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
There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
The basic premise of most crime revenge dramas is how much of our humanity we're willing to trade to get back what the other people — the ostensible baddies — have taken from us. Oliver Stone returns to this familiar stomping ground with Savages a splashy adaptation of Don Winslow's novel about a unique love affair a major marijuana-dealing business and an increasingly violent pissing match between two SoCal growers and the Baja Cartel.
Stone's frenetic visual style is in full swing but even this Oscar-winning auteur can't quite raise the film from mediocrity. It's hard to care whether or not Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) rescue their gorgeous mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) from the cartel if O isn't engaging enough to persuade us she's worth the bloodshed. O (short for Ophelia — an allusion to her earthshaking climaxes) is not a well-written character to begin with but she's even less engaging as played by Lively. Johnson is unconvincing as the bleeding heart Ben and the details his character is given — extra earrings a shoddy-looking tattoo on his neck even white boy dreads at one point — undercut his believability even more. Kitsch is given a few prominent scars and a mean squint but he doesn't quite bring the weird slightly empty vibe of Chon to life.
On the villain side Benicio Del Toro chews every inch of scenery from Laguna Beach to Tijuana as Lado. He's rocking an intense moustache that he strokes when he's lying or being a creep (which is most of the time) a vaguely mullet-like wig and a fondness for torture. Salma Hayek takes no prisoners as the head of the cartel nicknamed Elena la Reina who is both a frustrated mom whose college-age daughter is blowing her off (aw!) and a brutally tough woman in a man's world. John Travolta definitely enjoys a bit of Pulp Fiction ridiculousness as Dennis a DEA official who's in Ben and Chon's pocket. It's hard to tell just how funny Savages is aiming to be. Lado Elena and Dennis are cartoonish but Ben Chon and O are earnest — which is to say a little bit boring.
The double- and triple-crossing is practically moot as is the wacky technology that Ben and Chon employ; it's like The Social Network meets surfers. The real meat of the movie is the flash and violence but it's not the kind of thing that stays with you like Stone's Natural Born Killers. Savages doesn't have the same lingering aftertaste. It's not that a movie needs to have some sort of message with its pointed commentary on the media's bloodlust but the gist of Savages — that we're all savages at heart or that we can easily become a savage given the right circumstances — is not that interesting or unique.
Oddly enough Savages pulls a few punches when it comes to its source material (hard to believe when the movie kicks off with a glimpse of an abattoir-like enclosure and close-ups of men begging for their lives just as a chainsaw revs in the background). Winslow's book is a quick enjoyable read with an interesting on-page style that's hard to replicate verbally. It has a sort of ADD-addled feel that the movie tries to but doesn't quite capture. While it's not always fair to compare an adaptation to the book it's based on Winslow is both the author and one of the screenplay writers so some of the choices made behind the scenes don't quite add up. Cut are significant and menacing back story for Lado and all of the zestiness out of O. Why add in certain plot points and take out others unless it was to give one of its big name stars more screen time? The most interesting part of the story the love story is treated like a wink wink homoerotic thing than an actual relationship between three people who adore each other which is how it's portrayed in the book. It's hard not to be a little disappointed especially given Stone's no-f**ks-given attitude. (Or as O would say baditude.)
That said it is a somewhat entertaining diversion and a nice tour of lifestyles of the rich and criminal. Lively is all tangled tan limbs and luxurious hippie clothes and the homes they frequent whether on Laguna Beach or a desert compound are meticulously decorated with exquisite expensive taste. Santa Muerte imagery also figures heavily in the background of many scenes. The scenery is gorgeous — even the marijuana looks amazing. It's good for adults to have another R-rated choice in what's usually a season dominated by blockbusters but in years to come you'll more likely to reach for your old True Romance DVD than Savages.
S2: E6 I’m not even going to try to contain my excitement over this week’s episode of Community. It had everything I love: Halloween costumes, tacos, zombies, creepy music (ABBA), and Troy without a shirt. (Sorry dudes, we do spend a lot of these episodes talking about Annie’s boobs, so I figure it’s only fair that I get to lust after Donald Glover for a bit.) Oh, and did I mention it was narrated by George Takei? As in Sulu from the original Star Trek? Yeah, it was just that cool.
After a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque intro from George Takei, the scene opens on Greendale’s Halloween party. Pierce is dressed as the Shatner- variety James T. Kirk (maybe someone told him Takei would be narrating), Jeff is his handsome self as David Beckham (complete with $6,000 suit), and the dean is dressed as what I assume will this year’s most popular costume – Lady Gaga. After downing several “tacos” Jeff spills the beans (ha! Get it? Because they’re eating tacos? Like Mexican food? Okay, I’ll stop) and it turns out they’ve been eating military rations from an army surplus store. Yuck. Britta as a T-Rex/ Dragon-turtle points out that the dean’s endless loop of ABBA songs is occasionally interrupted by his personal voice memos (including one reminding him to check out Human Centipede.) Damn, he’s creepy. Shirley is once again in a “dangerously ambiguous” costume – Annie dressed as Little Red Riding hood hasn’t solved the mystery but she does warn them NOT to call Shirley Miss Piggy. (Of course, now that’s all they can see.) Troy and Abed have a joint costume from Alien, Troy as Ripley in a power loader and Abed as an alien (he really commits to the costume, it’s awesome), but when Troy fails to pick up girls in his yellow frame, he no longer wants to play Abed’s nerdy games. But the main problem is the dean’s tacos; Pierce and many others are starting to get ill after eating. Just when Annie’s friend the doctor (in a banana suit) is making a case for food poisoning, Pierce grabs Starburns and tried to eat his arm. Yep, definitely not food poisoning. Try zombies, glorious zombies.
Before everyone starts to notice that the school is being taken over by zombies (oh, it’s no big deal), Troy ditches his Alien-inspired costume for something a little more lady-friendly. He comes back from the bathroom wearing little more than a toilet seat cover with the word “Dracula” written on it, leaving Abed alone in his nerdiness. He’s a “sexy Dracula” – DUH. Meanwhile, the zombie virus is taking hold of the infected students and the dean elects to call the surplus store where he got the “taco meat” to complain. Apparently, it was not taco meat. Nope. It was some top secret toxic waste – how dumb is this guy? He’s patched in to an officer from the army who commands him to quarantine the zombies for 6 hours until the army can swoop in and fix everything. That’s one hell of a time window. Who do they think they are? The cable guy?
Meanwhile, shit’s starting to get crazy. Just as Annie suggests they evacuate calmly, all hell breaks loose, zombies attack, the dean locks everyone in the library, the study group fends off zombie attackers and barricades themselves in the study room as ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” plays jauntily in the background. God, I love this show.
Before they finally seal off the room, Doctor Banana wants to double check that everyone managed to escape the attack without getting bitten. (And he totally has a bite on his ankle that he’s hiding. Bastard.) He also explains that the infected people will develop high fevers and that in a matter of hours, the zombified students’ brains will overheat and turn to mush. No longer the undead, they’ll just be plain ol’ dead. They figure out a plan: if they can get to the thermostat and turn up the AC, they can break the fever and kill the virus. But nope, too late. Doctor Banana’s speech goes all drunken undead dude and Britta’s not far behind. The remaining group tries to escape the newest zombies, but Annie gets taken. Chang and Shirley get separated from Jeff, Abed, and Troy and barricade themselves in the bathroom. As they hold the door shut, Chang notices that Shirley’s not Miss Piggy, she’s Glenda the Good Witch. In turn, Shirley notes that she loves Chang’s Peggy Fleming costume and he’s happy to hear that she’s not racist (because everyone else assumed he was an Asian figure skater like Michelle Kwan). BOOM. The unthinkable happens – a Shirley-Chang hook up. Give me a second while I pick my jaw up off of the ground.
Troy, Abed, and Jeff find themselves in the basement under siege from a crazy cat that’s inexplicably being launched (or flying on its own?) across the room. Once they get past the crazy cat, Troy and Abed notice a window for their escape. Unwilling to mess up his precious suit, Jeff insists they use the door. Dammit Jeff, have you never seen a zombie movie? Of course, he opens the door, zombies flood in overtaking him and stretching out his super swanky clothes as Troy and Abed run towards the window. With nothing to climb on, to reach the opening, Abed elects to hoist Troy up so he can make Abed proud and be the first black man to survive a zombie attack. (Abed would know, he is a film nerd after all.) Troy doesn’t want to leave his bestie, and as he’s about to escape yells back at Abed ,“I love you.” And as any movie nerd should, Abed responds like Han Solo did to Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back, saying “I know” as he’s overtaken by a pile of undead students. (Hold on while my nerdy side does a mini fist pump.)
Now Troy’s the only uninfected guy left. He returns to his power loader costume, bursting into the library and punching out zombies to reach the thermostat and save the day as ABBA's "Mamma Mia" plays. Gotta love that juxtaposition. As he trudges through the library, he takes out all the zombie versions of his friends until he reaches Abed. He hesitates, and in a final ironic blow his zombified best friend is the one who finally bites him. He manages to crawl to the thermostat and push the button (stopping for a second to take note of Jeff who’s still poking at his blackberry and “still cool as a zombie”) before finally taking full zombie form and joining the rest his groaning, grey friends. Damnit. It’s over, right? Everyone’s a zombie.
But no, as ABBA’s “Fernando” starts to swell, the AC starts to flow and the zombies start to sense a slow return to normalcy – Jeff goes from slapping at his phone to getting right back to sending texts and emails. Just then, the army arrives, ready to “dose these suckers.” Yeah, I don’t know what that means. The two army officers show up wearing black suits and sunglasses at night, but thank God that one of the underlings interrupts them before they can follow through on what was sure to be a Men In Black reference.
After they dosed the suckers, everyone wakes up in the library, bandaged and confused. No one remembers anything that happened, and the army officers tell everyone that the party was mass-roofied. (Chang is disappointed that he wasn’t the mastermind behind it all. He would. Creep.) George Takei closes it out with narration that has nothing to do with the episode, but might benefit you if your name is Kevin.
It’s hard to imagine that the tag could even come close to the Halloween episode that I can only describe as 22 minutes of pure zombie awesomeness, but Troy finding a voicemail that was left during the zombie attack after the army’s erased his memory. Watch and enjoy.
We’ve seen Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine), but now that Entertainment Weekly’s Star Trek exclusive is in stores, they’re ready to show off 11 more images from their photo shoot. The new gallery features Sulu (John Cho), McCoy (Karl Urban), Nero (Eric Bana) and more.
Due out next May 8 and directed by J.J. Abrams, the latest in the Trek ouevre chronicles the early careers of the Enterprise crew. Yes, Leonard Nimoy will make an appearance as Old Spock, but -- unless it's a big surprise -- William Shatner's Old Kirk will be MIA. Not for the lack of his trying. Check out the photos! MORE NEWS: 'The Soloist' Pushed Back to 2009