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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Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
After being cursed by delays The Wolfman Hollywood’s latest spin on the popular werewolf myth finally bares its ugly fangs in theaters this week. Predictably the film is a train wreck of a debacle -- one would expect nothing less from a notoriously troubled production that saw its original director Mark Romanek abandon ship just two weeks before the start of shooting -- but The Wolfman’s problems stem less from the late-game addition of helmer Joe Johnston who at the very least delivered a terrific looking film (its gorgeously eerie Victorian aesthetic evoking a palpable exquisite sense of dread is by far its best feature) than from the misguided efforts of its producer and star Benicio Del Toro.
The Wolfman is the brainchild of Del Toro an ardent horror fan who conceived the film as an homage of sorts to the low-budget “monster movies” from the ‘30s and ‘40s that he loved dearly as a child. It’s fashioned as a loose remake of 1941’s The Wolf Man a film that both established Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as the definitive take on the character and introduced aspects of the werewolf legend now considered sacrosanct. The notion that a werewolf can be felled by an item made from silver for example owes its origin to The Wolf Man.
But Del Toro feels all wrong in the role of Lawrence Talbot the prodigal son of a 19th-century English aristocrat whose fateful encounter with a bloodthirsty lycan the same creature that brutally murdered his brother just days prior triggers his unwitting initiation into the accursed tribe of feral man-beasts. Del Toro's resume of low-key understated performances marked by a muttering often imperceptible delivery in films like Traffic and The Usual Suspects suggests a skill set better suited to playing another famous movie monster one significantly less loquacious than his character in this movie. Seriously -- the guy should have remade Frankenstein instead.
Playing an American-bred (but English-born we’re told) character in an 1890 setting looking uncomfortable in period attire surrounded by such “proper” British actors as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt and fully annunciating all of his line readings for the first time that I can recall Del Toro appears hopelessly out of place in The Wolfman.
Things only get worse unfortunately when Del Toro’s character transforms into the dreaded werewolf. Each time the moon is full the film transitions with increasing ridiculousness from a somber Victorian drama into a hard-core horror flick replete with grisly shots of torn flesh exposed spines and severed limbs. The first overly gruesome attack triggers a kind of nervous laugh more from the shock than anything else. The second invites an amused uneasy chuckle which soon snowballs into an outright belly laugh. And the effect soon spreads to the dialogue the outrageous gore rendering the film's mannered melodrama strangely hysterical.
Of all the Wolfman players only Hopkins seems to get the joke reveling in his manipulative mischief as Talbot's inappropriately glib stoutly aloof father. If only he'd let his castmates in on it.