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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For G.I. Joe fans, it's something of a miracle that a sequel to the 2009 series-starter Rise of the Cobra came to be. The movie made a decent amount of money at the box office — nearly $150 million — but came with an equally sizable price tag. The reviews were mixed. The first Joe was a success, but unlike most breakout blockbusters, it's franchise future was murky.
Slowly but surely, a sequel came to fruition, and now G.I. Joe: Retaliation is hitting theaters this weekend. For producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura — mastermind behind such recent hits as Salt, Red, and Michael Bay's Transformers series — it only helped them crack the code of what a sequel to Joe should even be. "I think the honest truth is that Paramount was very unsure about if they wanted to do it or not," di Bonaventura says. Paramount's back-and-forth over greenlighting a sequel allowed di Bonaventura's development process to hone in on the elements that both he and fans demanded more attention. "I particularly, and Hasbro also encouraged this, really wanted to explore the ninja story. After the first movie, what you found was that young and old, there was no demarkation line, wanted more Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. So, partly driven by the fans, and partly by our own interests."
For di Bonaventura, the goal of Retaliation was to brings the two factions of G.I. Joe fandom into one unified blockbuster. He sees two distinct sides separated by a generation gap: the pre-1980 fan that grew up with the All American Joe and its militaristic roots, and the post-1980 fan aware of the comic books and animated series that delved into the mythology of the characters and found an avenue to include memorable ninja characters along with the soldier types.
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"I felt the Joe that I grew up with needed to find a footing in it," di Bonaventura says. "Essentially declaring Bruce Willis as the original Joe centered it on a guy you understood, as the kind of character for the generation it represented. People my age, people who didn't read those comic books or see the cartoon, they grew up with a version that, dare I say, the 'average joe' notion of a guy in army fatigues who would fight the good fight." The producer says they've found that same embodiment for the post-1980s crowd: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Roadblock.
Having clear goals for how they wanted to rejuvenate the franchise, di Bonaventura says they looked to legendary movies for inspiration on how to construct their multi-tiered story. "There's a very good movie that follows, I wouldn't say a similar pattern, but there are echos of certainly: Empire Strikes Back," he says. "Luke Skywalker goes off with Yoda and the other team is moving forward. It was a movie all of us had scene where that worked. We didn't pattern after it, but we had a sense of security. The notion wasn't ridiculous."
The framework was one piece of the puzzle. The other, having a mantra that would allow both sides of the story to exist in the same world. Di Bonaventura stands by the Rise of the Cobra as a good time at the movies, but when it came to Retaliation, he wanted a bit more grit. "I tend to like strong physicality in the movies," he says. "One of the things Jon [Chu, director] and I talked about before he even came on the movie was that I would like a punch that really feels like a punch." Through fight sequences, chase scenes, and an overall sense of realism whenever possible, di Bonaventura and Chu set out to make a Joe movie that wouldn't just wow the eyes, but feel like something. "There's a gravity that's brought to the table if, when you do something physical, you really feel that punch," the producer says. "What we did with the ninja world is we took the mythology of it extremely seriously. That gave it its grounding."
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With Retaliation in theaters, di Bonaventura is looking ahead, knee deep in a lengthy list of in-development and shooting projects. Next up: Transformers 4, which the producer describes as "identifiable," but with a fresh story. He applauds director Michael Bay for returning to the franchise and departing from what has been undeniably successful for three straight movies (just look at the box office numbers for evidence). The biggest change fans will see in the upcoming robotic adventure is a switch in star power. Obvious, since Mark Wahlberg is subbing in for Shia LaBeouf — but the change has a ripple effect on the themes of the film.
"Mark Wahlberg comes on as a big star," di Bonaventura says. "So you have to have a human character who has a different kind of weight. That was the challenge: to have a character who could stand up to being an established star. Shia [LaBeouf] did a great job, but he was a rising star who ended a star. Mark comes in as a star and an older — not older, but older than Shia — character. He's a man. The human element of the story has been dramatically affected."
Balancing his big studio work with passion projects, di Bonaventura is still hopeful for the long-gestating film The Mission to get the greenlight. Described as a hostage movie about two men who take on an "absolutely impossible task against every possible odd, every possible government," and pull off an "extremely dangerous, clever, ridiculously ballsy rescue." It's not an easy sell, but di Bonaventura isn't worried. "There were a few movies I made as an executive — Three Kings, Falling Down, Training Day — that I'm immensely proud of that were hard to get made because they didn't fit in a neat, little box," he says. "What makes [The Mission] work is that you've got this really compelling rescue plot that you're following. What makes it work is why two people dedicate themselves to an impossible mission."
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And for fans of one of di Bonaventura's cult hits Salt, a follow-up to the Angelina Jolie-starring action thriller is looking more and more promising. "It took a long time for us to find something we were excited about," the producer says, but that their current script for Salt 2, penned by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Becky Johnston, finds a way to push the identity themes of the original.
"Salt is a character with a lot more internal weight than you would typically get in a franchise movie," di Bonaventura says. "I wanted to take that further, and Sony wanted to take that further. Becky came up with a very interesting way of getting inside of who Salt is along with a wild ride." Di Bonaventura sees Salt as a trickier character than any others he's worked on in his career. She demands more attention than the run-of-the-mill action hero. "The demands of living up to a character who is constantly capable of making you believe she's on one side or another. What is she really thinking? Is she good or is she bad? She lives in a grey zone. That's what's been hard about it. Bond lives in a black & white world, so does Bourne. Salt is in a grey world. What are you supposed to believe?"
One thing that's clear form speaking to di Bonaventura is that he's not balking in the face of any challenge, whether it's resurrecting Salt, continuing the Transformers franchise, or imbuing G.I. Joe with the elements necessary to make it a functional, fun blockbuster. "What happens a lot in comic book/cartoon movies is that people get involved that sort of feel embarrassed. I've never felt that way so it always bugs me. We're making this kind of movie, guys, relax!"
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures]
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It's become increasingly evident over the past few weeks that, despite using Friday Night Lights' most famous line "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" in his campaign, GOP candidate didn't actually watch the beloved football drama. Or, if he did, he missed out on some pretty important things. First, you don't tick off Peter Berg or else he'll dislike you more than everyone disliked Epyck. Secondly, you don't use the Dillon Panthers battle cry for political gain. Buddy Garrity never even stooped that low. Thirdly, and most importantly: you don't make Tami Taylor upset, y'all.
But Romney has done all of these things and none other than Tami Taylor herself, actress Connie Britton, has something to say about it. Britton, along with former FNL executive producer Sarah Aubrey, penned an open letter to USA Today airing their grievances about Romney's choice to use the series' iconic, meaningful motto.
"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose," was the battle cry for the high school football teams of Dillon, Texas, on the TV show Friday Night Lights for five seasons. But the show wasn't just about football. And "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose" wasn't just about winning games. Rather, it was a rallying cry of hope and optimism in a community where everyone had a fair shot -- no matter their background, no matter their parents, no matter their gender. And no matter their politics. So it has been surprising that the phrase has been usurped and co-opted by Mitt Romney and his campaign for their gain. And it got us thinking: What would the women of Dillon think about this? Dillon is a classic American town filled with hard-working, middle-class Americans, who just want to lead productive, healthy lives. And the women we represented on the show -- the women we are in real life -- are like the millions of women across the nation. Women who want to make our own health care decisions. Women who want to earn equal pay for the work we do. Women who want affordable health care. In fact, it is President Obama who has shown his values to be more closely aligned with those represented by the phrase. The first measure he signed into law after becoming president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- so a female high school counselor or physical education teacher can fight for equal pay for equal work. This law makes it possible for women such as the character that I (Britton) played of Tami Taylor -- to fight for the same wages as men no matter what they do or where they live, from Dillon to Philadelphia, where Tami was able to pursue her dream job as a college admissions counselor. And President Obama's landmark Affordable Care Act has been transformative for women. For the first time in our lives, being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition — our insurers can't charge us more for having breast cancer or being the victim of domestic violence. This law fully covers the cost of our preventive care, our annual check-ups, our birth control. And on Friday Night Lights, quarterback Matt Saracen's grandma would have then been able to get the affordable health care she needed. Romney actually wants to throw the entire law -- and every benefit -- out, and while he's at it, get rid of Planned Parenthood—the health care provider that nearly three million Americans rely on for their life-saving cancer screenings, well-woman visits and affordable birth control. Planned Parenthood was well represented on the show, too -- Brian "Smash" Williams' mom worked there, Tami got a pregnancy test there, and, after being abandoned by her parents, Becky Sproles was able to get a safe and legal abortion there. So as women, let's take "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts" back and use it as it was always intended -- as a motivator for progress, power, and greatness. Let's use our clear eyes and full hearts to vote early. Let's use our clear eyes and full hearts to tell every friend, family member and neighbor about what's at stake for women in this election. What's at stake for all of us. If we women make ourselves aware of the issues and make our voices heard, we most certainly cannot lose.
First Berg and now Britton. If he keeps using the quote without the approval or blessing of the FNL family, he might disappear from the national conscious as quickly as the mysterious Santiago.
[Photo credit: FayesVision/WENN.com]
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