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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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
The first five minutes of The Change-Up—a horrifying look into the world of late-night baby care complete with one of the more grotesque poop-to-face shots ever captured on film—sums up the movie's bait-and-switch. In most comedies this scene would be the first step towards a descent into hell that only Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Adam Sandler are capable of realizing. In The Change-Up it's a sequence that sets the bar as low as artistically possible so stars Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds can obliterate expectations with equally raunchy shocking and hilarious comedic stylings. Simply put The Change-Up is the funniest movie of the year.
Bateman plays Dave Lockwood a run-of-the-mill lawyer who works too hard juggles his parenting duties and struggles to find time to tell his wife he loves her. Dave's best friend Mitch (Reynolds) couldn't be more of the opposite—sleeping all day and spending his conscious hours wooing sexual partners while stoned out of his mind. The two are polar opposites making them the perfect candidates for a little bit of switcheroo magic. One particularly devastating night of alcohol and lamenting life's woes ends with the duo taking a leak into a magical fountain (go with it). Fate of course intervenes and when Dave and Mitch wake up they find themselves trapped in the one another's bodies.
There's no denying The Change-Up follows the Freaky Friday formula—but that's not a fault. The logic is already established giving Bateman Reynolds and director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) freedom to jump right into the crass humor hook. Bateman who's becoming a go-to straight man in Hollywood finds a refreshing opportunity in inhabiting Reynold's Mitch. The character's lack of self-censorship opens the floodgates for Bateman to poetically surface some of the English language's more horrendous sentences. A slang dictionary may be required to understand what bizarre body part synonyms are being dropped at rapid pace in this movie. Whether you comprehended them or not when they come out of Bateman's mouth they're priceless.
Same goes for Reynolds who escapes the box of fast-talking womanizer to play the uncomfortable family man. Judging an actor's versatility on a scene in which he's unwillingly placed at the center of a "lorno" (read: low-budget soft core pornography) may seem twisted but Reynolds sells it and makes it perfectly agonizing. Even obvious scenarios like "uh oh Dave's going to have to cheat on his wife in Mitch's body!" are twisted once twice three times over to pull the rug from under you.
The biggest surprise of The Change-Up is the movie's heart. Pummeling an audience with jokes is one thing but to sell genuine relationships underneath it makes it satisfying. The wavering friendship between the two lead knuckleheads is tangible and keeps an impossible plot device grounded while Leslie Mann (Knocked Up Funny People) as Dave's wife Jamie has her fair share of tender moments (as well as devilish laughs—there's a reason her husband Judd Apatow keeps casting her). In a movie that's constructed by textbook rules to have an ending that resonates with any sort of emotion is as surprising as watching a grown man toss a baby down next to a set of steak knives. Which coincidentally also happens in the movie.
In today's world where anything goes it's hard to whip up slapstick and one-liners that feel edgy and that leave your jaw on the floor. That's how The Change-Up hits—and it hits hard.