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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Sucker Punch a sprawling and convoluted action sci-fi fantasy is director Zack Snyder’s first “original” film in that it’s based on a script Snyder co-wrote (along with Steve Shibuya) and not a graphic novel or a previous movie. But to anyone who has seen Snyder’s two previous live-action films 300 and Watchmen it will feel awfully familiar: His now-trademark flourishes – gorgeous visuals elaborate action sequences a desaturated color palette a CGI-airbrushed “heightened reality ” abundant slo-mo and fatal self-seriousness – are all conspicuously on display.
It’s all there in fact in Sucker Punch’s opening sequence: a very intense and ultra-dramatic montage set to a haunting cover of the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams" and slowed down to a crawl so that we may better admire every super-stylized detail of Snyder’s exquisite handiwork. It depicts a series of wrenching domestic tragedies that result in the film’s teenage heroine Babydoll (Emily Browning) being shipped off to an all-girls mental hospital by her malevolent stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) properly setting the stage for the ensuing melodrama.
To ensure Babydoll doesn’t act up again evil stepdaddy bribes a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) into having the traumatized but otherwise mentally competent girl lobotomized without the required consent of the facility’s resident psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino). The year is 1967 and lobotomies though still legal are exceedingly rare; as such they must wait five days for the local lobotomizing physician (Jon Hamm) to come and turn Babydoll into a very pretty vegetable. Which is more than enough time for her to retreat into a dreamworld and concoct a vivid fantasy in which she and four scantily clad mates – Rocket (Jena Malone) Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish) Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) Amber (Jamie Chung) – conspire to escape the brothel in which they’re imprisoned.
The meat of the escape plan calls for a series of quests in which Babydoll and the gang battle giant samurais World War I zombie troopers futuristic alien robots dragons et al – all while dressed in sleek variants of the archetypal hot chick Halloween costumes (sexy nurse sexy schoolgirl sexy sanitation worker etc.). The sequences are well-choreographed and visually stimulating but have very little connection to the plot – they’re more like beautiful and disposable diversions grandiose music videos in which Snyder is able to cram elements from a broad spectrum of pop culture influences from Hong Kong cinema and anime to Moulin Rouge and Heavy Metal without any apparent rules or logic to bind his fertile imagination.
All of which wouldn’t be so bad – honestly it wouldn’t – if Sucker Punch weren’t so punishingly maudlin. Nary a scene goes by in which some poor girl isn’t threatened or smacked or nearly raped. (All the women in the film are victims; the men with the exception of Scott Glenn's imaginary character monsters.) A movie with hot chicks and guns and orcs and robots and zombies should at the very least be fun. But Snyder’s film is dour and pretentious to the point of pain an overstuffed emo tragedy bracketed by ponderous voiceover about demons and monsters and how all of us have the weapons within us to defeat them. Or something like that. Sucker Punch is such a molten-hot mess that whatever Important Message it's supposed to convey ends up hopelessly garbled by the time the end credits roll.
Everything appears to be status quo between humans and mutants. There’s a president who is sympathetic towards mutants Prof. Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school is thriving and Magneto (Ian McKellen) is quiet--for the moment. But when a “cure” for mutancy is discovered which would give those with the mutant gene the choice to give up their powers and become human Magneto sees red. Cure mutants? Dem’s fightin’ words. With a few more allies on his side--including the resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who now calls herself the Phoenix and has unlimited powers--Magneto prepares to trigger the war to end all wars while the X-Men--lead by the stalwart Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and milquetoasty Storm (Halle Berry)--try to stop him. I seriously doubt this is really their Last Stand. All the usual suspects are back. Stewart is once again sufficiently wise as Xavier while McKellen’s Magneto continues to be one of the cooler comic-book villains. It’s amusing to watch him calmly mangle cars or dislodge the Golden Gate bridge with a gleam in his eye. Janssen also seems to relish playing dual roles--the tormented Grey and her evil alter ego Phoenix who is one scary broad. Unfortunately Jackman doesn’t have as much to chew on in Last Stand as he did in X2 and Berry is once again only good for drumming up fog. But the new mutants are kind of fun: Ellen Page (so deadly in Hard Candy) plays sweet this time as Kitty Pryde who can “phase” through solid material; Vinnie Jones (Snatch) is boisterous as the aptly named Juggernaut; Kelsey Grammer is diplomatic as the highly intelligent--and very blue--Dr. Hank McCoy aka Beast; and Dania Ramirez (Fat Albert) as the blink-of-an-eye quick Callisto gets to kick Storm’s ass. Cool cat fight. How dare director Bryan Singer leave his X-Men to go direct another superhero movie even if it is Superman Returns. If Wolverine had anything to say about he might have ripped Singer a new one. You really do feel Singer’s absence in The Last Stand. All of the director’s tormented pathos towards his mutant comrades and their struggles to live in the human world are not as prevalent in this third installment. Instead we’ve got happy-go-lucky director Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame who turns The Last Stand into one giant id--big explosive and campy. Of course to his credit Ratner is pretty good at delivering a rousing albeit superficial action movie. It’s just not as gripping as X2. But listen the spirit of the comic is already built in from the previous installments so in essence we already know these characters pretty well. Do we really need more angst?
In this latest doomsday pic Earth's inner core has stopped rotating a situation that will eventually cause the planet's electromagnetic fields to collapse. If it isn't fixed pronto static charges will create "super storms" that will generate hundreds of lightening strikes per square mile and cause microwave radiation to ultimately cook the planet. Government and military officials conjure up a team of scientists led by geophysicist Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) to travel to the planet's core and get it spinning again. Accompanying them are geophysicist Dr. Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) atomic weapons expert Dr. Levesque (Tchéky Karyo) "terranauts" Major Childs (Hilary Swank) and Commander Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and Dr. Brazzelton (Delroy Lindo)--the renegade scientist who built the subterranean vessel. Their mission is to travel to the center of the earth to detonate a nuclear device that will hopefully jump-start the core and save the world. Like the "terranauts" grinding their way through Earth's layers to get to the planet's core The Core laboriously plods through the storyline to get to its climax--and both are equally uneventful.
Despite a really corny scene in which he demonstrates what will happen to the planet by torching some sort of fruit on a fork Eckhart (Possession) is believable as the sensible Keyes. Co-star Swank (Insomnia) meanwhile brings intensity to the role of fledgling astronaut Childs. It is Tucci (Big Trouble) however who creates the film's most interesting character the arrogant Dr. Zimsky. The diva-esque geophysicist heads to the center of the earth in style with his Louis Vuitton monogrammed canvas bag and an endless supply of cigarettes--making him politically--and refreshingly--incorrect. You'll love how he pompously records the mission's progress in a Carl Sagan-style narration. Back at mission control D.J. Qualls' computer-hacking character Rat mirrors a recent report describing the characteristics of computer virus writers: Male. Obsessed with computers. Lacking a girlfriend. Aged 14 to 34. Capable of sowing chaos worldwide. Qualls (The New Guy) couldn't be more suited for this digital graffiti artist role.
Director Jon Amiel helps define the film's main characters by weaving vignettes of their everyday lives throughout the first half of the film but so much effort is devoted to exploring their individual backgrounds that relationships among the team members are never established. The minor characters are like extras in a Star Trek episode--they're just onscreen to die. The Core also fizzles as a believable disaster movie because of its flimsy scientific reasoning even if you try to suspend your disbelief for the sake of cinematic "escapism." While I can make myself believe for example that a government-created weapon of mass destruction is to blame for the planet's imminent annihilation I cannot buy into the notion that this high-tech vessel was built by a renegade scientist in his backyard and is able to withstand the rough trip to the center of the earth. Although the film's original November release date was delayed because more time was needed to complete the special effects don't expect to be visually dazzled by the voyage. Most of what we see is what the "terranauts" see on their screen: spotty black-and-white renditions of sharp jagged rock. Scenes of the Roman Coliseum getting zapped by lightening and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge melting aren't convincing either.