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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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
When all-American girl Susan Murphy is inadvertently hit by a falling meteor on her wedding day she grows to be nearly 50 feet tall. The U.S. military gets wind of this renames her Ginormica and locks her away with a slacker group of other “monsters” in a top-secret compound. But when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins wreaking havoc these good-hearted but inept creatures are called into action by the President and must band together as a team to save the world from certain catastrophe.
WHO’S IN IT?
As usual Dreamworks has assembled a stellar A-list voice cast led by Reese Witherspoon as Susan/Ginormica. Playing one of the rare female animated heroes Witherspoon’s sweet/confused demeanor — in light of her highly unusual status as a fearsome freakazoid — hits just the right tone generously letting her zanier colleagues steal scenes from right under her (a long way down by the way). Chief among these are a not-so-bright gelatinous blue mass named B.O.B. hilariously voiced by Seth Rogen; the genius Dr. Cockroach Ph.D in the capable hands of House doc Hugh Laurie; and Will Arnett’s half-ape half-fish The Missing Link. In the human roles there’s Stephen Colbert as the idiotic U.S. President Kiefer Sutherland as the monster’s prison guardian Paul Rudd as the ego-driven weatherman fiancé of Susan; and a deliciously villainous Rainn Wilson as Galaxhar the alien determined to take over Earth.
Superb 3-D effects aren’t overdone and add immeasurably to the ginormous fun of the film but even seeing it in theaters that only show it in regular 2-D doesn’t spoil the pure joy of this cartoonish War of the Worlds. Throw in parodies of every cheap '50s sci-fi movie you can think of and you have the ingredients for a silly monster mash sure to appeal to just about anyone who wants to laugh. Despite the impressive production elements it’s the smart and clever script that really sets it apart from its competitors — and that even includes the similar Monsters Inc. from Pixar.
Like any kid-oriented comic ‘toon today the action can be a bit too frenetic and Monsters vs. Aliens piles a lot of it on in its trim 95 minutes. Still the lovable characters carry the day and somehow make it all palatable.
When Susan now Ginormica brings her new friends home to meet her parents chaos ensues and so do the laughs. Also impressive are the large action scenes that make fine use of CGI animation breakthroughs.
BEST SUPPORTING BLOB:
It's easily the one-eyed lame-brained blue lug of a people hugger named B.O.B. perfectly matched to the talents of Rogen. He rolls away with the movie and inevitably the merchandise tie-ins.
Starting near the end of his short 24-year life and then told in flashback this film version of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace’s (Jamal Woolard) rapid rise from the streets of Brooklyn to fame is told in standard-issue Hollywood biopic style. We see this Catholic honors student (played by his real life son Christopher Jordan Wallace) become a teenage drug dealer and accidental father before a chance recording finds its way to Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) who engineers an almost immediate rise to fame fortune -- and trouble. “Biggie” now must juggle his newfound recording career a marriage to fellow artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) his romantic encounters with female rap comer L’il Kim (Naturi Naughton) and a major East Coast/West Coast rivalry with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) that leads to tragedy for both. As Wallace Brooklyn rapper Woolard is almost indistinguishable from the real man himself. He’s completely convincing performing B.I.G’s biggie hits and proves himself to be a first-rate dramatic actor as well -- at least in a story like this that he can clearly relate to. As his mother Angela Bassett makes the most of limited screen time (despite top billing) and expertly conveys the angst of a parent fighting a losing battle for her son. Luke again shows why he is so promising playing Puffy with just the right amount of flash and supreme confidence. Unfortunately the “balanced” portrait of Combs and many others in B.I.G’s life is tainted by the fact this film was produced by some of the real life players including his managers mother and executive producer Combs. George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) directs this by-the-numbers account of Biggie’s life in a style we have seen countless times before. Except for a couple of occasions he doesn’t even let the rap sequences play out to give us an idea of how this guy whose songs reflected his rough Brooklyn lifestyle could climb to the top so fast. Whatever was special is lost in what appears to be a brazen attempt to sell soundtrack albums.
The lawlessness of street basketball may be unknown to most audiences but it's the backdrop for Crossover telling the struggles of Detroit youth and how they yearn to break out into the mainstream world. Tech (Anthony Mackie) and his best friend Noah Cruise (Wesley Jonathan) are two extremely talented ball players who get pressured by a sleazy bookie and former sports agent (Wayne Brady) to go pro. Cruise wants to become a doctor and his basketball skills are going to get him to pre-med at UCLA on a scholarship. His more hot-tempered and less ambitious pal Tech only wants to pass his high-school equivalency test and beat the local thugs at their game in the underground street match championship. But before they head out to L.A. to pursue their dreams they fall for two local girls (Alecia Jai Fears and Eva Pigford) which changes everything. Mackie is one of the better actors around these days. He truly shines in the upcoming romance island drama Haven and is known as the guy who gets punched out by Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby. But this over-the-top cliché-riddled You Got Served wannabe isn't his best showcase. He plays the role with exaggerated bravado. Also Brady--who's known for his hilarious improv skills on the show Whose Line Is It Anyway?--isn’t at all funny as a creepy self-interested hustler. Smaller vibrant cameos by Lil' J.J. and Philip "Hot Sauce" Champion as fellow players stand out but unfortunately too short on screen time. And as much as the seemingly likable Jonathan tries to make his character the multi-dimensional heart-tugging soul of the story he lacks the chops to carry the movie. Mackie and Jonathan may have street cred as street basketball players but their portrayals of inner-city youth don't have real-life cred. Crossover is sure to have audiences shouting "Show me the basketball!" But where is the dramatic footage of really good game playing like in Glory Road He Got Game or Coach Carter? Yes there's the dramatic drop of the ball at midnight in an old train station where the lawless game takes place but that’s not enough. The game is all about winning and director Preston A. Whitmore II shows that well but the story turns maudlin and the characters act like they’re performing in an overly earnest community theater that just tries too hard. And the whole “girlfriend” thing only proves to be a ridiculous diversion. It's a bad sign when a non-sports fan wants to see more b-ball instead of the unnecessarily heavy dramatic plot lines.
December 11, 2003 1:48pm EST
Remember that movie about a high school geek who gets the most popular girl in school to be his girlfriend to boost his own image only to discover that fitting in isn't worth sacrificing his individuality? Or was that a Saved by the Bell episode? Love Don't Cost a Thing is the latest teen comedy to follow that formula to a fault: Alvin Johnson (Nick Cannon) is an outcast teen with no style and he's ready to do anything to shed his nerdy image. Even his father (Steve Harvey) an old-school ladies' man wishes the boy would get out and socialize more. So when the popular Paris Morgan (Christina Millian) wrecks her mother's Cadillac Escalade Alvin an amateur mechanic offers to fix the vehicle and pay for the parts if she will pretend to be his girlfriend for two weeks. A haircut and several Sean John warm-up suits later Alvin becomes "Al " an ultra-smooth guy who's "got all the 411s." Of course Paris starts to fall for Al who's too busy keeping up his "big pimpin'" facade to notice. But after alienating everyone close to him including his childhood friends stylin' Al learns a valuable lesson about being himself.
Cannon's performance in Love Don't Cost a Thing falls short of the impressive one he delivered in the musical drama Drumline--his first lead role in a feature film. Here it's impossible to sympathize with the 23-year-old Cannon's clownish character even when he is needlessly bullied by jocks. With his crazy uneven Afro and spastic walk even Molly Ringwald's goody-good character Samantha in Sixteen Candles might be tempted to point and laugh. But while the movie's hero doesn't score many points other characters do notably Al's gal pal Paris played by songwriter/actress Millian who has written songs for Ja Rule and appeared as a guest on several TV shows including Charmed and The Steve Harvey Show. She delivers a very sincere performance as the "frappuccino with hips " and although audiences should despise her character for prostituting her popularity and lying to just about everybody Millian manages to morph Paris into a likeable personality--and we can't help but go along for the ride. But mustachioed comic Harvey steals the show as Al's loveable father Clarence a man who still boogies to his 8-track collection and gives his son very valuable life advice including how to open a condom wrapper using only one hand.
Writer/director Troy Beyer's Love Don't Cost a Thing is so visually horrendous that it should have been called This Film Didn't Cost a Thing. Beyer who directed the dire 1998 comedy Let's Talk About Sex and penned the even worse 1997 B.A.P.S. doesn't much improve her track record in 2003. Her guidance here including sound light and action is so amateurish that the film seems unfinished. An outdoor party scene for example is so dark it's difficult to make out the characters on screen and in another scene inside the school the sound is so muffled the character's lines are barely audible. Beyer's screenplay adapted from the mind-numbingly bad 1987 comedy Can't Buy Me Love doesn't help matters either; most of the characters remain as shallow and label-obsessed as they were 15 years ago. And while there have been countless Hollywood films revolving around the same theme many have done so successfully including the aforementioned oldie Sixteen Candles and more recently The New Guy.
Let's just get through Gigli's plot so we can move on to the fun stuff. A lowly hit man Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck) is hired to kidnap the mentally handicapped little brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor for Mob purposes. A second hitperson the comely independent-minded Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) is also put on the case because Gigli can't be trusted to do the job correctly. Holed up in Gigli's apartment the duo clashes at first but gradually form a bond even though Gigli is a chauvinistic jughead and Ricki a tough-nut lesbian. Of course they also form an attachment to their quarry Brian who in his untainted innocence manages to change these two hardened individuals. Now that's over with here's just a sampling of some of the deep and meaningful dialogue that passes between these two lovebirds: Says Gigli: "I am the bull and you are the cow…f**k with the bull you get the horn." Gigli to Ricki: "I'm the Sultan of Slick…the original gangster's gangster." Ricki to Gigli: "You know this might be a good time to suggest you not allow the seeds of cruel hope to sprout in your soul." Then later more from Ricki: "The penis is a sea slug or more like a really long toe. But kissing the mouth…The mouth--the lips the warm moist hole--is a twin sister to the…" Well you get the picture. Even Brian gets in a good one when he chirps spastically "It's not my fault I'm brain damaged!" Can it get any better than this?
Ben Jen what were you thinking? On second thought don't answer that--we'd probably rather not know. This is one time when watching two huge celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck fall in love is more cringe-worthy than romantic in any way. Imagine if you will Lopez as Ricki who having succumbed to Gigli's er charm sprawls herself seductively on the bed in a little kimono robe and tells him "It's turkey time. Gobble gobble"--with a straight face. Or how about this one: "You know I'm not into the whole man thing…but somehow you got through." (Insert audible collective audience groan here). Affleck who stands around looking like he's been hit in the face with a frying pan most of the time--of course without ever mussing his hair--comes off looking even worse if that's possible. His accent fluctuates between that of a Brooklyn thug and Southern California surfer dude. As far as how some of the high-profile cameos in the film got there--including Christopher Walken as a quirky cop and Al Pacino as a mobster who gets to vent in his usual boisterous way--obviously some favors must have been called in. Pacino did win his only Oscar for his performance in Scent of a Woman helmed by Gigli's director Martin Brest. Maybe they all deserve more credit for enduring such utterly banal garbage.
Writer/director Brest has had a spotty career at best. Of a handful of movies he's had a hit here and there (Beverly Hills Cop) and a few failures (Meet Joe Black). But with Gigli the filmmaker reaches the bottom rung. He took big names thrown them in a big-budget crime drama that really wants to be a small talky indie and the end result is more like a really bad play in which all the characters give their own over-the-top soliloquies waxing prophetic about every subject under the sun--differences between males and females being gay vs. straight anger management retardation slopping pie on one's head (believe it). Granted on some level Brest is trying to think out of the box within a formulaic setting and in all honesty Gigli's premise isn't all that dreadful--just hacky. There may have been a somewhat decent movie hidden somewhere in Gigli--enough of movie at least to attract Lopez and Affleck (whose romance began on the shoot). Instead it's a discombobulated jumbled mess of incoherent musings and horrible dialogue that moviegoers just shouldn't be subjected to. We wonder if at this very moment J. Lo isn't saying to her future hubby "Let's not do this again"--but wait they are in Kevin Smith's Jersey Girls. We don't want to know what he's saying.