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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Liam Neeson is that rare breed of actor who grows more badass with age who at the cusp of 60 appears quite credible besting men 30 years younger – or anyone else foolish enough to provoke him. In The Grey – a gripping but ponderous man-versus-wild epic directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) – his foe is no less formidable than Mother Nature in all her fury. She has met her match.
Neeson plays Ottway a man whose sole job on an Alaskan oil rig consists of gunning down the occasional wolf that makes a run at an oilworker. (Fences apparently being in short supply in the Arctic.) Ottway is a hard stoic sort and one gets the strong sense that he tended toward irascibility even before his wife departed (for reasons not made clear till late in the film) taking with her his remaining purpose for living. He gains a new one appropriately enough when his flight home crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness killing all but a handful of its passengers. Ottway his survival skills honed in a previous life emerges as the only person capable of guiding them to salvation.
Carnahan surrounds Neeson with an ensemble of familiar types the most notable of which are Talget (Dermot Mulroney) the family man Henrick (Dallas Roberts) the conscience and Diaz (Frank Grillo) the jerk. They encounter the predictable male team-building hurdles puffing chests and locking horns before Ottway asserts himself as the Alpha Male. Figuring they’ll perish before salvation arrives they agree to make the perilous trek to the nearest human habitat braving any number of dangers the most fearsome of which are the ravenous “rogue wolves” that roam the landscape. (The film shot in British Columbia in conditions that were apparently every bit as brutal as they appear on-screen certainly looks authentic – both beautiful and ominous.)
When they aren’t battling the predatory lupine menace the men have time – far too much time – to reflect upon their plight and its existential implications. The Grey would have been perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward survival epic the “Liam punches wolves” movie promised by the trailer but Carnahan is intent on imbuing the film with a philosophical poignancy wholly unsuitable for a film featuring lines like “We’re in Fuck City population five and dwindling ” and “We’re gonna cook this son of a bitch!” – the latter uttered at the capture of one of the wolves. As a film Carnahan’s macho metaphysics leave The Grey feeling a bit overcooked.
While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross) a collector of rare antiquities to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish) the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1 000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.
Poor Skarsgard. To his credit the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching) Merrin is practically transformed into sexy religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. "If everyone died who buried them?" Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire) meanwhile doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist however pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch) who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.
The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too including his inane man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier though is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley is so vague it's irritating.