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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Disney's new movie Mars Needs Moms suffers from a classic mistake: focusing too much on one aspect of a production -- and in this case it's the visuals. The result is an unbalanced mess that looks terrific but doesn't have enough substance to leave the audience with anything more to "ooh" and "ah" at other than all the pretty colors. As we all know from that one really really hot girl/guy in high school who's now overweight and working a dead-end job looks can only go so far.
Adapted from the children's novel by Berkeley Breathed and directed by Simon Wells Mars Needs Moms follows Milo (acted by Seth Green voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) as he chases after his mother who's been stolen by Martians just a few hours after he told her he'd be better off without her. Once he arrives on Mars (by sneaking on the ship) he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler) who informs him of his problem: the Martians are ruled by a ruthless queen-like Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) who's decided that the hatchlings (babies who sprout from the ground like vegetables) must be divided: all males are thrown away into the dump and the females are raised by "nanny-bots" -- robots programmed by the "discipline" energy of good moms like Milo's from Earth. Milo and Gribble buddy-up and with the help of a rebel Martian named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) the three of them venture to save Milo's mom before it's too late.
And venture on they do. Coming from producer Robert Zemeckis and utilizing the same motion-capture technology as The Polar Express A Christmas Carol and Beowulf Mars Needs Moms rushes forward embracing its visually stunning universe without taking a moment to stop and breathe. The characters never have a chance to do anything significant that would make the audience think they're substantial or important -- especially Gribble whom the filmmakers really really want us to care for. On top of that it relies on a plot line that we've all seen before and instead of diving into the parts that made it interesting (like the question of why men were thrown in the garbage and not women) it skims safely along the surface doing its best to avoid anything deeper than basic themes.
But that may be a little too picky. After all the movie is just supposed to be a fun little child's tale right? In that vein it succeeds. We feel like we're on an amusement park ride thanks to Ki's vibrant '60s flower-power paintings and the adventures on the Red Planet's surface. Even the moments that aren't super fast-paced present environments that are beautiful. Plus Fogler's performance as Gribble (as Jack Black-esque as it was) gives us some fun enjoyable moments and one-liners that kids will no doubt love.
Yet at the same time Mars Needs Moms' visuals aren't all glorious. In fact some hurt the plot because frankly the humans aren't animated very well. There's no life in their eyes. Simple movements like walking look awkward and too often characters facial expressions don't match the urgency found in their voices. Instead the animation just turns all the characters into weird cartoony versions of themselves that look so "almost human" they appear fake. And as always it's difficult to care for fake people.
Children will definitely enjoy Mars Needs Moms but from a filmmaking standpoint Wells really missed an opportunity to deliver something other than neat visuals and one-liners.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.
Let's give a big hand to the two newest members of the Mile High Club. Yes total strangers Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) and Emily (Amanda Peet) hook up during an otherwise quiet flight from L.A. to New York City. Heck the two don't say a word until they bump into each other at the baggage claim. "Blah blah it's ruined " Emily moans the second Oliver opens his big mouth. How sweet. How could they not be soul mates? So what if they share nothing in common aside from a mutual attraction? The bashful Oliver's an aspiring Internet entrepreneur eager to marry the perfect woman live in a beautiful house and drive the flashiest car. The outgoing Emily's an actress with less talent than Paris Hilton and a thing for lousy musicians and writers. So why do director Nigel Cole and screenwriter Colin Patrick Lynch insist on making this lousy love match? They even drag this dead-end romance from the late 1990s to today as Oliver bets Emily $50 that he will have the life he desires in just seven years. Predictably absence makes the heart grow fonder and whenever they cross paths--from a day in New York City or a night in L.A.--they fall more in love with each other. Of course there's always something preventing them from making a commitment. Yawn. By the time Oliver and Emily decide it's now or never they've grown so whiny and wearisome you won't care whether they spend the rest of their lives together or apart.
Kutcher promises to slip on his tighty whities and model again for Calvin Klein if A Lot Like Love reigns supreme at the box office. Sorry girls that won't happen. But Kutcher does flash a little flesh when he drops his drawers for Peet. Otherwise he doesn't display much of anything else in his most wretched offering since My Boss's Daughter. If ever Kutcher wanted to prove he can inject a little charisma or personality into an underwritten role A Lot Like Love offers him his greatest opportunity. But he blows it. Or maybe he's not capable of doing anything other than getting so flustered he can barely spit out his words as he does in all his witless comedies. Kutcher's Oliver Martin is as bland as his name and as dull as his line of business. This makes it tough to believe Emily--in the form of the spunky Peet--would even think twice about pursuing a relationship with this drip. Then again the relentlessly grating Emily isn't exactly a prize catch negating Peet's efforts to give A Lot Like Love a little pungency. You have to pity Peet: she so willingly participates in one farcical flop after another--from Whipped to Saving Silverman to The Whole Ten Yards--that she's dangerously close to ruining what was never really a particularly promising career.
Ever cleaned out the back of your car and found a soundtrack CD you forgot you bought? Those CDs always boast great pop songs that you never hear on the radio anymore. But no matter how many times you listen to the songs you can't remember the film that accompanied the soundtrack. That's A Lot Like Love: terrific soundtrack lousy movie. To lazily evoke a sense of time and place director Nigel Cole leans heavily on well-worn hits from the late 1990s and early 2000s by Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind. That would be all well and dandy if Cole at least injected A Lot Like Love with some comic pizzazz. For a film told over the course of seven years A Lot Like Love moves slowly awkwardly and uneventfully. Perhaps Cole left his sense of humor back in England where he directed the screwy Saving Grace and the plucky Calendar Girls. Or maybe he's more comfortable chronicling the misadventures of middle-aged women than the bed-hopping antics of self-involved twentysomethings. He gets so desperate for laughs that he makes Kutcher and Peet spit water at each other during a dinner eaten in silence. But the most grating moment sadly recalls Say Anything's sweet and touching climax: rather than blast Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes from a boom box a guitar-strumming Kutcher instead serenades Peet with an unfunny off-key rendition of Bon Jovi's "I'll be There For You." OK so maybe not every song on the soundtrack deserves another spin.
As dean of a small college Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) has made a nice life for himself--until a false accusation of racism ruins his career and he loses his wife to a brain aneurysm. Suddenly Coleman has nothing--until he embarks on an intensely sexual relationship with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) a local woman with an abusive ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) who won't leave her alone. The intensity of Coleman's love for Faunia leads him to reveal his long-held secret: He has been passing himself off as Jewish and white for most of his adult life but in reality he is a light-skinned African-American. From there a series of flashbacks to the 1940s introduce us to a younger love-struck Coleman (Wentworth Miller) and reveal the events that led him to his fateful decision. Somehow Coleman's deep dark secret isn't as shocking as it's probably meant to be but the relationship between Faunia and Coleman is--especially when it slips into the danger zone with Lester breathing down their necks.
Wentworth Miller who makes his film debut as the younger Coleman does an amazing job with his role establishing Coleman's quiet yet fierce determination to live a life free of intolerance. And as ever Hopkins is the consummate professional with flashes of intense passion and brilliance in his steely eyes. One does have to get over the fact that a Welsh actor has been cast as an elderly light-skinned African-American but if Hopkins can give nuance to a declaration of how Viagra has changed his character's life (ick) he can pull off the race thing easily enough. Kidman as the dour Faunia also has some stunning moments easily sinking to the depressive depths required of her character--not surprising considering she won the Oscar doing the same thing in The Hours. What really makes you clench your teeth though is when the two of them get together on screen--in the biblical sense. These Oscar winners are so sorely miscast as tortured lovebirds that their sexual moments make you squirm in your seat. It's not the age difference; there's simply no spark between them.
"We leave a stain a trail and imprint " Philip Roth writes in his novel the third in a trilogy on postwar America. "It's the only way to be here." The author goes on to explore myriad themes around this main premise including how we leave our marks how our decisions have consequences and how people can find one another under the direst circumstances. Unfortunately these big ideas get lost in translation on the big screen and the film suffers from adaptation blues. Director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer gives Roth's ideas voice only through Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) the reclusive author Coleman asks to write his life story and even that artistic character talks more about how sex is clouding Coleman's judgment than about his own life or ideology. Ultimately Meyer focuses his script too heavily on the guarded Coleman leaving the other characters too little developed. Why has Nathan secluded himself away from the world? What haunts him? Sinise does what he can with the character but there's too little background. The same goes for Faunia. Although she describes in one monologue after another the horrors of her life--she was abused as a girl and lost her two children in a terrible fire--Faunia's hardships seem distant and it's hard to connect with her character. Only the wounded Lester a Vietnam veteran seems made of real emotions and desires--he's filled with hatred and passion--and if he makes only a brief appearance in the film he certainly leaves a mark.