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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Jay Roach’s political comedy couldn’t have come at a better time. Just as the U.S. is beginning to suffer from the fatigue that comes with enduring the final months of the heated presidential campaign between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis give us exactly what we need: a good laugh.
The Campaign stars Ferrell as Conservative Senate shoe-in Cam Newton who gets himself in a bit of a campaigning pickle – if you can call a widely publicized sexual slip-up a pickle – and prompts the powers that be (an evil duo courtesy of the always fantastic John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to bring in a ringer: Marty Huggins (Galifianakis). Huggins is flanked by his two trusty pugs and spends his days giving empty trolley tours of his tiny North Carolina town – a naïve happy existence that flummoxes his former political operator of a father (Brian Cox). But once Marty’s appointed campaign manager gangster Tim (a ruthless and surprisingly hilarious Dylan McDermott) Pretty-Womans the grinning familial misfit into a standard cutthroat political candidate the messy misinformation-driven games begin.
Everything we’ve ever feared or discovered about our shiny politicians during campaign season is magnified for the sake of this 90-minute cathartic joke. Right as Romney and Obama are getting headlines for the underhanded loosely regulated practice that is the campaign commercial Ferrell and Galifianakis’ characters take the seemingly lawless practice to a wonderful hyperbolic place where having a mustache makes you a friend of Sadam Hussein and splicing quotes to blaspheme your opponent is kosher. Oh wait that last part is actually true.
This story from frequent Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay along with Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell plays on the clichés of the campaign trail and dresses them up with baby-punching and butt-licking. Right out of the gate we’re treated to Ferrell cheating on his wife with a squealing harlot in a porta-potty. The writers have no mercy for the political world and coincidentally neither do most of us. And even as the film stretches the limits of our ability to stomach schlocky gross gags it’s not entirely uncalled for. In fact this over-the-top flick is practically an extension of the way many of us view the idea of campaigning in the U.S. – the key is abject cynicism.
Raunchy gags are the name of the game but The Campaign doesn’t shirk the necessary weight of its source material. Sure Ferrell’s requisite nude scene merits a few giggles but it’s the moments that are centered on speeches and strategy that really make the film. They’re rife with spot-on frustrated commentary about the emptiness of political speeches and promises and draped in the hilarious inflections of the films’ funnymen.
But beyond the parts that make us laugh hard enough to eke out a sideways tear The Campaign actually has something that most raunchy Ferrell comedies only purport deliver: a heart-warming gooey center. We can chalk this up to Galifianikis’ Marty who represents the political fantasy we try to believe in every election: the existence of a truly honest well-meaning politician. He’s the guy who runs on the platform that “Washington is a mess” and he actually believes he can clean it up. When Cam is running his mouth about loving America Marty is the one who actually offers up idealistic solutions. To some extent Marty is a character we’ve seen before but he’s this bright spot that keeps The Campaign from becoming a long-form rant.
In addition to Galifianakis’ lovable Marty we find gems in the form of McDermott – whose phantom-like presence throughout the film is always worth a laugh – and newcomer Katherine La Nasa as Rose Cam’s gut-wrenchingly opportunistic Barbie of a wife. Oddly enough a big name like Jason Sudeikis receives low-billing this time around and perhaps it’s because his role is a rather mild one for a man who’s solidified himself as the overgrown frat-boy du jour. Still it’s Galifianakis who carries the film and Farrell’s usual shtick that provides the platform for his character’s unavoidable goodness.
The Campaign is a surprising oddly adorable summer comedy combining the disgusting cringe-worthy visuals we’ve come to expect from a Will Ferrell flick with the brains we hope for any time we see the word “political” tied to a film.
Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
The term “burlesque ” for the uninitiated refers to a specific brand of female striptease that incorporates flamboyant costumes elaborate choreography kitschy songs and various other elements to which heterosexual men are largely indifferent. But it’s wildly popular in other circles -- so much so in fact that it has earned its very own film titled oddly enough Burlesque.
Written and directed by music video veteran Steven Antin Burlesque is fashioned loosely as a camp homage to the 2000 film Coyote Ugly. Stage and screen legend Cher brought to life by an innovative blend of animatronics and CGI stars as Tess the brash tough-as-nails proprietress of Hollywood's almost unbearably fabulous Burlesque Lounge. Despite the obvious popularity of its musical revue the club is plagued by money problems which makes it the target of acquisitive real estate developer Marcus Gerber (Eric Dane) a man whose name alone carries all sorts of ominous Teutonic implications. But Tess determined diva that she is refuses to sell. She's not about to let years of gross financial mismanagement kill her dream of providing a haven where scantily clad women can dance provocatively without fear of encountering men who’d like to sleep with them.
Potential salvation arrives in the luminous top-heavy form of Iowa-bred Ali (Christina Aguilera) a vision of wide-eyed innocence and vaulting ambition in soft focus. Immediately upon entering the Lounge she is struck by the sudden realization that her lifelong dream is to become a burlesque superstar. Unfortunately Tess doesn’t initially recognize Ali’s potential and the poor girl is forced to slum it as a cocktail waitress in the bar area where she’s embraced by the club’s straightgay bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) a southern transplant whose own showbiz dream involves making it as a songwriter. (In accordance with songwriter tradition he takes pains to ensure that every inch of his chiseled frame is bronzed and waxed. Just like Bernie Taupin.) In her free time Ali devotes herself to the study of burlesque and when her opportunity arises she seizes it without hesitation.
Burlesque is principally the Cher and Christina Show and the film thrives when their respective talents are on display. (“Talents ” obviously gaining a dual meaning in regards to Aguilera.) Surrounding them are a smattering of stock characters pursuing forgettable story arcs the lone exception being the always excellent Stanley Tucci adding a pinkish hue to his incomparable wit in the role of Sean Tess’s long-suffering boa-clad second-in-command. He and co-star Alan Cumming are two sides of the same sassy coin but Cumming is little more than a bitchy bit player in Burlesque poking his head into the frame on occasion to deliver a biting one-liner. Then again that description could apply to any number of characters in the film.
It appears that Antin true to his music-video pedigree conceived of Burlesque with the song-and-dance pieces in mind first then set about building a story around them. (The opposite is generally preferred.) The musical set pieces are lavish sexy and at times truly dazzling especially when Aguilera takes the stage but they do little to advance the film’s plot. Consequently Burlesque’s running time swells to almost two hours to satisfy the demands of a story that frankly seem hardly worthy of such an effort.
Bo (Seann William Scott) and Luke (Johnny Knoxville) Duke are cousins--two hell-raisers who drive fast sell moonshine and bed sexy farm girls all across Georgia's Hazzard County. They've got another cousin Daisy Duke (Jessica Simpson) a drop-dead hottie who waits tables at the local watering hole. If someone gets a little too friendly with the gal she's knocks 'em on their ass--and if her cousins get into trouble she shakes hers to get them out of it. Then there's Uncle Jesse Duke (Willie Nelson) who makes the moonshine on his farm tells bad jokes and sings country-western songs. I can't quit thinking about how the Duke family dynamics work. They're all tight-knit cousins right? But Uncle Jesse isn't the father to any of them. So like where's the rest of the Dukes? There's gotta be other siblings parents maybe. It perplexes me. But I digress. Suffice to say the Dukes are always outrunning--and out-jumping--the local law enforcement in their souped-up Dodge Charger the General Lee. The boys are also constantly doing battle with the crooked county commissioner Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds) who cooks up one nefarious plan after another to make Hazzard County his own personal cash cow only to be thwarted by those darn Dukes. Dagnabbit.
Although some diehard fans of the TV show may disagree the casting for this feature film redo is pretty spot on. Knoxville and Scott do just fine as the rip-roarin' Duke cousins bantering about one upping each other--you know boys stuff. Nelson's still got the whole pigtail thing going for him but he looks like he's having a good time. Reynolds does too but he's definitely a lot slicker--and a lot better looking--than the show's original Boss Hogg Sorrell Booke. As the bumbling police veteran character actor M.C. Gainey who always plays bad guys at least gets to show off some comedy chops as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane. Michael Weston (Garden State) as the wimpy Deputy Enos Strate is sufficiently reduced to a puddle whenever Daisy is around. And then there's Simpson. My my my. It's obvious the camera (and whose ever behind it) loves every inch of her and she tends to light up the screen whenever she's on it. Of course playing Daisy in her acting debut isn't much of a stretch but Simpson still shows a comic flair. The singer-turned-actress could actually become a fairly serviceable comedic actress if she plays her cards right.
This is what director Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers) had to say about making The Dukes of Hazzard: "I had a poster of Daisy Duke [played in the original show by Catherine Bach] on my wall when I was nine that was very inspiring and when you combine the prospect of a new Daisy Duke with the opportunity to send the General Lee flying through the air again it was impossible for me to say no." Well Jay actually you could have said no and maybe the whole Hazzard as a feature idea would have gone away. It's perfectly suitable to have a television show be about nothing but cars flying through the air hot women in skimpy clothes and idiotic behavior. We'll always accept brain-friendly crap on TV. But to be subjected to an entire feature-length film of mindless stupidity is just too much at least in Hazzard's case. Sure watching the General Lee perform seemingly impossible stunts is fun. Apparently 28 Dodge Chargers had to be converted into the multiple General Lees needed for the film and the parts had to be hunted down on the Internet in junkyards or by word of mouth. Still after about the 100th time the car jumps over something you've had quite enough.