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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Based on the award-winning book by Bernhard Schlink The Reader is an extraordinary provocative and controversial story set in post-World War II Germany. It starts when 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) becomes ill with scarlet fever and is helped home by sympathetic woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet). After his recovery he returns to thank her and is drawn into a clandestine affair with this intriguing woman more than twice his age. Their relationship grows stronger especially when he starts reading to her. But then she suddenly disappears leaving a devastated Michael who now must move on with his life. Little does he know that eight years later while he is in law school he would see Hanna again -- as one of the defendants in a court case against Nazi war criminals. Shocked at revelations about her secret past he also discovers something that will change both their lives forever. Granted Kate Winslet is one of the finest young screen actresses but her range in The Reader will astonish you. It’s an extremely tricky part that could easily lose the audience’s sympathy if done incorrectly but Winslet handles it with aplomb. She runs through the whole gamut of emotions -- aging from her 30s to 60s -- all at once sexy mysterious conflicted contrite as well as many other colors. As Michael newcomer Kross is devastatingly good the most impressive acting discovery in a long time. Although he plays 15 he was 17 at the start of filming and production had to shut down until he turned 18 for the graphic sex scenes. As the story flashes forward Ralph Fiennes takes over the role as the older Michael and does so with a touching sincerity. Lena Olin also has a strong cameo as a Holocaust survivor with definite opinions of Hanna. Although this is only acclaimed stage director Stephen Daldry’s third film he once again shows a mastery of the medium far beyond his limited cinematic resume. Like The Hours and his debut film Billy Elliot he has crafted another film to savor. The Reader isn’t necessarily the most comfortable film to watch but Daldry guides the subject matter with a delicate and steady hand giving us a complex and touching love story between the most unlikely couple. It also delves into how one generation of Germans can come to terms with the horrors of another. Daldry’s directorial restraint and power perfectly serves David Hare’s impressive screenplay and delivers a memorable movie-going experience.
The Hoover household is something of an insane asylum but nobody would ever knowingly hurt anyone except him- or herself. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a deluded optimist and motivational speaker who only motivates himself. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) unwittingly reinforces his behavior by placating him and hiding her frustration. Sheryl’s dad (Alan Arkin) an acid-tongued old-timer who’s hooked on heroin and brother (Steve Carell) a gay suicidal Proust scholar who is the epitome of the “crazy uncle” cliché are also aboard the crazy train. Richard and Sheryl’s son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzsche follower who only communicates with his family by writing. Then there’s the daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) the family’s glue. All she wants is to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant so the Hoovers all load their baggage onto the family’s VW bus--which barely runs--and embark on a long bumpy ride to California.
If only there were a Best Ensemble Oscar Sunshine’s cast would…get snubbed for being too quirky but still. And by constantly upstaging one another the actors may have further hurt their chances. It is this no ego effect however that is central to the movie’s theme and success. While all the performances are nothing short of superb the three showstoppers are Collette Carell and Breslin. Aussie Collette continues her brilliantly understated career with this turn as a well-meaning Everymom who ultimately only wants to nurture her family. Carell perhaps the only one with a fighting chance at an Oscar nod shows us why he’s really a megastar: he can act with a complete about-face from his usual roles as evidence. (Lest we forget this is a guy who up until recently was a fake-news correspondent!) And Breslin (Signs) is simply an amazing young talent who provides all the wide-eyed caffeine the film needs and then some but does so with precious maturity. It’s as if she inspired the title. There’s a quirky behind-the-scenes story too: Sunshine’s directors--plural--are married to one another! Husband-and-wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are widely known music-video directors but not the type who would make their big-screen transition with something like say Torque; thankfully they chose substance over style. If not for these very gifted directors Sunshine could’ve come unhinged where so many pedestrian “dysfunctional family” indies do: by turning the characters each with a laundry list of defining quirks into caricatures. But thanks in equal parts to the direction acting and flawless script (from first-timer Michael Arndt) there is so much truth to each character. Most notable though is the linear nature of the story; these directors clearly don’t need swooping twists to convey their themes and profundity and that is rare and remarkable. The climax with which it all culminates can only be described as unforgettable.
January 26, 2004 3:51pm EST
Top Story: P. Diddy and J.Lo's Have a Date...in Court
Jury selection began today in a court case against Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, whose former chauffeur claims the rap mogul and a bodyguard forced him to speed away from the scene of a 1999 nightclub shooting, The Associated Press reports. Wardel Fenderson, 45, is suing Combs for $3 million. Combs' company, Bad Boy Entertainment, and Combs' bodyguard, Anthony Jones, who died in an unrelated shooting in Atlanta this past November, have also been named in the suit. Fenderson's lawyer, Lawrence Bernstein, told the Daily News for Monday's edition that his client "was afraid that if he stopped [the car], he was going to be hurt by somebody in the car, and if he didn't, he was going to be hurt by the police." A spokeswoman for Combs, however, said the lawsuit was an attempt to cash in on Combs' celebrity. New York City police arrested Combs in December 1999 after a nightclub shooting that left three people wounded. At the time, Combs was accused of illegal gun possession and bribery but was later acquitted of all charges. Combs and his former girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, who was present during the shooting inside Club New York, have been subpoenaed to testify.
Judge OKs Limited Media Coverage in Blake Trial
Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp ruled Friday that TV and still cameras will be allowed in the courtroom in the Robert Blake murder case during opening statements, closing arguments and the verdict, but not during testimony, the AP reports. But while the District Attorney's Office has already filed papers challenging the judge's decision, Blake's attorneys welcome the decision. "I think this will be a professionally conducted trial," Thomas Mesereau Jr., said. "And any time the public gets to see such a trial, the public benefits." Blake, who is free on $1.5 million bail, is charged with murdering his 44-year-old wife, Bonny Bakley, on May 4, 2001. She was found shot to death in their car outside a restaurant.
Barbara Walters Leaves 20/20
Famed broadcaster Barbara Walters is leaving her post as host of the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 this fall, the AP reports. The 74-year-old Walters, who has been an integral part of the show for more than 25 years, will do about six interview specials a year for ABC News, including her annual pre-Oscar show, and will remain executive producer and co-host of the daytime talk show The View. "Starting in September, I want to have more flexibility in my life without the responsibilities of a weekly newsmagazine," Walters said in a statement issued by ABC. 20/20 will likely to continue with co-host John Stossel, but with less emphasis on major interview subjects.
Doris Roberts Wants Raymond Spin-Off
Everybody Loves Raymond star Doris Roberts told AP Radio Monday that she hopes Ray Romano will keep the sitcom going for at least one more season but added that she would also be thrilled at the prospect of a spin-off about Robert's (Brad Garrett) new in-laws, played by Fred Willard, Georgia Engel and Chris Elliott. "Now you just have to leave it alone. You can push just so far and then you get to be annoying. I can't imagine how CBS would let it go. I understand from the writers' point of view. If they can't come up with good ideas and new ideas that are not repetitive, they don't want to go on with that. But they're far from that this year, so I keep my fingers crossed. I'm sure CBS will find a way to make it work," Roberts said.
Scott Weiland Ordered Back to Rehab
After leaving a live-in drug detoxification center in California after only a month, Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland has been ordered to return, AP reports. The 36-year-old singer was ordered to report to the Pasadena center last October after pleading no contest to possession of heroin. But a Superior Court judge learned Friday that Weiland had either walked out or was discharged and ordered him to return. Weiland returned immediately and is eligible for release in July, providing he participates in a six-month follow-up program.
Songs Banned From American Idol
American Idol judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell won't have to worry about hearing karaoke-type renditions of Sarah McLachlan' s "Angel," Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," and Alicia Keys' "Fallin'" during the third season of the show, which premiered Jan. 19. According to Launch.com, those songs were banned from being performed at this year's auditions. Don't expect to hear anything by Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Mariah Carey, No Doubt, R. Kelly, Tom Petty, Korn, Linkin Park, Carly Simon, or John Mellencamp during the audition process, either, since those artists' songs were also nixed. No explanation was given as to why the tunes were discouraged.