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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Kids' movies may be the most difficult cinematic mountains to climb. The filmmakers must cater to two perspectives at constant odds with one another: young ones who find amusement in simplistic stories and broadly painted humor and their parents who need enough of a grounded hook emotional core and clever jokes to keep them from nodding off. Not an easy task.
To see this winning combination pulled off by a 3-D animation/live-action hybrid adaptation of a rather irritatingly sweet cartoon from the '80s…well it's both a shocking and welcome surprise. The Smurfs transcends recent property-grabs like Garfield Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke by embracing the cartooniness relishing in the fact that it can get away with anything with the help of adorable little blue people.
Smurfs takes the model employed by 2007's Enchanted kicking things off in the colorful fantasy world of Smurf Village and quickly bringing its cheery clueless characters to the terrifying metropolis of New York. After Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the Smurf-obsessive Gargamel (Hank Azaria) to the hidden mushroom haven of his brethren the bumbling black sheep of the Smurf family finds himself and a few clan members Papa Brainy Grumpy Gutsy Smurfette at the wrong end of a Blue Moon-induced worm hole. The group (along with Gargamel and his cat) find themselves face-planted in NYC's Central Park where they meet Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) yes man to the cosmetic titan Odile. This sets the race in motion—the Smurfs enlisting the help of Patrick to find a way back home Patrick seeking the perfect ad campaign for Odile's new make-up line and Gargamel questing hungrily for a few drops of Smurf essence.
If Smurfs was simply a barrage of fart jokes and pop culture references the movie wouldn't click but by giving each of his characters something to do (seems obvious no?) director Raja Gosnell injects the film with a helpful dose of heart. Along with Clumsy's quest to be more than his name insists Harris' Patrick also has his own problems to overcome. Namely preparing to be a Papa Smurf to the kid he's about to have with his wife Grace (Glee's Jayma Mays). Harris and Mays take their roles here seriously going all out when they need to chase the adventurous Smurfs around town in one slapsticky sequence after another but they put just as much into their smaller scenes. One moment where Papa Smurf sits Patrick down for a "Dad talk" even has weight—a near impossible task for a "kids" movie.
But let's not get too sappy: the movie is funny plain and simple. Azaria makes a living bringing cartoon characters to life—he's a reason why The Simpsons has been on for more than 20 years—and his goofy Gargamel antics are inspired. A recurring gag where the evil wizard continually steps through ventilation steam grates probably read fine on paper but Azaria knows how to play big and doesn't allow any moment of physical comedy to lazily fall through the cracks. On the flip side Harris nails the straight man role and acknowledges that hanging out with Smurfs is just as bizarre as you'd imagine. Think The Brady Bunch Movie for the world of animation.
With solid kids' flicks becoming a rare occurrence Smurfs is a breath of fresh air a film that believes in its own simple message while simultaneously being self-aware of its cartoonish heritage. The movie's a smurfy good time but it takes a particularly smurfy Smurf to let go of cynical baggage and smurf it.
The Medallion sort of reads like a recipe of other film genres: a heavy helping of buddy cop mixed with a dollop of the supernatural and a dash of the protect-the-mystical-child-with-special-powers scenario (i.e. The Golden Child). The plot isn't the reason you're sitting in the theater but you go along with it for appearances' sake. Eddie Yang (Jackie Chan) a skilled Hong Kong detective is teamed up with Interpol agent Arthur Watson (Lee Evans) a snippy control freak to catch an evil crime lord known as Snakehead (Julian Sands) who has done some nefarious deeds. Their investigation takes them to a sacred temple where Eddie ends up saving a Dalai Lama-like kid named Jai (Alex Bao) from Snakehead's clutches. The ruthless criminal wants the boy because he possesses a mystical medallion that has powers of immortality only he can control. Snakehead evenutally nabs the boy and takes him to Ireland. Det. Eddie follows the villain to Ireland where he reunites with the insecure Watson and his former flame Nicole (Claire Forlani) also an Interpol agent. Soon though Eddie gets a firsthand account the medallion's awesome force when after dying while rescuing Jai once again the boy and his pendant bring Eddie back to life transforming him into an immortal warrior with superhuman abilities. Unfortunately for him the same thing happens to Snakehead. In typical fashion Eddie and company must battle many of the bad guy's minions and then Eddie takes on Snakehead in a final otherworldly confrontation. It doesn't take the mental strength of a superhero to figure how things will turn out.
No matter how derivative The Medallion is Jackie Chan's in it so you know it's got to work on some level. This Chinese marvel who excels in acrobatics stunts and martial arts truly has the uncanny ability to take the most tired of plots and make them more palatable just by karate-chopping onto the screen with a giant smile on his face. Although the visibly aging Chan is more serious here than in recent efforts such as Shanghai Knights he still can't hide the fun factor he brings to his films. Luckily he has found a worthy comic foil in Evans (There's Something About Mary) whose bumbling antics smack of Rowan Atkinson's as Mr. Bean and who brightens up the film on more than one occasion. The only real drawback to Medallion is giving Chan a love interest. Yep our favorite martial arts boy gets to kiss the girl but almost makes us cry; unfortunately Forlani (Meet Joe Black) who holds her own with the stunts has zero chemistry with the actor as hard as she tries to make us believe Nicole really loves Eddie. When a love scene comes up you clench your teeth hoping it'll pass soon enough and get back to the action. Thankfully it does. Sorry Jackie but you should just stick to kickboxing the enemy instead of kissing the girls.
What if Chan could use his uncanny skills on a supernatural level? Just imagine the possibilities. The same thought surely must have crossed the minds of those bringing Medallion to life. The thing is does Jackie really need all those special effects to pull off what he already does so well naturally? Not really. Hong Kong director Gordon Chan (no relation) is known for his slick filmmaking style that stays true to the art of a kung-fu movie; Medallion has this spirit running through it and when Chan is fighting hand-to-hand the film is exciting. Yet once Eddie and Snakehead gain their mystical powers it suddenly lapses into Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon mode as the two foes fly through the air chase each other on top of trees and fight while dangling above ground. Ultimately these effects really don't do anything to elevate the film. In fact the camera is rather shaky the images gritty and at times it's hard to distinguish who is who. Gordon Chan should have just realized he didn't need all the highfalutin' gimmicks to make an enjoyable martial arts flick with the ever-nimble Jackie doing his stuff.