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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Country star Blake Shelton has launched a foul-mouthed rant at a music critic who published an unflattering appraisal of the singer's reality TV show The Voice. Shelton, who is a coach on the American version of the singing contest, became enraged when Houston Chronicle music critic Joey Guerra posted a link to his latest TV blog on his Twitter.com page with the caption, "The Voice sends one singer back to Texas. Don't worry, it's not the one we care about."
In the blog, the writer mentioned the elimination of contestant Holly Tucker, insisting her exit took "much too long", and the comments infuriated Shelton, who launched a scathing attack on Guerra.
In a series of posts on Twitter.com, the singer writes, "Hey Joey Guerra.. I wonder if the state of Texas is proud of the kind of s**t you write about a young Texan like (Holly Tucker)? I doubt it... It's people like you Joey Guerra that make me sick... Holly is not only a talented singer but a great person that's simply chasing a dream... How about you grow some b**ls and come tell me to my face how terrible some of these kids are face to face...? You won't. Ever... You are a chicken s**t. I can't stand a person that makes a point to write hurtful things about kids just trying their best... How much do y'all wanna bet he'd never criticise my team OR me like that face to face.... Chicken s**t..."
The phrase "Oh my God, Landry killed a guy!" has never carried such gravitas. The final seconds of tonight's Breaking Bad — in which Jesse Plemons' bumbling Todd (and Friday Night Lights' beloved goofball Landry) pulls out a handgun and (seemingly) fatally shoots a little boy — will undoubtedly launch the beginning of the end for this madcap series. If you were one of those folks twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the metaphoric s*** to hit the fan, congratulations — you got your wish. There's no coming back from this.
Presumably, much of the action over the coming weeks will be determined by how Jesse processes the shooting, and decides to move forward. His decision will no doubt be impacted by Walt's reaction, which, judging by the fact that he's an evil son of a bitch who effortlessly manipulated Hank and almost killed Lydia (despite her status as a single mother) earlier in the episode, may not be what Jesse is looking for. Walt (or, more appropriately, Heisenberg) only lives for this business and its maddening power now, and though I doubt he'll be happy about this tragic turn of events, something tells me he'd rather bury the kid in the sand and move on than risk compromising their operation. Collateral damage, and such. Whereas Jesse, who never fully recovered from Gale's shooting and is still hating himself for Brock's poisoning, may decide to throw in the towel. Mike is a bit of a wild card here — his love for his own grandchildren is fierce, but I'm not sure if remorse over this stranger-child's death will be enough to counteract his desire to support his family. Either way, business as we know it is done.
A good part of what made the shooting so viscerally effective was its sudden, unforeseen nature. Yes, Todd murdered a precious, innocent child, but he also murdered a precious innocent child who had not been seen since the very beginning of the episode. We saw the kid scooting around the desert in the episode's bizarre cold open and knew he was headed for trouble, but the 40-odd minutes that followed were so intense and occasionally heart-stopping that many of us probably forgot he existed. I feel like I say this every week, but kudos to Vince Gilligan and director George Mastras for punching us in the gut. The last time this "gotcha!" technique was used to perfection was in Game of Thrones' season one penultimate episode, where SPOILER ALERT (but come on) series lead Ned Stark was suddenly decapitated after not being seen for almost an hour. You thought he was safe! You thought Arya was going to have a casual day at the market, and Walt and the boys would celebrate their robbery with a Denny's Grand Slam! You thought wrong. Good luck sleeping tonight.
Anyway, in the 15-odd minutes before the episode's shocking conclusion, Gilligan and co. treated us to an epic, edge-of-your-seat train robbery straight out of an old Western. In last week's episode, Lydia appeared to be done for when she "discovered" a tracking device on a canister of Madrigal's methylamine, making her entire supply unsafe for transit. Mike wanted to kill her, but Walt had another idea — one that further proved how far he's come since season one, when everyone still thought he was a "family man." He entered Hank's office under the guise of wanting to talk about Skyler, and effortlessly faked some tears like he was a college girl vying for a grade change. Hank awkwardly left to grab some coffee, then Walt wiped his tears and quickly installed a bug on Hank's desk. Crafty jackrabbit!
I've always loved Hank — despite some trying times last season — and I'm worried that the man's fragile psyche will explode when he finds out how long and how badly he's been duped by his brother-in-law. Now more than ever, we need the Schraders to keep their cool — the way they adorably handled baby Holly, whose brief existence on this earth has thus far been miserable, proved that emotional wasteland Skyler should start drawing up some adoption papers, stat. "Flynn" may be done for (or will at least require decades of therapy), but Hank and Marie could still save Holly from the stripper pole when Walt and Skyler leave the picture. Walt initially started cooking in direct opposition to his brother-in-law, with the full intention of giving "Flynn" and Holly a decent life, and now it seems as if Hank and Marie are the only ones who can make that happen. Walt has effectively destroyed 3/4 of his family in just one calendar year.
The bug he placed in Hank's office ended up being a blessing for Lydia, who was forced at gunpoint (by Mike, who else) to place a call to Hank regarding the tracked methylamine. Hank knew nothing about it, but a quick call to Houston proved that the bug-eyed nut job was a telling the truth — she had nothing to do with it. Still, her room full of methylamine was now unusable, and that made Mike (who had a very good reason) and Walt (who had no good reason, the heartless bastard) vote to kill her, despite Jesse's protests.
Which leads us to the banana-pants, season making train robbery: to save her own ass, Lydia mentioned a train that carries "an ocean of methylamine," and that also briefly passes through a no man's land in the desert, where all wireless goes to die. If they intercepted the train during that brief amount of time, 24,000 gallons would be readily at their disposal. Mike initially vetoed the idea, on account of the fact that they would have to kill the train's crew in order to successfully get away with it. Then Jesse, for the second time this season, outsmarted his genius mentors by suggesting that they replace the missing methylamine with equal amounts of water, so that no one would ever know it was stolen. AP chemistry, bitch!
To pull this off, they recruited the help of Todd and one of his random burgling/home de-bugging colleagues (Note: He is actually Saul's associate, Kuby. My mistake! Blame IMDB.). For a while, it seemed that things would go off without a hitch: Kuby purposefully broke his own engine and parked his truck in the middle of the railroad tracks, forcing the conductors to stop and help him out. While they were distracted, Jesse and Todd handled the pumping in and out, while Walt oversaw from the ground. A few minutes in, a good samaritan almost ruined the whole thing— he gave Kuby's truck a bump and offered him a lift minutes ahead of schedule, causing hundreds of thousands of hearts to stop in unison. Tick tock, tick tock.
This posed a major problem: Walt wanted to wait and keep pumping until the full volume of methylamine had been retrieved, but the train was about to start with Todd on top of it and JESSE UNDER IT. Walt did not let them stop until he'd garnered every drop, and at this point the train had already begun rolling. Todd jumped off in the nick of time, but poor Jesse had to lie on the tracks and witness the undoubtably terrifying image of a train passing over him. It was mind-blowing to me that Jesse didn't instantly get up and punch Walt in the face. Maybe the adrenaline from the robbery muddled his brain, but it seemed pretty clear to me (and Mike) that Walt cared more about a few extra gallons of methylamine that he did about Jesse Pinkman's life.
After all was said and done, the boys started hootin' and hollerin' and understandably freaking out that they had actually pulled this heist off, and that's when they looked over and noticed the fresh faced little boy gazing at them, inquisitively, a few yards over. And, well, say what you will about Todd, but the man can certainly think on his feet. Boom.
If any good can come of this, it's that somehow, somewhere, a southwestern parent will think twice before letting their young child ride around solo in the desolate desert terrain with no supervision. And if the image of the kid getting shot is troubling you, know that in fifteen years he would have moved to Dillon, TX, and tried to rape Tyra in front of the Alamo Freeze.
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[PHOTO CREDIT: AMC]
'Breaking Bad' Recap: Fifty One
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Top Story: Who's "Fun and Fearless"?
Matthew Perry and Alicia Silverstone, that's who. Cosmopolitan magazine has chosen the two as the Fun, Fearless Male and Female for 2004, The Associated Press reports. Cosmo's editor in chief, Kate White, described the star of NBC's Friends as "the epitome of a hot Cosmo male," adding he is "handsome, charming and incredibly talented. Plus, he's retained his optimism and sense of humor through difficult personal relationships." White described Silverstone, the 27-year-old star of NBC's Miss Match, as gutsy and talented, and said she lives life "with a vengeance." "I really respect how committed she is to her beliefs and how she works to improve the world around her," White said. Others on Cosmo's February list include Sofia Coppola, Ashanti, Kristin Chenoweth, Sue Wong, Lucy Liu, Holly Hunter, Parminder Nagra, Lisa Scottoline, Mischa Barton and Diane Lane.
Keaton Gets AFI Honor
Diane Keaton, nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in Something's Gotta Give, is being honored by the American Film Institute, AP reports, receiving AFI's Star Award at the 10th Annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival next month. Previous Star Award recipients include Steve Martin, Mike Myers, Rob Reiner and Billy Crystal.
Carnivale Gets Cinematography Nod
Carnivale, HBO's supernatural Dust Bowl-era series, leads the American Society of Cinematographer Awards with two nominations. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the recognition given to HBO's offbeat series marks the first time in the 18-year history of the ASC Awards that a woman has been nominated in any of its film or TV award categories. Tami Reiker, whose feature credits include last year's Pieces of April, was nominated for her work as director of photography on the Carnivale pilot. Other TV shows in competition include HBO's Angel in America, FX's The Pentagon Papers, Showtime's Out of Ashes and Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. The awards will be handed out Feb. 8 in Los Angeles.
Walker, Texas Ranger Actor Dies
Noble Willingham, a character actor for the last 30 years and best known for his role on Walker, Texas Ranger, died Saturday of natural causes in Palm Springs, Calif., AP reports. He was 72. Willingham also dabbled in politics, running on the Republican congressional ticket for eastern Texas. He lost to Democrat Max Sandlin.
Janet Jackson Releases New Album
Pop diva Janet Jackson will release her latest, yet-to-be titled album Mar. 30, Billboard reports. The new album is the follow-up to 2001's All for You, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and has sold more than 3 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Jackson will also be performing at the Super Bowl XXXVIII festivities in Houston on Feb. 1, although it is unknown if she will preview material from the upcoming release. P. Diddy, Kid Rock and Nelly are also scheduled to appear.
Idol Duet Hits the Road
American Idol sweethearts Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson are teaming up for a concert tour to kick off Feb. 24 in Charlotte, N.C., AP reports. The Grammy-nominated Clarkson, who won the Idol title in 2002, released her debut album Thankful in May 2003 and has sold more than 1 million copies, while 2003 runner-up Aiken's Sept. debut, Measure of a Man, hit No. 1 and went double-platinum.
Role Call: Hoffman Takes on Focker
Dustin Hoffman will play Ben Stiller's father in Meet the Fockers, the sequel to the 2000 hit comedy Meet the Parents, which starred Stiller, Teri Polo, Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the other actors are also reprising their roles in Focker, which revolves around Greg (Stiller) and his fiancée, Pam Byrnes (Polo), who thinks everything is hunky-dory now that Greg has won over his soon-to-be in-laws, Jack (De Niro) and Dina Byrnes (Danner)--until, that is, Pam's parents meet Greg's parents, the Fockers. The hyper-easygoing Fockers and the tightly wound Byrneses are mismatched from the start.
CANNES, May 15, 2000 -- There are two sides (at least) to everything, right? For example, at the exact same time you want to keep dancing at the tres late rooftop party, you also want to fall asleep for the next 18 hours. At the same time you want to do yoga, you long for a warm chocolate crepe. Marlon Wayans wants to be here to celebrate his role in Darren Aronofsky's (his post-"Pi" flick) new movie, "Requiem for a Dream" at the same time he has to be in Los Angeles for the birth of his new baby. But that's the Cannes Film Festival. The French keep the eternal paradox alive and well.
Other festival tidbits:
-- "A wise man once said everyone would be famous for 15 minutes..." mumbles a voice as Griffin Dunne's new movie, "Famous" starts. Okay, so we all know about that 15 minutes thing, but what co-writing co-stars Laura Kirk and Nat DeWolf and Griffin, who plays a documentarian, want to know is, what happens the five minutes before that fabulous quarter hour.
Mira Sorvino This dead-on hilarious and painful story (the two go together don't they?) follows Lisa Picard, a 29-year-old struggling actress in New York City. Adding to the fun in this terrific comedy is a mix of uncredited celeb cameos (Carrie Fisher, Spike Lee, Penelope Ann Miller, Charlie Sheen, Melissa Gilbert and Sandra Bullock). "Famous" also marks Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino's producing debut.
-- Once you have your 15 minutes of fame you can always book a room and swim in the famous azure pool built into the cliff that flows into the sea. But they only take cash, which is a slight problem this year since the French franc suppliers are on strike and most of the ATM's are dry as a bone.
-- Two films by cinematic royalty, presented Sunday night with glittering fanfare -- "The Golden Bowl," a costume drama presented by Merchant Ivory and featuring Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Angelica Houston; and, "Faithless" written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann. Both films were more pewter than gold. To be more specific (and OK, meaner) in "The Leaden Bowl" not only do you already know what's going to happen, nobody gets around to doing it for over two hours. And as for Liv Ullmann, she tells us everything and then proceeds to show us everything, twice managing to skip the good parts.
-- Sunday was no day of rest here. It's one thing to enjoy the spectacle of our most popular stars floating up those traditional red steps but it's quite another to turn a corner in the busy corridors of the Carlton Hotel and run into the very friendly and sweet Chris Rock along with that girl-next-door Renee Zellweger and their talented director Neil LaBute. Even here, stars "take meetings." Their movie, "Nurse Betty" has a great shot at actually winning the Palme d'Or (although merit never guarantees victory, don't we know?)
-- Let's face it. The French and their famous Cannes Film Festival have "Un Certain Reputation" for major style and just as major attitude. This means, no matter what's planned, you never really know what's going to happen next which is definitely part of the fun and excitement. But only the French could have a quiet security alert (read: bomb threat) in just a small part of the Palais (yes, it's one huge building complex) as the totally unaware paparazzi continue to bellow as the fans howl into the night. It happened here on Saturday. Happily not a sequin was disturbed and everything was okay.
-- It's just these kind of eccentric idiosyncrasies that artists and brothers, Ethan and Joel Coen revel in. Their latest film, "O Brother, Where Art Though?" stars the usual suspects, John Turturro, Holly Hunter and John Goodman with the classy addition of George Clooney. This twisted and funny (but, of course) jailbreak story is in the competition. We'll see if the Coens shake the Golden Palm one more time. (In 1991, they won the award for "Barton Fink.")
Hopefully this will be a festival where there are no bombs of any kind. (Yeah, right.)