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.
A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
Summer 2011 has been solid, if unspectacular – both for us moviegoers and for “them,” the studios. We've had enjoyable, quality-leaning popcorn fare like X-Men, Thor and Super 8 – and there's still hope for Cowboys & Aliens and Harry Potter, among others. Meanwhile, “they” have had dependable, albeit predictably subpar, blockbusters in Pirates 4 and The Hangover Part II, with shoo-ins like Transformers, Zookeeper and Captain America yet to come. It's all rather ho-hum in the end – and worth raising the question: With summer 2012's almost weekly barrage of event movies and guaranteed megahits, is summer 2011 the appetizer to its entree (er, the iPhone 4GS to its iPhone 5)? Here's why we ask.
Superheroes The Dark Knight Rises: Add up all the excitement over every movie this summer, and it still wouldn't equal that of the Dark Knight sequel, more than a year before its release. Even a minor casting tidbit can generate major traffic for movie sites and send the twitters atwitter – and such immeasurable buzz is how excitement is gauged these days. It's just part of what makes The Dark Knight Rises the most anticipated movie of next summer, if not all of 2012. (7/20/12) The Amazing Spider-Man: The completely overhauled franchise seems a risky proposition for Sony/Columbia: The budget isn't really changing all that much, but the names (Andrew Garfield's isn't exactly household) and storyline are, with the focus shifted toward Peter Parker's younger days. Still, moviegoers aren't going to turn down a superhero flick of this magnitude during summertime, and it's not like we're talking about a Spider-Man musical or something. (7/3/12) The Avengers: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk and others from the Marvel universe – with Geekus Christ himself, Joss Whedon, behind it all? It's orgasmic for comic-book nerds, sure, but make no mistake: Even the most casual moviegoers have been excited since the announcement of this Ocean's Eleven of superheroes. Not bad for the FIRST. MOVIE. OF. THE. SUMMER! (5/4/12) Adaptations Battleship: We're a little uneasy about the whole board-game-adaptation thing, but Monopoly: From Boardwalk to Broke this isn't. It's Peter Berg directing, a $200 million budget, and, well, battleship scenes. Plus, we get to see Rihanna try to act, Brooklyn Decker try to act again, and female moviegoers try not to squirm at the sight of Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgard in their tight naval uniforms – and perhaps out of their tight naval uniforms. (5/18/12) Dark Shadows: Another Burton-Depp-Bonham Carter collabo, another roughly billion dollars for the studio. But Warner Bros. isn't alone in its rabid anticipation: Fans have more than approved the gothic-even-in-PG-movies Burton for this gig, an adaptation of the dark 1960s soap of the same name that deals with vampires, of the non-Twilight ilk. With Depp as the beloved bloodluster Barnabas Collins and Seth Grahame-Smith, who knows a thing or two about making bloodplay fun (read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), responsible for the script, there's high hopes for Shadows – and confidence from fans. (5/11/12) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: It's hard to believe that it's been almost 150 years since Abe Lincoln's assassination, and we're seeing a movie about his days as a vampire hunter before his biopic; at this point, it's also more exciting. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith's bizarro Lincoln novel of the same name (he also co-adapted the screenplay), Vampire Hunter looks to be one of the most original – even though its story isn't – offerings of the crowded season; it's certainly got the most self-explanatory title. Expect bloody, gory fun. Lots of it. (6/22/12) Snow White and the Huntsman: The first of roughly 200 opportunistic modern-day takes on the ol' Grimm bros fairy tale (we can thank Tim Burton' Alice in Wonderland for the oh-so-slight uptick in greenlit fairytale movies) coming your way, Huntsman promises to be the darkest of the bunch – you know, death, revenge and stuff. And while that's not necessarily quite enough for us to get overly excited, Universal had millions at “Snow W--”. The fact that it stars Kristen Stewart in the title role is icing. (6/1/12) ="">
="">="">Animation Madagascar 3: All the main players are back for the third installment in this DreamWorks cash cow, and there's no reason to think fans' excitement – or the movie's resultant box office – will wane whatsoever. One little twist, however (and frankly, one of the weirder indie-mainstream marriages in ages), that those who don't fall in the target demographic might find interesting: Noah Baumbach, of angsty, artsy drmedies like The Squid and the Whale, wrote the screenplay! (6/8/12) Brave: There's an all-encompassing keyword attached to Brave – one that piques excitement, promises quality and Oscar nominations, and instantly drums up hundreds of millions of virtual dollars at the box office: Pixar. The studio's first fairy tale epic promises darker undertones than we're used to seeing, and tells the story of a Scottish warrior heroine. And did we mention it's Pixar? (6/22/12) Ice Age: Continental Drift: More of the same from this verrrrry outdated (get it? Ice Age? Sorry.) franchise, with some J. Lo-voicing action thrown in, because she was relevant again when this thing was filming. Ice Age might not seem worthy of a mention on our list – not many people penciled it in to their iPhone calendars when it was announced a couple years ago – but for its built-in blockbuster powers, we had to. Oh, and it's in 3-D! Don't see much of that very much these days. (7/13/12) Sequels* The Bourne Legacy: It lost Damon and Greengrass, but the Bourne franchise soldiers on with truly two of the most sensible replacements imaginable: Oscar nominees Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) as star and director, respectively. That is just about the least amount of drop-off conceivable after losing the aforementioned titans – and they may even bring something to the table that Damon and Greengrass couldn't. Be excited. (8/3/12) MIB 3: This could best be summed up thusly: No one (except perhaps Columbia Studios and Will Smith's team of accountants) was itching for a third Men in Black installment, especially a full decade after the previous MIB – but the relative lukewarm excitement towards it trumps the hell out of any of this summer's threequels (or fourquels or fivequels). Granted, about 75 percent of said lukewarm excitement is due to the fact Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement is in it, but still. (5/25/12) *Also see: The Dark Knight Rises, Madagascar 3 and Ice Age: Continental Drift
Miscellaneous The Dictator: No one knows what this thing is about – Paramount's synopsis doesn't provide much insight: “the story of a heroic dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed” – and that's rather refreshing. We do know that it re-teams star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles (oh, and Megan Fox), so it's fair to expect something controversial and envelope-pushing, something between R-rated sociopolitical satire and, well, Borat. And that's nice to see nestled between superhero movies. (5/11/12) Ted: Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane brings his boundary-pushing brand of humor to the big screen for the first time as writer, director and voice star of Ted. In the live action/CG-animated comedy, he tells the story of John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a grown man who must deal with the cherished teddy bear who came to life as the result of a childhood wish…and has refused to leave his side ever since. If that all sounds press release-y, it should. But we're sold. (7/13/12) Prometheus: What started as a quasi-prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien turned into ... something else. The plot is being kept heavily under wraps, but everything that is known (i.e., a cast including Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender; a script co-written by Lost's Damon Lindelof; and Scott's penchant for BIG movies) is confidence-inspiring. The probability that Prometheus is at least heavy on outsize sci-fi-ness only helps. (6/8/12) Also... What To Expect When You're Expecting: It's been a New York Times bestseller for almost three decades now – why NOT make it into a movie?! Who cares if it's essentially an instructional book?! Cameron Diaz and the recently cast J. Lo star in what is more or less a Mother's Day gift and a male punishment. (5/11/12) Rock of Ages: The Tom Cruise-starring musical you keep hearing about, based on the Broadway hit of the same name and directed by Adam Shankman, who did the same thing with 2007's Hairspray. It's Tom Cruise's last shot at a return to pre-couch-jump stardom. 'Til Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol. (6/1/12) I Hate You, Dad: The obligatory summer “comedy” from truly the most consistent box office star in the world, Adam Sandler. Should be eh-mazing, again. (6/15/12) Jack the Giant Killer: The Usual Suspects team of Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie reunite for this quasi-take on Jack and the Beanstalk. Which means it'll probably be different from their last collaboration, Valkyrie. Which means it'll probably be good. (6/15/12) Here Comes the Boom: See I Hate You, Dad, above, and replace “Adam Sandler” with “Kevin James.” And subtract “the most consistent box office star in the world.” (7/27/12) Total Recall: This one exciting for us fans of the somewhat unappreciated Schwarzenegger sci-fi original. Colin Farrell plays the Ahnold part, with Underworld's Len Wiseman directing. As for the tri-boobed prostitute, we have a lot of casting ideas, but that's a whole other feature. (8/3/12) G.I. Joe 2: Cobra Strikes: The Rock slides into this mother of all unwarranted sequels – from the guy who directed the mother of all unwarranted biopics, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. And it'll still be a blockbuster! (8/10/12) Southern Rivals: The blockbusterist comedy is saved for last in summer '12. Two of the genre's biggest names, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, play political enemies in this one. It remains to be seen what kind of effect this will have on the presidential election a few months later. (8/10/12) The Expendables 2: Sly Stallone won't be returning to the director's chair for this one. Everything else is seemingly identical to the original – maybe even the plot. (8/17/12) ="">
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.