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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Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
When Platinum Dunes the production house created by Michael Bay Andrew Form and Brad Fuller first came into being it took on the father of modern horror films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's safe to say everyone expected it to be a total failure given who was involved; when it turned out that it actually wasn't too bad of a film fans were justifiably surprised. A few mid-level misfires later Platinum Dunes raised their aim at iconic horror franchises even higher bringing back TCM's director Marcus Nispel to tackle Jason Voorhees. Again people weren't expecting much so it was another pleasant surprise that 2009's Friday the 13th turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining respectful recombination of the cabin-in-the-woods slasher. From there the studio didn't even bother to go back to lesser franchises they notched their crosshairs as high as they could go; Freddy Krueger.
Fast forward twelve months. The main thing anyone will want to know about A Nightmare on Elm Street is whether it is at the very least a worthy remake of the original Wes Craven film about a slain pedophile who resurrects in the dream world to kill teenagers in their sleep. The short answer is a resounding yes. Samuel Bayer's film is the best remake in the Platinum Dunes stable; Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent successor to the original's Robert Englund; and Freddy Krueger isn't just scary again he's the most disturbing he's ever been. The long answer is of course a little more complicated and requires plenty of qualifiers.
Yes A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best remake Platinum Dunes has produced but the reason behind that is also the film's handicap. For the most part Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's screenplay hems incredibly close to Craven's original. There comes a point in the film however where staying faithful to the source material becomes a bit too problematic. Mainstream audiences particularly those who didn't grow up with Krueger will be unaffected but horror fans may soon grow bored with the lack of individuality in the scripting department. And then just as the film threatens to overthrow its predecessor by changing (for the better) Krueger's origin story it backs off once again sacrificing innovation for tradition.
It would appear to be a contradiction but that adherence to tradition in turn becomes the remakes' greatest strength. Bayer and company dive even deeper into the Elm Street mythos giving the audience in the process two crucial looks at what Krueger was like before the parents of the molested preschoolers delivered their gas-can brand of mob justice. Haley's astounding amount of talent makes profound use of every second of these brief glimpses into a pre-burn Freddy. Then once the kind soft-spoken kid-loving mask of the pedophile-in-hiding has been literally burned off the true monster underneath emerges. This contrast between the Freddy the kids knew and the Freddy they now know as teens makes for some legitimately bothersome bedroom nightmares toward the film's end.
As for the teens they too are marked improvements this time around. Johnny Depp may have emerged from the '84 classic but he was about it. Rooney Mara Kyle Gallner Thomas Dekker and Katie Cassidy all do an admirable job with the at times thin characterizations they're given. It's a testament to the talent of each of them that they overcome the limitations of the script to warrant some investment in their fight against their dream killer. And as for that dream killer...Haley is the perfect replacement for Englund. His take on the voice may be indistinguishable from his work as Rorschach in Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation but considering it fits Haley's commanding presence as Krueger as snugly as the iconic bladed glove whose newly stylized dragging across the pipes in Freddy's dream boiler room sounds skincrawlingly likely a cross between nails on a chalk board and an arc welder that's not too much of a complaint.
A little more worthy of complaint are a few failed attempts to reinact iconic moments from the original most notably Freddy's emergence from the wallpaper above Nancy's bed. It's inexcusable that a special effect in the year 2010 should look worse than the effect from the 1984 film it's imitating but CGI the perpetual enemy of the horror fan once again rears its ugly head. That embarrassing failure aside this film could not look better. Bayer did a tremendous job of altering the reality of the dream world with subtle visual distortions (a lot of straight lines are skewed obtusely outward while the edges of the frame curve oh so slightly inward) when necessary. And the effects work on Krueger's face is appropriately gruesome in all the right spots. One can even forgive the terrible wallpaper CGI scene in exchange for inspired touches like a partial singed cheek that flaps slightly when he exhales or moves too quickly.
While this rebirth of Krueger no doubt boasts a number of glorious kills (the bold opener sets the gore precedent quite nicely) its biggest strength in the fear department is this new far more disturbing structuring of the character as a joyless disgusting psychopath. Craven's original used Krueger's actions mainly as the logistical justification for why he would be killing these teenagers whereas Bayer's handling of the material leverages the origin story beyond just physical torture and into mentally disturbing psychosexual territory. The original franchise gradually acclimated to the idea of Krueger as a sexual threat but this iteration makes no qualms about it. It's not just the burns to Krueger's face that have been updated for realism; his motivations have as well — and that makes this new Nightmare on Elm Street scary as hell.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
When a strong-willed business woman is suddenly told she might lose her job and be deported to her native Canada she impulsively forces her ever-loyal executive assistant into a shotgun engagement in order to get a green card and stay in the country. The plan gets complicated when the mismatched twosome must go to meet his family in Alaska and convince everyone including a pesky government investigator that their impending marriage is the real thing.
WHO’S IN IT?
Sandra Bullock has never been more appealing in the kind of “tough boss” role normally associated with male actors. The Proposal turns the usual romantic comedy tables around giving Bullock lots to play with — and she certainly makes the most of it painting a hilarious picture of an attractive and surprisingly vulnerable business exec caught in a situation spiraling out of control. Ryan Reynolds’ sitcom expertise is put to good use in the role of her willingly unwilling assistant who must join her charade or risk losing his job. This is Reynolds’ best outing as a rom-com lead yet and he shows he could own the genre if provided the right material. Stealing the movie from both of them however is the irrepressible Betty White who plays Reynolds’ saucy Grammy. Once again the Golden Girls alum proves she has comic timing second to none.
Knowing the standard romantic comedy setup just isn’t going to cut it anymore director Anne Fletcher (Step Up 27 Dresses) turns The Proposal into more of a screwball farce letting the laughs fly without forcing them on us. She’s helped by two game lead players who really know their way around this well-worn genre and provide just the right balance to keep this merry soufflé from falling apart. The breathtaking remote locations (Massachusetts oddly enough substitutes for Alaska) don’t hurt.
No matter how inventive the script it’s pretty obvious where things are going to wind up in any romantic comedy. But The Proposal despite following the standard blueprint still manages to keep us guessing until the very end and that accounts for most of the fun.
A scene in which Bullock and Reynolds accidentally run into each other sans clothing is hilarious worthy of the best farceurs. A close second is a sequence involving a little dog a menacing eagle and a cell phone. Classic stuff.
BEST REASON TO PLOP DOWN 10 BUCKS?
After 60 — count ‘em 60 — years in show business with six Emmys and numerous TV series to show for it Betty White at age 87 still proves there can be second third and even fourth acts in life. She gives a movie star turn here that shows everyone how it’s done.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
As an alternative to big summer action flicks and gross-out comedies The Proposal is definitely the date movie du jour.
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.