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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In the last seven years Denzel Washington has paired with director Tony Scott on four hyperkinetic ultra-saturated feature films: Man on Fire Deja Vu The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. When he strays from the time-honored action collaboration you'd think the man would take a break from the format. Not so—as Washington's new film Safe House clearly demonstrates.
Daniel Espinosa director of the acclaimed Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash shoots his espionage thriller with Scott-ian flair complete with rapid camera movement a palette of eye-scorchingly bright colors and fragmented editing. If Safe House was emotionally compelling the stylistic approach might make the narrative sizzle—but the script is as simple and familiar as they come: Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent with a monotonous gig. He's a safe housekeeper tasked with maintaining a stronghold in South Africa in case the feds need to stop by for some…interrogating. After a year of begging for field work and keeping the joint tidy Weston finds himself embroiled in the investigation of Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA notorious for selling information on the black market. A group of agents bring Bell in to Weston's safe house for a routine waterboarding but everything is thrown into chaos when the lockdown is infiltrated by machine-wielding baddies looking to put a bullet in Bell's head. To keep the captor alive Weston goes on the run with Bell in hand…never knowing exactly why everyone wants the guy dead.
The setup for Safe House provides Washington and Reynolds two fully capable action stars to do their thing and to do it well. The two characters have their own defining characteristics that each actor bites off with ferocity: Reynolds' Weston is a man drowning in circumstance built to kick ass but still out of his league and just hoping to get back to his gal in one piece. Bell has years of experience boring into the heads of his opponents and Washington plays him with the necessary charisma and confidence that make even his most despicable characters a treat to watch.
But the duo fight a losing battle in Safe House contending with the script's meandering action and ambiguous stakes that turn the Bourne-esque thriller into a grueling experience. Much of the movie is an extended chase scene where the object of the bad guys' desire is never identified. It's a mystery!—but the lack of info comes off as confusing. Safe House cuts back and forth between the compelling relationship between Weston and Bell and a war room full of exceptional actors (Vera Farmiga Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepherd) given nothing to do but spurt straightforward backstory and typical "there's no time Mr. ______!" exclamatory statements. Caking it is Espinosa's direction which lacks any sense of coherent geography. The action is never intense because you have no idea who is going where and when and why.
Safe House is a competently made movie with enough talent to keep it afloat but without any definable hook or dramatic emphasis it plays out like an undercooked version of the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott formula. Which is unfortunate as four solid ones already exist.
Superhero origin stories have been all the rage at the multiplex this summer with Marvel Comics alone accounting for two such films Thor and X-Men: First Class both of which happily surpassed critics’ expectations. Its latest Captain America: The First Avenger – so named as to provide us a helpful link to the Avengers movie coming next year – arguably faces the trickiest task of all three seeing as how Americans have not been in the most patriotic of moods in recent years. Could a flag-waving superhero really find purchase with a moviegoing audience that increasingly looks askance at such notions?
Surprisingly yes. That Captain America succeeds – and resoundingly so – is partly due to the producers’ decision to set the film during World War II a time where patriotism is a much easier sell. (And no viewer is too jaded to not enjoy seeing Nazis eviscerated en masse.) But proper credit must be given to director Joe Johnston who has crafted a breathlessly entertaining popcorn movie that unambiguously embraces its hero’s old-fashioned sensibilities and invites us to embrace them as well.
Chris Evans (The Losers Fantastic Four) plays Steve Rogers an earnest oft-bullied ectomorph whose lone wish is to ship off to Europe and fight on the front lines. But a plethora of physical ailments have combined to render him hopelessly unfit to serve however stiff his resolve. (To pull off the withered look of “Skinny Steve ” the filmmakers pulled off a nifty trick grafting Evans’ head onto the body of another actor Leander Neely.)
Rogers’ chance arrives in the guise of a government scientist the German émigré Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci as avuncular as a German-accented man can hope to be) who witnesses the young man’s idealistic ardor and recruits him to take part in secret military experiment. After proving his mettle in training Rogers is delivered a dose of Super Serum a PED that instantly makes him bigger stronger and faster than just about any other human alive.
Which is a good thing because on the other side of the Atlantic a renegade Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving doing a tremendous Christoph Waltz impression) has happened upon his own supernatural power source and he’s used it to quietly amass a private army dubbed HYDRA that is bent on supplanting Hitler’s world-domination scheme with its own. Soon all that stands between defeat at the hands HYDRA and its arsenal of advanced weaponry is the juiced-up visage of the newly-christened Captain America.
Portraying a stalwart straight-arrow bereft of angst or ambiguity isn’t the easiest of tasks for any actor but Evans does a commendable job of bringing depth and humanity to a character that all too easily could have come across as bland and one-dimensional. Johnston seems to recognize this potentiality as he looks primarily to his supporting cast to supply the personality: Tucci and Weaving stand out as do Tommy Lee Jones and Toby Jones playing an irascible army commander and a timid HYDRA toady respectively. The film’s romantic spark comes courtesy of the principal cast’s lone female representative the excellent Haley Atwell playing Rogers’ military liaison Agent Peggy Carter.
More than anything Captain America is a triumph of tone. A former ILM technician Johnston did visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg’s 1981 blockbuster was a conscious touchstone for his film’s throwback feel and aesthetic. (Another less deliberate influence would be a previous Johnston film The Rocketeer.) Captain America embodies the spirit of the old serials melded with a tongue-in-cheek comic sense and punctuated by action sequences that deploy the requisite CGI fireworks with a welcome measure of restraint. The film is decidedly of its era but never feels gratuitously nostalgic. And its production design is gorgeous: Red Skull’s lair in particular is a treasure trove of retro-futurist designs all of which seem directly lifted from 1940s World’s Fair exhibits.
From the moment Hailee Steinfeld enters the frame in Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent western True Grit an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (or re-adaptation — John Wayne's 1969 version got to it first) the film belongs to her. This is no easy feat especially for a 13-year-old actress making her feature-film debut but Steinfeld not only holds her own alongside such heavyweights as Jeff Bridges Matt Damon and Josh Brolin she often upstages them.
The film which is set in the 1870s stars Steinfeld as Mattie Ross a pigtailed 14-year-old sent to the frontier town of Fort Smith Arkansas to settle the affairs of her deceased father an honorable man murdered for two gold pieces by a monstrous simpleton named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Mattie also comes seeking justice: Chaney is still at large having escaped to the dangerous foreboding expanse of the Indian Territory and she intends to see to it that he is captured and brought to trial.
Frustrated by the local authorities’ ambivalence toward tracking down her father's killer Mattie turns to Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) a slovenly alcoholic U.S. Marshal renowned for his cruelty and itchy trigger finger. Were there a Miranda warning in 1870s Cogburn would have little use for it; chances are few of his perps would understand it through his grouchy guttural slur anyway.
Pleading to join their makeshift posse is LaBoeuf (Damon) a pompous upright and overly chatty Texas Ranger — the Good Cop to Cogburn’s Bad Cop — who covets Chaney’s Texas bounty which holds more value than his Arkansas bounty. Cogburn agrees reluctantly to take him on recognizing that Chaney now likely holed up with his criminal gang a vicious bunch headed by a spittle-spewing snaggletooth named Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper) is too formidable to approach alone. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are natural rivals and long rides on the trail of Chaney afford them ample time for dick-measuring contests which invariably necessitate the intervention of their teenage mother hen Mattie.
Mattie may be the most mature member of the posse but she is nonetheless still a child — eventually the job of exacting final vengeance must fall upon the men with guns. Here Mattie’s stout heart has an ennobling effect on Cogburn who after briefly giving up during a booze-fueled bout with self-doubt stiffens his resolve to see things through.
Compared to its predecessor the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit is both funnier and less sentimental. There is little room for tenderness or romance on the Coens’ frontier but opportunities abound for the kind of black humor for which the writer-directors have become so famous. As in Fargo they have a great deal of fun with language; characters speak in a laughably rigid formalized manner almost Shakespearian in its tongue-twisting complexity. The film's ironic conceit that such codes thrive in a land ruled by violence and chaos is best illustrated in Mattie’s constant almost charmingly naive threats of legal action against her adversaries. They react to her threats with a kind of befuddled amusement; the phrase "I'll see you in court" is still several decades away from joining the popular lexicon.
Critics often bemoan the abundance of remakes in modern risk-averse Hollywood. A more productive strategy at least for the cause of quality filmmaking might be to properly exalt the better ones. This True Grit may be the best of them combining the look and feel of a classic western with a distinctly Coens brothers tone. And Ms. Steinfeld is nothing short of a revelation.