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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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
Normally when a film about a historical figure finds its way into “awards watch” season you expect a certain level of intrigue from its content.So My Week With Marilyn should by all accounts deliver a little bite. Marilyn Monroe is a staple of American culture. We all know her face her voice her classic lines her wardrobe “malfunctions ” her tumultuous relationship history her power over men and of course that ugly little truth we like to brush under the carpet: the pill addiction that eventually cost her her life. This film purports to give us a look at the “real” Marilyn – the one the millions of representations of her haven’t already shown us. The problem is that by the time the film attempts to explore the darker corners of Monroe’s (Michelle Williams) existence we like our protagonist Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) are already under her spell. Just as we start to condemn her or look at her problems without the biased nostalgic eye most of us are afflicted with the film waves its magic Marilyn wand and quickly abolishes those less glamous notions. The result is a splendid yet decidely indecisive journey with a very complicated and often misunderstood woman
We meet plucky young Colin as he embarks on his first foray into feature films. It’s his dream and thanks to a connection to Sir Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) he’s got a shot at working on a film. But it’s not just any movie; it’s The Prince and Showgirl a marriage of American and English sensibilities starring Olivier and Monroe. When Colin arrives he’s just a third assistant director to Olivier – essentially a go-fer – and can do little but admire Marilyn without hope. He takes up with a wardrobe girl named Lucy (Emma Watson) and goes about his duties. Of course things don’t stay this simple. His newness lends itself to a bit more flexibility so when Olivier’s rigid practices clash with Marilyn’s laissez-faire style and the production begins to slow to a glacial pace Colin is a natural fit to become Marilyn’s willing ally. Their friendship grows as Olivier’s temper comes to a boiling point and the result makes Marilyn a film tinged with a choice number of harsh realities – but as soon as they rear their ugly heads Monroe’s ever-present spell casts itself over them.
Of course this isn’t so much a criticism of the film as it is criticism of the weight given to the content. My Week With Marilyn is beautifully shot allowing the nostalgic air of London and Monroe in the 50s to take the lead with a few contemporary flairs to help keep us along for the ride. Every detail is impeccable from the music to the settings to the dialog. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast. Redmayne displays all the youth and earnest vigor demanded by his young character. Though her character teeters between a layered enigma and the girl the entire world knows Williams handles each angle as easily as Marilyn handles the men around her. Supporting cast members Julia Ormond (as Vivien Leigh) Judi Dench (as Dame Sybil Thorndike) and Branagh put their wealth of experience to tremendous use. Lesser known actors like Dougray Scott and Dominic Cooper take on American accents with minimal issues and handle their supporting characters with ease – and Watson delivers her usual (but welcome) lovely precocious act.
There’s really nothing wrong with My Week With Marilyn. It’s lovely. It’s smart. It’s extremely well-crafted. It’s a good film. But it does little to excite a reaction beyond that. And when you’re dealing with someone we know as well as most of the world knows Marilyn I doubt I’m the only one who expect a little more…va va voom.
Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
In Dream House – the new suspense thriller from Jim Sheridan (In America My Left Foot) – Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton a successful New York publisher who disavows his high-powered Manhattan lifestyle and relocates along with his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and two daughters (Taylor and Claire Astin Geare) to a picturesque New England hamlet. Their new home a quaint fixer-upper bears imprints of the family that lived there previously: Old tools and other belongings are strewn about the basement a secret room abutting the children’s bedroom is filled with discarded toys. Will and Libby see the items as charming artifacts signs that their house has a history a soul.
The new neighborhood is not so bucolic as it seems. The children complain of a man peering in on them from the front yard – a suspicion confirmed when Will discovers footsteps in the snow the next day. If that weren’t ominous enough Will later learns that five years earlier his new home was the site of a grisly murder spree in which the previous owner Peter Ward was alleged to have killed his wife and two daughters. Acquitted due to a lack of evidence Ward spent a brief time at a psychiatric facility before being released. Could the shadowy figure glimpsed outside the window be Ward returning to the scene of the crime preparing to kill again?
At this point Dream House pulls off a whopper of a mid-game twist that effectively re-frames the entire narrative. (I won’t spoil it for you but if you want to know what it is just watch the trailer which rather stupidly gives it away.) Until now Sheridan has worked steadily to foster the guise of a relatively conventional haunted-house tale presenting a portrait of idyllic domesticity while simultaneously building an atmosphere of looming peril. After the story drops its bombshell the film morphs into a sort of supernatural murder mystery with Craig’s character scouring for clues within his own tortured psyche. Characters and scenes that might have been dismissible as red herrings – a neighbor (Naomi Watts) appears oddly stand-offish; her ex-husband (Martin Csokas) cartoonishly gruff; the town cops inexplicably apathetic – gain sudden relevance.
It’s a clever gambit; it is also patently absurd. A talented cast helps make the twist easier to swallow but the film’s second half sheds credulity seemingly by the frame at points devolving into schlock. Which in a different film might bode well for some silly fun but Sheridan aims for a restrained tone that seems more suitable for a somber character study than a flagrantly preposterous suspense thriller. As it is Dream House is neither thrilling nor suspenseful.
Animated films may come to dominate the family-film genre but they’ll never entirely edge out their live-action counterparts -- not so long as there exist characters like Nanny McPhee whose charms could never be properly rendered in a computer. After a half-decade away from the big screen Emma Thompson’s magical governess is back to take on a new batch of recalcitrant children in Nanny McPhee Returns. She's gotten better with age.
The second chapter of the Nanny McPhee saga which marks a definitive improvement over the first sends the unsightly taskmaster to the English countryside where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the mother of three rambunctious tots (Oscar Steer Asa Butterfield and Lil Woods) has been left alone to raise her unruly brood and manage the family farm while her husband is away at war. (Though it’s never specifically mentioned the film is presumed to take place during World War II.) Harried but capable Isabel’s tenuous grip on her unfortunate situation begins to loosen when a pair of privileged London cousins (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and a shady indebted brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) arrive to wreak fresh havoc in her already chaotic existence. On the verge of losing control of both her farm and her family she opens the door to find Nanny McPhee’s wart-covered visage staring back at her and not a moment too soon.
Though for the most part a breezy and whimsical fable Nanny McPhee Returns is unafraid to scatter a few dramatic bombshells amid its mix of lighthearted fantasy and practical life lessons trusting correctly that its youthful audience can handle a few bleak bumps en route to its happy ending. The biggest revelation of the film aside from director Susanna White and screenwriter/star Thompson’s bawdy comedic sensibilities (one of the film’s less pleasant lessons: kids never tire of scatological humor) is the proficiency of its child actors so often the weak link in even the best family fare. It’s their winning performances along with that of the always excellent Gyllenhaal that help make Nanny McPhee Returns not just an entertaining experience but an endearing one as well.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.