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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Mad Men started with Ken Cosgrove almost getting killed in the craziest car ride since Blue Velvet and ended with Don scaling back at work under the emotional weight of, what exactly? Mommy issues? Marital issues? His newfound speed addiction? Maybe a little bit of everything?
This episode was sort of everything that has been wrong with Season 6. We all loved that Mad Men always knew how to shock us and change direction in the most unexpected and interesting of ways, ways that, once the surprise was launched, seemed totally natural and inevitable in hindsight. This was not a surprise like that. This was just Ken Cosgrove tap dancing and Ginsberg slinging knives at Rizzo (considering Ginsberg's beat-inspired name, was their game of William Tell an allusion to the infamous version that William S. Burrows played with his wife?) without it really adding up to anything. Instead of being thematically whole, the episode was just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. Well, it signified something, just not something very interesting.
I'm sure when the episode wrapped there were many people sitting at home thinking, "I totally didn't get that. Since this is Mad Men, I must not be smart enough to get it." Wrong. The problem was that the episode, while fun and entertaining, was so poorly plotted that even David Lynch would find it harder to follow than a polar bear in a blizzard.
And don't get me started on those flashbacks. They annoyed me the first time they were deployed this season, but in this otherwise chaotic episode, they certainly didn't help streamline things. Seeing Don's childhood directly takes something away from this unknowable anti-hero that the show has been cultivating all these years. It makes the show into something like Lost or, even worse, Once Upon a Time, where we're supposed to learn about the characters and their present situations based on events from the past. Has Mad Men fallen so far that it is now using a tired network storytelling device?
Of course, everyone is going to think that this episode was about drugs, because Jim Cutler gets everyone some sort of speed shot so they can be more creative. (Actually, in light of last season's wonderful LSD trip, it was almost like the writers said, "What if we did a whole episode like that?") This hour was not about drugs. It was really about Don's mommy issues. While I'm sure he's always had these, Don was always a much more literary character, signifying something about identity, the American dream, and the lies we use to get ahead. Now he's just a kid raised in a whore house who had some rough times. Now he's just a Freudian study.
Don has three maternal figures in this episode — well, two and a half, really. First there is his stepmother, who diagnoses his illness. The next is Aimeé, the hooker who nurses him back to health and then takes his virginity. The final one is Grandma Ida, who wasn't really a mother figure at all, but a con artist who pretended to be the woman who raised him. It's bad enough that Don never had a mother, but now we see that every woman who was kind to him when he was young was not only highly sexualized but also betrayed him in some way. All of Don's mothers, especially Grandma Ida, are imposters just like him.
The one interesting thing about this episode is how each of the mother figures are a direct parallel to one of the women that he's been in love with. First there is Betty (blonde and skinny again, just like we like her), his first love who has become a hectoring scold, just like his stepmother who called him dirty and beat him for sleeping with Aimeé. Next there is Megan, who found Don two seasons ago when he was sick, tricked him into loving her, and now is increasingly absent — following Aimée's arc. That leaves us with Sylvia, someone who used to sneak in through the back door, the maid's entrance, just like Ida did. Syivia also pretended to be someone she is not when she called Don at work and said she was Arnold. In the parallel trifecta, she has also stolen something from Don, something he thinks is important. It's his heart. Awww.
If you didn't realize this was about Don, his mothers, and his lovers, we had Wendy, a girl whose father just died, telling Don that he has a broken heart and leaving him wondering if anyone loves him. That's one of those classic Mad Men existential questions that is meant to be left unanswered.
While all this is going on, Don and everyone else is working on the Chevy account, which turns out to be much more trying than they thought it would be when they went after the business. Peggy and Ginsberg, the most sober of the crew, are herding the rest of the cats towards an idea. Stan has 666 ideas, none of which are any good. Don is trying to make everyone think that he's working, but he's really blacking out and flashing back, losing whole chunks of time when he's not fighting off the advances of an I Ching-loving hippie hussy.
But Don isn't doing anything. He's running around and searching for old soup ads, but he's not really thinking about Chevy. He's trying to piece together his own past and come up with the one thing that he can tell Sylvia to win her back. (In all these years, is this the first time we've seen Don not able to get a woman he wants?) When he calls Peggy and Ginsberg into his office to deliver what we expect to be one of his killer campaigns, it's just a bunch of gobbledygook. He carries on about trying to make the commercial what people tune in for rather than the entertainment, like he's going to develop product placement or something (maybe that was a dig against Christina Hendricks' Johnny Walker ads?) but it is really nothing. It's just Don being high.
After he goes home and passes out, the next day he wakes up and finally runs into Sylvia in the elevator. Earlier, he had been inventing ways of talking to her when he knocked on her door, but in the sober light of day, he remains silent. He walks away from her, knowing now that she is an invasive impostor who has barged into his house and upset things. She is not the solution, she is another symptom of the problem. He also marches into his office and says he will only be inspecting other people's work. He blames it on Chevy not wanting to make an ad for another three years, but it seems to be because he has lost his creative spark. Maybe it's because he has mined his past for all the material that he can. Now that he's coming to terms with that hooker raising him he doesn't have any schmaltzy soup/oatmeal ads left. This entire season seems to be about Don Draper's decline and now he's not only stopped producing good work, he's stopped producing work altogether.
Sally Draper got a decent amount of screen time this episode, and handled herself quite well in the tense and bizarre situation of dealing with Grandma Ida without getting herself killed. Through it she learned that she doesn't know anything about her father so she couldn't even tell Grandma Ida she was lying. When faced with the great lie of Don's past, everything else is unknowable. He has the opportunity to tell her something about himself, but he is interrupted, like always, by work. I also loved that Sally was in bed reading Rosemary's Baby and then is awoken by Ida. Last season we saw her terrorized by the idea of violence towards women, but now she's getting more comfortable and canny about the idea of evil in the world. I don't know if this is a good thing, but it's there.
Stan Rizzo was also a central figure this episode. Not only did he screw Wendy (while her dead father's former business partner watched, no less) but he also came onto Peggy while she was bandaging his arm, another maternal figure who has become sexualized. Peggy tries to stop him from kissing her and says she has a boyfriend, but there's something that makes her want to do it. It's like her kiss with Ted two weeks ago. Since Peggy is becoming Don Draper, she's copying a classic move of his: starting a new relationship to wreck the one she's already in. But she wisely stops herself with Stan because he's like a brother to her. I also loved her speech about having to feel the loss in your life and not try to escape through booze or sex. It seems like she was talking directly to Don even though he wasn't in the room.
Of course, we learn this when she tells us, point blank, that is why she isn't doing it. Apparently whatever drug they were all on, the one effect it had was to take all the subtext that is usually in the show and fill it with text. Like finding a book of Mad Libs that someone has already used, the blanks have already been filled in and all the fun is gone. Yes, it's funny when Ken Cosgrove does his tap dance, but his tap dance is quite literally a tap dance. He feels like his job is tap dancing for others. Duh. It all makes total sense, yet it all doesn't add up. That means that, no matter how much fun we had last night, it was all completely useless.
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More: 'Mad Men' Recap: Don Draper Gets Super Kinky'Mad Men' Recap: The Great Merger'Mad Men' Recap: Fathers, Sons, and Martin Luther King
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.