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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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
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.
There are distinct echoes of Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill here as the film focuses on four couples who have been friends since their college days. Periodically they get together and ask themselves the title question as they re-examine their relationships. There’s Janet Jackson as Patricia the college lecturer whose best-selling book is based on her friends’ relationships. Patricia and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) are trying to hold their marriage together after the loss of their young son in a tragic car accident. The cocky Mike (Richard T. Jones) flaunts an adulterous relationship in front of his insecure overweight wife Shelia (Jill Scott) who is completely oblivious to the deception. Terry (Perry himself) is a successful pediatrician trying to convince his wife Diane (Sharon Leal)--a successful attorney in her own right--to have more kids. Marcus (Michael Jai White) a former pro football player merely tries to get through the day without a tongue-lashing from his acerbic wife Angela (Tasha Smith) a woman not known for keeping her opinions to herself regardless of how appropriate the circumstances. All of them find themselves confronting career demands family demands infidelity incompatibility and mistrust--all while drinking far too much wine. Needless to say before their get-together is over a number of secrets will be divulged and each couple will find their relationships shaken to their respective cores. Forgoing the housedress of his cinematic alter-ego “Madea ” Perry proves an affable screen personality quite relaxed within the ensemble. Jones doesn’t go out of his way to make Mike in any way likable which makes his one of the more memorable and clearly defined characters in the entire cast. Although Smith gets all the sassy lines White easily steals their scenes together with a surprisingly appealing comic turn. Hunky Lamman Rucker plays a dreamboat sheriff who finds himself drawn into this ever-shifting circle of friends. The women have a tougher go of it with Jackson giving a tremulous performance that makes her character almost disappear into the background. Yoba is also low-key although more affectingly so as her onscreen spouse. Leal does what she can with the stock role of a career woman who takes her home life for granted but she fares better than Scott whose crying scenes--and there are more than one--ground the story to a halt. All told however the ensemble cast has an easy and relaxed chemistry together which keeps the film--as soapy as uneven as it often is--afloat throughout. Tyler Perry doesn’t open up his stage play to any major degree preferring to leave the emphasis on characters and dialogue--both of which incidentally he has created. Perry tends to approach these intricate topics with broad (but not irrelevant) strokes but he’s not about to tamper with a successful formula. Like most of Perry’s previous films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea*s Family Reunion et. al.) Why Did I Get Married? runs on a bit and overstates its case but its heart’s in the right place.
After the death of their parents Rashad (Tip "T.I." Harris) and his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) have to fend for themselves. Trying not to think about his pending high school graduation Rashad works as a janitor for his stingy uncle (Mykelti Williamson) and hangs out with his friends practicing for the Skate Wars competition at their local roller rink. Ant however approaches life differently after he hooks up with Marcus (Big Boi) a big-time drug dealer in the area. Marcus recruits Ant to do his dirty work and the kid gets himself tangled up in the harsh world of drugs money and violence. It’s up to his older brother to get him out of it and finally steer him in the right direction. ATL proves some rapper-turned-actors can indeed be in a movie not based on their real lives. Known as “The King of the South” in the rap world T.I. displays some notable acting skills. Born and raised in the ATL (that’s Atlanta to us lay folk) his southern slang and cool demeanor lend credibility. As well Big Boi (half of the Atlanta-based hip-hop group OutKast) does a nice job giving his drug lord character multi-layers. He plays it smooth recruiting high school kids and promising them more money then they have ever seen. When they don’t pay up he then turns on a dime and becomes quite menacing. And watch out for Evan Ross the youngest son of the legendary Diana Ross. In his debut performance as Ant he tugs at your heart even when you’re hoping Rashad will smack him for the bad choices he makes. Music video director Chris Robinson makes his feature directing debut with ATL a story loosely based on ATL producers Dallas Austin and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’ (of TLC fame) experiences growing up in Atlanta. With many of the hottest hip-hop artists coming out of Atlanta Robinson--along with first-time screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism--impressively incorporates the music without focusing on it. Sure the soundtrack crunks it up but this is not a film about a wannabe rapper trying to make it out of the ‘hood and into the spotlight. There aren’t any lengthy shootouts and no one dies. Instead ATL interweaves compelling themes of family dynamics rich vs. poor--and even a roller skating motif which seems to come out of left field but provides some fun moments. ATL is a breath of fresh air for a hip-hop movie that isn't about hip-hop.