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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Skyfall is the perfect film to accompany the 50th Anniversary of the first big screen Bond movie Dr. No. The movie is a crossroads for 007; the spy is an old soul with unconventional archaic methods struggling to exist in a high-tech world with enemies who swap laser beams and nukes for Internet viruses and data infiltration. This conflict is the core of Skyfall — perfect for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty Revolutionary Road) — and the human drama gives every moment of the espionage thriller additional weight. Sure there are the grandiose set pieces we've come to expect from the series. But like the older films Mendes keeps most of the action contained the focus always on star Daniel Craig as he evades and confronts danger. He even pushes further allowing the evildoers into MI-6's home and through the magic of performance the audience into the mind of Bond.
After a botched mission sends him off the grid James Bond returns to his homebase in London to discover the MI-6 in disarray. The target of system attacks seemingly designed to screw with M (Judi Dench) MI-6 calls upon a noticeably shaken (not stirred) Bond to get back on his feet and track down the nefarious face behind the online terrorism. While politico Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) would prefer to use the magic of computers and drones to dig up the bad guy M knows even Bond at 50% is unlike any machine in the world. A few training sessions and a weapon upgrade from Q (Ben Whishaw) later Bond hits the road.
In pure Bond fashion Skyfall traverses some beautiful landscapes. From China's glowing waterside gambling epicenter Macau to the remains of a South Pacific isle to the foggy country side of Scotland. Departing from action movie aesthetics and embracing shadows atmosphere and imperfection Bond's journey feels even more tangible than the "realistic" approach of Casino Royale. The haunting locations reflect his deeply personal mission. It helps too that Bond is faced by one of his best villains yet: Javier Bardem as the charming psychopathic Raul Silva. Silva acts as another mirror for Bond albeit a version completely off the rails. Like a mix of Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight Silva is determined to burn his opponents in any fashion possible. Bardem plays it all with a sinister smirk — a twist on the maniacally-laughing Bond villains of yesteryear.
Skyfall's concentration is on the dramatic but continuously delivers in the action department. Mendes finds innovative new ways to stage classic Bond moments; a one-shot fist fight in the windows of skyscraper bubbles over with intensity while another in the Chinese casino tips its hat to the campier side of the franchise. And the movie goes big with an opening sequence on par with any of Bond's past outings and a foot chase through London's Tube that tests Craig's limits as a physical performer. He never misses a beat.
Impressively Skyfall is a movie pulled from this moment in history while encompassing everything that made James Bond a long-lasting character. It's one of the best Bond entries of all time a heart-pounding action flick from start to finish (with a rousing conclusion evoking everything from Terence Young to Sam Peckinpah) and one of the best movies of the year.
Maintaining the fantastical but dropping any semblance of whimsy Snow White and the Huntsman transforms the classic fairy tale into a bleak Lord of the Rings-esque hero's tale full of sword fights monsters and forces of evil bent on wiping out humanity. Instead of creating a unique world or conflict for its revamped characters to explore SWATH plays it safe and sticks to the familiar beats coming off like an amalgamation of every fantasy film that's ever graced the silver screen. Director Rupert Sanders sticks to flashy special effects (some of which are truly stunning) over his greatest asset: the charismatic cast. Kristen Stewart Charlize Theron Chris Hemsworth and eight familiar-faced dwarves try their best to elevate the thin material on display but the film is under a sleeping spell — and no one steps in to wake it up.
Once again an evil queen manipulates her way into the castle and heart of a widower king only to cut his throat and throw his beautiful young daughter Snow into the tower to rot. Years later a magic mirror reveals to the wicked Ravenna (Theron) that the now-of-age Snow White (Stewart) is the answer to her waning magic and wrinkly skin. But as Ravenna's slimy brother Finn comes knocking at Snow's door the imprisoned princess pulls a fast one escaping and opening the door for a large-scale adventure through the forests mountains and swamps of the mystical kingdom.
SWATH's action feel particularly shoehorned in each set piece drifting by without any weight or purpose. After fleeing the tower Snow takes shelter in The Dark Forest (there wasn't a better name? or a name at all?) where she's tracked by the Queen's freelancer The Huntsman (Hemsworth). A few fleeting character moments later the two are on the run together duking it out with otherworldly trolls and joining forces with a group of pint-sized ex-gold miners who believe Snow White is "the one." The epic speak commonplace in fantasy films plagues SWATH — without any details as to how or why the world works the way it does most of the dialogue amounts to characters screaming about "destiny." The lack of specifics filters into the journey too: at one point Snow White stumbles upon a forbidden forest bustling with fairies moss-covered turtles and an antlered creature that's never been seen by humans. The beast is a sign that Snow is savior of their world. Why? Anyone's guess.
The generic quality brings down the talent on screen namely Theron's delightfully wicked Ravenna who goes full on Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest as she pulls strings to entrap Snow White. Naysayers of Kristen Stewart will have plenty of fuel after SWATH but it's the material that fails to serve the actress in this case. The actors in the film barely get to smile — the drab overcast look of the movie clouding even the performances — but the moments when Stewart's Snow brightens up things suddenly come alive. Hemsworth lightens the mood too showing off a sliver of his comedic prowess from Thor. Between the movie's instance for doom and gloom the patchwork script and Sanders' overuse of up-close-and-personal shakycam there's rarely a moment for the actors to do their thing. It's barely worth mentioning the handful of British character actors who pop up as the Dwarves who hobble around mumbling unintelligible quips. They quickly form a bond with Snow White — or so the movie strong-arms us into believing.
Snow White and the Huntsman is stuffed with imaginative spectacle but the artistry is lost on a hollow story. Crystalline mirror shard warriors the Queen's youth-sucking powers or landscapes that look like live-action Miyazaki animation — it all looks amazing but they're never more than spiffy special effects. The movie wants to be above the visuals teasing a smart tough Snow White but the potential is squandered by never allowing the heroine to stride beyond the conventional world. If Snow White's tale is a shiny red apple then modern tropes of fantasy are the poison.