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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As a bearded hysterical Matthew Fox once said “We have to go back.” A simple phrase that proved inexorably memorable. The wish to go back in time — to relive the better days to prevent the worse — is universal. It’s a wish fueled by nostalgia and regret that makes up such a sorrowfully large component of man’s core. And it’s a wish that is right at the center of Safety Not Guaranteed a movie that tries very hard to do justice to its powerful theme.
Colin Trevorrow’s feature debut attacks the idea from a few different angles. In fact quite literally. The story opens with the abrupt introduction of a so-called nutcase (mumblecore king Mark Duplass) who is planning a voyage back to the year 2001 via a time machine he has allegedly built. Of course no one believes him. Not the sour crass magazine journalist (New Girl's Jake M. Johnson) whose job it is to chronicle the missions of this lunatic. Not his timid lonely med-student tagalong (Karan Soni). And of course not the center of the whole expedition: Darius (Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza) the listless friendless post-grad magazine intern who is plagued by overt apathy and a bridled remorse over her mother’s untimely death several years earlier. Not at first anyway.
Darius agrees to the out-of-town excursion primarily to escape monotony. Arnau jumps on the bandwagon to bolster his résumé but also to stay close to Darius on whom he has a very obvious and very uncomfortable crush. And Jeff (Johnson) is actually on a quest to reunite with an old summer flame from his much happier teen years. All three characters embody the theme being driven home by Safety Not Guaranteed as does — most of all — aforementioned oddball Kenneth (Duplass) whose journey back in time revolves around his own attempt to recapture the lost love of a former girlfriend.
The pulp is there. The problem is the film never truly figures out how to showcase its internal. We never learn enough even subtextually about Darius to understand or appreciate her character entirely. The same goes for Kenneth — who yes is supposed to be mysterious but is also supposed to be sympathetic. Instead he remains at the same distance from the audience throughout the film; we never really figure out if he’s off his rocker or someone who just looks at the world differently.
The film is often a fun one: it serves as a playground for traditional ideas on the well-tread territory of time travel. Time travel tropes are tossed around with a quirky humor and an emotional investment in the genre the way real world friends might discuss the hypothetical. All starring parties and their supporting cast members are endearing and funny. But the emotionality never hits the stride it seems to be going for.
We know that the stories of Darius Kenneth Jeff and Arnau are supposed to be painful. Unfortunately not enough attention is paid to building these people’s heartbreaks. They come off as a bit superficial. As such their separate emotional storylines linked only in spirit come off as a bit disjointed.
At points the film’s stars’ performances seem like less gripping versions of their television characters. The most winning scene actually comes from the cast newcomer Soni whose grief-stricken Arnau could well hit a nerve for a few viewers. Admittedly some might fault Soni and his character for borrowing from the well of racial stereotypes — but that argument aside his personal climax makes his character the movie’s most memorable strength.
Safety Not Guaranteed has plenty of good in it and will most likely keep a willing participant entertained from beginning to end. It’s fun funny and conducive to the plight of the nerd slacker artist or whatever type of outcast group you might fall into. Unfortunately the film never climbs to the point of being as powerful a movie as its contents could justifiably make it. To put it in apropos time travel terms: you can muster up as many gigawatts of linoleum as you can find but without that flux capacitor at the center you’re not really going anywhere.
Someone’s been killing off the criminals of New York City--the ones that the law can’t seem to put away via proper channels--and it’s up to veteran detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) to crack the case and bring the killer to justice by means fair or foul. As whodunits go this isn’t a terribly compelling or suspenseful one. There are red herrings and dropped clues galore but the script (by Russell Gewirtz of Inside Man fame) is both choppy and loopy--and not in good ways. The story is needlessly convoluted and despite a few tough-guy quotes from De Niro and Pacino this is a forgettable police potboiler. De Niro. Pacino. What more could anyone ask for? A decent script perhaps? There’s a palpable pleasure in seeing these two titans share the same frame but that sensation is quickly dissipated as the clunky storyline lurches toward its inevitable finale. Pacino appears to be having more fun than De Niro who’s almost sheepish in his role as a troubled New York detective. The supporting cast--and it’s a good one--fares little better although there’s more chemistry between John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg as sort of a younger version of the De Niro/Pacino duo. Carla Gugino smokin’ hot as always bats her eyelashes and struts her stuff as a police pathologist with a kinky streak. Brian Dennehy clocks in as the obligatory hard-boiled police lieutenant while Curtis Jackson (better known as 50 Cent) sleepwalks through the stock role of a club owner of dubious disposition. It just goes to show that a great cast can’t do it alone. Jon Avnet who guided Pacino through his paces in the equally clumsy 88 Minutes (for the same producers no less) is simply not up to the task of overcoming the script’s vast and many shortcomings. Even for the most devout devotees of the two superstars Righteous Kill is merely a matter of killing time … and not in a particularly righteous way.
Anyone who knows anything about the real-life Jackie Kallen will probably find
Against the Ropes a significant deviation from her biography. In the film Kallen (Meg Ryan) is a boxing fanatic whose work as an executive assistant at the Cleveland Coliseum allows her to watch the bouts from her office and do the hang at a bar frequented by boxers promoters and local sports paparazzi. Her big break into the man's world of pro boxing comes when she has a run-in with promoter Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub) and he sells her a contract with a boxer for a dollar. That boxer turns out to be a crackhead has-been but while visiting his derelict tenement she discovers her ticket to the big time in Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) a street thug with the raw talent to become a champion. She enlists the help of veteran trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles S Dutton) and the rest of the story chronicles the team's meteoric rise to fame Kallen's Faustian over-reaching her lust for publicity and her ultimate professional downfall and resurrection.
As the movie version of Jackie Kallen Ryan dresses walks talks and verbally spars an awful lot like Julia Roberts did as Erin Brockovich and like her predecessor she tries to trade in her cherubic image for something a little well grittier. Picture lace-up bodices snakeskin leather minis suits with satin lapels cut down to there and other skintight skin-patterned accoutrements and you'll have a pretty good idea of what her character looks like. Add an indescribable yet undeniably lowbrow accent and you'll know what she sounds like too. But underneath it all this is still Meg Ryan cute as a button with those big blue eyes and the nose that wrinkles when she smiles. There are moments when Ryan seems to tap into her inner gnarly girl but they're few and far between; most of the time she comes off like a little kid playing dress-up which is kind of fun to watch for a while but eventually you want her mom to come and take her off your hands. Epps fares better although he's a bit duller as 'Lethal' Luther Kallen's star boxer and when the ever-charming Dutton who also directed has his few scenes in the spotlight he shines. Less impressive is a tight-lipped Shalhoub as LaRocca whose vendetta against Kallen culminates in a "curtain call" scene so forced and ridiculous it would have ruined the film had it not already been steadily progressing downhill from the start.
Producer Robert Cort says he and the other filmmakers never intended to make a "biographical" film; instead they tried to focus on Jackie's "astounding accomplishments in the man-eat-man world of boxing." For the record the real Jackie Kallen was first a professional journalist and later a businesswoman with her own public relations firm and she represented several athletes in that capacity before turning to managing her own boxers. No doubt that story sounded an awful lot like the female version of Jerry Maguire which is probably why it wasn't made. Instead the filmmakers try a different gambit: They tell Kallen's life story as if she were boxing's answer to Erin Brockovich--the ol' white-trash-gal-makes-good storyline. It's not especially original; it's not particularly compelling; but it may sell a few movie tickets although to whom is the burning question.
Against the Ropes would play great to Lifetime's mostly female audience if it weren't for all the blood and beating. (Director Dutton a former boxer himself has a lot of experience here although from a cinematic perspective this is no Ali where the slo-mo and close-ups of the boxers were poetry in motion.) And it'd do equally well on ESPN if it weren't for all the corny chick-flick tear-jerking stuff.
Based on the bestseller by Nicolas Sparks the film begins with Duke (James Garner) and Allie (Gena Rowlands) an inseparable couple living in a nursing home. While Duke remembers their life together Allie who suffers from progressive dementia does not. Their only bond is a faded notebook from which Duke reads to Allie every day telling her the same story over and over. It's a sweeping tale of two South Carolina teens country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) and city gal Allie (Rachel McAdams) who spend one glorious summer in the early 1940s falling madly in love. Unfortunately the couple is soon separated first by her disapproving parents and then by World War II but after seven years apart after taking different paths they are passionately reunited. There's a catch though; Allie is now faced to choose between the man she once loved and the successful businessman (James Marsden) she is engaged to. It's really no surprise who the young Allie chooses in the end--but for Duke the only thing that keeps him going is the fact that every day somehow through the power of this story the mentally impaired Allie miraculously remembers their love if only for a very brief moment before slipping back into oblivion. Tears being jerked from your eyes yet?
The talented cast certainly elevates The Notebook's romantic drudgery. McAdams takes a departure from all the Mean Girls she's played lately (including The Hot Chick) and easily wins you over as the spirited young Allie while the usually intense Gosling also tackles something lighter so to speak than his previous darker roles such as his Jewish-turned-American Nazi leader in The Believer. While infusing a certain sense of brooding and melancholy into Noah especially in the years he spends pining for Allie Gosling manages to exude Noah's genuine warmth and sensitivity as well. And between the two of them real sparks fly as the actors paint a fresh and inviting picture of young love that stands the test of time. Marsden is completely wasted however as Allie's fiancé Lon a upstanding Southern gentleman Allie's parents expect her to marry who offers little as to why Allie should stay with him. As the older contingency veterans Garner and Rowlands who take the sappiest material and turn it into something meaningful inspire some truly heart-ripping moments as the aging couple holding onto their love as tight as they can. In the supporting cast Joan Allen has some shining moments as Allie's uptight mother with a secret of her own.
In bringing the popular novel about enduring love to life director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars) may have used his own experiences having seen his parents--the late John Cassavetes and his lady love and muse Gena Rowlands--play out their own real-life love affair. Cassavettes gets to the heart of the material right away and permeates the screen with the beautiful surroundings of South Carolina where The Notebook was filmed. We glide through lush moss-filled swamps and sleepy Southern towns marvel at languid shots of the South Carolina coastline. It's very clear Cassavetes has a way with actors much like his father did gently coaxing realistic performances from his young somewhat untested leads while allowing old guards like Garner and Rowlands to simply work their magic (imagine telling your Oscar-nominated mother how to act. Right). The problem is the story itself which not only offers nothing new to the romance genre but also isn't very compelling. There are no great tragedies (save perhaps for the whole dementia thing) no real villainous presence to keep the lovers apart no peril at all. It's boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl boy-wins-girl-back--ho-hum. Where's the sudsy soap opera when you need it?