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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Moneyball is a movie about baseball...but it's not a sports movie.
Grouping the latest film from star Brad Pitt with heartwarming Americana it-all-comes-down-to-the-big-game films doesn't quite make sense—no matter how much Pitt looks like Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. Moneyball is an underdog tale of a different kind one that questions the enchantment of the game rather than embraces it. While a film driven by sports statistics and business may sound drab Moneyball manages to discover its own unique sentimentality thanks to strong performances and a restrained style.
We pick up with Billy Beane (Pitt) GM for the Oakland A's after yet another disastrous season. Surrounded by aging scouts convinced of their ability to hone in on a player's intangible skills the keen manager grapples with the loss of his best players a recruiting budget dwarfed by his competitors and no solution in sight. After all baseball is a game of the coin—buy the talent buy the wins buy the championship. Wheeling and dealing across the country Beane realizes the A's need a new strategy or they'll be forever at the bottom. He finds that innovation in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistics wiz who introduces Beane to the baseball equivalent of counting cards: the theory of sabermetrics.
Thankfully watching and enjoying Moneyball doesn't require an extensive background in math as Beane allows the stuffy subdued Brand do the number-crunching. Much like writer Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning The Social Network the script (co-written with Schindler's List and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo writer Steve Zallian) pulls back the curtain on a complicated process but makes it easily digestible and more importantly emotional. Beane puts his job and reputation on the line for Brand's theory which boils down to the idea that all you need to win a baseball game is runs. Who needs star players when MLB rejects can make it to home base?
Pitt's depiction of the real life Beane isn't a showy star performance—but it's one of his best to date. The character is reserved and hushed; he explodes when the gravity of his situation hits a boiling point but quickly pulls himself back into professional mode. In order for Beane to enact Brand's plan he has to de-romanticize a game that means everything to him. Beane goes to great lengths to remind himself that baseball can't be fun—he doesn't watch the games he commands his team to hear the sorrow-filled silence of a loss and he emphasizes that no matter how many games he wins the only one that matters is the last. Beane keeps this light and cool with his co-workers but underneath—where Pitt shines—he struggles.
While Moneyball is Pitt's show his ensemble of co-stars deliver equally impressive work. Hill plays against type keeping his usual fast-talking humor in his back pocket and letting the larger-than-life Pitt properly wow him. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears briefly as the A's manager Art Howe who butts heads with Beane over the direction of the team. What could have been a surface-level villainous role is elevated by Hoffman who makes the old school way of thinking sound perfectly reasonable.
The film directed by the Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller (Capote) is slow and methodical paving the way for exhilarating moments between Pitt and Hill as they juggle phone calls fire off statistics educate their players and compile the misfit team. Miller intertwines flashbacks of Beane's early career and real life footage into the main narrative capitalizing on a variety of filmmaking techniques that organically stem from Beane's perspectives. This isn't squeaky clean Hollywood filmmaking but it's slick. Mychael Danna's score stands out as a thrilling companion to the visuals ethereal tunes that add a touch of humanity to a bookish drama.
Moneyball isn't this year's Field of Dreams or The Natural or Little Big League but it is great drama. Compelling and sweet the film takes a relatively unknown aspect of a well-known sport and turns it into something grand. Baseball's always made for a great life metaphor but Moneyball shows us one we've never seen before.
If no one kills themselves while watching Little Fockers this weekend it will be a Christmas miracle. Sure there have been some bad films so far this year but none will make you long for the merciful touch of the Grim Reaper upon your shoulder like the latest entrant in the Meet the Parents saga. And this is coming from someone who actually enjoys the original film (and reluctantly tolerates the second).
Looking on the sunny side of things however at least Little Fockers is the best alien invasion film of 2010. I mean that is the narrative here right? Pod people have taken over the lives of the Fockers and the Byrnes replacing their once moderately charming attempts at bumbling-based comedy with some kind of extra-terrestrial anti-comedy designed to test the patience of normal human beings. That's the only rational defense of the film I can think of. Surely no one who actually lives on planet Earth thinks that you can fashion a complete motion picture — particularly one starring Robert De Niro Ben Stiller Teri Polo Blythe Danner Owen Wilson Harvey Keitel Laura Dern and yes even Jessica Alba — out of nothing but a chain that interlinks the most face-palming no-one-acts-like-that misunderstandings possible with repeated fart barf and penis humor.
Grandpa Jack (De Niro) is getting to be an old man so he tells son-in-law Gaylord Focker that he needs to take over as the Godfocker. This piece of information is the alien code word that turns the previously-normal Gaylord into Pod Person Gaylord. He instantly begins to act out of character deciding for no clear reason that his twin five-year olds who have a fast-approaching birthday must now attend a prestigious private school that is way out of the family's budget. Pod Gaylord then decides to give in to pharmaceutical representative Jessica Alba's flirting and become a spokesperson for an erectile dysfunction drug.
Meanwhile Owen Wilson has re-entered the lives of the Fockers as Pod Kevin a world-travelling philosophically-confused twit whom everyone worships for no apparent reason. Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman are back as well as Roz and Bernie Focker with the former now being the host of a talk show about sex toys and the latter suffering from a bout of "manopause" that finds him in Spain learning to be a World Class flamenco dancer. How does the re-integration of these three characters pay off exactly? Well Grandpa Jack wants to convince his daughter and happily married mother of his two grandchildren to divorce Pod Gaylord and marry Pod Kevin. Pod Roz's free-spirited theories about sex result in Pod Grandpa Jack getting an erection for five-and-a-half hours (and don't think for a second you'll be spared the image of an erect penis in Robert De Niro's pants). As for Bernie Focker ... well that one's tricky. As near as I can tell the only reason his character is conceived as being obsessed with the flamenco is so he can later inexplicably dance with a jiggly bra-clad Jessica Alba for approximately six seconds.
I'd apologize for that being a poor summary of the premise of Little Fockers but it's sadly an incredibly accurate one. There's no plot here. It's just a collection of scenes that ineptly fit together solely because they have the same people in them. And if this material is what passes for a feature film I cannot even fathom what the deleted scenes on the DVD will look like.
The crime here isn't even the bad (and often childish) jokes it's that all of the adults involved appear to have suddenly forgotten how to tell jokes at all. Words just tumble out of the actors' mouths never ever finding purchase with the audience. But that's okay because as soon as one gag arrives stillborn director Paul Weitz (who is taking over for previous series auteur Jay Roach) and screenwriters John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey will break their necks trying to turn their attention to the next bit of hilarity. And the most astounding thing — the clincher that will make you want to stick a gun in your mouth — is that despite running from scene-to-scene as fast as possible Little Fockers feels like it's never going to end. You may think that it'll be passable light entertainment at just 98 minutes but you dangerously forget that these are 98 minutes of alien anti-comedy which equate to over 9000 minutes of human failure.
It’s a comic smorgasboard of cineteenmatic influences from Bring It On and Superbad to buddy comedies like Wedding Crashers. Shawn (Nicholas D*Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) are girl-obsessed jocks on the Ford High School football team. They scheme to trade another sweat-induced summer at football camp for a stint at the mostly female cheerleading camp instead. Their insincere motive? Score with the chicks. However their muscular presence begins to turn around the miserable fortunes of this pathetic squad and now with an “S” for Shawn and an “N” for Nick the team has a genuine chance to score for the first time at the cheer competition finals. On top of all this Shawn falls for the team captain. With a fresh and lively cast Fired Up transcends the derivative nature of this kind of teen. Learning everything they know from conniving male screen teams like Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson D’Agosto and Olsen may be the best pairing since those two started crashing weddings. Their nonstop rat-a-tat locker room-style patter about girls and sex is delivered with the panache of real comic pros -- especially good is a scene where they must try out their cheer routines for their coach with only a strategically placed pom pom for cover. TV sitcom creator (The Loop) and first-time feature director Will Gluck tends to approach this lightweight material exactly as if he were doing it for the small screen but somehow it works -- with the film’s main attribute being a breezy pace and effortless staging of the cheerleading set pieces. The movie clearly doesn’t take itself seriously even indirectly addressing its Bring It On similarities by having the gang actually watching that movie one night and reciting the dialogue in unison. Funny stuff.
Invincible is Rudy and The Rookie all rolled into one. Set in the mid-‘70s Mark Wahlberg stars as the real-life Vince Papale a blue-collar Philadelphian down on his luck after his wife leaves him. His only solace is playing football with his cronies and rooting for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles who are in a real rut. Newly hired head coach the legendary Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) decides to infuse some new blood into the team by holding open tryouts. All of Vince’s friends think he’d be perfect and urge him to go for it. He does makes it and is soon playing with some of his idols much to their chagrin. I mean who is this punk anyway? Sure he’s got some excellent instincts but can he really be a NFL player with no experience? Yes in fact he can proving to all those regular Joes out there you can live the dream. Yeah yeah. Unfortunately none of the actors really add anything either. Wahlberg is definitely a natural to play this kind of role having already done so in Rock Star. At least in Invincible he gets to show off some of his athletic abilities rather than just his bare chest in black leather pants. But the performance is run of the mill. As is Kinnear who as Vermeil takes on the headaches of turning a losing team into winners all while his supportive wife sweetly reassures him he’s doing the very best he can. Seen it. To their credit some of the supporting actors—including Kirk Acevedo (The New World) Michael Kelly (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Rispoli (Mr. 3000)—paint a convincing picture of genuine camaraderie between local Philadelphians. And Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year-Old Virgin) rounds things out as Vince’s cute love interest (and eventual real-life wife) who knows a few things about football by golly. You’d think Invincible would be a no-brainer feel-good kind of sports flick. It’s based on a real-life person has that whole underdog thing going for it and it’s football. What could go wrong with that? Nothing really besides the fact it’s been done about a hundred times over—and has now been left in the hands of newbies. First-time director Ericson Core a former cinematographer and writer Brad Gann are clearly green doing things by the play book line for line. It’s scary helming a feature film for a big studio like Disney who had such sport hits like The Rookie and Remember the Titans. Perhaps Core wanted to go more out on a limb but was reigned in. Who knows? The football scenes are definitely the highlight and Core handles the action well. I mean you do want Papale to prove himself the natural athlete he truly is and make all his homies proud. But the rest of it is just blah.
OK so we've met the Parents: Uptight ex-CIA operative Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) his preppy wife Dina (Blythe Danner) and their sweet daughter Pam (Teri Polo) who's marrying the adorable if slightly anxious male nurse Greg aka Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller). Now it's time to Meet the Fockers Greg's kooky but lovable parents who soon threaten Greg's standing in Jack's coveted "circle of trust." In the inevitable meeting of the in-laws Jack is lead to believe Greg's dad the effervescent Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) is a lawyer but finds out he became a stay-at-home dad to raise little Gaylord. Greg's mom the outspoken Roz (Barbra Streisand) a "doctor " is really a sex therapist for the elderly. Big big problem. There's also incidents involving the Fockers' dog and the Byrneses' cat and Jack's toddler grandson some glue and a bottle of rum. Don't ask. At some point Greg and Pam have just got to cut the umbilical cord and move on.
One thing you can say about the Fockers' cast--they sure do look like they're having fun. Stiller is back doing the whole neurotic accident-prone thing he does so well. There's one meltdown scene in which he bears his soul while under the influence of Sodium Pentathol (courtesy of Jack of course). De Niro is once again playing the "heavy " as the suspicious elder Byrnes--and is still pretty good at making you laugh. On the other hand the wasted Danner and Polo stand around in the background looking appropriately appalled or sympathetic depending on the moment. Hoffman and Streisand however are the true standouts. They liven up the proceedings just by the sheer nature of their spirited characters. For the first time in awhile Hoffman's tendency to overact works as the bubbly Bernie while the delightful Streisand who's taken a break from acting for the past eight years gets to tap into her zany yet grounded What's Up Doc? persona we remember so well. Good times.
Meet the Parents director Jay Roach has a tough act to follow with Meet the Fockers. The original did surprisingly well at the box office probably because audiences got a kick out of seeing funny guy Ben Stiller go head to head with the Goodfella himself De Niro. But somehow the mishaps and miscommunications that made Parents so wacky seems to have been replaced with feel-good-about-your-family mush in Fockers. Jack for example is mostly up to his "let's catch Greg in the act" high jinks--until he sees the errors of his ways and gets in touch with his feelings. Huh? Granted the moments of inspired hilarity are still entertaining but the extra sentimentality doesn't really work as well given what the younger fans of Parents have come to expect.