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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Everyone at Sundance is always looking for the next Little Miss Sunshine or Beasts of the Southern Wild, that breakout hit that will make millions of dollars and maybe win an Oscar or two. This year that hit seems to be Fruitvale. What they're missing is that beyond quality buzz, there are crazy trends that run from movie to movie. I'm not talking about "sex" or "coming of age stories" or "non-linear narratives that will bore you to tears." Those are at Sundance every year. I'm talking about the things that are a little bit more specific and totally odd.
Below is a list of things that I saw in at least three movies (OK, some only have two movies, but they are so specific they need to be mentioned.) Let's hope it doesn't say too much about us as a country that porn, shootings, and snake bites are all on the list:
Porn: Sex tends to be on everyone's minds in Park City, but this year there was a specific focus on the porn industry specifically. The official selections include Lovelace, the biopic about Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace; The Look of Love about British porn magnate Paul Raymond; and Kink, a documentary about porn site Kink.com (I'm not including a link for your work computer's protection). None of these really disparage the porn industry, but rather look at it as a whole and what effect it has on us. Even Lovelace which shows its star reluctantly having sex on screen doesn't denegrate the material so much as her abusive relationship. Speaking of the effects of porn, we can't fail to mention Joseph Gordon Levitt's directorial debut Don Jon's Addiction where he stars as a guy addicted to porn. It's played for laughs, naturally.
Magical Realism: Long used in literature this is when the world in a story seems normal but is actually infused with supernatural elements. Stoker uses this to great effect, creating a lead character with super powers who lives in a place where logic doesn't really apply. It will give you nightmares. Escape from Tomorrow shows a man going crazy in Disney World until you realize that he's not the one insane, it's the malevolence of the park and its magic forces that are trying to do him in. One of the many unnecessary elements of The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman is when the ghost of his mother tells him to go to Bucharest. That starts off the whole movie so without it we wouldn't have the story. Oh, if only we could have kept this whole thing from happening.
Female Directors: There were more female directors in the U.S. Narrative competition this year than ever before and half of the directors were ladies. And a big congrats to Jill Soloway for taking home the director's prize for Afternoon Delight.
Ecstasy: Like many modern movies, there was tons of drinking and pot smoking (and in Kill Your Darlings there was speed and heroin and all sorts of other things) but ecstasy really made it into the mainstream this year. An anxious woman and her uptight brother solve many of their problems with the drug in Touchy Feely and the problems start for the title character when he goes on an E binge in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. Three crazy drug fiends in Crystal Fairy are on the search for an intense psychedelic. For the first time ever, there were more drugs in the movie at Sundance than at the parties.
Women Having Inappropriate Relationships: This was the year of intergenerational, completely inappropriate, sexual relationships for the ladies. The two mothers in Two Mothers are best friends who have sex with each others' sons. The teacher in A Teacher has sex with one of her students. The lifeguard in The Lifeguard has sex with an underage kid. Strangely these are all females transgressing against the norms so that the movie can look at their psychology. If a man was doing this, it would be seen as predatory and the only exploration would be when he goes on trial.
Beat Poets Behaving Badly: Much has been made about Daniel Radcliffe's gay sex scene in Kill Your Darlings but many fail to realize that this is just one of two movies about the beat poets this year at Sundance. Darlings follows Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac when they were young. Big Sur follows Kerouac and a host of other writers when they're middle aged. Two seems to be a lot, but the beats are having a resurgence. It was just two years about that James Franco (another Sundance trend) played him in Howl.
Housewives as Hookers: We saw two movies where bored housewives turn to prostitution to liven up their lives. In comedy Afternoon Delight Katheryn Hahn tries to help herself by "rescuing" a prostitute. She finally has a breakdown after going along with her to turn a trick. In the drama Concussion, Robin Weigert plays a lesbian housewife who turns to turning tricks to spice up her boring suburban life. Both of them use this transgressive act to find out more about themselves but in Concussion it seems that prostitution saves the main character where in Afternoon it ends up almost ruining her life and marriage.
Jane Lynch as a Pscyhiatrist: There were a lot of people in two movies at Sundance, but there was only one person who was in two movies playing members of the same profession. Glee Emmy winner Jane Lynch was a caustically honest shrink in Afternoon Delight and a scatter-brained earth mother psychiatric researcher in A.C.O.D.. Lynch could have just phoned it in on both of them, but she manages to make both of them distinct characters. The only trait they share is that both characters get all the best laughs.
Screwing on Kitchen Counters: We see it in both Lovelace and A.C.O.D.. Only one couple gets caught.
Juno Temple and James Franco: The official "Sundance Darlings" of the year. Temple was in three movies: Afternoon Delight, Lovelace, and Magic Magic. Franco was also in two, Lovelace and Interior.Leather Bar. and produced a third, Kink. Parker Posey will be presenting them with a trophy.
Snakebites: Perhaps the strangest trend of the year. Two movies feature characters being bitten by a snake: Mud and Toy's House, complete with slow motion shots in both of the victim being rushed into the emergency room. It was like the same scene in two vastly different movies. There were also warnings about snakes in both Prince Avalanche and Big Sur. Was this year's theme all about Eve or something?
Reluctant Smokers: Trying cigarettes as a way to express a characters road to transgression was seen in three movies, Afternoon Delight, Two Mothers, and Kill Your Darlings. This does not please our Mormon hosts in Utah.
Bad Haircuts: Everywhere you turned there was someone in follicular distress. Ellen Page had the worst, mousiest hair I've ever seen on camera in Touchy Feely. Evan Rachel Wood's red dye job and blunt cut were the worst thing in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain in Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. Robin Wright cut the Penn off her name but never should have cut her hair like she did in Two Mothers. Amanda Seyfried fried her hair with a perm in Lovelace. No one knows why these awful things happened.
Shootings: It's odd that in the wake of all the school shootings lately three of the movies here (that were made far in advance) are about famous shootings. Blue Caprice takes a fictional look at what drove the Washington D.C. snipers to crime. Valentine Road takes the documentary approach to the shooting of gay teen Larry King by a school bully. Fruitvale, the festival's critic's darling, shows the last day of Oscar Grant, a San Francisco man shot in cold blood by police in San Francisco in 2009.
Chile: The South American country is having a moment. Michael Cera filmed two movies there: Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy. Oscar-nominated NO stars Gael García Bernal as a man who devised the advertising strategy that rid the country of their dictator in the '80s. We have a feeling that the jingle he composed for the ads will be covered by Lady Gaga in no time.
Dramatic Recreations: Three documentaries used creative solutions to how to create footage about the subjects of a film after they died. The Summit used both actors and the real climbers to recreate the deadliest exhibition to K2. Director Sarah Polley hired actors and make fake home videos for The Stories We Tell the heart-wrenching story of her mother's death of cancer and the effect her secrets had on her family. And Gael García Bernal (almost a trend himself) created the path of a Honduran immigrant to the United States in Who is Diyani Crystal. The effect in Summit and Stories was much more successful, by blending new footage and old movies to create something that the viewer can't tell wasn't shot when the events were unfolding.
Excellent Songs at the End of Movies: Does anyone who what the songs are that played as the credits rolled in both Touchy Feely and Stoker? I would like to download them both right now.
Unnecessary Punctuation: A.C.O.D., C.O.G., and The Way, Way Back are giving copy editors the world over agita.
Check out all of our coverage from this year's festival at Hollywood.com's Sundance 2013 hub.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: Millenium Films; Wenn; Benaroya Pictures; Ascot Elite]
Hollywood.com's Complete Sundance Coverage
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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.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.