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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Nothing says more about you — not your religious affiliation, your childrearing sensibilities, your dental hygiene — than your personalized list of favorite movies. Your cinematic preferences brand you permanently in the eyes of whomever is lucky (or cagey) enough to hear them, leading many of us to opt for our highbrow choices — our Vertigos, our Citizen Kanes, our Bicycle Theives...es.
But behind these vainglorious boasts will inevitably lurk a dark, probing secret: our real favorite movies. Our Black Sheeps and Better Off Deads and Weekend at Bernies 2s. Even if you do harbor a regrettable passenger like these, you shouldn't feel ashamed. You're in good company: Stanley Kubrick loved White Men Can't Jump.
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From a series of interviews conducted with the late genius, The Criterion Collection has released a list of titles that have been deemed some Kubrick's favorite pieces of film. Along with Citizen Kane, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and a string of other unsurprises, the article attributes White Men Can't Jump — the 1992 comedy about a pair of rival streeball hustlers (Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes) forming an unlikely friendship — to the legend's trove of top picks.
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And the mastermind who brought us triumphs like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove is not alone in fessing up to his so-called guilty pleasure. Here are a handful of other auteurs who rank some unexpected flicks among their video collections:
There Will Be Blood and The Master director Paul Thomas Anderson: Heavyweights, as the fat camp comedy's director Judd Apatow told Hollywood.com.
The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line director Terrence Malick: Zoolander, as Seth Rogen revealed to the The Guardian.
Chinatown and The Pianist director Roman Polanski: Rush Hour as the crime comedy's director Brett Ratner told The Guardian.
And from the archives of BFI's Sight & Sound...
Heat and The Last of the Mohicans director Michael Mann: Avatar
Driving Miss Daisy director Bruce Beresford: Black Hawk Down
The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell: Young Frankenstein
Documentarian Nick Broomfield: The Pink Panther Strikes Again
1930s cinematographer Robert Neame: E.T.
Inglorious Basterds director Quentin Tarantino: The Bad News Bears
Whistle Down the Wind director Bryan Forbes: Whistle Down the Wind
What's your guilty pleasure?
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[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
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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.
After the Sunset is not despite all appearances the first studio movie to be pieced together entirely from clips of other movies. But it sure seems like it. It's that clichéd. Pierce Brosnan plays Max Burdett the world's foremost jewel thief who has pulled off one last heist and is trying to go straight. And if you think you've seen that one before just wait because Woody Harrelson plays his alter ego F.B.I. agent Stan Lloyd hot on his trail and dogged by his failure to catch him. So it's your standard good bad guy bad good guy bad bad guy (Don Cheadle) and girlfriend who wants him to quit (Salma Hayek) heist movie. Except that would be a disservice to so many heist movies that try to make the crime in question even remotely suspenseful or interesting and this one couldn't care less. Suffice it to say there is a very big diamond on a cruise ship and that diamond will be snatched effortlessly by someone in about 30 seconds of screen time. And the rest of the movie? Exactly like the friend's vacation photos: dancing eating drinking fishing diving lying around in hammocks and taking long naps. The filmmakers flirt with the notion of the criminal's paradise turning into a hellish prison of its own with nothing to do and no challenges is sight but I'll stop right there because I just explored it in more depth than the movie does.
The only way a movie this flimsy gets off the ground at all is with a charming likeable cast. This group certainly doesn't disappoint but it is odd to see all four principals playing the exact same roles they've done before in other movies. Brosnan plays the same suave master criminal he did in The Thomas Crown Affair. Harrelson is the rube of ambiguous morality he played in Palmetto. Cheadle plays the same literate but streetwise hood he did in Out of Sight. And Hayek plays the same part she has in projects like Maxim and FHM gorgeous scantily clothed and nearly silent. This fuels the feeling of déja vu and again plants the suspicion that the entire movie has been created digitally on someone's iMac. With Steve McQueen starring in Ford commercials John Wayne having appeared in Coors ads and Laurence Olivier recently reanimated for Sky Captain and
the World of Tomorrow it isn't really that big of a stretch to wonder if these actors have even met. Naomie Harris as the local cop is the only actor who makes an impression.
The puppetmaster of this pastiche is Brett Ratner who owes his prodigious clout with After the Sunset producers New Line Cinema to the inexplicable success of the Rush Hour franchise. If nothing else it's obvious that he's seen a lot of movies. And at least he's not entirely shameless; Ratner preemptively inserts a DVD copy of Hitchcock's To Catch
a Thief into a scene (Burdett has rented it) just to let us know (wink wink) that he knows that his underwater scene was inspired by the Master's ballroom dance scene. His pacing is brisk bordering on abrupt. His tone seems wildly divergent until you realize that every scene is potentially headed for Rush Hour territory. A slapstick comedy could break out at any moment and does. I keep waiting for better things from Ratner though--his Nicolas Cage vehicle The Family Man was about as good as a schmaltzy Christmas Scrooge remake could possibly get. Seriously. But he seems very content to direct two men rubbing suntan lotion onto each other's backs only to later be mistaken for gay lovers in a predictable but lighthearted mix-up. Anyone for Rush Hour 3?
Top Story: Shriver Leaves NBC to Support Hubby
Maria Shriver has opted to take a leave of absence from her NBC News post while her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, campaigns for governor of California through Oct. 7, Reuters reports. A network spokeswoman told Reuters Shriver requested the leave to avoid any potential appearances of conflict of interest between her job as a correspondent and contributing anchor to Dateline and her new role as the wife of an aspiring politician. The spokeswoman also said it was too soon to say what avenues Shriver will take if Schwarzenegger wins the recall election.
Jolie's Forest Project Approved
The Cambodian government approved a forest conservation project in two former Khmer Rouge areas that will be funded by actress Angelina Jolie, The Associated Press reports. The Tomb Raider star will donate up to $1.5 million over the next five years to help educate villagers about conservation awareness, draw demarcation lines to protect forest and wildlife sanctuaries, and train local rangers, said Mounh Sarath, executive director of Cambodian Vision in Development, to AP.
Lange Becomes Goodwill Ambassador
Jessica Lange, a newly appointed goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Children's Fund, traveled to Congo, Africa, earlier this week, touring refugee camps, AP reports. The refugees, mostly women and children, were forced to flee their homes as a byproduct of a bitter five-year civil war raging in the area. "The stories that these women tell are absolutely horrific, but the thing that moved me most was the extraordinary spirit of these people," the Oscar-winning actress told AP Thursday after hearing how rape is used as a weapon in the civil violence.
Omar Sharif Arrested for Head-Butting Cop
Omar Sharif (Doctor Zhivago, Funny Girl) was convicted of assaulting a police officer at a casino near Paris, AP reports. Le Parisien reported Sharif got into a scuffle with one of the casino's patrons and when an officer intervened, Sharif allegedly insulted and head-butted him. The 71-year-old Egyptian actor received a one-month suspended sentence and was fined $1,700, AP reports.
Gay Musicians Want to Break Into Country Music
Several musicians showed up in cowboy hats and jeans to audition in New York Thursday for a new reality show that will search for the first openly gay country music star, Reuters reports. The show, tentatively titled America Pride, hopes to break some of those barriers surrounding homosexuality in the country music arena. The producers have not found a network to run the show as yet, Reuters reports.
The Next Great Hip-Hopper
Attention: Calling all wanna-be hip-hop artists! Showtime and Interscope Records are developing a new reality show designed to look for the next hottest prospect in hip-hop, USA Today reports. The six-part series called Interscope Presents The Next, described as a cross between 8 Mile and American Idol, is expected to begin airing in October and will be part talent contest and part documentary, with each episode culminating in one-on-one rap battles.
Cache of Comic Hosts to Handle Emmys
Rather than just one host, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will have a bevy of comics to emcee this year's Emmys, Reuters reports. Comics who hosted the Emmy telecasts during the past three years, including Garry Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O'Brien, will be among this year's hosts, along with Everybody Loves Raymond's Brad Garrett, Saturday Night Live's Darrell Hammond, Wanda Sykes of Fox's Wanda at Large, George Lopez, Martin Short and Jon Stewart. More stars are expected to be added in the coming weeks. "We've searched high and low to find the funniest people in California who are not running for governor," ATAS chairman Bryce Zabel quipped to Reuters. "It was a challenge, but this all-star comedy team promises to make America laugh without asking for a campaign contribution." The Emmys will air Sept. 21 on Fox.
Role Call: Ratner Rides Into Sunset
Director Brett Ratner (Red Dragon) has taken over the helm of New Line Cinema's After the Sunset after director John Stockwell bowed out in July over "creative differences." Variety reports the film--which stars Pierce Brosnan, Salma Hayek and Woody Harrelson--follows a retired jewel thief (Brosnan) living on a Caribbean island with his gal pal (Hayek). Harrelson plays an FBI agent who tracks him down.