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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Looking like it was ripped from the headlines The International focuses on the corrupt dealings of a fictional bank that will go to any means possible to serve as a conduit for illegal weapons sales to people who shouldn’t be getting them. Enter an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) who is teamed with a New York assistant District Attorney (Naomi Watts) to go after a network of suave crafty Europeans bent on carrying out their dirty business as they always have. Following their trail around the world in such locales as Berlin Italy New York and Istanbul the two become targets in an unending high stakes game of murder and intrigue.
Looking more unkempt and unshaven than ever Owen totally connects with the role of an eccentric agent who stumbles on to a worldwide conspiracy which eventually leads to a group of corrupt bankers. Who knew? It makes you realize what an ideal James Bond he would have been. Unfortunately Watts just isn’t his match. She comes across as bland and lost never able to get a beat on this lawyer who is caught up in an international scandal. Forced to utter obvious lines like “This isn’t over” at the 80-minute mark she has zero chemistry opposite Owen. German director Tom Tywker who broke out with the riveting and stylish Run Lola Run 10 years ago has his best outing since that film carefully navigating the numerous and colorful locations with just enough pacing and attention to detail to keep this from turning into yet another Bourne ripoff. He seems totally in control of the complicated and dense storyline pulling off a sensational set piece at New York’s Guggenheim Museum (actually meticulously re-created in a Berlin warehouse) where Owen gets involved in a shootout to end all shootouts with numerous bad guys. It’s a stunning scene running about 15 minutes -- and a textbook example of how to shoot an action sequence. It’s reminiscent of some of the best cold war spy thrillers of the ‘60s and ‘70s and that’s a high compliment. See it.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
It's graduation day for Scotty (Scott Mechlowicz) but the celebration comes to an abrupt end when his girlfriend Fiona (Kristin Kreuk) dumps him by blatantly announcing she has been unfaithful to him--over and over again. At a graduation party that night Fiona makes her point by jumping on stage during rockers Lustra's performance of "Scotty Doesn't Know " which goes something like this: "Scotty doesn't know that Fiona and me do it in my van every Sunday..." Dumbfounded Scotty gets drunk and goes home to confide in his Berlin-based computer pen pal Mieke (Jessica Boerhs) who suggests coming to America for a "rendezvous." Scott rudely rebuffs him (and that's putting it mildly) not aware that Mieke is not a guy but actually a really hot high school girl. He tries to make amends but Mieke won't read his e-mails so his pal Cooper (Jacob Pitts) convinces him to go to Berlin and meet her face-to-face. Short on cash they take a cheap courier flight to London where they meet up with twin pals Jenny (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Jamie (Travis Wester) before hopscotching to Amsterdam Bratislava Rome Vatican City and finally Berlin. Of course the chase is always better than the kill and Eurotrip is no different: Whether Scotty gets Mieke is beside the point; the amusement is all in the journey there. Who knew for example that you could spend the night in a five star hotel and partake in a night of clubbing in Eastern Europe on $1.87 U.S.-and still have 27 cents left over when it's all over?
Newcomer Mechlowicz is perfectly cast as the lead here playing a character that is simple-minded daring sympathetic and charming. But it's Mechlowicz's personal spin--his bewildered expressions--that really nails the role for him whether he is witnessing the twins accidentally making out on the dance floor in a drunken stupor or waking up to find a strange passenger cozying up to him on a train. As his buddy Cooper Pitts (K-19: The Widowmaker) plays the wisecracker of the bunch and although he doesn't go over the top with the crassness there is a little too much David Spade influence in his delivery (and the similar haircuts don't help the matter either). Like the rest of the cast Wester is careful not to typecast his character Jamie a meticulous planner who can't travel without Frommer's by loosening him up slightly. Jamie for example knows when it's time do drop the book and experiment even if it means nude sunbathing. Trachtenberg (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer) also infuses her twin character Jenny with the perfect blend of sexuality and innocence. The result is a cast of mishmash characters that are just so darn likeable. Look for a surprise cameo from Matt Damon as well as small but hilarious performances from Vinnie Jones as Mad Maynard a Manchester United soccer hooligan; Lucy Lawless as S&M mistress Madame Vandersexxx; and Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen credited as "the creepy Italian guy."
Jeff Schaffer makes his directorial debut here from a screenplay co-written with his longtime partners scribes Alec Berg and David Mandel. And ads touting it as a comedy "from producers of Road Trip and Old School " may be exactly what Eurotrip a comedy starring relative unknowns needs to draw the coveted teen crowd. After all Ivan Reitman the producer responsible for catapulting low budget comedies into box-office gold territory has secured quite a following--and fans won't be let down with this latest offering. Unlike its predecessors Eurotrip isn't afraid to be crass and while the characters are sweet the storyline is anything but. In this Euro-centric tale writing trio Schaffer Berg and Mandel proudly embrace every stereotype imaginable but do so at the expense of the inexperienced foursome which makes the material funny rather than offensive. Nude beaches the young Americans discover aren't necessarily packed with hot gorgeous women and Amsterdam's sex industry isn't exactly the stuff young male fantasies are made of. With one hilarious gag after another as well as funky map graphics with dotted lines that transport viewers from city to city the film maintains its fast-moving pace throughout. Surprisingly the film was shot entirely on location in the Czech Republic with Prague doubling as London Paris Berlin Amsterdam Rome Vatican City Bratislava--and even Hudson Ohio with landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower the Coliseum and Big Ben added using CGI. Accompanied by an awesome soundtrack featuring Lutsra's "Scotty Doesn't Know " Chapeaumelon's "My Generation" and The Salads "Get Loose " this film succeeds on all levels.