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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While the annual Sundance film festival continues to be a place that launches young filmmaking talent, over the years it's also become a star-studded publicity machine attracting big names looking to debut their new films. The list of celebs attending the 2013 festival for the out-of-competition premieres of their new movies should not disappoint.
The most anticipated premiere won't happen until the end of the festival, when the Steve Jobs biopic jOBS, starring Ashton Kutcher as the Apple guru, is honored as the closing night film.
Oscar-winning screenwriters (and sometime sitcom stars) Nat Faxon and Jim Rash will make their directorial debut with a film they wrote called The Way, Way Back, starring Steve Carell and Toni Collette.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt will take it one step further by starring in his self-penned directorial debut, DonJon's Addiction, alongside Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore.
There's also Lovelace, with Amanda Seyfried as the titular '70s porn star, the third union of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, and Jane Campion's six-hour epic Top of the Lake, among many others.
The documentaries premiering out of competition cover diverse topics, including Wikileaks, Jeremy Lin, multiple sclerosis, Dick Cheney and more.
The 2013 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 17-27, 2013.
A.C.O.D. / U.S.A. (Director: Stuart Zicherman, Screenwriters: Ben Karlin, Stuart Zicherman) — Carter is a well-adjusted Adult Child of Divorce. So he thinks. When he discovers he was part of a divorce study as a child, it wreaks havoc on his family and forces him to face his chaotic past. Cast: Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catherine O'Hara, Amy Poehler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clark Duke.
Before Midnight / U.S.A. (Director: Richard Linklater, Screenwriters: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater— We meet Jesse and Celine nine years on in Greece. Almost two decades have passed since their first meeting on that train bound for Vienna. Before the clock strikes midnight, we will again become part of their story. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Ariane Labed, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick.
Big Sur / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Michael Polish) — Unable to cope with a suddenly demanding public and battling advanced alcoholism, Jack Kerouac seeks respite in three brief sojourns to a cabin in Big Sur, which reveal his mental and physical deterioration. Cast: Jean-Marc Barr, Kate Bosworth, Josh Lucas, Radha Mitchell, Anthony Edwards, Henry Thomas.
Breathe In / U.S.A. (Director: Drake Doremus, Screenwriters: Drake Doremus, Ben York Jones) — When a foreign exchange student arrives in a small upstate New York town, she challenges the dynamics of her host family's relationships and alters their lives forever. Cast: Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, Amy Ryan, Mackenzie Davis.
Don Jon's Addiction / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — In Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s charming directorial debut, a selfish modern-day Don Juan attempts to change his ways. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Rob Brown.
The East / U.S.A. (Director: Zal Batmanglij, Screenwriters: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling) — An operative for an elite private intelligence firm goes into deep cover to infiltrate a mysterious anarchist collective attacking major corporations. Bent on apprehending these fugitives, she finds her loyalty tested as her feelings grow for the group's charismatic leader. Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Patricia Clarkson.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete / U.S.A. (Director: George Tillman Jr., Screenwriter: Michael Starrbury) — Separated from their mothers and facing a summer in the Brooklyn projects alone, two boys hide from police and forage for food, with only each other to trust. A story of salvation through friendship and two boys against the world. Cast: Skylan Brooks, Ethan Dizon, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright.
jOBS / U.S.A. (Director: Joshua Michael Stern, Screenwriter: Matt Whiteley) — The true story of one of the greatest entrepreneurs in American history, jOBS chronicles the defining 30 years of Steve Jobs’ life. jOBS is a candid, inspiring and personal portrait of the one who saw things differently. Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine. CLOSING NIGHT FILM
The Look of Love / United Kingdom (Director: Michael Winterbottom, Screenwriter: Matt Greenhalgh) — The true story of British adult magazine publisher and entrepreneur Paul Raymond. A modern day King Midas story, Raymond became one of the richest men in Britain at the cost of losing those closest to him. Cast: Steve Coogan, Anna Friel, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton.
Lovelace / U.S.A. (Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Screenwriter: Andy Bellin) — Deep Throat, the first pornographic feature film to be a mainstream success, was an international sensation in 1972 and made its star, Linda Lovelace, a media darling. Years later the “poster girl for the sexual revolution” revealed a darker side to her story. Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Hank Azaria, Adam Brody, James Franco, Sharon Stone.
The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman / U.S.A. (Director: Fredrik Bond, Screenwriter: Matt Drake) — Traveling abroad, Charlie Countryman falls for Gabi, a Romanian beauty whose unreachable heart has its origins in Nigel, her violent, charismatic ex. As the darkness of Gabi’s past increasingly envelops him, Charlie resolves to win her heart, or die trying. Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen, Rupert Grint, James Buckley, Til Schweiger.
Prince Avalanche / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: David Gordon Green) — Two highway road workers spend the summer of 1988 away from their city lives. The isolated landscape becomes a place of misadventure as the men find themselves at odds with each other and the women they left behind. Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch.
Stoker / U.S.A. (Director: Park Chan-Wook, Screenwriter: Wentworth Miller) — After India's father dies in an auto accident, her Uncle Charlie comes to live with her and her mother, Evelyn. Soon after his arrival, India suspects that this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives but becomes increasingly infatuated with him. Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Nicole Kidman.
Sweetwater / U.S.A. (Directors: Logan Miller, Noah Miller, Screenwriter: Andrew McKenzie) — In the late 1800s, a fanatical religious leader, a renegade Sheriff, and a former prostitute collide in a blood triangle on the rugged plains of the New Mexico Territory. Cast: Ed Harris, January Jones, Jason Isaacs, Eduardo Noriega, Steven Rude, Amy Madigan.
Top of the Lake / Australia, New Zealand (Directors: Jane Campion, Garth Davis, Screenwriters: Jane Campion, Gerard Lee) — A 12-year-old girl stands chest deep in a frozen lake. She is five months pregnant, and won't say who the father is. Then she disappears. So begins a haunting mystery that consumes a community. Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter, Peter Mullan, David Wenham. This six-hour film will screen once during the Festival.
Two Mothers / Australia, France (Director: Anne Fontaine, Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton) — This gripping tale of love, lust and the power of friendship charts the unconventional and passionate affairs of two lifelong friends who fall in love with each other’s sons. Cast: Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, Xavier Samuel, James Frechevile.
Very Good Girls / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Naomi Foner) — In the long, half-naked days of a New York summer, two girls on the brink of becoming women fall for the same guy and find that life isn't as simple or safe as they had thought. Cast: Dakota Fanning, Elizabeth Olsen, Boyd Holbrook, Demi Moore, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Barkin.
The Way, Way Back / U.S.A. (Directors and screenwriters: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) — Duncan, an introverted 14-year-old, comes into his own over the course of a comedic summer when he forms unlikely friendships with the gregarious manager of a rundown water park and the misfits who work there. Cast: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James.
2013 DOCUMENTARY PREMIERES
ANITA / U.S.A. (Director: Freida Mock) — Anita Hill, an African-American woman, charges Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment in explosive Senate hearings in 1991 – bringing sexual politics into the national consciousness and fueling 20 years of international debate on the issues.
The Crash Reel / U.S.A. (Director: Lucy Walker) — The jaw-dropping story of one unforgettable athlete, Kevin Pearce; one eye-popping sport, snowboarding; and one explosive issue, traumatic brain injury. An epic rivalry between Kevin and Shaun White culminates in a life-changing crash and a comeback story with a difference. SALT LAKE CITY GALA FILM
History of the Eagles / U.S.A. (Director: Alison Ellwood) — Using never-before-seen home movies, archival footage and new interviews with all current and former members of the Eagles, this documentary provides an intimate look into the history of the band and the legacy of their music.
Linsanity / U.S.A. (Director: Evan Leong) — Jeremy Lin came from a humble background to make an unbelievable run in the NBA. State high school champion, all-Ivy League at Harvard, undrafted by the NBA and unwanted there: his story started long before he landed on Broadway.
Pandora's Promise / U.S.A. (Director: Robert Stone) — A growing number of environmentalists are renouncing decades of antinuclear orthodoxy and have come to believe that the most feared and controversial technology known to mankind is probably our greatest hope.
Running from Crazy / U.S.A. (Director: Barbara Kopple) — Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, strives for a greater understanding of her family history of suicide and mental illness. As tragedies are explored and deeply hidden secrets are revealed, Mariel searches for a way to overcome a similar fate.
Sound City / U.S.A. (Director: Dave Grohl) — Through interviews and performances with the legendary musicians and producers who worked at America's greatest unsung recording studio, Sound City, we explore the human element of music, and the lost art of analog recording in an increasingly digital world.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks / U.S.A. (Director: Alex Gibney) — In 2010, WikiLeaks and its sources used the power of the Internet to usher in what was for some a new era of transparency and for others the beginnings of an information war.
When I Walk / U.S.A., Canada (Director: Jason DaSilva) — At 25, filmmaker and artist Jason DaSilva finds out he has a severe form of multiple sclerosis. This film shares his personal and grueling journey over the next seven years. Along the way, an unlikely miracle changes everything.
Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington / U.S.A. (Director: Sebastian Junger) — Shortly after the release of his documentary Restrepo, photographer Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. Colleague Sebastian Junger traces Hetherington's work across the world's battlefields to reveal how he transcended the boundaries of image-making to become a luminary in his profession.
The World According to Dick Cheney / U.S.A. (Directors: R.J. Cutler, Greg Finton) — How did Dick Cheney become the single-most-powerful nonpresidential figure in American history? This multi-layered examination of Cheney's life, career, key relationships and controversial worldview features exclusive interviews with the former vice president and his closest allies.
Follow Jean on Twitter @hijean
[Photo Credit: Dale Robinette/Millennium Films]
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While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.