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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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.
Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) is a drag -- a recent divorcee in a dead-end job who basically has one word for everything: “No!” Then one day he is dragged to one of those super positive self-help seminars that forces him to say “Yes” to everything or face dire consequences. Thing is it works. Need Viagra? Yes. Bungee jumping? Yes. A quick hummer by his over-sexed septuagenarian neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan)? Uh … yes? Carl’s newfound agreeable self gains him more than he ever imagined. He even finds the love of his life a kooky musician/amateur photographer named Allison (Zooey Deschanel). Of course all this goodwill does have its consequences and Carl learns some valuable lessons. Sound familiar? Hey if Liar Liar worked once why not go back to the comedy well? Jim Carrey is just his best when he’s in a comedy -- even quirky comedies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He is so at home in the shoes of this kind of loveable loser who gets to live life in broad strokes. He knows how to play for big laughs without going overboard. So from now on Jim just say NO to thrillers like The Number 23. In the top notch supporting cast Sasha Alexander is a deadpan standout as the Persian wife he orders online and veteran Terence Stamp is a hoot as the self-help guru who gets Carrey into his predicament in the first place. Also very amusing are his best buddies played by Bradley Cooper and a hilarious Danny Masterson. As his bonkers New Zealand-esque boss Flight of the Concord’s Rhys Darby is a riot as Carl's boss. Deschanel is kind of the “straight man” here but she’s handles it well if not memorably. Peyton Reed is a fairly reliable comedy director with mostly hits (Bring It On The Break-Up). He knows Yes Man exists as a vehicle for the Jim Carrey brand of comedy and lets Carrey hog the spotlight. The movie lives or dies on what Carrey can deliver and on that scale Yes Man is a hit. There are some bits that fall flat and might have been cut but for all its broad humor Reed manages to keep it grounded and in simple scenes between Carrey and Deschanel the movie even borders on sweet. In a season of dark drama on screen -- and off -- the antidote could well be this dumb but fun time killer. So is a little comic relief worth the $10 in the economic downturn? We say YES!
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.
Like Madagascar the story starts at the New York Zoo. Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) the lion is once again the star of the show but unlike Madagascar’s Alex Samson claims he came from the wild. He regales the other odd assortment of zoo denizens--including a talkative giraffe (Janeane Garofalo) a lisping anaconda (Richard Kind) a snarky Koala (Eddie Izzard) and a take-charge squirrel (Jim Belushi)--with tales of danger and excitement abroad. Of course Samson can’t tell the real truth that he was actually born in captivity and is making it all up because everyone including his rebellious teenage son Ryan (Greg Cipes) would think less of him. But when Ryan runs away thinking he can’t live up to his dad’s reputation and is mistakenly shipped off to the wild Samson has keep up the charade as the gang embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue him. The lion does come clean at some point in case you were wondering. Another vocal roster of big names another dollar. This time around we’ve got Sutherland Garofalo Belushi all doing the animal thing. There’s also William Shatner as a villainous wildebeest headed for the loony bin after deciding he’s tired of being the prey and turns predator. He’s even got his herd of wildebeest dancing a Busby Berkeley number around a volcano á la Lion King. Sigh. Luckily there is one saving grace--sort of: Izzard as the wisecracking Koala bear Nigel who gets mistaken for a god by the wildebeest and milks it for all its worth which isn’t a whole lot. Still if anyone has seen the British comedian’s hilarious HBO special Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill you can just imagine him strutting around as a Koala dressed in women’s clothing and doing his shtick. The Mouse House once again proves it doesn’t have an inventive bone in its body--or even the gumption to realize that had something with potential. Apparently the pitch from writers Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin had been mulling around Disney for about nine years before it got made giving the likes of Nemo and Madagascar a head start (I’d be peeved if I were those writers). But even if The Wild did come first it still wouldn’t be able to measure up mostly because the story is insipid. Wildebeest turning into predators? What’s THAT all about? The CGI-animation is spot on of course but we are definitely taking all of that for granted these days. No now what we want is a good compelling story. If not that then at least we should have a couple of really funny characters--like commando penguins or a fish with short-term memory--to help things move along. The Wild doesn’t have either so while children may be left mildly entertained for an hour and a half parents will be left twiddling their thumbs waiting for it to be over.
Based loosely on the 19th century Jules Verne novel 80 Days revolves around two unlikely heroes--the eccentric and reclusive inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) and his (French?) valet Passepartout (Jackie Chan). While Fogg's "wacky" inventions actually make a lot of sense to us modern-day folk including his insights on flight electricity (which he has rigged so that light illuminates with a whistle) and even Rollerblades to his turn-of-the-century contemporaries the scientist is a giant crackpot. Desperate to be taken seriously Fogg makes an outlandish bet with Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent) the head of the London's Royal Academy of Science that he can circumnavigate the globe in no more than 80 days. Impossible you say? Not to Fogg whose obsession with facts and schedules makes him the perfect candidate for such an adventure. With the ever-faithful Passepartout by his side--who has his own secret reasons for joining in on the fun--Fogg heads out on his frantic heart-pounding journey picking up a third traveler a beautiful French artist named Monique (Cécile de France) in the process. But of course the trip doesn't go exactly as scheduled and Fogg as well as Passepartout learn more than a few valuable life lessons along the way. How sweet. Got a toothache yet?
Jackie Chan knows precisely what works for him. Differing slightly from the 1956 adaptation this 80 Days is all about Passepartout as the story tapers itself to fit Chan's specialties. This means you get to marvel once again at his masterful martial arts skills as well as chuckle at his innate sense of physical comedy. As another perfect straight man to Chan's Chinese sensibilities and kung-fu shenanigans Coogan (24 Hour Party People) also does a nice turn as the befuddled and veddy British Fogg while the lovely de France as Monique breathes some fresh air into her ingénue role (and is much more substantial to the plot than the original's Shirley MacLaine who played an Indian princess). Broadbent is adequately sleazy as the pompous Lord Kelvin full of as much hot air as the balloon Fogg and company take a ride in. But 80 Days's extensive list of cameos is the most fun--from Owen and Luke Wilson as the bickering Wright brothers to Rob Schneider as a malodorous San Franciscan hobo to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Arabian prince (please tell me he made this before he became California's governor). Plus any movie in which Kathy Bates plays Queen Victoria British accent and all has got to be worth seeing .
Minus all the silly songs 80 Days is splashy family fare reminiscent of such films as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factoryand the original 1967 Doctor Dolittle (you know the one with a giant pink sea snail). Supported by glorious sets and costumes director Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer) clearly loves the fanciful adventure of it all creating colorful transitions from one place to the next as Fogg Passepartout and Monique traverse across the globe. But there's always an inherent problem with films of this nature--they tend to be long-winded. The 1956 version of 80 Days which even with a stellar cast including David Niven and Cantinflas drags quite a bit. But with a feisty martial arts expert in the mix this updated 80 Days maintains its momentum for the most part only losing steam towards the end especially after the whole Passepartout subplot in which he has to return a priceless Buddha to his Chinese village is resolved. Suddenly the film becomes just about the race back to London and less about fighting off evil Chinese assassins. Honestly we don't care much about how an uptight British inventor can build a plane out of a boat that will get him back to his final destination in time so he can give a monologue about how his adventure afforded him to make new friends and fall in love. If it's a Jackie Chan movie it's the awesome fight sequences we want to see.