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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Much like its Greek mythological source material Wrath of the Titans is light on dramatic characterization sticking to blunt moral lessons and fantastical battles to tell its epic tale. That's perfectly acceptable for its 100 minute run time in which director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) unleashes an eclectic hoard of monsters upon his gruff demigod hero Perseus. The creature design is jagged gnarly and exaggerated not unlike a twelve-year-old's sugar high-induced crayon creations — which is perfect as Wrath is tailor made to entertain and enamor that slice of the population.
Clash of the Titans star Sam Worthington once again slips on the sandals to take on a not-quite-based-on-a-myth adventure a mission that pits Perseus against the greatest force in the universe: Kronos formally-incarcerated father of the Gods. A few years after his last adventure Perseus is grieving for his deceased wife and caring for their lone son but a visit from Zeus (Liam Neeson) alerts the warrior to a task even more urgent than his current seabass fishing gig. Irked that the whole Kraken thing didn't work out Hades (Ralph Fiennes) with the help of Zeus' disaffected son Ares (Edgar Ramirez) is preparing to unleash Kronos — and only Perseus has the required machismo to stop him. But Perseus enjoys the simple life and brushes off Zeus forcing the head deity to take matters into his own hands…just as Hades and Ares planned. The diabolical duo capture Zeus and having no one else to turn to Perseus proceeds into battle.
The actual reasoning for all the goings on in Wrath of the Titans tend to drift into the mystical realm of convolution but the ensemble and Liebesman's visual visceral directing techniques keep the messy script speeding along. As soon as one starts wondering why Perseus would ever need to hook up with battle-ready Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) or Poseiden's navigator son Agenor (Toby Kebbell) Liebesman and writers Dan Mazeu and David Johnson throw in another bombastic set piece another three-headed four-armed 10 000-fanged monstrosity on screen. Perseus' journey pits him against a fire-breathing Chimera a set of Cyclopses a shifting labyrinth (complete with Minotaur) and all the dangers that come with Hell itself. The sequences have all the suspense of an action figure sandbox brawl but on a towering IMAX screen they're geeky fun. If only the filler material was a bit more logical and interesting the final product would be the slightest bit memorable.
Liebesman reaps the best performances he possibly can from Wrath's silly formula Worthington again proves himself a charismatic underrated leading man. As the main trio of Gods Neeson Fiennes and Ramirez completely acknowledge how goofy shooting lightning bolts out of their hands must look on screen but they own it with campy fun tones. But the film's overwhelming CG spectacle suffocates the glimmer of great acting opting for slice-and-dice battle scenes over ridiculous (and fun) epic speak nonsense. If a movie has Liam Neeson as the top God it shouldn't chain him up in molten lava shackles for a majority of the time.
Wrath of the Titans is a non-offensive superhero movie treatment of classic heroes that feels more like an exercise in 3D monster modeling than filmmaking. Its 3D makeover never helps the creatures or Perseus pop turning Wrath into an even muddier affair than the single-planed alternative (although unlike Clash of the Titans you won't have 3D shaky-cam blur burned directly into your retinas). The movie reaches for that child sense of wonderment but instead cranks out a picture that may not even hold a child's attention.
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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Set in a seaside English town in the '80s this small heartfelt tale centers on the relationship between Edward a 10-year-old boy whose parents run a retirement home and Clarence an aging magician and recent widower who is one of the new residents. Lonely and curious Edward has a habit of befriending the old folks only to search for their ghosts after they die. When Clarence comes in both learn new life lessons as the older one comes to terms with his past while the younger boy finds reason for optimism as he faces the future.
WHO’S IN IT?
Michael Caine is wonderful in a startling character role in which the 76-year-old movie icon allows himself to look older drawn and beaten in parts of the film. Although the career of the two-time Oscar winner has been full of memorable performances ranging from Alfie in 1966 to The Dark Knight last year it’s this kind of realistic and moving portrayal that has marked the best of his work. and he’s never been better than in this memorable portrait of a forgotten magician who still manages to discover a couple of new tricks late in life. Matching him every step of the way is the engaging Bill Milner (Son of Rambow) who manages to go toe-to-toe with a screen legend without coming off as a too precocious of a child actor. He’s haunting and extremely natural in a pivotal three-dimensional role that never seems forced. Helping matters immensely is a great ensemble of splendid British stars who play the other residents including the great Rosemary Harris Leslie Phillips Sylvia Syms and Peter Vaughan.
Director John Crowley (Boy A Intermission) wisely lets his actors off the leash to create a chemistry that makes the modest story work its own kind of movie magic. Reminiscent in certain ways of the kind of British kitchen-sink dramas popular in the '60s Crowley resists any opportunity to let directorial flash overwhelm this poignant character-driven tale thereby letting it thrive on its own terms.
With such a superlative cast of British-acting royalty in the supporting roles you almost wish there were a few more scenes showcasing these characters in the film’s trim 91-minute running time.
Clarence rallies his talents to put on a magic show for the home’s residents. Caine pulls this off seamlessly and the sequence is pure delight.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
This quaint film won’t lose anything on TV screens and may be hard to find in wide release so take the opportunity to see it any way you can.