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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With the final installment of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy gearing up for release, we are asked to look back upon the times we have spent with actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright. Times spent slaying zombies. Times spent upholding justice. And times yet to spend avoiding the wrath of otherworldly body snatchers. Following up Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with the science-fiction comedy The World's End, Pegg and Frost welcome the likes of Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and the masterful Martin Freeman into the action. The latter four plays a group of childhood friends going through the motions of an alcohol-infused reunion at the behest of Pegg, who is suspended in a state of belligerent teenhood. In celebration of the new film, director and music producer Mike Relm has created the above mash-up of all three Pegg/Frost features, honing in on the spectacular sense of comic rhythm exhibited by the unstoppable duo.
If you're a fan of any of the Cornetto movies, you'd be wise to check out the above video. Though violent and not shy about its colorful language, it reminds us of all of the humorous joys of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and gears us up for more with The World's End. Check out the final chapter on Aug. 23.
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Liam Neeson is that rare breed of actor who grows more badass with age who at the cusp of 60 appears quite credible besting men 30 years younger – or anyone else foolish enough to provoke him. In The Grey – a gripping but ponderous man-versus-wild epic directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) – his foe is no less formidable than Mother Nature in all her fury. She has met her match.
Neeson plays Ottway a man whose sole job on an Alaskan oil rig consists of gunning down the occasional wolf that makes a run at an oilworker. (Fences apparently being in short supply in the Arctic.) Ottway is a hard stoic sort and one gets the strong sense that he tended toward irascibility even before his wife departed (for reasons not made clear till late in the film) taking with her his remaining purpose for living. He gains a new one appropriately enough when his flight home crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness killing all but a handful of its passengers. Ottway his survival skills honed in a previous life emerges as the only person capable of guiding them to salvation.
Carnahan surrounds Neeson with an ensemble of familiar types the most notable of which are Talget (Dermot Mulroney) the family man Henrick (Dallas Roberts) the conscience and Diaz (Frank Grillo) the jerk. They encounter the predictable male team-building hurdles puffing chests and locking horns before Ottway asserts himself as the Alpha Male. Figuring they’ll perish before salvation arrives they agree to make the perilous trek to the nearest human habitat braving any number of dangers the most fearsome of which are the ravenous “rogue wolves” that roam the landscape. (The film shot in British Columbia in conditions that were apparently every bit as brutal as they appear on-screen certainly looks authentic – both beautiful and ominous.)
When they aren’t battling the predatory lupine menace the men have time – far too much time – to reflect upon their plight and its existential implications. The Grey would have been perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward survival epic the “Liam punches wolves” movie promised by the trailer but Carnahan is intent on imbuing the film with a philosophical poignancy wholly unsuitable for a film featuring lines like “We’re in Fuck City population five and dwindling ” and “We’re gonna cook this son of a bitch!” – the latter uttered at the capture of one of the wolves. As a film Carnahan’s macho metaphysics leave The Grey feeling a bit overcooked.
When you go to your local multiplex this weekend, you will have a host of brand spanking new releases to choose from; all of them either sequels, threequels, or even the prestigious…fourquel? If you pull an iron man and marathon through all three sequels in one day, you will notice, in addition to their gargantuan movie star headliners, a parade of faces and names that may be less familiar to you, but with whom you should definitely acquaint yourself post haste. Here are a few whose talent is on full display:
Noomi Repace will be appearing in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows alongside Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law, playing a fortuneteller teaming up with Holmes and Watson to stop a criminal mastermind. This Swedish actress is well on her way to becoming a household name stateside—Repace played the tragic and, if I may unintentionally rhyme, enigmatic Lisbeth Salander in the original film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She would go on to star in the adaptations of the rest of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Last year, the first film made a huge splash on the festival circuit here in the U.S. and is about to see its American remake released in theaters under the direction of David Fincher. I cannot recommend the original Millennium trilogy more highly. Next year, Noomi will be appearing in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has had a fascinating variety of directors at its helm. Brian De Palma kicked things off in 1996 and was followed in succession by John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and now Brad Bird. You may recall hearing some surprised reactions when Bird was selected to take over for the fourth installment. The reason for this surprise is simple: Bird was known for his animated films, almost exclusively. Bird directed Ratatouille and The Incredibles for Pixar as well as serving on the creative team for Toy Story 3. While these films from the unquestionably masterful Pixar Studios are phenomenal, I highly recommend checking out Bird’s earlier film The Iron Giant as well; so much power and heart on display in that animated gem. Bird will also be directing the historical epic 1906 in 2012.
If you find yourself attending a screening of Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked this weekend, hopefully due to your having small children in tow as you arrive at the theater, there will be a name in the credits that will likely be as hard to place to a face as it is to spell. Alan Tudyk, who provides the voice of Simone in the film, is an actor you’ll definitely want to research. Tudyk garnered a major genre fanbase with his turn on the woefully short-lived TV series Firefly from creator Joss Whedon (the man directing next year’s highly, highly anticipated The Avengers). Tudyk is also off-the-wall amazing in last year's terrific horror comedy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. We’ll be seeing Tudyk again in next year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
If you’re a fan of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories, or have ever read a single one, you were probably surprised that the villain in the first Holmes film from Guy Ritchie did not feature the villainous Professor Moriarty. He was mentioned, sort of looming in the background, but was not the principal antagonist. Rumors about who should play the legendary foil for Sherlock began to flood the web when it was announced he would be the focus of the sequel. When it was decided that Jared Harris would play the role, I was positively delighted. Harris is probably best known on this side of the pond for his work on AMC’s Mad Men. On the show, he plays Lane Pryce, the sort of ambassador for the British company that purchases the advertising firm for which Don Draper works. Harris portrayed Pryce as a cool, collected strategist who was fearless and conniving when the proverbial crap hit the fan. These traits will definitely serve him well as the sinister Moriarty.
Perhaps the most recognizable on the list, Simon Pegg is another name to which you should continue to grow accustomed. Pegg, who will reprise his role as the tech-savvy Benji in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, has been steadily building his reputation from geek icon to legit box office draw ever since his breakout role in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. In addition to the Mission: Impossible franchise, Pegg managed to land the role of Scotty in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. After he provides his signature (read: hysterically funny) brand of comic relief in the new M:I, he’ll reboard the Starship Enterprise in 2013’s Star Trek sequel. His career is similarly boldly heading into the stratosphere so keep an eye on this rising star.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Crystal Lake. Dumb kids in the woods. Sex drugs booze. A hulking maniac in a hockey mask wielding a machete. Yeah that about sums it up.
Are you kidding? The new Jason Derek Mears probably fares best among the actors because he doesn’t have a single word of dialogue. Everyone else unfortunate enough to stumble in front of the camera – Jared Padalecki Amanda Righetti Danielle Panabaker Travis Van Winkle – is basically fodder for the slaughter. Some of them get naked. Most of them get dead. Some die more gorily than others. No one dies quickly enough. Having previously (and woefully) directed the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Marcus Nispel does his best – and worst – to resurrect yet another popular horror franchise from the past. He also adds absolutely nothing new to the formula. Quite frankly anyone could’ve directed this film. Judging by the results anyone did. This is the 12th Friday the 13th film for those keeping score at home and with any luck it’ll be the last. Of course it won’t be. But we can always hope.
Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.