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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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
With the unveiling of the official competition and Un Certain Regard lineups for the Cannes Film Festival Thursday morning in Paris came the news that Mel Gibson will be striding up the red carpet next month.
The actor will be out to support Jodie Foster’s The Beaver which has an out-of-competition berth. That news, which was imparted by the festival’s general delegate Thierry Fremaux ahead of announcing the films in official competition, was just one bit of info which appeared to get the assembled journalists all a-Twitter.
The rest of the announcements, while somewhat anticipated, make for a Cannes festival that will be heavy on art house bigwigs and newcomers alike.
The roster of returning talent includes such powerhouse auteurs as Lars von Trier with Melancholia, Pedro Almodovar with The Skin I Live In, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne with Le Gamin au Velo, Aki Kaurismaki with Le Havre, Radu Milhaileanu with La Source des Femmes, Nanni Moretti with We Have a Pope, Paolo Sorrentino with This Must Be the Place and, of course, Terrence Malick with Tree of Life. That film had actually been expected to be in competition last year but was not ready in time. Malick won the directing prize for Days of Heaven when he was last in competition in 1979.
Sean Penn stars in the English-language Sorrentino film and in Tree of Life which also has Brad Pitt – a near-certain bet to make an appearance in Cannes – and Jessica Chastain. Other stars potentially gracing the red carpet in support of their films include Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland who star in Melancholia while Pitt’s partner Angelina Jolie is a likely attendee for the Kung Fu Panda sequel, although that film is not among the official selections.
The cast of Woody Allen’s opening night film, Midnight in Paris includes Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and model/singer-turned-first-lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy while Rob Marshall’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is screening out of competition which can only mean that Johnny Depp and French partner Vanessa Paradis will be on hand on the Riviera.
But, while a major element of Cannes is the glitz and glamour, the most important component is the films.
Along with the big name auteurs this year will be new talent like Australian Julia Leigh whose first film Sleeping Beauty has scored a competition berth. There are 19 films in competition and 19 in the complementary Un Certain Regard sidebar. All told, there are six female directors with films across the two sections which marks a first for the festival.
Austrian Markus Schleinzer is no stranger to Cannes having acted as casting director for many of the films of Palme d’Or winner Michael Haneke, but this time he’ll be on the Croisette with his directorial debut, Michael.
Making his first trip to Cannes is cult favorite Nicolas Winding Refn. The Pusher director will be on hand with competition entry Drive which stars Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan.
Other English-language titles include Sean Durkin’s feature debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene which originally premiered in Sundance and stars Elizabeth Olsen. That film will run in Un Certain Regard. Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly is in competition.
In introducing the selection, which has some notable absences (Dominik Moll’s The Monk and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method among them), Fremaux remarked that although he and his committees chose 49 films for the official selection, “there were a lot more than 49 films that we liked.”
Cannes runs from May 11-22 with Robert De Niro overseeing the main jury as president. Keep an eye out for Hollywood.com’s Cannes blog which will run down the daily festivities direct from the Riviera and the red carpet.
Full list of official selection films:
Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen
The Skin I Live In - Pedro Almodovar
House of Tolerance - Bertrand Bonello
Pater - Alain Cavalier
Footnote - Joseph Cedar
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Le Gamin au Velo - Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Le Havre - Aki Kaurismaki
Hanezu No Tsuki - Naomi Kawase
Sleeping Beauty - Julia Leigh
Poliss - Maiwenn
The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick
La Source des Femmes - Radu Mihaileanu
Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai - Takashi Miike
We Have a Pope - Nanni Moretti
We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lynne Ramsay
Michael - Markus Schleinzer
This Must Be the Place - Paolo Sorrentino
Melancholia - Lars Von Trier
Drive - Nicolas Winding Refn
Out of Competition
The Conquest - Xavier Durringer
The Beaver - Jodie Foster
The Artist - Michel Hazanavicius
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Rob Marshall
Un Certain Regard
Restless - Gus Van Sant (opening film)
The Hunter “ Bakur Bakuradeze
Halt auf freier Strecke - Andreas Dresen
Hors Satan - Bruno Dumont
Martha Marcy May Marlene - Sean Durkin
The Snows of Kilamanjaro - Robert Guedeguian
Skoonheid - Oliver Hermanus
The Day He Arrives - Hong Sang-soo
Bonsai - Cristian Jimenez
Tatsumi - Eric Koo
Arirang - Kim Ki-duk
Where Do We Go Now? - Nadine Labaki
Loverboy - Catalin Mitulescu
Yellow Sea - Na Hong-jin
Miss Bala – Gerardo Naranjo
Trabalhar Cansa - Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra
L’Exercice de l’Etat - Pierre Schoeller
Toomelah - Ivan Sen
Oslo, August 31 - Joachim Trier
Wu Xia - Chan Peter Ho-Sun
Dias de Gracia - dir. Tekla Taidelli
Labrador - Frederikke Aspock
Le Maitre des Forges de l’Enfer - Rithy Panh
Michel Petrucciani - Michael Radford
Tous Au Larzac - Christian Rouaud