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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As the actor/fortuneteller Criswell stated in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, “we are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” While Ed Wood wasn’t much for writing prescient film criticism into his scripts, he may have accidentally hit upon the precise element that has us all so intrigued by science-fiction. When a sci-fi film is set in a distant future, the visual construction of that film becomes itself an exhibition of wild speculation about where we’re heading. But how often do we get so wrapped up in shopping the technological possibilities that we ignore the underlying story? More to the point, how often is that misguided focus of the filmmakers and/or the studio?
There have been a good many studio sci-fi films over the last few years that have seemed far more interested in wading through the science than developing the fiction. Something like Prometheus fits within this troubling category. It is a movie of great breadth and epic scope, and it pulses to the beat of 3D maps and other space age wonderments. Yet sadly, screenwriter Damon Lindelof seemed to have troubling seeing the narrative woods for all the digital trees. The story is fraught with plot holes and inconsistencies that make Prometheus a beautiful, yet ultimately empty vessel.
On the flipside would be something like District 9. True, its visuals are far less grandiose than those of Prometheus, and not simply by virtue of the fact that its setting is more terrestrial. District 9 shows us a decidedly less polished future. It is a temporally advanced environment with hovering spaceships and even mech suits, but the underscoring themes of poverty and prejudice temper the tech. What we have here is a perfect example of how great sci-fi should be constructed. It’s a matter of the filmmaker first wanting to write a strong, meaningful story and then finding where the sci-fi elements service the plot and not the other way around.
When that approach is not utilized, we get films like James Mather and Stephen St. Leger’s Lockout. The merits, and frankly dubious existence, of its entertainment value notwithstanding, Lockout is a movie that seemed built upon the shaky foundation of trying to retrofit John Carpenter’s Escape from New York for space travel. The story is frightfully contrived and dotted by warp jumps in logic, but it does bear the seemingly requisite number of spaceships and futuristic place settings. Were we really beyond our rights to demand, if not a well-founded script, then at least an interesting character to peek out through the sci-fi hullaballoo?
Duncan Jones’ Moon has a plot that is built upon a simple, yet universal concept: isolation. Sam Rockwell plays an astronaut who is stationed on the moon, manning a post with only a computer interface as a companion. True, Moon’s budget was not out of this world, but it does an exceptional job constructing its futuristic aesthetics. Moreover, Moon is an intensely human story and a fascinating character study that, but for one spoilery detail here withheld, could have just as easily been set in, say, a remote Colorado hotel. It serves the function to which all sci-fi should aspire, and frankly is arguably its utility as a genre: to use the future to emphasize the universal truths of the present.
The interesting thing about sci-fi these days is it seems that not only are the standouts of the genre not dependent upon massive budgets, but that there can be an inverse proportion between the dollars spent on production and the overall quality of the film. Take for example, Battleship. Though it’s not a film set in the future, the invading aliens are happy to oblige the audience with techno spectacle. To say Battleship was of subpar quality is to say it is somewhat unwise to sail the Pacific in a leaky rowboat. It is so concerned with providing that spectacle that it actually goes so far as to borrow relentlessly from other poorly drawn sci-fi from the last few years to create an amalgam of awful.
Then there’s a movie like Chronicle, again not set in the future but possessed of a level of superhuman spectacle. Its conceit is predicated upon an alien encounter and how that encounter advances the mental abilities of three high school students. It was created on a budget that would hardly cover Battleship’s craft services, and yet the care and thought put into the characters and the thematic nuances supersede all the grandiose genre set pieces.
Rian Johnson’s Looper, opening this week, is similarly crafted. It has an outstanding story to tell; one that articulates timeless themes even as it bounces across temporal divides. It is a movie in which the future is not permitted to be the star, and that is precisely what separates great sci-fi from fleeting, unsubstantial technological white noise.
[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures (2)]
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Can a silly action movie be too silly? A ludicrous sci-fi flick be too ludicrous? Lockout is a cinematic stunt a motorcycle ride across a tightrope that teeters the line between bombastic fun and inane nonsensical lunacy. A collage of futuristic landscapes and big screen 1-vs-100 scenarios reputable French producer Luc Besson's (The Fifth Element Taken) "space jail" thriller tests your patience for stupidity and cookie cutter filmmaking. The movie does a good deal of winking but nine times out of ten it just has crud in its eye.
Guy Pearce stars as the one-liner-slinging Snow an alleged murderer sentenced to life in the orbital penitentiary MS One. Snow fails to convince Langral (Peter Stromare) head of the Secret Service that his recent running punching kicking car chasing escapades were anything more than a crazy man on the crazy run (when in fact we know it's all in an effort to protect and hand off a MacGuffin briefcase). Meanwhile the President's daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace) heads to MS One to get the scoop on the prison's nefarious psychological experiments only to find herself (thanks to an idiot secret serviceman) in the middle of an all-out inmate revolt. With a hostage situation on the Secret Service's hands there's only one person suitable for the infiltration hostage mission: the guy they just convicted as a murderer.
Forget logic — Snow's the best man for the job because Pearce's gravitas outdoes every tense dramatic moment every flashy action scene every CG spectacle in Lockout. He is the saving grace of the film crafting a character who deserves a Die Hard or Escape from New York instead of the limp half-baked vehicle that's more sizzle reel than narrative film. Grace holds her own with the fast-talking badass forming a rapport that blossoms in the film's calmer moments. But they're rare with writers/directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger insisting on jumping from the dynamic pair to the caricatured villains (apparently MS One is a space jail comprised entirely of Scottish/Irish criminals) or the cliche-ridden Government goons manning a control room.
If Lockout approached its sci-fi and action with the same intimacy that made Besson's District B13 and Taken successful it may have found a footing. But the cat and mouse game exist in a world where plot is written for twists (the nameless "package" continually bears its ugly head in the escape story) and rules are made up on the spot. Anything can happen! — in a bad way. At one point Snow and Emily jump out of MS One into space and fall downward. Because there's gravity in space? A nitpick that speaks to the larger problem: Lockout never tries to make any sense — dramatically viscerally emotionally.
Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.