In just about every one of Kevin Hart's scenes in Ride Along, there's a joke that is just aching to find its way out of the diminutive, rascally comic actor. Hart is a small-scale physical comedian — of the same ilk as Jack Black — who puts nuclear-degree energy into his facial contortions, anatomical outbursts, and the delivery of every gag in general. If only he had material that was crafted with the same energy.
Unfortunately, nothing else about Ride Along seems at all "hard at work." Not the script, which pads a lifeless story with lazy comedy, and certainly not his screen partner Ice Cube, whose only stage direction seems to be "frown, and be taller than Kevin Hart." So lifeless is Ice Cube that even his machismo-obsessed straight man bit doesn't really work. Instead of the virile and intimidating "bad cop," he comes off as a disapproving middle aged dad without much to show for his own life.
But the script pairs the wily, overzealous high school security guard and video game junkie Ben (Hart) with no-nonsense lawman James (Ice Cube) on the titular ride along, with the scrappy cop-wannabe hoping to prove to the force veteran that he's good enough to marry the latter's younger sister. In earnest, he's not. Ben never puts any respectable effort into learning the tools of the trade, insisting on employing his amateur style and controlling the radio despite his proclamations that he wants, and deserves, James' trust. And James is no saint either — he's irresponsible on crime scenes, violent with perps, and disgruntled to the point of being unable to work with anybody else on the force. These are not good police officers... of course, you'll say, this is a comedy. But where are the laughs, then?
They're not absent entirely, you just have to look for them. In a movie so focused with big, broad humor, it's the smaller comedy that actually lands best. Hart's background mutterings and fumblings, his emoticon-laden texts to girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter, whose only stage direction seems to be "smile, and never wear a full outfit of clothing"), and a bizarre repetition of the word "weird" from supporting player John Leguizamo. All good for unexpected chuckles, while jokes like Hart facing off with a pre-teen or being blown backwards into a brick wall after firing a large gun are all lazy, familiar, and flat.
Structurally, the script is a mess. Ride Along spends far too much time on set up — we get it, Hart and his soon-to-be-brother-in-law Ice Cube don't get along — and far too much time on wrap-up — there's a gigantic, dramatic warehouse shootout that, in any other movie, would be the climax, but there's plenty more to go after that — without any cohesive middle to make the movie feel like... a movie.
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Hart, who leaps at every comic opportunity like a kangaroo (wallaby would be more appropriate), is suited just right for a buddy cop comedy, but he needs something fresh with which to work — a real character, an interesting story, actually funny jokes. Even just one of these would be fine!
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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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Top Story: Aniston, Olsen Sisters are "Beautiful"
Well, duh! Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Jennifer Aniston, along with her hubby Brad Pitt, were among the lucky few to be featured in People magazine's 15th annual "50 Most Beautiful People in the World 2004," The Associated Press reports. Others on the list included Jessica Simpson and her hubby Nick Lachey, Halle Berry, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, model sisters Alexandra and Theodora Richards (daughters of Rolling Stone Keith Richards), as well as The Apprentice's Kwame Jackson. The issue hits newsstands Friday.
Trump Gets Engaged, Hits Airwaves
Donald Trump has asked his longtime girlfriend, model Melania Knauss, to marry him, AP reports. The Donald, 57, gave the 33-year-old Slovenian native, who has been living with him for five years, a diamond engagement ring on Monday. No wedding date was set. Meanwhile, high off his Apprentice success, Trump has teamed with Clear Channel network to launch a national radio show Trumped!, Reuters reports, in which the real estate mogul will expound on business and non-business topics, including his thoughts on the media and entertainment world as well as politics. The show will start June 15.
Spears' Stalker Caught
Daniel J. Lachance, a Canadian man who entered the property of pop princess Britney Spears' father Tuesday, was arrested the same day on charges of criminal trespassing and stalking, AP reports. Lachance, 25, was being held on $150,000 bond in the Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, jail on Wednesday, Sheriff's spokeswoman Patti Giannoble told AP, adding that this was the man's second arrest since April 12 for being on Spears family property.
Stunt Awards Fetes Reeves
Keanu Reeves is a stunt man extraordinaire--at least according to the World Stunt Awards, which will give the actor an honorary award for his work in action movies such as The Matrix trilogy, Speed and Chain Reaction, AP reports. The awards recognize the men and women who put their lives at risk to make stunts look real, with nominees competing in categories such as best fight, best fire stunt and best work with a vehicle. They were chosen from 19 films, including Kill Bill Vol. 1, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Bad Boys II, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and The Last Samurai. The show will broadcast on Spike TV May 26.
Spielberg Film Opens Venice Film Fest
Steven Spielberg's newest film The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, will open the Venice Film Festival, which runs Sept. 1-11, AP reports. The film, which will be shown out of competition, tells the story of an Eastern European immigrant who finds himself stranded in an American airport terminal when war breaks out in his country. The rest of the festival's slate is yet to come.
Famed Psychic Claims Reality Adoption Show was Stolen
Uri Geller, famed psychic to the stars, is waging battle against ABC's 20/20, claiming it stole from him a segment concept in which five couples compete to adopt a baby, Reuters reports. Geller claims this Friday's 20/20's segment "Be My Baby"--which follows a real-life pregnant 16-year-old girl as she goes through the adoption process, whittling down prospective candidates to five couples--is an exact rip-off of his yet-to-be published novel Nobody's Child--which follows a reality TV game show on which five couples compete for a baby. He may take legal action to stop the program. Reuters reports 20/20's Barbara Walters said, "For the record, 20/20 simply reports what happened: we did not choose the participants nor exert any influence on what they did. This is not one of those scripted 'reality shows'--it IS reality!"
Hilton Parents Get in on the Reality Act
Paris Hilton's parents, Kathy and Rick Hilton, are getting in on the act with their own reality TV show. Kathy Hilton will host The Good Life--featuring 10 young women from around the country who will be introduced to different fields such as publishing, fashion and cosmetics to find the area best suited for their talent--while courtesy of Paris' dad, contestants will stay at the Hilton-founded Waldorf-Astoria in New York. The winner will be determined through a process of elimination and land a job in her prospective field as well as a car and a one-year stay at the Waldorf-Astoria. Sources told The Hollywood Reporter NBC has given an eight-episode order to the project for a possible September launch.
Vokal Sue Rapper Nelly
Two members of a musical group called Vokal are suing rapper Nelly for trademark infringement and unfair competition, alleging the star wrongly took their name for his multimillion-dollar clothing line, The Associated Press reports. According to the lawsuit filed last February in U.S. District Court in Orlando, Fla., James Tyrone Wilson and Cameron Caines have written music, performed live, recorded songs and distributed clothing under the name Vokal since 1994, and in 1998 signed a recording and distribution contract with Universal Records--around the same time the label signed Nelly. The singers want an injunction to stop Nelly from using the name and millions of dollars in damages. Vokal Clothing Co., which makes Nelly's line of clothes, made more than $20 million in 2002.
Role Call: Sizemore To Portray Pete Rose, Tom Hanks Takes Risk
Scandal-plagued actor Tom Sizemore, who was sentenced to six months in jail last year for assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss, will portray scandal-plagued baseball star Pete Rose in ESPN's TV movie Hustle. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the project will chronicle Rose's gambling-related downfall in the 1980s. The movie will premiere Sept. 25, 2004 … Tom Hanks is set to star in Warner Bros.' big-screen adaptation of Richard Russo's novel The Risk Pool. T