The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ups the ante for all involved, and delivers with a rare sequel that markedly improves on its predecessor. In the have and have-not country of Panem, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson have just won the 74th Hunger games, but uneasy lies their crown—especially since Katniss has inspired devotion in the poorer districts.
The Expendables 2 is an action-packed, testosterone-filled sequel to the 2010 Sylvester Stallone-driven (writer, director, star, set caterer—I may be mistaken on that last part) commando adventure. This time out Stallone shares the writing credit with Richard Wenk and relinquishes the directorial reins to Simon West. The result is the rare sequel that is actually an improvement on the original. Whereas the first film was laden with expository, brooding scenes meant to establish the team’s camaraderie and air of fatalism, the sequel is more focused and tighter paced yet with a looser feel, courtesy of some macho, quasi-mocking banter. In addition, the action scenes are consistently exciting and exhilarating without being excessive and exhausting. The plot is pretty negligible…the bad guys led by Jean-Claude Van Damme want to steal a lot of plutonium, enslaving a small town-and killing an expendable Expendable (Liam Hemsworth with death written all over his face—you’ll know the minute he mentions the girl waiting at home) in the process. This galvanizes these altruistic mercenaries (they only kill for a good cause) led by Stallone and Jason Statham into doing what they do best: locking and loading to wipe out these evildoers and possibly the save the world as we know it. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are back, but this time they ‘re not just picking up a check—these action icons are picking up automatic weapons and blowing away the bad guys; in addition, the script abounds with references to their past triumphs that enables everyone to be in on the joke-and enjoy themselves while doing it. At the screening I attended, the biggest audience response was reserved for Chuck Norris, playing a renowned lone wolf of a mercenary. Perhaps the big screen wants him back…
Dax Shepard wrote and co-directed (with David Palmer) Hit & Run, a hit or miss chase comedy that is noteworthy for not wasting the lovely and talented Kristen Bell, as well as giving Bradley Cooper a chance to shine as a vengeful bad guy with jail issues. Shepard is Charlie Bronson, so named after he entered the witness protection program. His idyllic, anonymous existence in New Mexico (with live-in girlfriend Kristin Bell and skittish agent/caretaker Tom Arnold) is jeopardized when he decides to drive her to L.A.---thus incurring her ex-boyfriend’s wrath, which leads the ex to contact Shepard’s nemesis, a dread-locked Bradley Cooper. Much fleeing, chasing and stunt driving ensue. The car chase scenes themselves are probably the lesser part of the movie; they’re not bad but you’ve seen them before-and better. However, the writing gives the performers plenty of opportunities to show off their wares; Tom Arnold, while initially a little too cartoonish as the would-be protective agent, nevertheless gets to display flashes of likability and warmth; Bradley Cooper is like an actor reborn as the animal-loving, gun-toting robber with more than a few axes to grind. Kristen Bell finally has a lead role that gives her a chance to show many of her formidable skills, including her comic timing, intelligence and ability to project strength and vulnerability (previous films of hers generally focused on one aspect, much to the films’ detriment). Shepard (Bell’s real-life fiancé) and Bell convince and have genuine chemistry as a couple, so that their exchanges between the chases aren’t just filler, but portray the insecurities and suspicions that can befall even a seemingly happy couple. Hit & Run is a hit—whenever the tires aren’t screeching.
The Watch has received its share of scathing reviews and, if truth be told—they’re well-deserved. This so-called comedy about a neighborhood watch that encounters aliens (I hope I’m spoiling everything) fails on practically every conceivable level.
Savages - a Vicious Califor-noir from Oliver Stone
There is so much to savor in Oliver Stone’s Savages, especially if you’re a fan of clever dialogue, pulp fiction, film noir, Salma Hayek-and John Travolta.
With their occasionally very funny The Three Stooges, the Farrelly brothers have rebounded somewhat from the comic abyss that was Hall Pass.
Heralding the start of blockbuster season, Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games-from the bestseller by Suzanne Collins- is a fitfully exciting, somewhat entertaining post-apocalyptic action drama with some regrettably modern touches (the “handheld” effect—oy!) and a scenario free of any moral ambiguity—which would be fine if it weren’t so clearly aiming for something more.
Friends with Kids aims to be a romantic comedy for the not-so-new millennium, incorporating the perils of parenting, the death of marriage (at least when kids are involved), and the bonds of friendship into what eventually turns out to be standard romantic comedy fare.
What can I say about the Year in Film- 2011? Well for one thing, there were too many sequels, superheroes—and superfluous 3-D. I mean—enough already with this universally accepted shell game aimed at wresting more shekels from unwilling viewers. Only a few of these films (such as Hugo) showcased the technology in an aesthetically pleasing manner. And still, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have preferred these movies without 3-D.
By the time you read this, The Artist should have made its way to more local cinemas, and it’s about time. For those of you who might put off seeing it because “it’s silent” or “it’s in black and white,” all I can say is that you would be missing one of the more enchanting pictures of the year—and all the pleasures that the film has to offer. Michel Haznavicus’ loving homage to silent cinema—and old-style romance, uses music and well-placed sound effects to tell the tale of swashbuckling silent star George Valentin (winningly played by Jean Dujardin as a cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly) whose star falls as he tries to resist the coming of sound, and Peppy Miller (warmly portrayed by Beatrice Bejo) a dancer whose star rises with the advent of talkies. Valentin and Miller are drawn to each other, but life gets in the way-specifically his marriage, his pride (namely, his disastrous decision to finance a downbeat silent starring vehicle for himself), the changing times-- and her own resounding cinematic success. Yet they never stop thinking about—and caring for each other, and you will pull for them to get together despite the odds—I know I did, and judging from the applause at the end, so did my fellow moviegoers. While you can probably guess some of the plot points The Artist will hit (especially those with some knowledge of film lore and A Star is Born), this is ultimately an upbeat, buoyant romance with very appealing performances all the way down the line, including James Cromwell as Valentin’s ever-faithful employee and John Goodman’s huffing studio boss; a lovely score by Ludovic Bource (with assists from period composers—and Bernard Herrmann in a pivotal scene); gorgeous black and white cinematography by Giullaume Schiffman, and above all Jean Dujardin and Beatrice Bejo, the two beguiling leads who help turn what might have been an academic exercise into a heartfelt exploration of the fleeting nature of fame—and the redemptive power of love. Heck, I’d love to see it again.
Motion picture fame is also at the forefront of My Week with Marilyn, a bittersweet behind the scenes look at the making of The Prince and the Showgirl-which itself had been a slight (though some might say ponderous) romance directed by Laurence Olivier and starring Olivier-and Marilyn Monroe. These events are viewed through the idealistic eyes of that film’s assistant director Colin Clark, who had the enviable task of looking after Miss Monroe—especially after her newlywed husband Arthur Miller, left Britain to return home for a spell. Kenneth Branagh makes a terrific Olivier, capturing not only his imperious nature—which is rendered helpless in the face of his mercurial co-star, and her overly attentive-not to say indulgent acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker, oozing seemingly sympathetic venom), but also the insecurity of a man who knows he’s a supreme actor but longs to be a movie star. Julia Ormond is a lovely Vivien Leigh in her few moments on screen, nailing not only the fragility of her beauty, but a temperament that knows her hold on her husband is tenuous at best. Eddie Redmayne does a good job as Colin ambitious, idealistic, and somewhat callow starstruck youth who manages to (temporarily) win Miss Monroe’s affections with his the diligence of his attentions—while neglecting a lovely, albeit ordinary colleague (Emma Watson). Yet in the end, a film like My Week with Marilyn rises or falls with its Marilyn—and Michelle Williams doesn’t disappoint. I admit I was a little apprehensive, but Williams makes for a superb Monroe: flirtatious, fun-loving, all too aware of her effect on the opposite sex, more than a little calculating, and more than a little vulnerable: having surrounded herself with sycophants, high-powered studio types and intellectuals, her sense of inferiority keeps spilling over to the surface. Williams-as Monroe-projects the antithesis of Branagh’s Olivier—as she is the movie star who yearns to be considered an actress. The “scenes within the movie” allow Miss Williams to recreate Monroe’s cinematic appeal—a a certain “something”that made directors want to work with her despite her somewhat exasperating behavior, not the least of which was legendary tardiness. It is a lovely performance in an intelligent, most entertaining movie.