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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Let's face it the world of Hollywood pirating — with its peglegs eyepatches shoulder parrots and bounty of other swashbuckling tropes — is pretty silly. Even a high seas adventure like Pirates of the Caribbean has the ridiculous Jack Sparrow to help it hobble along. Pushing the comedy can only work in pirate movie's favor and Aardman Animation's Pirates! A Band of Misfits goes all out seizing the absurdity with a flare only British sensibilities could conjure. The film is a treasure trove of design and technical wizardry but for those less interested in the intricacies of stop motion animation Pirates!'s simple story packs plenty of low-key laughs that viewers all ages can pick up.
The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is at wit's end. While he's enjoyed his time leading a ragtag group of wannabe pirates including Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin) Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson) Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and his number two Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) a lifestyle of eating ham and barely making ends meet is losing its luster. When Pirate Captain shows up to the annual Pirate of the Year submission day he's once again outdone by Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) who rides in on a whale full of gold. Driven by competition Pirate Captain reassembles his crew hits the open waters and begins a new wave of pillaging. It's all for naught until the pirates cross paths with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who identifies Pirate Captain's "parrot" as an extinct dodo bird. Suddenly the pirates have a new (and lucrative) calling: science.
There's an unexpected intelligence to Pirates!. The movie based on a children's book of the same name centers on Pirate Captain's mid-life crisis delves into the world of 18th century science and pegs Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) as the mastermind bad guy behind the elimination of the pirate occupation. That gives the accompanying adults plenty to chew (and laugh) on but director Peter Lord doesn't stray away from an ol' fashioned slapstick routine. There's a marvelous stray bathtub sequence halfway through the film a wild ride through Charles Darwin's old tudor house that's a true spectacle. But even a simple gag involving baking soda and vinegar exploding sud bubbles is expertly crafted and executed by Lord.
The stop motion technique never feels limited in Pirates! even with a great deal of walking and talking scenes. Gideon Defoe's script is elevated by the vocal performances; Grant is perfectly cast as the faux-burly Pirate Captain while Martin Freeman's perfected "timid skeptic" routine from The Office and Sherlock is once again on full display. The Aardman team continues to have a knack for gesturing their puppets uniquely natural and human. Even with all the enormous pirate ships detailed cityscapes and dazzling action Pirates! is at its best when it focuses on the sillier calmer moments.
The tangibility of Pirates! A Band of Misfits comes through in its physical stop-motion animation techniques but also its genuine heart. There's a rare reality to the storytelling even at its most fantastical. While the film doesn't hit the same emotional chords as some of Pixar or Dreamworks' best you would need an X-marked map to find a Hollywood cartoon as sweet and heartfelt. So don't walk the plank on this one — board with kids in tow immediately.
Contagion a sharp thriller from writer/director/cinematographer/editor/do-all Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11 The Informant!) is like an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel that never was. The movie quickly sets up its pawns in order to engage you in a game of pandemic chess where the terror comes from science and the humanity comes from your own empathy. Instead of relying on a sci-fi backstory outlandish deaths or large-scale set pieces Soderbergh lets the facts do the talking—and it's scary as hell.
Much like his Oscar-winning film Traffic Soderbergh unfolds the story by weaving in and out between a series of character perspectives: Matt Damon's Mitch who loses his wife to a mysterious virus and strives to protect the rest of his family; Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle members of the Center for Disease Control racing against the clock to find a cure; Kate Winslet's Erin a field agent tracking down the source of the American outbreak; Jude Law's Alan a high-profile blogger searching for the truth behind the disease; and Marion Cotillard's Dr. Orantes another agent hunting for Patient Zero in Hong Kong. While the drama spans globally each characters' quarrels are playing out in a claustrophobic scenario a world in which any person they meet any object they touch can infect them with the life-threatening disease.
Soderbergh doesn't have much time to dive into his characters' backstories but the film's screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully constructs each scene to deliver just the right balance of terrifying scientific babble and revealing personal drama. When the virus starts massacring the world population and vandalism riots and societal unrest emerge the thing that makes Contagion click is our interest in the personal stories. Damon as seems to be the case with everything he touches elevates the material being the perfect everyman and our surrogate for the too-plausible-for-comfort scenario. Fishburne too turns what's normally a plot-forwarding government agent role into a man dealing with the weight of his decisions watching citizens of the country drop like flies from his ivory tower. It's heavy stuff but Burns' playful dialogue helps the cast lighten the harrowing mood—only so the movie can pull the carpet from underneath you over and over again.
But in the end Contagion is Soderbergh's show. The director uses every ounce of cinematic artistry to leave us squirming in our seats with a fetishistic approach to shooting the most mundane of objects. The close-up is Soderbergh's weapon of choice honing in on common day objects that we realize are infested with germs (with the effect amplified by a thousand if you catch the movie in IMAX). A door handle a bathroom drier button the human face—Soderbergh lingers as a reminder of his invisible villain: the virus. That's a compliment: the design and photography is striking the purposefully pristine picture quality fills the characters' quest to stay healthy with tension. Composer Cliff Martinez's electronic score compliments the icky scenario germinating over the picture like audible infection. The world of the film is rich with detail. Just the icky kind.
Contagion isn't flawless. With so much going on things fall to the wayside—Cotillard's plotline specifically gets lost in the shuffle—but the reality keeps us engrossed. The movie plays like an oral history of a horrific event with each detail frighteningly exposed. Except in the case of Contagion it's not an event that has happened so much as one that could happen.
And at any moment.
“Just make sure O’Leary doesn’t get on that train ” smalltime gangster Stef Czyprynski (Marcus Thomas) warns his gin-soaked mess of an uncle Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley). All the button man’s got to do is pop a rival mobster. But Frank passes out drunk and O’Leary (Dennis Farina) survives the night. That’s bad news for Frank’s boss (Philip Baker Hall) as O’Leary’s planning to muscle in on his turf. It’s worse news for Frank. He’s ordered to dry out or face the consequences. Taking with him a bottle of booze and a snow globe as a reminder of sweet home Buffalo Frank heads to San Francisco with no desire to sober up. He enjoys drinking as much as he enjoys killing. But he knows he must attend AA meetings. Even if he does occasionally slip back into his old drinking ways the change of scenery is good for Frank. He lands a job in a funeral home dressing corpses. He makes friends with his sponsor Tom (Luke Wilson). He even falls for Laurel (Tea Leoni) a go-for-broke TV ad exec who’s not fazed at the prospect of dating a cold-blooded killer. (Once he opens up Frank is er frank with everyone about what he does.) At this point You Kill Me unfolds as a sharply written but less noisy middle-aged version of Grosse Pointe Blank as Frank’s professional obligations begin to intrude on his personal commitments. And he’s not sure how to handle all this especially when he decides to return to Buffalo to make amends. Just when you thought Kingsley was now only in it for the money (BloodRayne and Thunderbirds anyone?) along comes a gem like You Kill Me. Upon first meeting Frank you dismiss him as a weak pitiful fool whose problems extend beyond his drinking. Without smoothing out Frank’s rough edges Kingsley unapologetically makes this hit man a complex and sympathetic figure deserving of a second chance. And whenever Frank is clean and sober Kingsley doesn’t make the mistake of blaming our antihero’s criminal actions on alcohol. Instead he portrays Frank as a regular Joe who happens to take great pride in a job he loves. He also mines great humor from Frank’s fish-of-out-water predicaments and his brutal honesty about himself though he never allows Frank to become the subject of ridicule. Kingsley and Leoni make an odd romantic couple but they play up their obvious differences to persuade us their love is real. Sure Laura’s desperate to find a man but Leoni chips away at her tough exterior to reveal that she really adores Frank and accepts him for who he is. An annoying bundle of nerves in just about everything she does Leoni finally manages to lower the shrill factor and let’s down her guard. Yes she still talks a mile a minute but Leoni for once is confident likeable and delightfully acerbic. Even Luke Wilson pulls himself out of his usual stupor and employs his wry wit to truly reflect the mixed feelings the audience harbors toward this nice-guy killer. Director John Dahl made a name for himself with several little-seen neo-noirs that masterfully combined knotty plots with a wicked sense of humor. Unfortunately he failed to live up to his potential after The Last Seduction and Red Rock West with only Rounders standing out from such recent disappointments as The Great Raid. But You Kill Me finds Dahl back in his element. He’s clearly more comfortable cozying up to society’s unsavory types than he is eulogizing heroic prisoners of war. You Kill Me though separates itself from Dahl’s earlier thrillers by being a fascinating and darkly comical character study rather than a cool calculated exercise in deceit and manipulation. As he explores the empty lives of a man and woman destined to become soul mates Dahl embraces and celebrates their flaws rather than judge them for their past actions. Some may find it hard to identify with a man who kills for a living so Dahl goes to great lengths to show Frank as just a working stiff in need of a hug and a kiss. Yes You Kill Me does tread heavily on Grosse Pointe Blank territory during Frank’s unorthodox courtship of Lauren. But Dahl can be forgiven for this transgression as he and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provide a fresh and funny look at unconditional love. And thankfully Dahl resists the urge to fire too many guns. Washing the screen red with blood really would not have been in keeping with Frank’s preference for a swift clean kill.