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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It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
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.
As I expect every one of you is a Pixar fan (being otherwise is a sign of sociopathy), you might have noticed a similarity in the voices of characters like Toy Story’s Hamm, WALL-E’s John and Mack from Cars and its upcoming sequel, Cars 2. That’s because they, and six other characters spanning eleven movies and counting, are all voiced by John Ratzenberger. He might be the only performer to have held such consistency with this particular company, but he is not unique in being an actor who repeatedly works with the same people. In fact, we've come up with a list of nine other proverbial Ratzenberger's and their respective Pixar's:
MICHAEL CAINE & CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
Michael Caine is one of those rare immortal actors who is completely untouchable. I’ve never heard even the most contrarian of my hipster friends say that Michael Caine is overrated. As such, it’s no surprise why rising powerhouse Christopher Nolan has opted to stick him in his last four (and upcoming fifth) directing pursuits. Caine’s roles do not vary much between these films—he’s always wise, good-natured and the only person the much younger hero can trust. He’s always someplace between the movie and the audience. And he’s always got at least one scene-stealing quip at the protagonist’s expense. But can you really take issue with this repetitiveness? With a resume like The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception and the unhealthily anticipated The Dark Knight Rises, how can you blame this dynamic duo for sticking with a formula that works?
STEVE BUSCEMI & THE COEN BROTHERS
The Coen Brothers. They’ve made some gold. They’ve made some silver. Throughout the 1990s, the Coen Brothers made five movies, and Steve Buscemi was in each one, as well as their short film part of a collaborative anthology, Paris Je T’Aime, in 2006. Buscemi had bit parts in Miller’s Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy, a slightly larger one in Barton Fink, and was the second male lead to William H. Macy in Fargo. But, like everyone who went to college, I favor, of course, The Big Lebowski, and cherish every second Buscemi was onscreen as Theodore Donald Kirobatsos. He really tied the movie together.
J.K. SIMMONS & JASON REITMAN
If I may just start out by saying something entirely uncontroversial: J.K. Simmons is awesome. He is as typecast as you can get, and it seems that neither he nor we seem to have any problem with this. Jason Reitman: also awesome. Juno was awesome. I don’t care what you say, everyone I’ve ever met. I loved that movie.
Reitman is still relatively new to filmmaking. Aside from Juno, his feature resume up to this point consists only of Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air. Coming out later this year is Young Adult: a drama about a young woman seeking romance after a divorce. This film, as well, will include Simmons among the cast (playing gruff-but-lovable, no doubt), and is written by Diablo Cody—who also wrote the screenplay for Juno. Which was awesome.
JOHNNY DEPP & TIM BURTON
Not all of these friendships produce good material. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, both individually and as a pair, have indeed given us some memorable pieces of cinema. Some of the better projects on which they’ve collaborated include Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Ed Wood. I’ll even throw Corpse Bride into the Pros list. But as time went on, they began making a career out of defaming timeless works of art with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. Also, Sweeney Todd happened. But they’re not done yet. Coming up for 2012 is Dark Shadows: a horroresque film directed by Burton, about the adventures of a vampire (played by Depp) who encounters a slew of other mythological creatures. Nice change of pace, guys.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON & QUENTIN TARANTINO
Samuel L. Jackson is an interesting case. He has appeared in four of six of the feature films over which Tarantino played director, but in two instances, he was never seen. Those two are Kill Bill: Volume 2, in which he played a bit part as Rufus, the pianist at the church wherein Uma Thurman’s character intended to be married, and who existed to the audience only as a silhouette with a cigarette (that’s a pretty good band name).
His second faceless performance was in Inglourious Basterds, when Jackson performed a single voice-over segment to introduce Til Schweiger’s character, Hugo Stiglitz. Aside from these, Jackson has played Ordelle Robbie in Tarantino’s oft forgotten Jackie Brown, and (do I even need to mention?) the career-defining Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction. Jackson is also set to play a major role in Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained.
RUSSELL CROWE & RIDLEY SCOTT
Crowe and Scott pair together quite naturally. Both are responsible for some fantastic pieces of cinema, and neither would you be entirely comfortable inviting into your home. Since their initial collaboration on the 2000 Best Picture Gladiator, Crowe and Scott have paired up on four additional films—earning praise for American Gangster, dissatisfaction with Robin Hood, and… Did anyone see Body of Lies? Or the other one? I think it was about a house, or a garden…
OWEN WILSON (OR BILL MURRAY) & WES ANDERSON
Owen Wilson is undoubtedly more famous for his roles with the proverbial Frat Pack, especially frequent collaborator Ben Stiller. But the actor with the agonizingly mellow voice has appeared in almost every feature film directed by Wes Anderson, a college friend of Wilson’s, to date.
Anderson, a favorite director of all the people who think they're better than you, has created Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums, both of which Wilson co-wrote. In addition to these, Wilson had major roles in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, and the director’s first animated movie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Wilson also co-wrote Anderson’s 1998 film Rushmore, which (along with each of the above movies with the exception of Bottle Rocket) included Bill Murray as a member of the cast. Both Murray and Wilson are rumored to appear in Anderson’s next film, Moonrise Kingdom, about two parents’ efforts to recover their runaway daughter.
LEOBERT DeNIPRIO & MARTIN SCORSESE
For the better part of his career—and I mean that in every way—De Niro was Scorsese’s key player. Starting with 1973’s Mean Streets, the duo forged a working relationship that lasted twenty-two years. Their most recent collaboration was Casino, in 1995. However, Scorsese and De Niro have been in talks to develop a new project called The Irishman and, if you can believe (or stomach the idea of) this, a sequel to Taxi Driver.
For the time being, it seems as though Scorsese has replaced De Niro with a younger, sparkier, ruffled good-guy: Leonardo DiCaprio. Since 2002, DiCaprio has starred in four Scorsese films. Scorsese is even going as far as to cast his new muse, whom everyone I know seems to either love or hate, in a role sure to earn him a great sum of scrutiny: in a developing biopic called Sinatra, as the Chairman of the Board himself.
EVERYONE IN THE HAPPY MADISON UNIVERSE
Adam Sandler has a greater reputation of working with his friends than anyone in the business. His production company, Happy Madison, has developed fifteen films starring Sandler since its first film and half of its namesake, Happy Gilmore. Three of Sandler’s major starring roles, Billy Madison, The Waterboy, and The Wedding Singer, were produced independently from Happy Madison. Over the course of his career, Sandler has wavered from accusing his girlfriend of adultery with fictitious penguins. He has played romantic leads, PTSD-sufferers, and cancer survivors. One consistency throughout his years onscreen, however, is in his supporting casts. Sandler's confidants, rivals, and comic reliefs are often actors who have played similar roles in other Happy Madison films. Included in the recurring clan of Sandler's screen partners are Rob Schneider, Allen Covert, and--the guy you probably never noticed--Jonathan Loughran, who have each played behind the man in nine different films. Although none reach this level of dedication, other impressive numbers belong to Peter Dante with eight films, once again to Steve Buscemi, with six (this is clearly a loyal guy), to Kevin Nealon with five, and to Henry Winkler and Kevin James, with four movies each. And these are just the Sandler-starring films. There are dozens of other Happy Madison Productions that include these and other recurring actors.