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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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
Sometimes it sucks being Spider-Man. Two years of playing superhero has finally gotten to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who finds himself in the middle of an identity crisis. Not only does he feel underappreciated as Spider-Man he's also broke flunking out of college and of course still can't get the girl. He wishes more and more he didn't have this "gift " so he can live a normal mild-mannered life and declare his love to Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). She wants to love him too if she could only get some kind of signal but Peter keeps pushing her away (for her own good of course) until she decides she has to move on with her life. Poor Peter. The reluctant hero is also on tenuous ground with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) who is now working for his late father's company but whose growing vendetta against Spider-Man clouds their friendship. While Peter wavers on giving the whole superhero gig up for good across town there's a new even more powerful nemesis in the making. Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) a scientist working on a breakthrough fusion-energy invention for Harry's company has a freak accident (is there any other kind?) in his lab which leaves him with four deadly mechanical tentacles fused to his back--and his mind diabolically twisted. Suddenly the city is desperate for Spider-Man's help as the madman dubbed Doc Ock runs amok. For the love of god pull yourself together Peter accept your fate and put those Spidey powers to good use!
As if there are still any doubts Tobey Maguire's performance in Spider-Man 2 reaffirms the fact he fits the Peter Parker/Spider-Man persona perfectly. It's in his eyes his red-rimmed soulful eyes which show every sentiment. Maguire is not afraid to embrace Parker's sensitive albeit nerdy nature. Beneath the buffed out exterior and superhuman abilities he's still a lovable geek deep down (watch him trip over his feet when he walks down the street). As Mary Jane Dunst is thankfully no longer just the damsel in distress but also a thriving and successful actress who displays her own fair share of emotions over their unrequited love. Spider-Man is in essence a love story and these two talented actors continue to spark like the best of them (although rumor has it they can't stand each other in real life. Oh actors.) The intense Franco chews it up with gusto as the angst-ridden Harry. But what truly makes Spider-Man 2 rise above the original is the malevolent Doc Ock played with relish by the brilliant Molina (Frida). Far more menacing and formidable a villain than the Green Goblin (sorry Willem Dafoe) the multi-tentacled mad scientist just plain scares the bejeezus out of you. Yet he also elicits sympathy if you can believe it watching the relatively sane man buried deep within the madness struggle to break free. Heck just about everyone's conflicted in this flick.
It's no wonder Spider-Man 2 surpasses its predecessor. Thanks to comic-book guru Stan Lee who created something operatic in the Spider-Man story the film's heartfelt and inherent conflicts--tortured souls undying love vs. duty to fellow man villains with a conscience--just keeps getting more and more interesting. And luckily director Sam Raimi rarely strays from the main source. From the opening credits where scenes from the first film are shown through glorious artwork Raimi crafts the movie to combine the best in visuals with the compelling story fashioning a thrill ride with heart. One of the best examples is when Spider-Man uses all his strength to stop a speeding train and falls exhausted only to be caught by the people on the train and carefully placed on the ground. Exposed and vulnerable Spider-Man's faith is renewed when the folks around him tell him they'll keep his secret safe. Classic stuff. The only minor drawback is the time it takes for Peter to get over his identity crisis; the "will he won't he?" drags a bit. Maybe we just get a little anxious for Parker to realize people really do need Spider-Man and to finally go webbed head-to-mechanical tentacle with the nasty Doc Ock. It's what a must-see summer blockbuster is all about baby.