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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
It’s been a long-standing tradition in film to present viewers with a sort of vicarious vacation. Movies like The Tourist allow their settings to be just as much of a main character as their beautiful leads are. Like the movie that hits Blu-ray today, all it takes is a few unrealistically gorgeous faces (Angelina Jolie, check; Johnny Depp, check) and a picturesque and breathtaking setting (Paris, check; Venice, check) to get viewers to feel like they just took a little two hour fantasy European excursion from the convenience of their couch or comfy theater seat. The Tourist is part of a long line of travel-inspiring films that span everything from the classics to teen movies, but they all accomplish the same thing. They all give the people what they want: beautiful people in even more beautiful places.
When you combine a few of these European adventures, you get a sort of virtual European tour through film and since The Tourist places us firmly in Venice, what would be a better place to start than the boot-shaped nation of Italy?
Obviously, Europe has a great many beautiful locations to offer, but Italy has quite a few vacation destinations. It would be worth spending a little extra time here and the numerous films that take place here are just further proof of that fact.
Pretty People: Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
You really can’t have a list of European excursion films without including the granddaddy of them all. This classic pits Hepburn’s sheltered princess against Peck’s hard-hitting, cantankerous reporter and they fall in love as they tour the classic city together. The film plays on the city’s rich history and beauty and gives us one of the most classic scenes in film, the Mouth of Truth test.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Pretty People: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow
Locale: Venice, Naples, Tuscany, Rome, Sanremo
Admittedly, this part of your tour is a little more stressful than the romantic adventure you get in Roman Holiday, but the film takes you all over the beautiful country and there are few things sexier than beautiful people in beautiful clothes navigating an extensive and mysterious plot in beautiful locations. One of the most breathtaking of the film’s locations is the island of Ischia (in the bay of Naples) which is full of beautiful Cliffside views, gorgeous beaches, and ancient ruins. Not a bad place to spend a few intriguing hours, eh?
Pretty People: Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei
Locale: Venice, Tuscany, Rome, Positano
Well, this film does start in dreary Pittsburgh, but it quickly takes us on a whirlwind tour of Italy all in the name of fate and true love. The plot is fairly pedestrian, but plays on some of our favorite classic films, especially Roman Holiday, and nothing can beat Robert Downey Jr. pursuing the woman of his dreams in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. The film’s climax takes place in Positano, a gorgeous city propped on a seaside cliff and if it doesn’t make you want to book an Italian vacation on your laptop as the romantic conclusion plays out there’s something wrong with you.
There aren’t as many films that take advantage of the beauty Spain has to offer, but there is one that truly merits a stop on this tour.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Pretty People: Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall
Locale: Barcelona (duh)
There’s little to complain about with this film, unless you hate gorgeous locales and super sexy people getting super sexed up. You don’t hate that do you? Barcelona feeds the sexual freedom seen in Cristina, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena and makes the cautious Vicky question her reserved ways. Barcelona is as integral to this film as Javier Bardem’s sheer magnetism is to well, life. (How hot is he?)
It’s long been touted as the location for the getaway of all getaways, the most luxurious sunny vacation you can imagine. It represents the height of luxury and class, so it’s no wonder it’s a stop on our little flight plan.
To Catch a Thief
Pretty People: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly
Locale: French Riviera, Cote d’Azur, Cannes, French Alps, Monaco (Technically not France, but we’ll allow it)
Not only do we have two of the most classically beautiful people unraveling the mystery behind a series of jewel heists (which as you know are the sexiest of all heists), but they’re doing so in one of the most beautiful places you can imagine. As they fall in love and Grant’s persistent John Robie straddles rooftops to catch the real jewel thief, you can’t help but allow the beauty of the setting to add to the sweeping adventure of it all.
Pretty People: Johnny Depp, Carrie-Anne Moss, Juliette Binoche
Locale: Rural France
This romantic little film combines our two favorite ingredients, beautiful people and beautiful places, with one other fantastic ingredient: CHOCOLATE. Um, hi. This sounds like paradise. Besides, it also includes a scene where our heroine gets to make out with Johnny Depp…in a boat…on a river…in France. I want to go to there.
Pretty People: Audrey Tatou, Mathieu Kassovitz
Locale: Every inch of Paris
Of course, this film is the fantastic tale of Amelie, the shy and sheltered little Parisian lady who finds love, but pursues it in her own eccentric way with encouragement from her friend, a wise old painter with brittle bones. (And the object of her desires, Nino, is just about as cute as button.) However, another character necessary to the plot is the living, breathing city of Paris, which lends beauty and shape to the film.
We don’t always think of England as being beautiful, it’s often thought of as nothing more than a gray and dreary landscape, but the beauty of the city of London is undeniable. The centuries of architecture are breathtaking and there are a few films that take advantage of that.
Pretty People: Colin Firth, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Rodrigo Santoro among others
The film follows eight couples (some of which are comprised of very, very pretty people) as they go through different bouts of love, but the beautiful backdrop for all this mushy stuff is the magnificence of the city of London. It may not be as instantly romantic as the streets of Paris or Rome, but it is beautiful and with the help of a little romance, the film really showcases that.
Germany (and Prague)
Neither of these places are touted for their beauty in most main stream culture, but a few films have managed to find ways to bring out the best in these locations.
Pretty People: Mandy Moore, Matthew Goode
Locale: Berlin, Prague, Venice, London
Yes, I know this was one of those run of the mill teen romantic comedies. Yes I know Mandy Moore isn’t that great it in, but she’s so pretty! And so is Matthew Goode for that matter and thanks to this movie we met him long before Match Point. The thing that puts this average movie above its contemporaries for me is the sheer beauty of the shooting locations. They don’t even touch Paris or Rome and they spend a great deal of time showing us the wonder of gorgeous European locales that get far less attention: Prague and Berlin. (No, xXx does NOT count.)
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why more romantic movies don’t take place in Vienna. I mean, just look at this and tell me you don’t want to book a ticket right now.
Pretty People: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
It’s the perfect beautiful people in beautiful places romance: it happens by chance, it’s brief and beautiful, and it feeds off of the classic city where it occurs. They meet on a train, Hawke’s character has no money for a hotel, so they simply spend the entire evening roaming the beautiful city in the best getting-to-know-you set up ever. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
Chasing Liberty should have been called How To Deal with Chasing Liberty While Remembering To Walk. Liberty may not be as tragic as Moore's A Walk To Remember or as hokey as How To Deal but the general premise is the same--a teenage girl on brink of adulthood rebels learns a few hard lessons falls in love with a guy and grows up. Here Moore plays Anna Foster (aka "Liberty " the code name the Secret Service agents use for her) the only child of President James Foster (Mark Harmon). Having grown up in the shadow of her father's successful political career Anna is sick and tired of living in a heavily guarded fishbowl. On a trip to Europe she persuades him to allow her one night of relative freedom in Prague which means only two Secret Service agents--Weiss (Jeremy Piven) and Morales (Annabella Sciorra)--in tow instead of hordes of them. But the prez goes back on his word and the multitude of hidden agents Anna discovers pushes her over the edge. She escapes into the night--and realizing he doesn't know who she is--elicits the help of a young British photographer Ben Calder (newcomer Matthew Goode). They take a whirlwind three-day trip around Europe with Weiss and Morales hot on their tail. For the first time Anna is having the time of her life and even though she and Ben are initially at odds it's easy to see they're falling for each other. Still she'll have to face reality and tell Ben who she really is--but lo and behold he ends up having a secret of his own. Can true love prevail when all is revealed? Of course it can.
It's 19-year-old Moore's perky appeal that lets her get away with being in another frivolous romantic teen flick. It's fun to watch her bounce around and when the camera zooms in on that big smile and those soft doe-brown eyes she looks great. Unfortunately in Chasing Liberty Moore gives little proof that she's anything more than a pretty face; however there's enough of a spark that one wonders if given the right part and right director she could find some depth. In any event it's definitely time for Moore to hang up her coming-of-age teen spurs once and for all. The handsome Goode on the other hand best known for his work on British television isn't given much to work with in his big-screen debut. The dialogue he's stuff with is pretty pathetic--"I'm completely unhinged around you"--but you can tell he's got something. Goode and Moore are the eye candy of the film but the real acting comes from Piven (Old School) and Sciorra (The Sopranos) as the Secret Service agents chasing Liberty down and falling in love themselves along the way--it's a sweet and far more natural romance between two talented actors who know how to handle it and that makes them far more interesting to watch than their teen counterparts.
Liberty is a retread of the 1953 classic about a young princess (played by the exquisite Audrey Hepburn who won an Oscar for her performance) who escapes her royal duties while visiting Rome and spends one carefree fun-filled day with undercover reporter Gregory Peck. There are even a few scenes in Liberty taken directly from Roman Holiday; Anna cuts off her hair to go incognito and Hepburn does the same and there's a scooter ride through Prague's streets in Chasing Liberty that mimics the classic journey Hepburn and Peck took on a Vespa through Rome. Like Roman Holiday Liberty makes the most of its romantic setting showing off gorgeous European cities such as Prague and Venice but the good similarities end with the plot points and scenery. Holiday is filled with wonderful subtleties and great performances and Liberty…well isn't. Director Andy Cadiff a television helmer making his feature film debut just isn't savvy enough to turn the formulaic coming-of-age tale into a good or relevant film and he lacks the experience to take his two amateurish young stars to the next level.