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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Iron Man 2 Jon Favreau’s much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough 2008 blockbuster is less a comic book flick than it is a superhero version of Arthur the Oscar-nominated 1981 comedy that starred Dudley Moore as a drunken wise-cracking dilettante. In his second turn as Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr. recasts the billionaire inventor as the Dean Martin of industrialists strutting from one star-studded event to another on a bacchanalian victory tour dishing out choice one-liners and stirring up minor controversies for his exasperated babysitters Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to quell. Whether gloating about his achievements at a defense industry expo upbraiding Senators during a congressional hearing or getting wasted and donning his armored powersuit to play DJ at his birthday party there's no telling what kind of madcap mischief Tony Stark will get himself into next!
The Tony Stark Comedy Tour for what it’s worth is a supremely entertaining ride (credit screenwriter Justin Theroux at the very least with crafting the genre’s most quotable film of all time) but I’m fairly certain Iron Man 2 is supposed to be an action film not the Marvel Follies Variety Show. Surely there must be a supervillain lurking in the shadows a frighteningly powerful menace preparing to unleash its destructive might upon the world?
There is — well kind of. The primary antagonist of Iron Man 2 Mickey Rourke's hulking Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash) is certainly a fearsome beast baring his blinged-out grill and electrified tentacles but he gets all of five minutes of meaningful screen time in the sequel — hardly enough to establish him as a worthy foe for the great Iron Man. Perhaps producers found Rourke’s chosen dialect learned from John Malkovich's Rounders School of Exaggerated Russian Accents (“I vant my bort!” he furiously declares when separated from his pet parrot) to be less compelling in post-production.
More likely they became enamored with Sam Rockwell in the role of Justin Hammer Stark’s resentful business rival and Whiplash’s principal financial backer. It’s certainly understandable. Exuding the hubris and insecurity of a sardonic Mark Cuban (but capable of amusing us with more than just an underachieving basketball team) his performance is easily the best of the film surpassing even that of the great Downey. (Which makes perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists who wonder why Rockwell was the only member of the main cast not to get his own poster.)
The only problem is Rockwell’s Hammer is a venture capitalist not a comic book supervillain and every second he spends on the screen — as enjoyable as it is — is a second that could have been devoted to dimensionalizing Rourke’s character or crafting a badly-needed action sequence to enliven the talky second act.
It’s little wonder then that Stark continues with his feckless self-destructive ways unconcerned with the threat posed by the Hammer/Whiplash collaboration. He's got bigger problems to worry about — namely his inability to find a suitable replacement for palladium the substance inside the Arc Reactor that powers both his suit and his heart and which also happens to be slowly killing him.
Thankfully Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive at his compound to stage a kind of intervention bearing a powerful dual-pronged Deus Ex Machina device that instantly wrests our hero from his para-suicidal stupor — just in time to build the upgraded powersuit he’ll need to thwart the army of powerful robot drones that Whiplash is about to let loose upon on the unsuspecting citizens of Queens New York. Whew! Favreau steps up the action and delivers a suitably big finish but don't blink when Iron Man and Whiplash meet on the battlefield because you might just miss it.
Given that Iron Man 2’s director and writer have both spent the bulk of their movie careers employed as actors it comes as little surprise that they chose to focus the action on Downey and Rockwell as the two rank head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. I just wish they found room in between the one-liners for a few more explosions.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.