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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Perhaps Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should have been a trilogy. Splitting the sprawling finale to author J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga into three parts — as opposed to its chosen two-part incarnation — might have come across as shameless profiteering (admittedly a not-uncommon practice in this town) but it wouldn’t have been without merit. At 759 pages Rowling’s source novel is said to be a rather dense work plot-wise; surely it could have easily warranted another installment?
I only say this because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 though certainly a decent film clearly strains from the effort required to fit the book’s proceedings into a two-act structure. While Part 2 slated to open approximately six months from now is alotted the story's meaty parts — namely the spectacular Battle of Hogwarts and its emotional denouement — Part 1 must bear the burden of setting the stage for the grand confrontation between the forces of Light and Dark magic and framing the predicament of its three protagonists teen wizards Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in suitably dire terms. And it's quite a heavy burden indeed.
As the film opens the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) having assumed control over Hogwarts since the events of the preceding film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has wasted no time in initiating his reign of terror. As far as historical evil-dictator analogues are concerned Voldemort appears partial to the blueprint laid by Stalin as opposed to that of his genocidal pact-pal Hitler. Enemies of the Dark Lord's regime are prosecuted in dramatic show trials presided over by the Grand Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) while muggles (non-magic folk) and half-bloods are denounced as "undesirables" and “mudbloods” in Soviet-style propaganda posters and forced to register with the authorities.
As the only viable threat to Voldemort’s dominion Harry and his allies are hunted vigorously by Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and her goon squad of Death Eaters. The Boy Who Lived now fully grown and in more or less complete command of his powers is still no match England's nasally scourge. Labeled "Undesirable No. 1" by the Gestapo-like Ministry of Magic he's is forced to go on the lam where he labors along with Ron and Hermione to solve the riddle of Voldemort’s immortality.
For those not well-versed in Rowling’s source material the film’s opening act is a frustrating blur: After an all-too-brisk update on the bleak state of affairs in Hogwarts we are hastily introduced (or re-introduced) to a dozen or so characters the majority of whom are never seen again. A few even perish off-screen. Had we gotten a chance to get to know them we might be able to mourn them as our heroes do; instead we’re left racking our brains trying to recall who they were and how they figured in the plot.
Rowling's flaws as a storyteller — the over-reliance on deus ex machina devices (in this case we get both a doe ex machina and a Dobby ex machina) the ponderous downloads of information (not unlike those of that other uber-anticipated and somewhat overrated 2010 tentpole Inception) the annoying ability of characters to simply teleport (or "disapparate") away from danger etc. — are more evident in this film than in previous chapters. And rather than obscure these flaws director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves both franchise veterans arguably amplify them.
What saves the film are Rowling's three greatest achievements: Harry Ron and Hermione who along with the actors who play them have evolved beyond the material. The film's narrative gains its emotional footing during the heroic threesome's exile ostensibly a series of camping trips — with tents and everything — during which they reflect on their journey together the challenge that awaits them and the sacrifices it will require. Though they occasionally verge on tedious these excursions into Gethsemane allow us precious quality time with these characters that we've grown to adore over the course of seven films even if the plaintive air is spoiled a bit by some rather puzzling attempts at product placement. In their rush to flee the Dementors and Death Eaters it seems that they at least took care to pack the latest in fall fashion:
As devout readers of Rowling's novels know all too well the only foolproof shield against Voldemort's minions is the Bananicus Republicum charm.
Move over cupid; it’s time for the angel of death to play matchmaker in Life As We Know It a rom-com from director Greg Berlanti and first-time screenwriters Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson which proves the old adage that there’s no better catalyst for love — and comic hijinks — than the sudden tragic demise of loved ones.
Holly Berenson (Katherine Heigl) and Eric Messer (Josh Duhamel) could not be more different. He’s an aspiring television sports director and an unrepentant cad whose casual seat-of-your pants approach to life is best symbolized in the ratty baseball hat that perpetually adorns his dome (always worn backwards — classic movie shorthand for “slob”). She’s a successful caterer with a five-year plan and a strict intolerance for disorder of any kind. He has a penis; she a vagina. We’re talking Israel and Palestine here folks.
The mutual disdain between Holly and Messer is palpable and intense but the two are always able to put their differences aside when in the presence of their goddaughter Sophie the unbearably adorable spawn of his best friend Peter (Hayes MacArthur) and her best friend Alison (Christina Hendricks). When the youthful parents perish suddenly in a car accident (the tragedy of which is compounded by the loss of Mad Men star Hendricks on-screen for all of a few minutes and annoyingly clothed throughout that span) there’s little time to mourn before hilarity comes calling in the form of an estate lawyer who reveals that Peter and Alison mischievous rascals that they were mandated in their will that Sophie be raised by Holly and Messer in the event that the child is abruptly orphaned.
One’s heart really goes out to Duhamel’s character here: Not only does he lose his best friend but he’s saddled with both a helpless one-year-old and Katherine Heigl. What sort of mass-murdering past life is this guy being forced to atone for? Put this material in the hands of Clint Eastwood and it’s got Oscar potential. And yet not only does Messer not strangle Holly in her sleep he falls in love with her! And she for him! Their romantic bond flowers unexpectedly as they devote themselves to the task of caring for Sophie within whose many noxious emissions it seems is housed some sort of powerful aphrodisiac that renders even the most unappealing people somehow irresistible.
The effect spreads to the audience as Duhamel and Heigl conspire to win our affections establishing a keen romantic chemistry that almost makes Life As We Know It’s far-fetched (and occasionally bizarrely macabre) plot palpable. Duhamel hits that sweet spot between eye candy and everydude as well as any actor working today and his easy charm rubs off on Heigl whose trademark busybody antics aren't nearly as cloying as in the previous seven chapters of her “Men Are Pigs” rom-com decalogy. In fact she’s downright likable in this film. Maybe there's some truth to all that nonsense about babies being little miracles after all.
At least Bewitched has the smarts to reinvent itself contemporizing rather than going for a straight remake. First we meet Isabel (Nicole Kidman) a naïve good-natured witch who wants to give up her supernatural powers to lead a "normal" life--much to the chagrin of her warlock father Nigel (Michael Caine). He doesn't believe she can do it. Neither do we. Then on the other side of town we meet Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) a nearly washed-up actor who's done one too many bad films. To get back on track he decides to do an updated version of the beloved 1960s sitcom Bewitched. As the mere-mortal Darrin Wyatt would be the star of the show not the actress cast as Samantha. In order for that to happen a nobody must play the witch. Lo and behold Jack runs into Isabel who can manipulate her dainty nose in just the right wriggle. He persuades her to take the part while she sees Jack as the quintessential mortal man with whom she can settle down and lead the normal life she so desires. Think it'll work out? (Cue the Bewitched theme song).
We all know Kidman can play complicated and romantic and Ferrell can do comedy. But in Bewitched they each try to do something beyond those skill sets. Unfortunately they can't quite pull it off. Kidman of course is a consummate actress. She can take on just about any character and make it her own including the slightly ditzy eternally cute Isabel. And so she taps into her inner witch once again (like she did in Practical Magic). But trying to remake comedies (like The Stepford Wives) especially something as balls-out as Bewitched doesn't really suit the Oscar winner all that well. And in Ferrell's case he hilariously handles all of Bewitched's improvisational comedic moments as expected. But watching him try to be a romantic leading man is a bit cringe-worthy. I mean if you can make smooching on Nicole Kidman look uncomfortable you certainly aren't doing the job. As far as the rest of the cast everyone is pretty much wasted in one form or another. Caine as Isabel's debonair roué of a father and Shirley MacLaine as the diva-esque actress who plays Bewitched's wonderful Endora have a couple of bright moments but don't get nearly enough to do. The same goes for Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) as Jack's unctuous agent and Kristin Chenoweth (from the Broadway musical Wicked) as Isabel's spirited neighbor. Even Steve Carrell (TV's The Office) as the irascible Uncle Arthur can't offer the right spontaneity. What a shame.
One of Bewitched's saving graces however is writer-director Nora Ephron. She knows romantic comedies having helmed such hits as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail as well as writing the quintessential romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…. Bewitched is right up her alley and she fluffs it up like a pro. Yet overall the film is just too darn silly for its own good. Maybe Bewitched suffers from the whole TV-turned-film phenomena in general. The idea of taking such classic TV favorites and adapting them into feature films continues to prove there isn't a shred of originality left in the studio system. But sometimes the concept works (Starsky & Hutch is one that comes to mind). Fans like me are curious as to how filmmakers will rework the material and are especially interested in who they decide to cast to play those beloved icons. We end up giving each one of these big-screen treatment iterations a chance--and are usually disappointed. Bewitched is no exception. Besides being only mildly entertaining to diehard fans Bewitched's inside jokes will most likely go over the heads of those who can't tell Samantha Darrin Endora Aunt Clara Uncle Arthur or Mrs. Kravitz from the characters on I Dream of Jeannie. Probably best just to own the sitcom's DVD collection instead.