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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The Amazing Spider-Man would prefer if you didn't call it the fourth Spider-Man movie. See this ain't the Spider-Man your older brother knew from ten years ago — it's a reboot. The latest adventure to feature the comic book webslinger throws three movies worth of established mythology straight out the window swapping the original cast with an ensemble of fresh faces and resetting the franchise with a spiffy new origin story. "New" in the loosest sense of the word — the highlights of ASM mainly a sleek new design and spunky reinterpretation of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and gal pal Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) are weighed down by overpowering sense of familiarity. Nearly a beat for beat replica of the 2002 original with some irksome twists of mystery thrown in Amazing Spider-Man fails to evolve its hero or his quarrels. The film has a great sense of cinematic power but little responsibility in making it interesting.
We're first introduced to Peter Parker as a young boy watching as his parents rush out of the house in response to a hidden danger. Mr. and Mrs. Parker leave their son in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Fields) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) who raise him into Andrew Garfield's geeky cool spin on the character. Parker's a science whiz but faces the challenges of every day life — passing classes talking to girls the occasional jock with aggression issues — but all of life's woes are put on hold when the teen discovers a new clue in the mystery behind his parents' disappearance. The discovery of his dad's old briefcase and notes leads Peter to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a scientist working for mega-conglomerate Oscorp and his Dad's old partner. When they cross paths Connors instantly takes a liking to the wunderkind and loops him into the work he started with his father: replicating the regeneration abilities of lizards in amputee humans (Connors is driven to reform his own missing arm). But when Parker wanders into Oscorp's room full of spiders (a sloppily explained this-needs-to-be-here-for-this-to-happen device) he receives his legendary spider bite that transforms him into the hero we know.
Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) desperately wants Amazing Spider-Man to work as a high school relationship movie but with the burden of massive amounts of plot and mythology to introduce the movie sags under the sheer volume of stuff. Stone turns Parker's object of affection Gwen Stacey into a three-dimensional character. Whenever they happen upon each other an awkward exchange in the hallway a flirtatious back-and-forth in the Oscorp lab (where Stacey is head…intern) or when the two finally begin a romantic relationship the two stars shine. They're vivid characters chopped to bits in the editing room diluted by boring franchise-building plot threads and routine action sequences. Seriously Amazing Spider-Man another mad scientist villain who uses himself as a test subject only to become a monster? And another bridge rescue scene? Amazing Spider-Man desperately wants to disconnect from the original trilogy but it's trapped in an inescapable shadow and does nothing radical to shake things up. Instead it settles for the same old same old while preparing for inevitable sequels instead of investing in its dynamic duo.
There's a sweet spot where the film really hits his stride. After discovering his spider-abilities Peter hits the streets for the first time. He's superhuman but still a headstrong teen full of obnoxious quips and close calls with shiv-wielding thugs. The action is slick small and playful Webb showing us something new by melding his indie sensibilities with big scale action. If only it lasted — the introduction of Ifans reptilian half The Lizard implodes Amazing Spider-Man into incomprehensible blockbuster chaos. A gargantuan beast wreaking havoc around New York City promises King Kong-like escapades for the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man but the lizard man has other plans: to rule the world! Or something. Whatever it takes to get Lizard and Spider-Man fighting on the top of a skyscraper over a doomsday machine — logic be damned.
Amazing Spider-Man peppers its banal foundation with great talent from Denis Leary as Gwen's wickedly funny dad and the police captain hunting down Spider-Man to Fields and Sheen as two loving adults in Peter's life to Garfield and Stone whose chemistry demands a follow-up for the sake of seeing them reunited. But it's all at the cost of putting on the most expensive recreation of all time with new demands imposed by the success Marvel's other properties (except that franchise teasing worked). Amazing Spider-Man introduces too many ideas that go nowhere undermining the actual threat at hand. No one wants to be unfulfilled but that's the overriding difference between the original movie and the update. You need to pay for the sequel to know what the heck is going on in this one.
Wracked by guilt over what she believes is her responsibility for the tragic death of her mother -- and running away from a distant father (Paul Bettany) -- 14 year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) takes off with her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) and heads to the South Carolina home of the Boatwright sisters a place that holds many memories of her own mother’s childhood. She is immediately taken under their wing and bonds with August (Queen Latifah) the family matriarch who runs the enterprising bee farm on the property and teaches Lily the ways of the honey. There’s also the spirited June (Alicia Keys) a music teacher resisting the marriage proposals of the well-intentioned Neil (Nate Parker) and fragile and childlike May (Sophie Okonedo). In forging new relationships with these women a whole new world of self-esteem is slowly opened for Lily. For Dakota Fanning her performance in Bees marks a turning point into a new phase of her already impressive career and in Lily proves she is able to move effortlessly into strong teenage roles and more sophisticated material. She’s quite touching as a young Southern girl who comes of age with the help of some wonderful African-American women at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1964. Hudson also proves she can move comfortably beyond her Oscar-winning powerhouse debut in Dreamgirls. In Rosaleen she gives voice to a young black woman who is determined to exercise her right to vote for the first time but at a price. Latifah is warm and commanding and the Queen bee of this clan and her scenes with Fanning are nicely toned. In an unusual cast with lots of singers-turned-actresses such as Hudson and Latifah Keys also shows smart acting instincts even if her interpretation of June is a little on the flat side. Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) is simply wonderful and touchingly understated as the shy inward May. You wish there was more with her. Among the men Bettany takes a one-dimensional role as the demanding father and gives it some light while Parker (The Great Debaters) and Tristan Wilds as August’ godson and Lily’s new friend are spot on. Gina Prince-Bythewood who directs and smartly adapted the popular Sue Monk Kidd novel does go for the sentiment inherent in an old-fashioned story of this kind. But she also thankfully doesn’t pour it on. She creates a world in the deep South that doesn’t shy away from showing the harshness of life for African-Americans but whose lives at least politically are right at a major turning point. Most of all though she nurtures some lovely performances and brings an ensemble cast together with ease and heart. Prince-Bythewood whose breakthrough feature was the entertaining sleeper hit Love and Basketball clearly knows how to bring out the best in her actors. Secret Life of Bees elicits laughter and tears in equal doses proving to be the kind of not obviously commercial but uplifting movie-going experience rarely seen these days.
Think Mean Girls meets High School Musical meets whatever other high school teen scenario you can think of. Here four teenage girls make up the Bratz contingency each come from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds—just like the dolls they are based on. There’s Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos) a quiet Latina beauty with a great voice; Sasha (Logan Browning) the outgoing black cheerleader who loves to dance; Jade (Janel Parrish) a lovely Asian fashionista who also a wiz in chemistry; and Cloe (Skyler Shayne) the tall Caucasian blonde who despite being a klutz is a star on the soccer field. They’ve been best friends forever (or BFF as they lovingly refer to it) but once they hit high school they drift apart and into respective cliques organized by the narcissistic class president Meredith (Cheslea Staub). Still these BFF’s—who live for clothes make-up and hair products—won’t be pushed down. They’re gonna shake things up and prove it’s always best to just be yourself and stick together. You can’t really blame the unknown girls—each very cute in their own way—for wanting to bring the Bratz dolls to life. It’s a big deal! They get to sing and dance and wear all these cool clothes! They get to throw food in a cafeteria lunch fight! They get to serve sweets at Meredith’s Sweet 16 party dressed as clowns and still look fabulous! All the young girls in the audience will idolize them and wish they were a Brat too (perhaps to their parents’ chagrin). No it’s the adults in the movie you have to scratch your head about and ask “Do they really need the money that bad?” Character actors such as Lainie Kazan who plays Yasmin’s wise grandmother and Jon Voight as the inept high school principal and Meredith’s father just embarrass themselves over and over again—especially Voight who along with his mediocre appearance in Transformers has become the go-to guy to star in movies based on toys. And what’s with this latest trend to make live-action flicks based on toys? You can understand Transformers because they already had their own cartoon show and you know the movie would at least be action-packed full of cool visual effects. But a Bratz movie is a little too much. Even though it tries really hard to send positive messages there’s really nothing redeeming about turning little dolls—who frankly dress a little on the trashy side—into flesh-and-blood teenagers obsessed with how they look and dealing with high school politics. Bratz really only distinguishes itself from other Mean Girls-type movies because of the toy franchise. It would have been easier to take had it aired on the Disney Channel.