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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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
So, what's it like when you sell your movie at Sundance? Like this: You drive through the streets whooping, yelling, cranking up the stereo and tossing black Adidas ski hats to the unwashed (and un-picked-up) masses.
The groovesters of "Groove" are, yes, grooving. A day after Sony Pictures Classic snapped up the low-budget slice-of-rave-life flick, the film's players were partying in the streets here this afternoon. And to hear one of its stars tell it -- this was situation normal, big-time movie deal or no.
"We've been partying since Day One of shooting and that's all it was, was 28 days in a warehouse, dancing 18 hours a day," actor Steve Van Mormer told Hollywood.com while dancing atop the SUV-anointed "Groove" Mobile. "And we haven't stopped since."
Not that the Sony deal hasn't made the day of even the most veteran party animals.
"It is unfathomable," said Van Wormer, who plays a club promoter in the flick. "It was always in the back of our minds, but it's a total, total dream. ... It's unbelievable. I don't even know what else to askfor."
Meanwhile, in other Park City happenings:
BIG "BUCK": "Chuck & Buck," a different kind of buddy film starring the directing-producing brothers behind 1999 summer smash "American Pie," was bought today -- reportedly for $1 million-plus -- by Artisan Entertainment, the distributor behind that other 1999 summersmash, "The Blair Witch Project." The deal was completed after the "Groove" one, leaving that film with the distinction of being the first Park City buy. "Chuck & Buck," with hot "Pie" sibs Chris and Paul Weitz, is the second feature from Miguel Arteta, who became a Sundance star with 1997's "Star Maps."
GOLDEN GLOBES? WHAT GOLDEN GLOBES? OK, so tonight's official Sundance party was billed as the DirecTV Golden Globes party -- except, like, it started at 9 p.m. local time (or roughly just as the award show was ending) and, like, nobody cared anyway.
Reports Hollywood.com's Gerry Katzman: "Fifty percent of the people there had very little concept that the Golden Globes were even going on." The other half were juiced that Alan Ball took a Globe for his screenplay for "American Beauty" (almost like an indie -- except for the DreamWorks part).
And then there was the matter of Barbra Streisand. (She picked up the Globe's lifetime achievement award.) The word that came up most often, Katzman says, in describing Streisand's acceptance speech was, um, "rambled."
MAYBE WE WERE AT THE WRONG PARTY: The big shindig in town tonight (perhaps the one that emptied the streets) was apparently the MGM-sponsored Globes bash. This one wasn't for journalist types -- it was for "the special people," in the words of a fellow journalist type (i.e., a nonspecial person).
THE ORIGINS OF BUZZ: "Oh, it's really good." -- A cell phone disciple on her way out of Saturday's premiere of boxing chick flick (and Dramatic Competition hopeful) "Girlfight" at the Park City LibraryCenter.
HOW TO PARK IN PARK CITY: Stop your SUV in the middle of Main Street -- and get out. (Leaving the engine running is optional, if not recommended. At least that's how three drivers -- two in one lane, one in the opposite -- did it at the same time here Sunday night, much to the delight of their fellow motorists.)
PARKING ASIDE, WE'RE A WELL-BEHAVED BUNCH: Park City police Sgt. Sherm Farnsworth told us today all has been pretty quiet in packed Park City -- flier controversy or no. The Slamdance types, as we reported earlier, have been complaining that their filmmakers are being hassled over handbills and threatened with $2,000 fines. Farnsworth said no actual citations had been issued through the weekend. He also denied that police were springing a new law on festivalgoers -- as Slamdance had suggested. ("Why they say that ... I have no idea," Farnsworth said.) The anti-flier ordinance has been on the books for a while, the official said, adding that police are just cracking down this year. In other civic news, Farnsworth estimated that the biggest Park City population crush is yet to come, with up to 30,000 expected to be milling about town Wednesday and Thursday. No word on how many will come bearing fliers.
WHO SAID MOVIE PEOPLE HAVE NO STANDARDS? "I can't just whip out a power schmooze -- 'How 'bout them Knicks?'" -- A conflicted guy overheard tonight on Main Street.
THE MOST WELL-INFORMED MALL IN AMERICA: Park City's Main Street Mall (home to the No Dance Festival), where the communal TV sets are inexplicably always tuned to CNN.
HOW TO ELIMINATE THE COMPETITION: New to Park City this year is the Independence Film Festival. It's the brainchild of filmmaker David Merwin, who has a very specific agenda: To screen his short, "The Regular Menu," as many as 100 times by Wednesday morning. "The Regular Menu," in fact, is the only film on the menu at the Independence Film Festival, based near Slamdance headquarters at the Treasure Mountain Inn. Said Merwin: "We could have hustled up some other entries, but I kind of liked the idea of being the guaranteed grand-prize winner thisyear."
MOVIES WE SAW:
1. "Songcatcher" (Sundance Dramatic Competition) -- We had to get up early to watch this stuff? Janet McTeer plays a 1920s musicologist who chooses to move to hillbilly country to live with her lesbian sister schoolteacher (Jane Adams) and discovers the joy of native folk songs. Unfortunately, almost every freakin' scene features dirty-faced mountainfolk breaking into song. It's both annoying and unrealistic -- as if the hillbilly lifestyle was not too divorced from that of a Broadway gypsy. A great performance by Aidan Quinn (as McTeer's love interest, a hillbilly with a heart of gold) and an unbelievable supporting turn by Pat Carroll ("The Little Mermaid") can't make up for the film's contrivances. (-- AnonymousSource)
2. "Double Parked" (Slamdance Competition Feature) "Tumbleweeds" (and/or "Anywhere But Here") with a New Yawk accent. Like those two wacky-mom/put-upon-kid flicks, "Double Parked" gives us a wacky single mom (who, in a twist, is as a tough-talkin' meter maid name of, ugh, Rita) and a put-upon kid (who, in a twist, is sickly). Though heartfelt, this is the kind of film that shows up on IFC or the Sundance Channel full of a self-congratulatory sense of entitlement that says, "We're indie. We're better than Hollywood because no cars were crashed to make this film." Well, no cars were crashed to make "Anywhere But Here," either, and it's just as cloying as that, so what's the point? (-- J.R.)
MOVIES WE WANTED TO SEE BUT COULDN'T GET TICKETS TO EVEN THOUGH WE WAITED OUT IN THE BITTER COLD FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF: "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" (Sundance Documentary Competition).
SPOTTED: Indie god Steve Buscemi ("Living in Oblivion") at today's "Songcatcher" screening at the Eccles Theatre; indie guru John Pierson (TV's "Split Screen"), animation icon Craig "Spike" Decker (of Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation) and James Woods ("Any Given Sunday") at the Independent Film Channel bash tonight at the Harry O's nightclub. We also thought we saw Kato Kaelin (The People vs. O.J. Simpson) at the IFC shindig, but upon further review it was determined it wasn't Kato, after all. (It was that kindof night.)
LOOKING AHEAD: The Jason Priestley-directed documentary "Barenaked in America" (about the pop band Barenaked Ladies), plays Slamdance on Monday; the buzz-a-rific "Happy Accidents" (with Marisa Tomei) unspools at Sundance; alternafest SlamDunk begins its run at Harry's O.