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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There's probably still someone somewhere that would fall for one of Sacha Baron Cohen's weird and wooly scenarios but let's face the facts: the days when Ali G. could snag an interview with Pat Buchanan or Gore Vidal are long gone. 2009's Bruno definitely let some steam out of Borat's tires not to mention the ensuing lawsuits. But it's refreshing to see Cohen and his Borat/Bruno cohort director Larry Charles flex their muscles in the fictional universe of The Dictator a vehicle that doesn't skimp on their signature cringe-worthy humor.
The world of The Dictator gives them the leeway to create crazy spectacles — at one point Cohen's General Aladeen rides down Fifth Avenue on a camel surrounded by a giant motorcade. Having a plot helps too; although part of the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's schtick is how the viewer is made culpable by proxy by our amusement and horror at how he tricks and torments people who aren't in on the joke The Dictator continues the self-reflexive satirical bite. We're certainly not off the hook. Aladeen says and does truly outrageous things but they're also exaggerations of the world we live in. It might be a stretch to call Sacha Baron Cohen the British Lenny Bruce or George Carlin in a face merkin but rest assured that no topic is off limits. If you are offended by jokes about abortion rape feminists body hair race religion politics STDs war crimes ethnic cleansing necrophilia and/or bestiality don't even bother. However if you like the kind of comedy that makes you hide your face in your hands feeling like each laugh is being pried from you against your will you're in business.
Cohen eats up the screen as both General Aladeen and his incredibly dumb body double; the latter prefers the intimate company of one of his goats to a human while the former is a fairly stupid ruthless dictator whose own people are so disloyal to him that they actually ignore his commands to execute people. (He really likes to execute people.) When he arrives in New York City to attend a summit at the UN his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has the two switched so he can easily manipulate the "General" into signing a treaty to make Wadiya a democracy and reap the financial benefits. Aladeen finds refuge with Zoe a hairy-pitted activist who thinks he's a political dissident and is excited to be able to give him a safe haven in her touchy-feely Brooklyn grocery co-op. Instead of being typecast as another blonde dummy Anna Faris is finally given room to play as the wide-eyed naïf who takes Aladeen's very serious statements as jokes or simple miscommunications. She's a great foil to Baron Cohen who is easily half a foot taller than she is and has a wolfish grin. Their banter is often the most politically incorrect of the bunch but also the funniest.
Alas the plot. It's a bare bones situation to get a very broad character from A to B. Aladeen is obviously an outlandish mishmash of modern dictators; he spouts racist misogynist rhetoric endlessly and after a while...yeah we get it. However like all of Sacha Baron Cohen's humor The Dictator also takes a direct shot at Western countries (specifically the United States) which would be all fine and dandy if he didn't wedge an expository speech in about it as well. The problem with making a traditional narrative movie is that with some exceptions you've got to play within the guidelines. The Dictator isn't trying to do anything fancy; all it needs a few big beats and a neat ending to wrap it all up. It doesn't quite manage to tie it all together in a way that makes The Dictator more than an hour and a half or so of laughing and cringing.
Besides Faris and Kingsley there are a number of cameos by a very wide variety of comics and actors. Megan Fox plays herself Kevin Corrigan appears as a creepy dude who works at the co-op John C. Reilly is a racist security guard and Fred Armisen runs an anti-Aladeen café in New York's Little Wadiya district. The very funny Jason Mantzoukas has a large role as Nadal the former head of rocket science who was supposedly executed for not making Aladeen's nuclear warhead pointy. It's a good ensemble and hopefully Sacha Baron Cohen's next feature-length film will build on The Dictator's weaknesses.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
It’s been a long-standing tradition in film to present viewers with a sort of vicarious vacation. Movies like The Tourist allow their settings to be just as much of a main character as their beautiful leads are. Like the movie that hits Blu-ray today, all it takes is a few unrealistically gorgeous faces (Angelina Jolie, check; Johnny Depp, check) and a picturesque and breathtaking setting (Paris, check; Venice, check) to get viewers to feel like they just took a little two hour fantasy European excursion from the convenience of their couch or comfy theater seat. The Tourist is part of a long line of travel-inspiring films that span everything from the classics to teen movies, but they all accomplish the same thing. They all give the people what they want: beautiful people in even more beautiful places.
When you combine a few of these European adventures, you get a sort of virtual European tour through film and since The Tourist places us firmly in Venice, what would be a better place to start than the boot-shaped nation of Italy?
Obviously, Europe has a great many beautiful locations to offer, but Italy has quite a few vacation destinations. It would be worth spending a little extra time here and the numerous films that take place here are just further proof of that fact.
Pretty People: Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
You really can’t have a list of European excursion films without including the granddaddy of them all. This classic pits Hepburn’s sheltered princess against Peck’s hard-hitting, cantankerous reporter and they fall in love as they tour the classic city together. The film plays on the city’s rich history and beauty and gives us one of the most classic scenes in film, the Mouth of Truth test.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Pretty People: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow
Locale: Venice, Naples, Tuscany, Rome, Sanremo
Admittedly, this part of your tour is a little more stressful than the romantic adventure you get in Roman Holiday, but the film takes you all over the beautiful country and there are few things sexier than beautiful people in beautiful clothes navigating an extensive and mysterious plot in beautiful locations. One of the most breathtaking of the film’s locations is the island of Ischia (in the bay of Naples) which is full of beautiful Cliffside views, gorgeous beaches, and ancient ruins. Not a bad place to spend a few intriguing hours, eh?
Pretty People: Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei
Locale: Venice, Tuscany, Rome, Positano
Well, this film does start in dreary Pittsburgh, but it quickly takes us on a whirlwind tour of Italy all in the name of fate and true love. The plot is fairly pedestrian, but plays on some of our favorite classic films, especially Roman Holiday, and nothing can beat Robert Downey Jr. pursuing the woman of his dreams in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. The film’s climax takes place in Positano, a gorgeous city propped on a seaside cliff and if it doesn’t make you want to book an Italian vacation on your laptop as the romantic conclusion plays out there’s something wrong with you.
There aren’t as many films that take advantage of the beauty Spain has to offer, but there is one that truly merits a stop on this tour.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Pretty People: Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall
Locale: Barcelona (duh)
There’s little to complain about with this film, unless you hate gorgeous locales and super sexy people getting super sexed up. You don’t hate that do you? Barcelona feeds the sexual freedom seen in Cristina, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena and makes the cautious Vicky question her reserved ways. Barcelona is as integral to this film as Javier Bardem’s sheer magnetism is to well, life. (How hot is he?)
It’s long been touted as the location for the getaway of all getaways, the most luxurious sunny vacation you can imagine. It represents the height of luxury and class, so it’s no wonder it’s a stop on our little flight plan.
To Catch a Thief
Pretty People: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly
Locale: French Riviera, Cote d’Azur, Cannes, French Alps, Monaco (Technically not France, but we’ll allow it)
Not only do we have two of the most classically beautiful people unraveling the mystery behind a series of jewel heists (which as you know are the sexiest of all heists), but they’re doing so in one of the most beautiful places you can imagine. As they fall in love and Grant’s persistent John Robie straddles rooftops to catch the real jewel thief, you can’t help but allow the beauty of the setting to add to the sweeping adventure of it all.
Pretty People: Johnny Depp, Carrie-Anne Moss, Juliette Binoche
Locale: Rural France
This romantic little film combines our two favorite ingredients, beautiful people and beautiful places, with one other fantastic ingredient: CHOCOLATE. Um, hi. This sounds like paradise. Besides, it also includes a scene where our heroine gets to make out with Johnny Depp…in a boat…on a river…in France. I want to go to there.
Pretty People: Audrey Tatou, Mathieu Kassovitz
Locale: Every inch of Paris
Of course, this film is the fantastic tale of Amelie, the shy and sheltered little Parisian lady who finds love, but pursues it in her own eccentric way with encouragement from her friend, a wise old painter with brittle bones. (And the object of her desires, Nino, is just about as cute as button.) However, another character necessary to the plot is the living, breathing city of Paris, which lends beauty and shape to the film.
We don’t always think of England as being beautiful, it’s often thought of as nothing more than a gray and dreary landscape, but the beauty of the city of London is undeniable. The centuries of architecture are breathtaking and there are a few films that take advantage of that.
Pretty People: Colin Firth, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Rodrigo Santoro among others
The film follows eight couples (some of which are comprised of very, very pretty people) as they go through different bouts of love, but the beautiful backdrop for all this mushy stuff is the magnificence of the city of London. It may not be as instantly romantic as the streets of Paris or Rome, but it is beautiful and with the help of a little romance, the film really showcases that.
Germany (and Prague)
Neither of these places are touted for their beauty in most main stream culture, but a few films have managed to find ways to bring out the best in these locations.
Pretty People: Mandy Moore, Matthew Goode
Locale: Berlin, Prague, Venice, London
Yes, I know this was one of those run of the mill teen romantic comedies. Yes I know Mandy Moore isn’t that great it in, but she’s so pretty! And so is Matthew Goode for that matter and thanks to this movie we met him long before Match Point. The thing that puts this average movie above its contemporaries for me is the sheer beauty of the shooting locations. They don’t even touch Paris or Rome and they spend a great deal of time showing us the wonder of gorgeous European locales that get far less attention: Prague and Berlin. (No, xXx does NOT count.)
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why more romantic movies don’t take place in Vienna. I mean, just look at this and tell me you don’t want to book a ticket right now.
Pretty People: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
It’s the perfect beautiful people in beautiful places romance: it happens by chance, it’s brief and beautiful, and it feeds off of the classic city where it occurs. They meet on a train, Hawke’s character has no money for a hotel, so they simply spend the entire evening roaming the beautiful city in the best getting-to-know-you set up ever. It really doesn’t get any better than this.