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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For years now, decades even, Christopher Walken has maintained a reputation in Hollywood for playing characters who are, to put it lightly, a bit off. When we spoke to the cinematic legend about his recent turn in the film A Late Quartet, he remarked about this pattern that has followed his career. "I’ve played a lot of bizarre, eccentric people," Walken said. "People with odd things on their minds." But his newest endeavor could mark a turning point for the actor.
The movie, a tender drama directed by feature newcomer Yaron Zilberman, hands Walken a more levelheaded, sensitive character — the sort he hopes to make a habit of playing at this stage in his life. "I think this guy is very human," Walken said of his Quartet character Peter Mitchell, an accomplished cellist whose recent diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease forces him to give up performing. "Almost, you could say, the dad in this story. As I get older, a nice thing is happening. I’m starting to get parts for uncles, grandfathers, fathers. It’s kind of a new territory for me. I hope it keeps happening."
The time-tested performer is encouraged by the new challenge. "I always look to [the question], ‘How do you stay viable?’ Being an actor is wonderful, but most actors don’t work ... The roles of Screen Actors Guild or Actors Equity, it’s something like 98% are unemployed. So that if you’re working for any reason, you’re first of all lucky. You have to be good, but you have to be a little lucky, too."
And it was not only the "new territory" of playing this character that attracted Walken, 69, to Zilberman's script, but the story surrounding the roles of his costars (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, and Imogen Poots) on the whole. "For me, it was the story of the characters. It’s a very insular story, really," Walken said. "It’s about these five people — the implications of a change in the life of one of them and how it affects everybody."
But one specific element of this movie that seems to have really spoken to Walken is its relationship with music. Although Walken himself has limited experience with musical instruments ("When I was a kid, I took the piano lessons, and I took some guitar lessons. But I never got any good at it. My hands are just not suited for that."), it is his love of music and his skill at the art of dance ("My feet work!"), that connected him to these particular themes in A Late Quartet.
"Music is life," Walken proclaimed. "The way we live has as much to do with rhythm as it has to do with logic." And to the actor, the particular genre of string music exhibited in the movie is of especial appeal. "Even when I was a little kid, I loved classical music. I still do."
Walken considers music a particularly invaluable tool in the venue of cinema. "Music is very important in the movies ... They say that the best movie music is the kind you don’t notice. I’m not so sure about that." He got to thinking about a few examples of his favorite examples of music in film, highlighting, "the way [Martin] Scorsese, for instance, uses contemporary music." Walken also doesn't forget about the classics: "Let’s face it — Gone with the Wind is thrilling. There are many examples. I love movie music. Some of the great composers of that time… you don’t have to watch the movie, just listen to people like [Erich Wolfgang] Korngold and Carl Davis. Music is part of life."
And Walken connects the performance of music, or performance of any sort at all, to that of acting, which is where he compromised his A Late Quartet character with his own life experiences. "I think the big equation with that would be between being in a string quartet and being an actor ... the performing aspect. When you do a play, or you do ballet, opera, any kind of performance where people buy tickets and sit and watch you, that it’s a particular kind of thing. There’s an element of all of these things that doesn’t get mentioned: the audience."
The actor's relationship with his audience extends far beyond what you might expect. "They are always the other characters in a play," he said. "They’re a big part of the show. Dealing with that is something that performers particularly understand. I think, for me, my experience on the stage, in front of cameras, and all that, was very equivalent to having to perform music."
"These quartet people are performers," Walken continued. "I may not have understood how to play the cello, but I know what being a performer is. The relationship with the audience, who is always the other character. The people buy a ticket, they expect something — it’s expensive, they made an effort to get there. You have to be your best. You have a given amount of time to do what you do best. And that’s something particular to people who perform for a living."
This keen understanding and appreciation of performance is evident in both the cast members who make up A Late Quartet and in the film's director. "You’re going to have to hand it to Yeron Zilberman on many levels," Walken said. "He’s remarkable in many ways. He did what really good directors do: they cast well. And it’s been said, if you get the right actors for the right parts, you don’t have to do a lot with them. You hire them and sort of let them loose. And all good directors do that. He was also very generous about his own learning curve. He let the actors contribute a lot."
Clearly, Walken has a special flare and passion for performance, and acting something he wants to continue doing for many years to come. "In Europe, actors keep going until they drop," Walken declared with admiration. "My favorite actor story is about John Gielgud. He was 96 and they wanted to throw him a big party. And he said [he] couldn’t come because I was on location making a movie. I think that’s wonderful for an actor to just keep going."
A Late Quartet is currently playing in select theaters.
[Photo Credit: RKO Pictures (2)]
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.