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 romantic drama The Vow is not adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel though I doubt its producers would be offended if you’d assumed otherwise. In fact I suspect they’re banking on it. The film’s stars Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum are both recognized veterans of the Sparks subgenre – she gave us the indelible (for better or worse) Notebook while he starred in the somewhat less successful Dear John. Moreover its premise pitting love against the insidious after-effects of brain trauma may be inspired by a true story but its one-two punch of tragedy and sentiment is straight out of Sparks’ tear-jerking playbook.
It’s all there in The Vow’s opening montage which first introduces Leo (Tatum) and Paige (McAdams) two desperately smitten bohemian-artist types (she’s a sculptor; he’s a musician/studio owner) and then rudely separates them all in one slick heartbreaking sequence. There’s the meet-cute at the DMV the whirlwind courtship the quirky marriage proposal the kitschy guerrilla wedding (replete with vows scrawled on restaurant menus) and finally the brutal car accident glimpsed in agonizing slow-motion that leaves poor Paige in a coma.
When Paige awakens in the hospital Leo is aghast to discover his wife doesn’t recognize him. While her girl-next-door beauty emerged from the crash remarkably intact it seems her brain did not fare so well suffering injuries that effectively wiped out her memory of the preceding five years – a span comprising the entirety of her relationship with Leo. Her mind’s clock rewound a half-decade Paige assumes the identity of Paige from five years prior like a rebooted computer whose owner neglected to backup the hard drive in a timely manner.
It soon becomes achingly apparent that the Paige from five years prior was markedly different from the Paige we met in the opening credits: a superficial sorority girl on track for a law degree averse to city-dwelling partial to blueberry mojitos cowed by her domineering father (Sam Neill) and engaged to a corporate douche (Scott Speedman). Upon emerging from her slumber she finds the remnants from her old life all-too-eager to re-assimilate their lost lamb into the Bourgeois Borg even if she does have one of those icky tattoos.
In danger of losing the love of his life to her former one a heartbroken Leo resolves to win back Paige even if it means starting from scratch and wooing her all over again. Aligned against him are the grim realities of brain damage as well as Paige’s family and former fiancé whose cult-like efforts at re-education seem ever-creepier the more I contemplate them. (There are unintentional echoes of Total Recall in Paige’s arc which I suppose would make Leo her Kuato.)
Cultishness and Total Recall allusions notwithstanding The Vow flirts with a more unsettling notion one seemingly at odds with the romantic drama mission implying that what we know as love is simply the product of our memories tenuous and transient and not the profound transcendent bond that Hallmark promised.
Fear not: The Vow is by no means a dense metaphysical treatise. Director Michael Sucsy (Grey Gardens) and is far more concerned with heart-tugging than thought-provoking. To that end he steers admirably clear of grand epiphanies and other moments of high melodrama preferring instead to apportion the sap relatively evenly throughout the story. The strategy is less manipulative but also less impactful. The script from Abby Kohn Marc Silverstein and Jason Katims can’t maintain the energy of its opening act and apart from its brain damage twist is a tediously familiar romantic-drama slog. I found myself secretly rooting for some old-fashioned emotional overkill if only to alleviate the boredom.
The two leads for their part form a charming pair. McAdams is as endearing as ever working well within her comfort zone and equally likable Tatum bears his character’s anguish ably even if he’ll never be credible as a bohemian-artist type. Their easy appealing chemistry might be enough to satisfy the Sparks-philes but it’s not enough to sustain the film.
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Click here to watch our hard-hitting exclusive interview with The Vow stars Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Political intrigue corruption scandal sex — it’s all here in this Americanized adaptation of the much acclaimed 2003 six-hour BBC miniseries. With the story shifting from London to Washington D.C. the focus is now on a married congressman who is chairman of an important committee overseeing defense spending. He is a rising star in his party until his beautiful young assistant with whom he has been carrying on a clandestine affair is suddenly found dead. Things get complicated when his old friend Washington Globe investigative reporter Cal McAffrey is assigned to track down the story and try to uncover the identity of the killer. With cub blogger Della Frye forced on him as a partner the two journalists step into a government coverup that is much bigger than anyone could have imagined.
WHO’S IN IT?
Four days before production kicked off Brad Pitt dropped and Russell Crowe replaced him in the key reporter's role. It’s hard to imagine Pitt in this part since Russell Crowe disheveled-looking with long hair and about 30 pounds overweight owns it in his best performance since A Beautiful Mind. As his blog-savvy young partner Rachel McAdams firmly captures the essence of a determined but inexperienced young journalist in over her head. A sharp-tongued and feisty Helen Mirren is ideal as the newspaper boss more concerned with profits than integrity as she spouts out lines like “I don’t give a s--t about the rest of the story. We are going to press!” Ben Affleck also has his best screen outing in a while as the ambitious congressman Stephen Collins who gets caught with his pants down. A bevy of fine supporting turns include Robin Wright Penn as Collins’ unhappy wife; Jeff Daniels oily and smarmy as a conservative politician who knows more than he lets on and especially Jason Bateman stealing scenes as a slimy PR guy who provides some key details.
Not only does State of Play work well as a political thriller its pointed take on the failing state of newspapers and lax journalistic standards could not be more timely. Stunning widescreen cinematography and lavish sets add to the authenticity of a movie that in its best moments can be compared favorably with similar '70s classics like All the President's Men.
As the dense plot unfolds it gets a bit confusing trying to keep all the players straight particularly towards the end where you might need "State of Play for Dummies" just to follow it all.
A nail-biter beautifully staged by director Kevin MacDonald (Last King of Scotland) where Crowe plays a cat-and-mouse game in an underground garage with a mysterious armed suspect he has just confronted.
HOW MANY WRITERS DOES IT TAKE TO SCREW IN A LIGHT BULB?
Four major ones in this case. Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) Tony Gilroy (Duplicity Michael Clayton) Billy Ray (Breach) and an uncredited Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon The Queen) are the superstar team of scribes who each took a crack at whittling down a six-hour miniseries into a two-hour flick.
Look for Bateman and the art directors responsible for the massive newspaper office to turn up on the shortlist for next year’s Academy Awards.
Shedding many of those trappings that make a James Bond movie well a James Bond movie Quantum of Solace is really the first sequel ever in the long-running series. While it’s always exciting something gets seriously shaken and stirred in the translation. Picking up exactly where the brilliant Casino Royale left off we see Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to get to the bottom of why his love Vesper Lynd had to die jumping right into the first of many MANY chases as he traverses six countries. Still on rogue patrol Bond then inadvertently meets the crafty and gorgeous Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who introduces Bond to the evil Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric) the head of an eco-phony stealth operation angling for some prime desert land while financing a crooked Bolivian general’s planned coup. With the ever resourceful M (Judi Dench) trying to keep him in line at all times Bond must put his revenge plans on hold as he crosses paths not only with Greene and his fake pro-environment front but also the intriguing and mysterious group known as Quantum. In this outing Daniel Craig -- leaner and meaner than any previous Bond -- really becomes a man of single-minded determination and grit. He’s less like the James Bond we know and love and more a humorless killing machine like Jason Bourne (those two should really get together). Still Craig is such a compelling actor that we are with him all the way even if he doesn’t go for the suave Bond moves. Olga Kurylenko is a great foil but not totally in the tradition of a Bond girl. A later encounter with Gemma Arterton as a British agent in Bolivia does however briefly recall the heyday of Goldfinger. Judi Dench has taken the perfunctory role of M and turned it into a full-blown supporting role. Her dry wit and take-no-prisoners attitude is welcomed every time she shows up on screen. French star Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) doesn’t really pull off his villainous alter-ego ecologist while Jeffrey Wright is pretty much wasted as U.S. agent Felix Leiter. At least Giancarlo Giannini returns for some nice moments with his Craig. Although they usually leave the challenging job of steering the Bond ship to an English director oddly this time the baton was handed to Marc Forster known more for his intimate dramas such as Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. His grip on the action sequences is secure but he never really seems to have a handle on what distinguishes this legendary movie spy from everyone else. There’s a reason Bond has survived as a screen icon for almost half a century but the sort of workman-like filmmaking Forster displays here does not represent 007’s finest hour. It’s almost like the producers had a checklist: car chase on winding roads; boat chase; airplane chase; rooftop chase -- all check. Quantum of Solace is definitely worth checking out however. I mean it IS Bond and we wait for these movies on bated breath. Just maybe next time a little less Bourne please.