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 an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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The man-child: a staple character for modern comedy and notoriously known for being played one-note. They get the laugh they get out.
But turning the lovable goofball or zoned-out knucklehead into something more is no easy task—which makes Paul Rudd's work in Our Idiot Brother that much more impressive. Rudd's Earth-friendly farmer Ned (the closest thing to a new Lebowski we've seen since the original) finds himself down on his luck after being entrapped by a police officer looking for pot. After a stint in jail he abandons his rural hippie commune for the big city to take shelter with his three sisters. Unfortunately for Ned his three siblings Liz (Emily Mortimer) Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) are as equally displaced and confused from the ebb and flow of life—albeit with severely different perspectives of the world.
Liz struggles to put her kid in private school and keep her marriage to documentary filmmaker/scumbag Dylan (Steve Coogan) intact. Miranda claws her way to the top of Vanity Fair's editorial staff and shuns her flirtatious neighbor (Adam Scott). Natalie stresses over her commitment issues with girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones) leaving little time or patience for Ned's bumbling antics. Sound like a lot of plot? While the manic lives of Ned's sisters click symbolically with his journey to get back on his feet it makes for one sporadic narrative.
Like a series of vignettes Our Idiot Brother never gels but when director Jesse Peretz finds a moment of unadulterated Nedisms to throw up on screen the movie hits big. Whether it's Ned teaching his nephew how to fight accidentally romancing his sister's interview subject or infiltrating his ex-girlfriend's house to steal his dog Willie Nelson the movie relies heavily on Ned's antics and its smart to do so. But thin throughlines for its supporting don't hold a candle to Rudd doing his thing.
And its a testament to Rudd's versatility—the man has done everything from Shakespeare and raunchy Judd Apatow comedies after all—that makes the movie watchable. Rudd gives dimensionality to his nincompoop character allowing darker emotions to creep in when necessary. There's a point in the film when Ned gives up fighting for his type-A sisters' affection and it's some of the best material Rudd's ever delivered. But like one of Ned's lit joints Our Idiot Brother can quickly fizzle out leading to plodding plot twists and sentimental conclusions. Mortimer Banks and Deschanel are great actresses—here they drift through their scenes and come out in the end changed. Because they have to.
Our Idiot Brother tries to take the Apatow model to the indie scene and comes through with so-so results. Only Rudd's able to find something to latch on to to build upon to warm up to. In an unexpected twist it's the man-child who seems the most grown up.
As the weekend's opening releases dominated the box office charts, it was obvious moviegoers were only looking for one thing--the right Signs.
Buena Vista's Signs, about crop circles and creepy green men from outer space, landed the number one spot with a whopping $60.3 million, giving the film the second best August opening of all time. It follows last summer's smash hit Rush Hour 2, which made $67.4 million when it was released Aug. 3, 2001.
Signs is also the fourth best weekend release of 2002, following Spider-Man, Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones and Austin Powers in Goldmember, respectively.
The PG-13-rated thriller made it to 3,264 theaters nationwide, averaging an estimated $18,474 per theater, and proved audiences were more than willing to see a film pairing wunderkind writer/director M. Night Shyamalan with star Mel Gibson. Signs marks the best opening ever for both talents.
Signs also stars Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin.
Of last weekend's new releases, only one remained in the top five--New Line's Austin Powers in Goldmember, which dropped from its top spot to No. 2 this weekend. The raucous PG-13-rated comedy took in an estimated $32.4 million, falling a rather significant 56 percent from its huge opening, but still managing to average an estimated $8,968 per screen in 3,613 theaters. Goldmember's cume so far is $142.9 million, making it the 11th film this year to pass the $100 million mark. Not too shabby.
Directed by Jay Roach, Austin Powers in Goldmember stars Mike Myers, Beyoncé Knowles and Michael Caine.
Opening in the third spot was Sony's Master of Disguise. The PG-rated comedy from funny man Dana Carvey was a family film alternative that brought in a respectable $13 million ($5,068 average per screen) and joins Sony's other top 10 summer winners, including Stuart Little 2 and Men In Black II.
Directed by Perry Andelin Blake, the film also stars James Brolin, Harold Gould, Brent Spiner and Jennifer Esposito.
The No. 4 slot went to another funny guy, although in a much different film. Opening with $7.5 million, Paramount's Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat proved its worth, taking in an estimated $9,973 on only 752 screens.
In this R-rated stand-up concert film, comedian Martin Lawrence discusses the many things on his mind, including his past troubles with drugs, his run-ins with the law and his near-death experience. It is directed by David Raynr.
At No. 5, some familiar faces return. DreamWorks' Road to Perdition, now in its fourth week, dropped from No. 2 to take the No. 5 position with a steady $6.6 million. Even though the R-rated film took a 41 percent cut from last weekend, the Tom Hanks/Paul Newman gangster drama, which is already being considered Oscar bait, managed an estimated $2,830 in approximately 2,332 theaters. Perdition's cume to date is a solid $77.2 million.
Directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes, the film stars Hanks, Newman, Jude Law, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Hoechlin and Daniel Craig.
The No. 6 slot belongs to Sony's Stuart Little 2. In its third week, the little-mouse-that-could sequel brought in $6 million, slipping from last week's third place slot and falling 43 percent (averaging $1,939 per screen in 3,095 theaters). The PG-rated family comedy's total to date is $46.8 million.
Stuart Little 2 is directed by Rob Minkoff and stars Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie and Jonathan Lipnicki with the vocal talents of Michael J. Fox, Melanie Griffith, Nathan Lane, Steve Zahn and James Woods.
Sony's Men In Black II slid from No. 4 to No. 7 this weekend, taking in $4.7 million. Averaging only an estimated $1,620 per screen, the PG-13-rated comedy about policing those darned aliens on Earth, now in its fifth week, dropped 45 percent. But have no fear, fans, the film's total cume is still a respectable $182 million.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, Men In Black II stars Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rosario Dawson and Rip Torn.
Talk about a little film that could. IFC Films' My Big Fat Greek Wedding is proving to be amazingly resilient. Now in week 16 and still only showing on 655 theaters, the PG-rated independent comedy about one woman's Greek family and the sweet man she brings into it moved up from the No. 10 slot to No. 8 this week. Taking in a healthy $3.013 million this weekend, Wedding averaged $4,601 per screen. Its total to date is a healthy $40.1 million.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is directed by Joel Zwick and stars Nia Vardalos (also writer), John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan and Andrea Martin.
Two films that couldn't more different tied for the ninth and tenth spots--Paramount's K-19: The Widowmaker and Buena Vista's The Country Bears, both of which took in $3 million this weekend. Guess it was a toss-up whether to see a movie about a deadly nuclear submarine accident or one featuring giant bears singing and dancing. Hmmm.
K-19 dropped 59 percent from fifth place last weekend (averaging $1,139 per screen), with its cume to date being $30.8 million. The Country Bears fell from sixth with a 43 percent cut (averaging $1,175 per screen), with a cume of $11.7 million to date.
K-19: The Widowmaker is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and stars Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard.
The Country Bears, based on the popular Disney theme park attraction, stars Christopher Walken, Stephen Tobolowsky, Eli Marienthal and the vocal talents of Haley Joel Osment. It is directed by Peter Hastings.
One other prominent film opened this weekend--Miramax's Full Frontal, directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh and starring Julia Roberts. Labeled a sequel of sorts to Soderbergh's indie hit sex, lies and videotape, Miramax only released Full Frontal in 208 theaters. The film still managed to make the top 20, bringing in $725,000 and averaging $3,486 per screen.
Directed by Soderbergh, Full Frontal stars Roberts, Catherine Keener, Blair Underwood and David Hyde Pierce.