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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Since his days directing sketches for comedy troupe The State and his seminal debut feature Wet Hot American Summer David Wain has been expertly calculating ways to make his brand of absurdist humor work within the rigid conventional world of Hollywood movies. His latest Wanderlust is the perfect example of a hollow rom-com template that Wain fills to the brim with bizarre jokes and perfectly timed physical humor. His soldier of fortune is Paul Rudd who brings the golden ratio: looks of a leading man and a comedic gravitas that is unmatched. Rudd's at the top of his game whether he's landing a one-liner stretching his face to Jim Carrey-like proportions or reacting to his maniac co-stars the actor delivers—making Wanderlust charming deranged and very funny.
George (Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston better suited for this wacky comedy than you'd think) are a happily married couple living in New York attempting to live the dream lifestyle without any of the reality to fall back on. It doesn't work—George loses his job Linda fails to sell her documentary on penguin testicular cancer and the two find themselves forced to sell their "micro-loft" in the West Village and move in with George's brother in Atlanta. During their epic car ride George and Linda make a pit stop at a local Georgian B&B only to discover it's a counterculture commune home to an eclectic group determined to live on their own alternative terms. The inhabitants of "Elysium" range from nudists to tai chi experts to organic farmers but they all have one goal: live free. Realizing they don't have too much else going on in their lives (their alternative is shacking up with George's materialistic misogynistic businessman brother Rick played by the amazing Ken Marino) George and Linda dive head first into the off-beat world of Elysium.
Wanderlust dishes out its fair share of oddities when exploring the world of Elysium but isn't content in simply exploiting those quirks. Wain who co-wrote the script with Marino fleshes out the ensemble and makes keen choices so that no character is just a face in a crowd. Comedy pros like Justin Theroux Alan Alda Malin Akerman Joe Lo Truglio Kathryn Hahn Kerri Kenney Lauren Ambrose and more round out the cast and help color the world of Elysium piling laughs on top of laughs with every scene. Theroux stands out as Seth a spiritual leader for the group who begins to woo Linda away from George with his savvy guitar skills and potent herbal teas. Seth's slow and steady demeanor is a welcome change from the usual rapid-fire style seen in the modern comedy (the movie was produced by Judd Apatow so it wouldn't have been a surprise to see the approach replicated in Wanderlust) making us laugh in a zen fashion.
Meanwhile George just can't get anything right from group "truth circle" exercises to drinking coffee made of dirt to Elysium's "free love pact " which gives both he and his wife the chance to sexually explore outside of their relationship. The couple quickly realizes the freedom of their new home divides them and Wain's sensitivity to story and character evolve the relationship in a rather conventional yet desirable fashion.
Wanderlust falls somewhere between a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy vehicle and the pleasantly obscene work of Wain's past—and it may catch some off guard. The movie doesn't mind throwing in a bit of male nudity playing with abrasive repetition or those who find laughs in patience. The movie fully embraces the weird while never lettings its characters slip fully into caricature. Much like George and Linda's own dilemma Wanderlust wants to find harmony between the mainstream and the not-so-much. Thankfully it achieves inner peace.
In the last seven years Denzel Washington has paired with director Tony Scott on four hyperkinetic ultra-saturated feature films: Man on Fire Deja Vu The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. When he strays from the time-honored action collaboration you'd think the man would take a break from the format. Not so—as Washington's new film Safe House clearly demonstrates.
Daniel Espinosa director of the acclaimed Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash shoots his espionage thriller with Scott-ian flair complete with rapid camera movement a palette of eye-scorchingly bright colors and fragmented editing. If Safe House was emotionally compelling the stylistic approach might make the narrative sizzle—but the script is as simple and familiar as they come: Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent with a monotonous gig. He's a safe housekeeper tasked with maintaining a stronghold in South Africa in case the feds need to stop by for some…interrogating. After a year of begging for field work and keeping the joint tidy Weston finds himself embroiled in the investigation of Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA notorious for selling information on the black market. A group of agents bring Bell in to Weston's safe house for a routine waterboarding but everything is thrown into chaos when the lockdown is infiltrated by machine-wielding baddies looking to put a bullet in Bell's head. To keep the captor alive Weston goes on the run with Bell in hand…never knowing exactly why everyone wants the guy dead.
The setup for Safe House provides Washington and Reynolds two fully capable action stars to do their thing and to do it well. The two characters have their own defining characteristics that each actor bites off with ferocity: Reynolds' Weston is a man drowning in circumstance built to kick ass but still out of his league and just hoping to get back to his gal in one piece. Bell has years of experience boring into the heads of his opponents and Washington plays him with the necessary charisma and confidence that make even his most despicable characters a treat to watch.
But the duo fight a losing battle in Safe House contending with the script's meandering action and ambiguous stakes that turn the Bourne-esque thriller into a grueling experience. Much of the movie is an extended chase scene where the object of the bad guys' desire is never identified. It's a mystery!—but the lack of info comes off as confusing. Safe House cuts back and forth between the compelling relationship between Weston and Bell and a war room full of exceptional actors (Vera Farmiga Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepherd) given nothing to do but spurt straightforward backstory and typical "there's no time Mr. ______!" exclamatory statements. Caking it is Espinosa's direction which lacks any sense of coherent geography. The action is never intense because you have no idea who is going where and when and why.
Safe House is a competently made movie with enough talent to keep it afloat but without any definable hook or dramatic emphasis it plays out like an undercooked version of the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott formula. Which is unfortunate as four solid ones already exist.
Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) is a drag -- a recent divorcee in a dead-end job who basically has one word for everything: “No!” Then one day he is dragged to one of those super positive self-help seminars that forces him to say “Yes” to everything or face dire consequences. Thing is it works. Need Viagra? Yes. Bungee jumping? Yes. A quick hummer by his over-sexed septuagenarian neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan)? Uh … yes? Carl’s newfound agreeable self gains him more than he ever imagined. He even finds the love of his life a kooky musician/amateur photographer named Allison (Zooey Deschanel). Of course all this goodwill does have its consequences and Carl learns some valuable lessons. Sound familiar? Hey if Liar Liar worked once why not go back to the comedy well? Jim Carrey is just his best when he’s in a comedy -- even quirky comedies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He is so at home in the shoes of this kind of loveable loser who gets to live life in broad strokes. He knows how to play for big laughs without going overboard. So from now on Jim just say NO to thrillers like The Number 23. In the top notch supporting cast Sasha Alexander is a deadpan standout as the Persian wife he orders online and veteran Terence Stamp is a hoot as the self-help guru who gets Carrey into his predicament in the first place. Also very amusing are his best buddies played by Bradley Cooper and a hilarious Danny Masterson. As his bonkers New Zealand-esque boss Flight of the Concord’s Rhys Darby is a riot as Carl's boss. Deschanel is kind of the “straight man” here but she’s handles it well if not memorably. Peyton Reed is a fairly reliable comedy director with mostly hits (Bring It On The Break-Up). He knows Yes Man exists as a vehicle for the Jim Carrey brand of comedy and lets Carrey hog the spotlight. The movie lives or dies on what Carrey can deliver and on that scale Yes Man is a hit. There are some bits that fall flat and might have been cut but for all its broad humor Reed manages to keep it grounded and in simple scenes between Carrey and Deschanel the movie even borders on sweet. In a season of dark drama on screen -- and off -- the antidote could well be this dumb but fun time killer. So is a little comic relief worth the $10 in the economic downturn? We say YES!