs off to Mexico and pleads for Jimmy's help. What Oz and Jill don't realize however is that they are part of a much bigger revenge plot against Lazlo perpetrated by their own spouses Jimmy and Cynthia.
The only thing that makes The Whole Ten Yards engaging is the returning cast who have a playful and endearing on-screen chemistry. Willis and Perry are at the forefront reprising their roles as Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudesky and Nicholas "Oz" Oseransky respectively. The actors craft their characters well and uniquely and the conflicting personalities they create--Willis' cool and collected Jimmy and Perry's nervous and scatterbrained Oz--make watching their interactions entertaining. When the two discover that the hostage in the trunk of their car has died for example Willis stands there unflinchingly while Perry yelps "It looks like he got shot in the foot! Who dies from being shot in the foot?" Peet blends in with her own brand of humor; her klutzy character Jill is hilarious without trying to be which is the key to her performance. Jill's hung up on the fact that although she's a professional marksman she's never had a real kill--she's so accident-prone that her targets always die by default. Also returning for the sequel is Pollak who played Yanni in the first film. Here he returns as Yanni's father Lazlo aged with the help of prosthetics and makeup. It's a great idea and the result is pretty funny although the character is cartoonish.
Director Howard Deutch makes a valiant effort with this sequel to the 2000 hit; there's continuity in the characters although their lives have progressed since the events of the last film. The problem with The Whole Ten Yards is its story penned by Mitchell Kapner and George Gallo. While The Whole Nine Yards had an elaborate storyline it was easy enough to follow--everyone was basically trying to kill one another. Here the plot's equally convoluted but rather than interesting twists and turns we get inconsistencies and dead ends. Take Jimmy's new Suzy Homemaker role for instance. As the film opens Willis is traipsing around his Mexican villa in bunny slippers wearing a 'do-rag on his head fussing over dinner and the fact that the potatoes are supposed to be "floating around the lobster not just stuck there." We find out it's all an act but the reasons are never disclosed. By the time the film ends audiences will be asking themselves what it was all for. Perhaps the filmmakers thought the sight of Willis as a dowdy housewife would make moviegoers laugh so hard they'd forget to ask why.