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Out in Theaters: ‘mother!’

Nothing is as it seems in Darren Aronofsky’s relentlessly sinister religious parable mother! A jet-black tone poem about artistic and biological creation (and the entire span of history no less), mother! is Arofonsky firing on much the same enigmatic, musing, ethereal cylinders as he did with The Fountain and much of Noah, expect his conceit this time around contains far less about the ineffable powers of love and way more orgy murders and crowdsurfing babies and Old Testament spit fire. Part home invasion thriller, part inky-black dark comedy and all blood-stained metaphor, Aronofsky’s wanton allegory is a surreal and visceral experience, one characterized by ravaging production elements, stormy performances and a kick-you-in-the-teeth ending.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘X-MEN: APOCALYPSE’

“Everyone knows the third one is always the worst,” a young Jean Grey (Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner) ironically reports, exiting a 1983 screening of Return of the Jedi. She’s right of course: Jedi is the lesser of the original Star Wars trilogy. But to her larger point: the culmination of trilogies often results in some degree of disappointment, sometimes even sullying the good name of that whence came before it. Take Godfather: Part III, The Dark Knight Rises, The Matrix Revolutions, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, ALIEN3, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, Terminator: Rise of the Machines and of course, Brett Ratner’s quite bad X-Men: The Last Stand. Jean’s remark, planted as it is in what is the third film of this newfangled X-Men trilogy, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, perhaps both a potshot at Ratner’s derided 2006 entry to the franchise and a preemptive snarky parlay to the film’s inevitable detractors, because believe me when I say, X-Men: Apocalypse proves Jean Grey’s point. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘JOY’

Through most of David O. Russell’s latest film, Joy Mangano is a hot mess. So too is the movie recounting her admittedly impressive story. O. Russell’s mop drama, which tells of the meteoric rise of an enterprising, low-income single mom, reprises the director’s almost voyeuristic fascination with lower-class dysfunctional families. This narrative thread was accomplished to great effect with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (don’t forget the wide-eyed Tiffany lived in a makeshift hodunk studio in the later) and, if Joy is any indication, this recurring thematic motif has run itself dry as menopause with O. Russell. The once-great director, known for culling Academy Award worthy performances one after another, is left floundering with little but the awesome starring power of Jennifer Lawrence to revive this spark-less, cluttered trainwreck of soapy family melodrama. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

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From stadiums to tedium, the third entry in Lions Gate‘s multi-billion dollar franchise is decidedly half a story. Following up on what I like to call “Harry Potter Precedent”, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 takes us through the first half of Suzanne Collins‘ 390 page young adult dystopian fiction without ever getting to the fanfare of an actual conclusion. As point of comparison, “The Hunger Games” was 374 pages and “Catching Fire” was 391. So it’s no stretch to say that the material has been, er, stretched. However in that money-hustlin’ act of distention, something more singular and nuanced has taken shape. Mockingjay: Part 1 – though lax on events – rises up as easily the most thematically rich of the franchise, offering up characters actually worth exploring and a thoughtful meditation into the psychology of revolution. Those wanting explosions will undoubtedly be left cold as this quiet trek to the end is much more focused on emotional implosions.

Disbanded after the catastrophic conclusion of the Third Quarter Quell, Katniss is separated from Peeta and now takes refuge in the bombed out remains of District 13. While costumery, training and pageantry made up the bulk of the former chapters in Katniss’ previous stories, Mockingjay immediately unfurls a laundry list of political intrigue. Do not be mistaken, this is no longer a story about head-to-head combat, it’s one about sneaks in the shadows and stabs in the dark. As Peeta and Katniss drift further apart, a new rebel army must convince the population of Panem to band together and overthrow the tyranny of the Capitol and the serpentine President Snow. It’s an entirely new direction for the franchise, one unmistakably slower and more deliberate, that makes the absolute most of its substantially limited material.

The Hunger Games‘ central themes were rooted in power relationships, social class standing and public perception. Catching Fire‘s foot was placed firmly in the door of manipulation, loyalty and PDA. Mockingjay however is all about sacrifice; the sacrifice of life, self and artifice.

Coin__Heavensbee_in_Mockingjay.jpg

In a couple of visually powerful scenes, hordes of rebels bum-rush the Capitol Peacekeepers; men of violence in starched whites; faceless monkeys in sterilized jumpsuits popping off precise machine gun bursts like Call of Duty junkies. They are the Israeli tech to the Palestinian rocks. These troglodyte abandoning their lives in pursuit of the greater good, this is what the movie is about. If you need to put a face to the name of sacrifice, these be them. This proletariat working class rising against the elite bourgeoisie harkens back to Marxist theory and director Francis Lawrence knows it. And exploits it. He puffs Mockingjay‘s thematic elements into visually arresting kamikazes of epic scope. It makes for some potent scene work, conjuring up a science-fiction take on the French Revolution’s insurmountable odds and the death toll that accompanies such. It’s not quite peacocking but the man clearly knows what he is doing.

To a slightly more diminutive degree, Katniss too must sacrifice. But her loss is more emotional; more of a personal transformation (sans multiple fire-themed costume changes.) Her sense of self must be muted (though I’m not entirely convinced that she ever did have a very pronounced sense of self). At the behest of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) she must rise into an unwanted leadership position, at the risk of putting those she loves in increasingly tight spots. It becomes clear by this point that Katniss is but a kid. A pawn. A pretty face to rally around. It’s both demeaning and complimentary. Buck up kid.

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Her arc in this third chapter is about stepping into a role you don’t want; about being an emblem for something larger than yourself. Unlike Batman, she is the symbol that Panem needs and the one it wants. She pouts at first, and poorly acts her way through a to-be televised revolution campaign, but when the chips fall, she’s as game as the film’s namesake.

Another character – who from the get-go has hierarchically placed maintaining a sense of self above all else – bargains with losing his identity under untold torment. As Peeta, Josh Hutcherson is finally able to communicate something more than puppy dog devotion and his physical and emotional transformation is fittingly jarring. Pity the same can’t be said for pretty boy Liam Hemsworth.

In this whirlwind of sacrifice, even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) must deal with the stylistic hell of a drab jumpsuit. In Maslovian terms, some sacrifices are greater than others but all sacrifices take their toll. To go without fuchsia eyeliner may be as taxing to Effie as an enthusiastic throttling may be to Katniss. We all must take our punches and roll appropriately.

Though I found much to appreciate within the thematic elements of Mockingjay – Part 1, I cannot deny  that this first act is total foreplay. But it’s sweet, sexy foreplay. The kind of foreplay that seeks to remind you that sometimes the teasing is more gratifying than the climax. Sure, the next installment promises death and destruction and whiskers on kittens but there’s something sweetly satisfying about silent implosions in the eye of the storm.

Perhaps because Mockingjay – Part 1 marks the first time I’ve felt invested in Katniss’s many relationships, the performances shine more than ever. Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss is rounded out by attributes other than “hardened”, “resilient” and “badass.” Here she’s very much out of control – the antithesis of what the glorious icon the rebellion wants to present her as. For the first time, it feels like she actually gets to, you know, act.

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A somber tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman denotes the end of the film and – not that it’s much of a surprise – his performance here is truly noteworthy. It won’t be remembered amongst his greatest but it’s a sweet, family-friendly reminder of what we’ve lost with his passing. Hoffman was able to communicate so much with so little; the sarcastic roll of an eye or a flick of the head that says, “Told you so” mean so much when rolled off Hoffman’s full shoulders.

As tensions mount in seat-hugging waves, a late-stage scene has President Snow transform into a full blown Star Fox villain. A bloated talking head grinning and cackling like a caricature, his white mane is that of a political tiger; his flesh-eating smile as poisonous as nightlock. It seems like the first time Donald Sutherland is actually chewing into the role.

But this is not a fun movie. Nor is it really geared towards kids. In the third outing of Hunger Games, you’re more likely to find subtext than battle. And yet Mockingjay – Part 1 is easily the most violent of the series. However, the violence isn’t physical so much as it is emotional; the taxing price of hope. This beginning of the closing chapter stomps out what it truly means to revolt; about the quiet minutia of a coup; the slogging footwork of a revolution. It’s not particularly eventful but it’s bloody well more interesting than more lathering, rinsing and repeating.

B-

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Out in Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

KATNISS.jpg
From stadiums to tedium, the third entry in Lions Gate‘s multi-billion dollar franchise is decidedly half a story. Following up on what I like to call “Harry Potter Precedent”, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 takes us through the first half of Suzanne Collins‘ 390 page young adult dystopian fiction without ever getting to the fanfare of an actual conclusion. As point of comparison, “The Hunger Games” was 374 pages and “Catching Fire” was 391. So it’s no stretch to say that the material has been, er, stretched. However in that money-hustlin’ act of distention, something more singular and nuanced has taken shape. Mockingjay: Part 1 – though lax on events – rises up as easily the most thematically rich of the franchise, offering up characters actually worth exploring and a thoughtful meditation into the psychology of revolution. Those wanting explosions will undoubtedly be left cold as this quiet trek to the end is much more focused on emotional implosions.

Disbanded after the catastrophic conclusion of the Third Quarter Quell, Katniss is separated from Peeta and now takes refuge in the bombed out remains of District 13. While costumery, training and pageantry made up the bulk of the former chapters in Katniss’ previous stories, Mockingjay immediately unfurls a laundry list of political intrigue. Do not be mistaken, this is no longer a story about head-to-head combat, it’s one about sneaks in the shadows and stabs in the dark. As Peeta and Katniss drift further apart, a new rebel army must convince the population of Panem to band together and overthrow the tyranny of the Capitol and the serpentine President Snow. It’s an entirely new direction for the franchise, one unmistakably slower and more deliberate, that makes the absolute most of its substantially limited material.

The Hunger Games‘ central themes were rooted in power relationships, social class standing and public perception. Catching Fire‘s foot was placed firmly in the door of manipulation, loyalty and PDA. Mockingjay however is all about sacrifice; the sacrifice of life, self and artifice.

Coin__Heavensbee_in_Mockingjay.jpg

In a couple of visually powerful scenes, hordes of rebels bum-rush the Capitol Peacekeepers; men of violence in starched whites; faceless monkeys in sterilized jumpsuits popping off precise machine gun bursts like Call of Duty junkies. They are the Israeli tech to the Palestinian rocks. These troglodyte abandoning their lives in pursuit of the greater good, this is what the movie is about. If you need to put a face to the name of sacrifice, these be them. This proletariat working class rising against the elite bourgeoisie harkens back to Marxist theory and director Francis Lawrence knows it. And exploits it. He puffs Mockingjay‘s thematic elements into visually arresting kamikazes of epic scope. It makes for some potent scene work, conjuring up a science-fiction take on the French Revolution’s insurmountable odds and the death toll that accompanies such. It’s not quite peacocking but the man clearly knows what he is doing.

To a slightly more diminutive degree, Katniss too must sacrifice. But her loss is more emotional; more of a personal transformation (sans multiple fire-themed costume changes.) Her sense of self must be muted (though I’m not entirely convinced that she ever did have a very pronounced sense of self). At the behest of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) she must rise into an unwanted leadership position, at the risk of putting those she loves in increasingly tight spots. It becomes clear by this point that Katniss is but a kid. A pawn. A pretty face to rally around. It’s both demeaning and complimentary. Buck up kid.

Jennifer-Lawrence-In-The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-1-Images.jpg

Her arc in this third chapter is about stepping into a role you don’t want; about being an emblem for something larger than yourself. Unlike Batman, she is the symbol that Panem needs and the one it wants. She pouts at first, and poorly acts her way through a to-be televised revolution campaign, but when the chips fall, she’s as game as the film’s namesake.

Another character – who from the get-go has hierarchically placed maintaining a sense of self above all else – bargains with losing his identity under untold torment. As Peeta, Josh Hutcherson is finally able to communicate something more than puppy dog devotion and his physical and emotional transformation is fittingly jarring. Pity the same can’t be said for pretty boy Liam Hemsworth.

In this whirlwind of sacrifice, even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) must deal with the stylistic hell of a drab jumpsuit. In Maslovian terms, some sacrifices are greater than others but all sacrifices take their toll. To go without fuchsia eyeliner may be as taxing to Effie as an enthusiastic throttling may be to Katniss. We all must take our punches and roll appropriately.

Though I found much to appreciate within the thematic elements of Mockingjay – Part 1, I cannot deny  that this first act is total foreplay. But it’s sweet, sexy foreplay. The kind of foreplay that seeks to remind you that sometimes the teasing is more gratifying than the climax. Sure, the next installment promises death and destruction and whiskers on kittens but there’s something sweetly satisfying about silent implosions in the eye of the storm.

Perhaps because Mockingjay – Part 1 marks the first time I’ve felt invested in Katniss’s many relationships, the performances shine more than ever. Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss is rounded out by attributes other than “hardened”, “resilient” and “badass.” Here she’s very much out of control – the antithesis of what the glorious icon the rebellion wants to present her as. For the first time, it feels like she actually gets to, you know, act.

15062502707_9803e33efb_o.jpg
A somber tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman denotes the end of the film and – not that it’s much of a surprise – his performance here is truly noteworthy. It won’t be remembered amongst his greatest but it’s a sweet, family-friendly reminder of what we’ve lost with his passing. Hoffman was able to communicate so much with so little; the sarcastic roll of an eye or a flick of the head that says, “Told you so” mean so much when rolled off Hoffman’s full shoulders.

As tensions mount in seat-hugging waves, a late-stage scene has President Snow transform into a full blown Star Fox villain. A bloated talking head grinning and cackling like a caricature, his white mane is that of a political tiger; his flesh-eating smile as poisonous as nightlock. It seems like the first time Donald Sutherland is actually chewing into the role.

But this is not a fun movie. Nor is it really geared towards kids. In the third outing of Hunger Games, you’re more likely to find subtext than battle. And yet Mockingjay – Part 1 is easily the most violent of the series. However, the violence isn’t physical so much as it is emotional; the taxing price of hope. This beginning of the closing chapter stomps out what it truly means to revolt; about the quiet minutia of a coup; the slogging footwork of a revolution. It’s not particularly eventful but it’s bloody well more interesting than more lathering, rinsing and repeating.

B-

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Out in Theaters: AMERICAN HUSTLE

“American Hustle”
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert De Niro
Crime, Drama
138 Mins
R
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However great all of the performances in American Hustle are, great performances do not a great movie make. This kooky tale of maladjusted thieves, sleezy politicians and unscrupulous government employees is rich with standout performances – particularly from proven powerhouses Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence – but director David O. Russell‘s identity as an “actor’s director” has taken precedence over his being an effective storyteller.

The film opens with a telling long shot in which Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is going about the delicate process of putting together his elaborate comb-over. He’s got little hair to work with – and the thatched mop he’s got to work with is straggly and thin – so he glues clumps of hair-like substance to rake the real hair over. The final product isn’t pretty but it’s better than before. This strange but captivating opening scene is an unintentional metaphor for the movie at large – a little bit of story, padded with movie-like substance, and combed over with the icing that is these great performances. It may look passable when all is said and done but you have to know that inside, it’s a bit hollow.

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Post-comb job scene, we discover we’re in media res con, somewhere halfway down the line where Irving has teamed with  Bradley Cooper‘s Richie DiMaso and Amy Adams‘ Sydney Prosser. They’re on their way to bribe a pompadoured Jeremy Renner‘s Mayor Carmine Polito because… well we find out later. But rather than set us on the edge of our seats with this choice to begin in the midst of things, we’re only slightly intrigued and are hardly left anticipating what the hell is gonna happen next. This isn’t Fight Club. There isn’t a gun in anyone’s mouth. So why bother starting somewhere down the line at all if that moment is just arbitrary? While this hardly creates a huge issue story or structure-wise, it is a symptom of the larger issues at play.  

Since American Hustle is a story about con men told through the lens of various con men (Bale, Adams and Cooper each provide voice-over narration), we’re never really sure who is and who isn’t reliable narrator. While this worked wonders for the likes of The Usual Suspects (although I personally was never won over by that film), the effect here is exaggeratedly diminished and feels like a last-minute attempt to pull the rug from beneath the audience’s feet rather than an astonishing story turn.

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As for the variety of voice-over work that seeks to fill in the blanks on character’s histories, backstories, relationships and anything else that passes for pertinent information, there is definitely far too much on the table. Having one narrator is fine (in the right circumstances) but having three is plain overkill. If anything, it’s an indication that O. Russell needed to patch up the narrative and beef up scenes shared between characters. Infamous as a story crutch, voice over is very hit or miss and here, it’s mostly a miss. Show, don’t tell. It’s filmmaking 101.

Even with all the disappointment found in the story’s patchiness, American Hustle does have one thing in spades: fantastic performances. Everybody in the cast shines in their distinctive roles, each throbbing with eccentricity and lighting up the scenes beyond anything going on behind the camera. Assured yet another nomination at this year’s ceremonies, Lawrence proves that her Academy Award was no fluke. Her haphazard Rosalyn is a revelation and whenever she pops up she steals the scene. Her riotous “science oven” scene is sure to be the talk of the town come Christmas.

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Bale too is on his A-game, offering another performance in which he not only completely changes his body-type but his persona entire. Character-wise, he’s painted with complexity and jostles back and forth between empirical confidence and shady anxiety with the effortlessness of an acrobat. Physically, his swinty eyes and schlubby build is a whole new ballpark for the usually hunky Bale. Although he’s gained quite the reputation for his physical transformations, there’s always something more to his embodying his characters that goes far beyond physicality. The man is a chameleon and, once more, he’s able to convince us of that he is someone else entirely.

Cooper’s zany FBI agent Richie DiMago also steals scenes like its his job. His manic behavior and shotgun psyche are built for an actor’s showcase and Cooper doesn’t fail the character. While DiMago lacks the roundedness of Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook headliner, Pat, he is truly an actor coming into his own, proving that he can be oh so much more than just a comic actor. For her part, Adams  also shows off why she is so valued in the thespian community even though the script doesn’t provide her with as many flashy moments as her co-stars. So though she tends to fall to the back of the pack in terms of wowing performances, she is still as solid as ever.

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Smaller bit roles from Renner, Louis C.K.Michael Peña, and a quick, uncredited pit stop with Robert De Niro all have their moment in the sun and help to shape American Hustle into what could confidently be called the best ensemble performance of the year. As I mentioned earlier though, great performances are only one faction of a film’s impact and although the acting is this movie is grade-A stuff, the story lingers around a C.

You could probably also say that my expectations were too high going into American Hustle (I was ready to jam it in my top ten before even seeing it) but I don’t think that really accounts for all the disappointment found here. Just writing this review and finding out that the movie was over two-hours long shocked me. I hardly remember it being nearing two-hours and there was surely no need for the length in a movie that already felt light on story. Then again, maybe that fact that I didn’t notice how long it was is an indication of my enjoying the film. And don’t get me wrong, the performances are inspired, fine-tuned, and just plain lovely and the film itself is a lot of fun. Unfortunately though, it stops there. Instead of reaching for the stars, it settles with being fun and stuffed with great acting. Next time, I hope O. Russell pushes for that extra mile.

B-

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Out in Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields, Elizabeth Banks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones, Jeffrey Wright
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
144 Mins
PG-13

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Katniss Everdeen may be the girl on fire and Jennifer Lawrence may be Hollywood hot stuff (du jour), but this second installment of The Hunger Games is only slightly smoldering. In fact, the embers have already started to go cold. All the requisite franchise pieces are there to stoke the billion dollar conflagration this dystopian blockbuster is sure to light, but the overwhelming feeling that there is little spark behind the bark leaves us chilled to all this talk of fire.

Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned “safely” from the 74th Hunger Games but now they face the red hot wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who’s now breathing down their necks. Their final act of near-berry-gobbling defiance in the last film has led to stirrings of revolution across the districts. Through Katniss’ willingness to sacrifice herself to preserve her moral scruples, the country stands newly empowered. Unwittingly, Katniss has located a kink in the armor of Snow’s totalitarian society and must now suffer the price.

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The seeds of hope Katniss and Peeta have planted, Snow plans to stomp out. He supposes that the country’s cautious optimism towards a new tomorrow can be quelled if Katniss and Peeta maintain the facade of their romance. By making them one of his own kind, they will become symbols of corruption – a constantly broadcast morphing into the upper class. But all of this is predicated on their selling their “true love” like it’s Oprah Winfrey coach hour. Anything that would even suggest their affection is a muse would be the equivalent of open rebellion and would lead Snow to “take care of” both Katniss and Peeta’s families mobster style. When Snow realizes that the country may not turn against the star-crossed apples of their eye, he launches a new scheme that will pit them, and former victors, again each other again. 

In spite of these constant death threats, Catching Fire lacks breathless moments of white knuckle suspense. No matter how many times the dialogue, aided by Sutherland’s ripe delivery, insist that Katniss and her loved ones are teetering on the precipice of danger, there is little to convince us that anyone could actually be offed. In a franchise like this, everyone is too padded to actually face death. No harm will last more than a few hours, no scar will be too deep to heal. We know Katniss has no expiration date as the franchise train booms towards a fourth film and so any threat towards her – or her cohort’s – life feels paper thin.

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And while the first film held a flicker of filmmaking as rebellion, everything about this one screams studio control and designed realism. It all feels so reined in, so calculated in its darkness, and so badly wanting to break free of its PG-13 constraints that it can’t help but lose track of the meaning behind the books. In trying to reel in the masses (and their wallets), Catching Fire as Hollywood product is almost exactly what “Catching Fire” as commentary rages against – turning its back on the central message of stoic individualism against the oppressive tyranny of the elite. The hand of the studio is omnipresent – although hardly malevolent – and there seems to be little to no room for creative flair in the directorial department. Again, big business trumps individual spirit.

Sorely missing is Gary Ross’s urgent camerawork and tight closeups that gave The Hunger Games such a sense of realism. Instead of jammed close in on character’s faces and sharing in their ghastly horror, we feel distant, an observer. With edge-of-your-seat scenes largely tabled, Francis Lawrence goes for something much more horrific – a near 12 Years a Slave for kids. One scene depicting poisonous fog is particularly distressing and uncharacteristically grim for a film of this rating. On the brink of being “too dark,” there is little artistry behind the darkness that feels more like “gritty per popular demand.”

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Shying away from the close quarters, almost independent film-esque combat of the first flick, the violence in Catching Fire is staged like the many CGI heavy blockbusters of late. Much violence take place offscreen, in a wide zoom, or in rapid, random bursts, making death almost as inconsequential as it is in a Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie. While the first film saw Katniss struggling with the murder of other children, this film sees her adversaries stripped of that very feature that made their slaughter so perverse and unsettling in the first place. Instead, these adult competitors become faceless baddies in another adventure film.

This franchise middle-child also suffers a pretty rough case of inbetweener syndrome, where it only works within the context of a larger story and not as a standalone film. While it propels what began in the first film into the coming finale, it lacks the finesse of a great middler. Without the pure adrenaline of The Two Towers and the tonal twists and turns of Empire Strikes Back, Catching Fire just carries on the torch, readying it for the next billion dollar installment. Although the bleak-o-meter has been cranked up, the stakes remain largely the same: do or die. 

As sets the gears to full throttle for the inevitable two-part conclusion, we ask, “Haven’t we seen this all before?” The skies have darkened and life on Panem is more unbearable than ever but for all the barrels of darkness and grit-drenched scenery, there is familiarity to this racetrack of escalation that we’ve seen in greater franchises (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter).

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But for all of my complaints and griping, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is still a smarter than average blockbuster. It’s hard to finger where the $140+ million budget went – none of the special effects are noteworthy – but hopefully most of it is going towards the performers, as they continue to be the strongest selling point of this franchise. However, it’s the supporting characters who outshine the love-locked trio. Stanley Tucci is simply a riot (and possibly the best part of the film) and Elizabeth Banks is as wacky and invisible in her character as ever. Even Woody Harrelson‘s haunted alcoholic Haymitch has more depth than before and seems to be more commited to the emotional toil of his role than many of his co-stars. And however lackluster some of the CGI is, the set design gives us a rock solid sense of place and tone.

Finally, fans of the source material will have little to complain about since the book is adapted to the T. But when all is said and done, it’s just not a terribly exciting movie and one which I don’t expect to return to. Really feeling the sting of its “part of a whole” status, Catching Fire is better at blowing smoke than fanning the flames. 

C+

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X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Gets First Trailer

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X-Men: Days of Future Past
is not only one of the most anticipated superhero movies in the foreseeable future, it’s also an experiment in what’s to come for world building cinematic universes. Marvel had hopes that The Avengers would soar financially but even they failed to see just how successful their franchise would become. After essentially using their standalone films to promote an eventual team-up movie, interest in seeing separate films eventually come together is a market essentially untapped. Since the one-piece-at-a-time tactic has not been the explicit approach for Days of Future Past, director Bryan Singer and Fox Studios are living in a bit of a Petri dish for all to see if their approach to building a cinematic universe on the fly is a box-office success or a flop. If this first trailer, and the internet’s stunned reaction, is any indication, I’d say we’re looking at a winner.

Although this first look is notably light on action set pieces, it properly outlines the very basics of the plot – a time traveling Wolverine must warn 1970s versions of Magneto and Professor X of a coming disaster involving mutant slaying robots. But instead of selling us on the spectacle, it mostly functioning on an emotional, nostalgic level. Stirring our nerdy desire to see the characters from the past six X-Men films share the screen, Days of Future Past looks to fulfill that promise of culmination, or, at the very least, suggest that we have lift off. 

One narrative issue that the trailer suggests is that characters of the future and the past may not share many physical scenes. At least, that appears to be the case for the time being. If that approach is doubled in the film, with each set of characters condoned off into their own “present,” thusly not interacting together as a whole X-Men collective, then the promise of team-ups could come off as deceptive and insincere.

The more likely scenario is that Fox and its constituents are not going to blow that revelatory reunion moment on this first run of a trailer. If anything, it’s a trial run to gauge reaction to the concept. But if the film does end up jumping between narratives of past and present, us audience members might not be getting quite what we want. While keeping the stories largely separate could just work, it does set up a potentially disjointed narrative while also squandering the excitement of having all these actors share the same screen. If Wolverine proves to be the only connective tissue between the two subsets of X-folk, the whole trend towards character acceleration – the propulsion towards more, more, more – may prove to be too little, too late. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past is directed by Bryan Singer and stars Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Shaun Ashmore, Omar Sy and Evan Peters. It hits theaters on May 23, 2014.

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Last Trailer for THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

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As the November 22 release date marches closer, check out the last slew of promo material for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Sure to be the biggest film of the winter, and one of the biggest films of the year, Catching Fire sees the replacement of director Gary Ross for Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend). Although its financial success is pretty much already in the bag, we’ll see if the director swap will pay off or if a dip in quality will be notable.

Following the events of the first film, Catching Fire returns to the fictional dystopia of Panem where President Snow sends Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawerence) back to the Hunger Game arena for the “Quarter Quell” – a best-of-the-best showdown between former victories from all 12 districts.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is directed by Francis Lawrence and stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Jefferey Wright and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It hits theaters on November 22, 2013.

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New X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Images Promise Lots of Characters

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New images for Bryan Singer‘s X-Men: Days of Future Past have hit the interwebs in anticipation of the films first trailer, ramping up anticipation from the uproariously popular tease in the Wolverine post-credits. Plot holes be damned, the film will include a time travel story, in order to bring together the bulk of the franchises hero’s, including Patrick Stewart (Professor X), Ian McKellen (Magneto), James McAvoy (Professor X), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), and Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), newcomer Peter Dinklage, who will play villain Bolivar Trask, and many, many more.

Jamming together the old cast of the original X-Men trilogy with the new blood of the critical hit X-Men: First Class, Fox Studios are attempting an Avengers-style scheme of their own. While there’s certainly a lot on the platter, if this gambit works, they stand to make buckets upon buckets of money. While the last three X-Men outings have been a bit of a financial disappointment, it’s easy to say that the future of the franchise rests on the success of Days of Future Past. If it manages to win back old fans while tapping into a new audience, superhero movie popularity could just be starting.

 


Michael Fassbender as Young Magneto


Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique

Patrick Stewart as Old Charles Xavier and director Bryan Singer


Ellen Page as Kitty Pride/Shadowcat and Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake/Iceman

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James McAvoy as Young Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Young Magneto

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Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

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Peter Dinklage as Boliver Trask

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Michael Fassbender as Young Magneto

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Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Michael Fassbender as Young Magneto and James McAvoy as Charles Xavier

X-Men: Days of Future Past is directed by Bryan Singer and stars Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Shaun Ashmore, Omar Sy and Evan Peters. It hits theaters on May 23, 2014.