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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P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan follows J.M. Barrie's story almost to the letter. A girl on the brink of womanhood Wendy Darling (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) loves telling her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) stories of dastardly pirates as they sit in their nursery under the watchful eye of their St. Bernard Nana. Her 19th-century Londoner parents however believe the time has come for the young girl to grow up especially her father. Then a cheeky wild-haired boy named Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) flies through the nursery window one night with his trusted yet jealousy-prone fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) telling Wendy he can take her to a place full of adventure where no one ever has to grow up. She readily accepts the offer and with a few happy thoughts some fairy dust and her two brothers in tow she flies off to Neverland. (Not the ranch…the real place.) Once there Wendy encounters mermaids Indians and the Lost Boys (who refer to her as "mother") and gets the whole pirate experience in Peter's ongoing feud with arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs). But Wendy soon becomes conflicted because on the one hand she likes hangin' with hottie Peter but on the other she misses her mother. She decides it's probably best to go back and grow up but in her hurry to leave she ends up in Hook's clutches. A rescue ensues. Swords clash ticking crocodiles are fed and fairies are saved as our clever fly boy zooms Wendy and company back to London on a giant pirate ship. But does he stay and grow up himself? Hell no he's a Toys 'R Us kid forever!
All the kid actors in Peter Pan are highly watchable and appealing with angelic faces peaches-and-cream complexions and pouty cherry lips. This is the first time Peter is being played by a real-life boy a fact much hyped by the filmmakers and 12-year-old Sumpter (Frailty) does his best to live up to the expectations. (He's soon to be swoon-worthy material for sure.) He's got a mischievous gleam in his eye and a great sly smile but he really lights up when he's looking into Wendy's adorable face. Hurd-Wood the first-time actress who plays the spirited girl earned her role after a long and involved casting process it's well deserved; she fits the typical English-girl profile perfectly and gets the hang of her craft quickly infusing the character with a natural cheerful energy. It's also refreshing to see the young actors play up Wendy and Peter's feelings of first love which prior films always hinted at but never fully realized. Isaacs in a dual role as the firm-but-loving Mr. Darling and the frightening comical lonely charming needy reprehensible Captain Hook draws on his experience at playing exquisitely awful baddies (The Patriot Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and really sinks his claws into Hook. In a stand out supporting role French actress Sagnier (Swimming Pool) is really fantastic as the vivacious non-speaking Tinkerbell portraying the fairy's conflicted emotions with a silent-film over-the-top technique.
Director/writer P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) and his team try to distinguish their film from the other Peter Pans of the world by using all the technical and special effects wizardry at their disposal. Hogan says his Peter Pan is the way its author Barrie intended to be when he wrote it as a play over a 100 years ago--full of fantasy and wonder. In a way he's right and production designer Roger Ford and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar take his vision and run with it giving audiences a very lush Neverland with waterfalls fluffy pink clouds crystal-blue waters and a gorgeous fairy world. But despite the bells and whistles there really isn't anything original and different in this Pan. Even its look at the dark side of Neverland has been done in Steven Spielberg's 1991 semi-sequel Hook which showed the dangers of Neverland. In this version lives really are at stake and the pirates are not cute and fun. Even the mermaids are mysterious and malevolent with scary faces and murderous intentions a far cry from the beautiful if somewhat mean-spirited creatures of the 1953 classic Disney animated adaptation another inescapable influence on the audience. When the crocodile draws near for example tick-tocking away the croc's signature tune from the Disney film comes immediately to mind. People may love those Disney films for those cutesy catchy songs but Peter Pan really is a good story. Heck it's a great story. But it's just been done.
Here's a story about two murderesses who backstab lie and cheat--plus sing and dance--in order to make themselves stand out in roaring 1920s Chicago a town full of legends. Honestly what more could you ask for in entertainment? Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has a sensational nightclub duo with her sister blanks out and shoots her philandering husband after she catches him cheating on her--with said sister. She lives the high life in jail enjoying the perks as long as she pays for them given to her by the warden Matron "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah). Velma also hires Chicago's slickest lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to keep her notorious murder case on the front page. Enter little Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) a wannabe singer/dancer who's entranced by Chicago's promise of fame and fortune and winds up on the row for offing her abusive lover because he lied to her about breaking her into show biz. Billy immediately recognizes enormous potential in Roxie's crime of passion and while postponing Velma's case turns Roxie into America's latest sweetheart. The press loves her and Roxie milks it for all it's worth convinced she'll be famous when it's all over. The jilted Velma however has other plans for little Miss Perfect and sets out to sabotage Roxie's case. The two women stop at nothing to top one another and claim their rightful place in the spotlight. Still maybe there is room for two on that stage after all.
Once again we see how Hollywood movie stars can sometimes do more than emote on screen. Michelle Pfeiffer wowed audiences when she sang her own songs in The Fabulous Baker Boys; Nicole Kidman knocked 'em dead in Moulin Rouge. Now we have Zellweger Gere and Zeta-Jones singin' and struttin' their stuff in Chicago. The three do an admirable job handling the musical chores though Zellweger emerges as the best of the trio. Her dancing skills may need a little work but they're thankfully kept to a minimum and she certainly possesses the right amount of charisma to pull the whole musical thing off. Gere continually surprises you once you get over the fear that he's going to fall flat on his face. He even manages to pull off a tap-dancing number. Zeta-Jones who lobbied hard for the part of Velma makes her talent as a dancer evident but it's possible that Bebe Neuwirth (TV's Frasier) who originated the part in the recent Broadway revival may have fit the bill a little better. (The casting is reminiscent of the decision to give the big-screen lead in My Fair Lady to Audrey Hepburn instead of the Broadway show's star Julie Andrews.) And John C. Reilly miraculously shows some talent as a singer playing Roxie's husband Amos who supports his wife even after she cheated on him. Reilly adds this character to his list of schlub husbands this year (The Good Girl; The Hours).
Like last year's Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge Chicago's sleek production values may trumpet the triumphant return of the big-screen musical. Director Rob Marshall whose only other directorial credit is turning the musical Annie into a well-made television mini-series knows how to frame the musical numbers within the context of the story. As Roxie fantasizes about just how famous she is going to get the action segues into a dazzling solo in front of mirrors. Another standout is Queen Latifah's introductory song as Mama Morton where the scene switches between her drab warden walking through the jail and her buxom lounge siren working the audience. The film really comes alive though during the "murderess row" number where a series of jailed women explain exactly what they did to get where they are. But in this fantastic spectacle lies the main problem with the film. The scene sparkles because it incorporates real dancers women who obviously know how to dance the way Chicago's original creator/choreographer Bob Fosse intended them to dance. At this point in the film you almost wish you were watching Chicago live on stage where dancers do amazing choreography without the comfort of knowing their performance will be edited. Singing is the easy part; if musicals are truly going to make a comeback on screen Hollywood will have to go back to what it did in the '30s and '40s--groom professional dancers into movie stars. Fred Astaire where are you when we need you?