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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After a brief flashback prologue where we see how the young lion Alex (Ben Stiller) is separated from his father Zuba (Bernie Mac) inadvertently ending up in the Big Apple the story returns to present day as our favorite New York zoo denizens prepare to take off from Madagascar in a crudely constructed airplane piloted by the penguins and propelled by slingshot. Unfortunately for Alex lovelorn giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) fast talking zebra Marty (Chris Rock) and svelte hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) instead of landing in NYC the aircraft sputters and crash lands right in the middle of Africa where they run into a world of exotic creatures. This also includes Alex’s long lost dad and mom. Happy reunion? Not quite. Zuba’s nemesis Mukunga (Alec Baldwin) insists they follow lion pride lore which means Alex must go through a rite of passage -- one he is sure to fail if Mukunga has his way. Meanwhile Marty tries to integrate into a pack of zebras; Gloria gets hooked up with a soulful hippo (will.i.am); and Melman is up to his neck looking for love. Oh and they also all have to save the Kenya preserve from a life-threatening water shortage. No biggie! Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s witty and hip dialogue provides rich voice over opportunities for a talented crew of actors. Stiller continues to be a riot as the showbiz loving Zooperstar Alex especially in his attempts to earn the pride’s respect. Chris Rock earns his stripes as he tries to hang with a large group of look-a-like sound-a-like zebras. Schwimmer is winning and hysterical as Melman now considered a witchdoctor by his fellow giraffe-ians while Pinkett-Smith continues to shine as hippo Gloria looking for a little action. Among the new voices rapper will.i.am as Moto Moto the last of the red-hot hippos will have you wanting More More while Alec Baldwin gets to play the heavy with Lion King style. The late Bernie Mac playing it relatively straight as Alex’s father proves (as he does in his other new release this week Soul Men) shows us just how much his unique brand of humor will be sorely missed. Stealing the show however and getting king-sized laughs in an expanded role is Sacha Baron Cohen back as King Julien the hard-partying head of the lemurs. With a vast improvement in Madagascar’s state-of-the-art computer graphic work directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath take this sequel several notches up in terms of technical savvy including the exciting opening sequence as well as the plane crash. But they really score with the script with new co-writer Etan Cohen adding some crisp comedy. What was mostly just a serviceable script the first time around has gotten a lot more sophisticated and clever a development parents being dragged by their kids will be keenly grateful for. This is the rare animated sequel that actually has a reason for existence other than minting money. It has more heart drama and laughs than the original Madagascar which despite its flaws still made half a billion dollars worldwide. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should make even more as it proves to be one of the year’s most entertaining comedy delights.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.
Rexxx is a superstar dog in Hollywood with movies such as Jurassic Bark and The Fast and the Furrious on his plate. On the set of his latest movie he is being a diva refusing to come to the set because one of the spotted coats in his trailer reminds him of a snooty Dalmation who broke his heart. Eventually Rexxx’s people convince him he can outlive the Taco Bell Chihuahua dog's legacy if he performs this one great stunt. But while diving out of an airplane Rexxx forgets his parachute and lands in a truck full of tomatoes. He ends up running into a boy Shane (Josh Hutcherson) who’s really not into dogs. Shane’s dad is a fire captain (Bruce Greenwood) and the boy’s extended family is a group of well-meaning misfit firefighters at the Dogpatch Station. They're in constant competition with their rival fire station and the city manager (Steven Culp) is warning the Dogpatch Station that they will soon be closing down. On top of it all there are lots of mysterious fires breaking out around Dogpatch. Can Rexxx help save the day? Hutcherson is an amiable child star. After his recent dramatic role in Bridge to Terabithia and as the older brother in Zathura it's clear he's got a long career ahead of him. He comes across as clever and sensible while the world around him is often going haywire. And the young actor has a superb connection with Greenwood as his distant father. Also doing a fine job is Culp as the city manager and Greenwood’s best friend. The last time these two veteran character actors starred together was in Thirteen Days. Teddy Sears (TV’s Ugly Betty) is particularly funny and charming as the fireman who keeps sliding on top of his fellow firefighters when going down the pole. But of course this is a dog's movie and the four Irish setters used to play the lead pup do some pretty cool stunts and reaction shots. Rexxx comes across as delightfully personable even though he smells bad. Director Todd Holland certainly knows how to direct family stories after winning three Emmys for Malcolm in the Middle. This father-son story centers on a recent tragedy and neither of them deal well with it instead becoming more and more distant from each other. Of course the dog’s intrusion brings them together but the storyline cleverly dances a fine line between the stereotypical genres. Firehouse Dog has both laugh-out-loud moments as well as warm fuzzy teary-eyed moments that feel very real. Of course some of the absurd facial expressions and Matrix-like moves by the dog are computer generated but it's not distracting--and not too obvious. The movie is fun for kids and parents to see together especially if they have a dog at home.
In the beginning of the Dark Ages the warlords of England are brutally kept in line by the Irish King Donnchadh (David O'Hara). Tristan (James Franco) has grown up hating the Irish for killing his family and has made a strong allegiance to father figure Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) while Isolde (Sophia Myles) Donnchadh's daughter has grown up under her father’s thumb. After a fierce battle that leaves Tristan near death he washes up on Irish soil and is nursed secretly back to health by Isolde who tells him she’s someone else. The two fall madly in love but Tristan must return to England before he’s discovered. Meanwhile Donnchadh decides to stage a tournament between all the champions of England with his daughter as the prize. Tristan ends up winning the princess' hand for Lord Marke but is horrified to find out she’s his own true love. Tristan and Isolde now must suppress their love for the sake of peace and the future of England. But despite their best efforts to stay apart the lovers are driven inexorably together. Despite the fact that Franco (Spider-Man) and Myles (Underworld) look lovely rolling around on the ground in romantic trysts and gazing forlornly at one another you don’t necessarily feel any heat between them. That seems to be mostly the fault of Franco who plays the young Tristan far too stoically. We understand he’s a tortured soul torn between duty and love with his eyes perpetually half-filled with tears. But couldn’t he have shown a little more passion (and while he’s at it washed his hair)? The luminous Myles is better at showing her burning desire but she too is left many times sad and weepy. Only Sewell (Legend of Zorro) who is usually delegated to playing bad guys shows any kind of raw emotion as he first falls genuinely in love with his bride--and then is betrayed by her and the only son he ever knew. He’d probably make a great King Arthur. As the Celtic myth of Tristan and Isolde predates the Arthurian legend as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet you can easily see how those two more famous stories were possibly formed. Tristan & Isolde is a classic story of forbidden passion set against political upheaval as well as a tale about a tragic love triangle. Producers Ridley and Tony Scott had been fascinated with the legend for many years and finally got the opportunity to bring it to the big screen. Ridley however who directed last summer’s medieval fare Kingdom of Heaven wisely chose to hand over the directing reins to Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) who adequately paints a picture of a time when chaos reigned. Maybe Tristan & Isolde is not as compelling or romantic as the king of them all Braveheart but it is certainly far more accessible than say Kingdom of Heaven. Sorry Ridley.
Brace yourself Dr. Laura. This clueless teen queen (Natasha Lyonne) has it all: good looks a football captain boyfriend and a popular pair of pom-poms. But her candy-colored world crumbles when her panicked parents stage an intervention after finding a Melissa Etheridge poster that leads them to conclude she's a friend of Ellen. After being carted off to an anti-gay rehab camp for teens the perky princess must choose between the straight and narrow-minded or the love that dare not speak its name.
The quirky ensemble casting is half this film's fun. Lyonne is charming as the pepster tempted by T&A and she sparks onscreen with swanky and sexy co-star Clea DuVall who plays the butch femme fatale suitor (alarmingly reminiscent of Nancy McKeon's Jo from "The Facts of Life.") Drag queen supreme RuPaul is unrecognizable out of his high heels and even higher blond wig wearing a "Straight is Great" T-shirt as a macho militant ex-gay counselor. Cathy Moriaty is sweetly sinister as the homophobic headmistress and Mink Stole steals scenes as the uptight upright meddling mom.
Kudos to Jamie Babbit for tackling this hot-potato topic but this well-intentioned film too often misses its mark turning potentially comical scenes into unbearably awkward moments. Babbit fouls when tugging at the heartstrings but hits home runs when the humor is at its broadest.