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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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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Kicking off the new label DisneyNature Earth represents a return to the kind of filmmaking that won eight Oscars for Walt Disney between 1948 and 1960 under the umbrella name True Life Adventures. This time the focus is on three different animal families as cameras follow their remarkable migrations across the planet — literally — as the film was reportedly shot in 68 countries over seven continents. There’s the polar bear mother trying to protect her cubs from melting ice caps and overbearing sun as the father desperately searches for food; there’s the elephant and her calf trying to keep up with the rest of the herd through a stormy Kalahari Desert in search of water while fending off dangerous nighttime attacks by predatory lion packs; and finally there’s the mother whale and her calf traveling 4 000 miles from the tropics all the way to Antarctica.
WHO’S IN IT?
Beautifully narrated by James Earl Jones Earth avoids the hokey cutesy antics some nature films and television shows succumb to in their scripting. Jones’ distinctive elegant storytelling adds a moving layer to the overwhelmingly powerful images we see on screen. No cute talking animals in this film folks.
New technologies and more sophisticated cameras have energized this kind of filmmaking since the more primitive days when Walt Disney was regularly turning these movies out. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (Discovery’s Planet Earth) take their cameras into places no one has seen before and get incredible footage some of it heartbreaking some of it thrilling some of it funny. But with brilliant editing and a stunning musical score by George Fenton it all adds up to a breathtaking motion picture achievement adults will enjoy just as much as the kids.
Only that we have to wait another year for the next installment of the series Oceans from the talented filmmakers who gave us the equally amazing Winged Migration.
Just in terms of its haunting effect the richly-detailed sequence in which the slowly-starving father polar bear tries to get food by infiltrating a large pack of crafty walruses is both fascinating to watch and unforgettable in its impact. It’s that unstinting realism and sense that we are watching nature as it really unfolds that gives Earth its gravitas. Another grainy nighttime scene — captured on hidden cameras — shows determined lions out to kill a baby elephant as his mom and her pack try to protect him. Incredible stuff.
INTERESTED IN TRIVIA?
If this seems familiar Earth originally opened in several countries around the world in 2007 and had Patrick Stewart as narrator. Disney eventually picked up the film retooled it and now launches its U.S. premiere on Earth Day. This is the first of six annual films all also intended for release around Earth Day including the aforementioned Oceans.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Although the BBC and the Discovery Channel are partners in this venture this is a MUST on the big screen.
At first glance The Family Stone appears to be yet another silly romp about family dynamics. But the Stones a vivacious loving liberal-minded New England family are more than just cardboard cut-outs; they’re as real as any dysfunctional family can be. The film begins with the Stones getting ready for their annual holiday gathering. Matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton) is especially anxious to meet her eldest son’s (Dermot Mulroney) girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). The family has been warned Meredith is a controlling neurotic New Yorker with very little redeemable qualities. And when Meredith arrives she certainly does nothing to dispel the notion meeting her potential eccentric in-laws with a mix of awkwardness confusion and hostility. Yet oddly enough the disruption brings about some needed changes within the family Stone allowing them to come together and realize their extraordinary capacity for love. Everyone in this stellar ensemble rises to the occasion and truly paints a very vivid picture of a family devoted to one another--but who are less than approachable to outsiders. As mom Keaton turns in yet another genuine look at a complicated woman dealing with some insurmountable obstacles while Craig T. Nelson as her loyal husband does a nice job conveying a warmth to their marriage. Playing their grownup children is Mulroney as the straight-laced “suit” Everett who isn’t all that priggish; Luke Wilson as the laid-back Ben who seems to have strayed the most from his family; and Rachel McAdams as the passionate if rather acerbic little sister. But the real revelation is Parker as the uptight highly unlikable Meredith. It’s quite a departure from her fun-lovin’ Sex
and the City days and the Parker--who truly is one of the better comedic actresses we have today--easily handles the unpleasant chores of playing someone suffering with chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome. Like many newbie filmmakers writer/director Thomas Bezucha--whose only other credit is the little seen indie Big Eden--has the advantage of having that certain fresh quality to his work. Stone’s dialogue is snappy poignant and spot-on as the Stones interact with each other in all too familiar ways. The whole Meredith scenario will perhaps have many of us remembering similar situations--from both sides of the fence. It’s just as painful to have to meet the family of someone you love for the first time as it is dealing with a family member’s poor choices in mates. And what makes
The Family Stone stand out even more is how Bezucha truly defines the term “dramedy.” From the trailer the film seemed to be a balls-out slap-sticky comedy which in many ways it is but you may be surprised to see how The Family Stone’s more serious tones will touch you.
The Whole Ten Yards picks up about two years after the events that changed the lives of Oz (Matthew Perry) Jimmy "The Tulip" (Bruce Willis) Jill (Amanda Peet) and Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge)--and made them a whole lot richer. Nice-guy dentist Oz is now married to Jimmy's ex-wife Cynthia and living in Brentwood Calif. where he still practices dentistry. They seem happy but Oz is so paranoid someone will come after him that he keeps an arsenal of weapons in his home which is teeming with high-tech surveillance equipment. His suspicions however are not so farfetched: Turns out Cynthia is in cahoots with Jimmy who is now married to Jill and living in Mexico and they're planning to rob Hungarian mobster Lazlo Gogolak (Kevin Pollak) who's just been released from prison. But Lazlo has an agenda of his own. He wants to kill Jimmy for the murder of his son rival hitman Yanni Gogolak a couple of years ago. When Lazlo kidnaps Cynthia to get to Jimmy (he figures Oz will spill the beans on his whereabouts) poor Oz runs off to Mexico and pleads for Jimmy's help. What Oz and Jill don't realize however is that they are part of a much bigger revenge plot against Lazlo perpetrated by their own spouses Jimmy and Cynthia.
The only thing that makes The Whole Ten Yards engaging is the returning cast who have a playful and endearing on-screen chemistry. Willis and Perry are at the forefront reprising their roles as Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudesky and Nicholas "Oz" Oseransky respectively. The actors craft their characters well and uniquely and the conflicting personalities they create--Willis' cool and collected Jimmy and Perry's nervous and scatterbrained Oz--make watching their interactions entertaining. When the two discover that the hostage in the trunk of their car has died for example Willis stands there unflinchingly while Perry yelps "It looks like he got shot in the foot! Who dies from being shot in the foot?" Peet blends in with her own brand of humor; her klutzy character Jill is hilarious without trying to be which is the key to her performance. Jill's hung up on the fact that although she's a professional marksman she's never had a real kill--she's so accident-prone that her targets always die by default. Also returning for the sequel is Pollak who played Yanni in the first film. Here he returns as Yanni's father Lazlo aged with the help of prosthetics and makeup. It's a great idea and the result is pretty funny although the character is cartoonish.
Director Howard Deutch makes a valiant effort with this sequel to the 2000 hit; there's continuity in the characters although their lives have progressed since the events of the last film. The problem with The Whole Ten Yards is its story penned by Mitchell Kapner and George Gallo. While The Whole Nine Yards had an elaborate storyline it was easy enough to follow--everyone was basically trying to kill one another. Here the plot's equally convoluted but rather than interesting twists and turns we get inconsistencies and dead ends. Take Jimmy's new Suzy Homemaker role for instance. As the film opens Willis is traipsing around his Mexican villa in bunny slippers wearing a 'do-rag on his head fussing over dinner and the fact that the potatoes are supposed to be "floating around the lobster not just stuck there." We find out it's all an act but the reasons are never disclosed. By the time the film ends audiences will be asking themselves what it was all for. Perhaps the filmmakers thought the sight of Willis as a dowdy housewife would make moviegoers laugh so hard they'd forget to ask why.