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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Those lucky enough to have seen Freaks & Geeks know John Francis Daley, who played Sam Weir on the cult classic TV show. But fewer people know Jonathan M. Goldstein, a lawyer-turned-writer who met Daley on 2000's Geena Davis Show and went on to be his screenwriting collaborator. With nearly a decade of working together as writing partners, the duo are finally hitting the big time in Hollywood, with their latest comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, arriving in theaters this weekend.
Daley and Goldstein make the road to becoming big time screenwriters picture perfect, but that's all part of the illusion. In fact, Daley says that it took several years and a few stalled incarnations for Wonderstone to finally come to life. Goldstein adds another layer: "We did 11 drafts at one point for one director who didn't end up doing it (and, by the way, not getting paid for those drafts). That's screenwriting for you."
With every draft of Wonderstone, elements, plot points, and styles of humors shifted and evolved. The one thing that remained — and what drove Daley and Goldstein to conceive the movie in the first place — was the world of Vegas magicians. For the two writers, jokes came second to being authentic to the glitzy, demanding career. "[We talked] to a lot of Vegas magicians, getting insight into what their world really is," Goldstein says. "They were very helpful and willing to talk to us. Penn Jillette, David Copperfield, Criss Angel — a lot of these guys spent time with us."
RELATED: Is 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' Offensive to Professional Magicians?
After soaking in the backstage world of Vegas, the writers realized… it wasn't too different then their pre-conceived notions. "Sometimes we hear about the Vegas superstars and their lifestyles," Daley says. "I don't want to name names, but there are singers that when you hear what their demands are, it astounds you. I think the same applies to any Vegas personality that's been there for a really long time. They get whatever they want. With Burt, he's so used to getting what he wanted, he became lazy and tired. That's where his craft started to fall apart."
The exaggerated lives of magicians opened Pandora's Box for Daley and Goldstein, allowing the duo to pen comedy that could fit the two distinct voices of their leads, Steve Carell and Jim Carrey. Daley says that even before Carell joined the project, Wonderstone was written as the "perfect role" for the actor, while he was excited to tailor Carrey's punk rock illusionist Steve Gray to the comedian's voice. "He was one of the reasons I started acting in comedy," he says. "Just to see him embody this role — which is very big and physical — will be exciting for audiences. That old Jim."
Goldstein says that Carrey has very specific ideas for characters once he's committed to a movie, and the three worked together to shape Gray to utilize the physically inclined actor's skills. Carrey's slapstick tactics are rare in Hollywood. Daley was happy to bring them back. "I think the broad comedies with lots of physical comedy come and go over the years," he says. "It was huge back in silent movies because it was the only real way to get comedy across. Ever since, it's moved with the tides."
With all the rewriting, a few of Daley and Goldstein's ideas didn't make the cut — namely, a cameo from the infamous Masked Magician. Illusionist Val Valentino went incognito for a series of Fox TV specials that pulled the curtain back on magic's biggest tricks. Daley was actually a fan. "It was a gimmick, but I actually enjoyed watching the show," Daley says. "I wanted to see the magic revealed. At one point it was a plot point in one of our 12 or 13 drafts of Burt. But we wanted to focus on the rivalry of the two."
RELATED: 'Incredible Burt Wonderstone' Trailer: It's Not Easy Being Orange
According to Goldstein, the magicians they spoke to for the movie went unfazed after Valentino's "big reveals." "We talked to some of the magicians about that guy," Goldstein says. "They all knew who he was. They all felt not threatened by him. The tricks he's revealing are so widely known. They're not really secrets, except for maybe the general public." Daley dubs the Masked Magician's bits "royalty-free tricks." Not anything you would see in a Vegas stage show today. "Like playing a song that's 100 years old — no one's going to get upset about stealing it," he says.
With Wonderstone set to arrive in theaters, the duo is already working on their next projects. A follow-up to their hit 2011 comedy Horrible Bosses has wrangled the original cast for a sequel, and Daley and Goldstein will make their directorial debut in a semi-sequel to the beloved National Lampoon's Vacation franchise. Goldstein says the time is right for an update. "There hasn't been a great family road trip in awhile," Goldstein says. "They're inherently relatable because most people go on them at one point or another. And we have a great affection for the original movie — we wouldn't have done a remake of it."
Taking over the franchise is Ed Helms, who will star as Rusty, the son of Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold. "[Letting] him go on the road is a legitimate updating of the franchise," Goldstein says.
Daley and Goldstein aren't so much scared to direct Vacation as they are excited, looking forward to realizing the scenarios they've "directed" on the page for the first time. Their biggest hurdle is staying true to the original while innovating for today's audience. "The thing you have to watch out for is not retreading jokes that haven't been done to death," Daley says. "Figure out a new way to take something people are familiar with and turn it on its head. That's what we strive for in this movie and everything we do. If you're laughing because you've heard the joke before, a laugh of familiarity, it's never as potent as a laugh that is fresh."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures; Nash Entertainment]
You Might Also Like:Topanga's Revealing Lingerie Shoot: Hello '90s! Stars Who Have Lost Roles For Being Too Hot (Celebuzz)
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.