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.
A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
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.
Date Movie doesn’t have a story as much as it does a series of miss-or-really-miss spoofs of date movies and cultural hodgepodge; the thin “story” is just enough to keep the film from being a series of vignettes. Julia (Alyson Hannigan) who makes Big Momma look little is determined to find her Prince Charming instead of wasting away in her lonely apartment. She briefly finds him in Grant Fonckyerdoder (Adam Campbell) before losing him (so ends any originality). So she visits a date doctor named Hitch (Tony Cox)—yes that movie—who takes her to get barbaric liposuction. Then she meets Grant again they fall in love and she meets his parents Mr. and Mrs. Fonckyerdoder (Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge) making for a Meet the Fockers spoof (the biggest spoof-ee). Julia has competition from Grant’s ex (Sophie Monk) allowing for more film references but ultimately they live clumsily ever after.
It’s hard to see through the utter mess that is Date Movie enough to evaluate its acting but Hannigan seems to be at least serviceable. Although it seems like “acting” here means merely nauseating the audience enough so they can taste the vomit but manage to hold it in. Like when she licks Tony Cox’s face for 15 or so seconds—in slow motion… It’s more Fear Factor than Inside the Actor’s Studio. As for Campbell Date Movie is his first. There’s no frame of reference whatsoever and yet it’s still clear that he’s above this. He almost seems like a classically trained actor who’s forced to stretch his comfort zone by performing horrendous impressions such as the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. The lone semblance of a bright spot comes from Coolidge impersonating Barbra Streisand’s Roz Focker. Again way too classy for this Movie.
Date Movie's trailer brags “From two of the six writers of Scary Movie...” After seeing it you can’t help but muse “It took two writers for that movie?!” The writers in question are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer who also co-directed. The film should at the very least be an appetizer for Scary Movie 4’s upcoming entrée (to which they did not contribute) but with no hint of continuity or a passable storyline it even fails that menial task—and where the Scary Movies have succeeded is in the satisfactory stories that surround the film references. The biggest problem though lies in the spoofs: While the rules mandate that only chick flicks/date movies can be parodied the writer/directors abandon their target audience by referencing movies like When Harry Met Sally. Luckily there’s always an audience member who feels the need to solve the conundrum aloud.