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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When you're in high school it feels like the whole world is against you. In writer/director Stephen Chbosky's high school-set The Perks of Being a Wallflower the whole world may actually be against Charlie (Logan Lerman) whose freshman year of high school should be listed in the dictionary under "Murphy's Law." Plagued by memories of two significant deaths as well as general social anxiety Charlie takes a passive approach to ninth grade. A few days of general bullying later he falls into a friendship with two misfit seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) who teach him how to live life without fear. Perks starts off with a disadvantage: introverts aren't terribly engaging but Chbosky surrounds Charlie with a vivid cast of characters who help him blossom and inject the coming-of-age tale with a necessary energy.
Set in a timeless version of the '90s Charlie's world is full of handwritten journals mixtapes and a just-tolerable amount of tweed. He writes letters to a nameless recipient as a way of venting a preventative measure to keep the teen from repeating a vague incident that previously left him hospitalized. The drab background of Pittsburgh fits perfectly with Charlie's blank existence. And when he finally comes to life as part of Patrick and Sam's off-beat clique so does the city. Like the archaic vinyl records Sam lusters over (The Smiths of course!) Chbosky visualizes Charlie's journey through the underbelly of suburban Pennsylvania with a raw emotion blooming lights and film grit at every turn. Michael Brook's score and an adeptly curated soundtrack accompanies the episodic affair which centers on Charlie's search for a song he hears during the most important moment of his life.
The charm that keeps The Perks of Being a Wallflower from collapsing under its own super seriousness come from Chbosky's perfectly cast ensemble. Lerman has a thankless job playing Charlie; often constrained to a half-smile and shy shrug Lerman is never allowed to grapple with Charlie's greatest fears and problems until (too) late in the film. Watson nails the spunky object-of-everyone's-affection but she's outshined by Mae Whitman as Mary Elizabeth another rebellious friend in the pack who takes a liking to Charlie. The real star turn is Miller riding high from We Need to Talk About Kevin and taking a complete 180 with Patrick a rambunctious wiseass who struggles to have an openly gay relationship with the football captain but covers his pain with humor. A scene of confrontation — at where else the cafeteria — is one of the best scenes of the year.
Chbosky adapted Perks of Being a Wallflower from his own book and the movie feels stifled by a looming structure. But it nails the emotional beats — there is no obvious path to surviving high school. It's messy shocking and occasionally beautiful. That about sums up Perks.
Judge admits evidence in Jackson case
Following a weeklong hearing in which prosecutors and attorneys in the Michael Jackson child molestation case clashed over what evidence could be used in trial, Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville ruled today that 39 items seized at the singer's Neverland Valley Ranch can be admitted, Reuters reports. Melville said he might suppress other items of evidence he had concerns about, but would not issue a final ruling until September to give attorneys for both sides time to file written arguments. It was unclear what much of the evidence in question was because of the secrecy that has surrounded the case, but search warrant data previously released indicated the evidence tentatively admitted included several computer hard drives and a cassette recorder and audio tape found in a safe in Jackson's bathroom. Jackson, who attended the first day of the hearing on Aug. 16 with his family, is scheduled to stand trial on January 31 in Santa Maria, Calif., on charges of child molestation and conspiracy. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $3 million bail.
Test confirm Anthony didn't father child
A lawyer for Marc Anthony said a third paternity test has confirmed the Latin singer didn't father a child with a Cuban dancer as she has claimed, the AP reports. Miami resident Elizabeth Leyva brought a paternity lawsuit in a Florida court, alleging that Anthony is the father of her son, who was born late last year. Anthony refuted the claims and willingly volunteered to be DNA-tested. Orchid GeneScreen, which has labs in Dallas and Dayton, Ohio, conducted the most recent DNA test on Aug. 13. "The three leading paternity labs in the world have confirmed scientifically that he is not the father," lawyer Orin Snyder said Monday. "There is no reality to this claim whatsoever." Snyder said he has contacted Leyva's lawyers, asking her to drop the lawsuit. Anthony, who has two children with former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres, reportedly married singer-actress Jennifer Lopez in June at the singer-actress' home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Julia Roberts takes time off to be a mom
Julia Roberts, who is due to give birth to twins this winter, tells Newsweek magazine she plans to take a break from acting and make children her first priority. "I'm not planning anything. I can't imagine how big I'm going to get in the next three months, but ... you just kind of play it as it comes," Roberts said. "I'm allowed to do that, aren't I?" The twins will be the first children for Roberts and her husband, cinematographer Daniel Moder. The two were married in July 2002. Roberts, 36, tells the magazine her pregnancy has only just begun to show. "It does kind of happen overnight. You wake up and go, 'Oh my God!'" she said. Roberts has two films set for release in December, including the dramedy Closer and the sequel Ocean's 12.
DGA starts negotiations with studios
The Directors Guild of America, which reps about 12,500 members, started negotiations yesterday with studios and networks, Variety reports. The DGA's current contract doesn't expire until June 30, 2005, but all side are hoping a deal can be reached within the next few weeks in order to avoid a possible work stoppage should negotiations appear not to be moving toward an agreement. The DGA is one of Hollywood's most formidable guilds in terms of unity among its members and understanding the critical intricacies of feature film budgets. Key issues in the negotiations include home video residuals, producer pension and health contributions, and expanding Guild jurisdiction in the reality TV sector.
Celebs join MoveOn.org ad campaign
The Internet political group MoveOn.org premiered Tuesday 10 new anti-Bush ads created by award-winning directors and featuring Hollywood stars, the AP reports. One MoveOn ad teams Silver City director John Sayles with actor Martin Sheen, while another reunites The Bourne Identity helmer Doug Liman with star Matt Damon. Rob Reiner, who directed When Harry Met Sally and The American President, uses snippets from an April news conference in which President Bush struggled to answer whether he'd made mistakes as president, to form the core of his 30-second spot. A spokeswoman for the independent group said that while MoveOn has committed to a sizable national cable buy for its first ad, the rest could remain on the Internet.
MTV unveils Real World in Philadelphia
MTV will debut the 15th season of its reality series The Real World on Sept. 7. According to the AP, the 10,000-square-foot house, in the heart of Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood, was built at the turn of the century and was originally the Union National Bank of Philadelphia but still has the standard Real World amenities, including a hot tub, fitness equipment and pool table. The new season's cast includes Landon, 24, who is sensitive about being labeled a "dumb jock" and has a fear of rejection; Karamo, 23, who struggles with his feelings about interracial dating; Melanie, 22, who has a spontaneous wild streak; MJ, 23, who had dreamed of playing pro football; Sarah, 22, who uses her sex appeal to get what she wants; Shavonda, 22, who is the life of the party; and Willie, 23, who insists that it's his "way or the highway."
WWE looking for prospective wrestlers
World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon is launching a reality TV series that will see eight men battling for a four-year wrestling contract and a hefty $1 million prize. The format, however, will be more like Fox's American Idol competition then the WWE reality series Tough Enough, which will not be returning to the MTV airwaves this fall. According to the AP, the new WWE series will be integrated into UPN's Smackdown! beginning in October and ending in December. Each week, viewers will vote for the contestant they want to see win the $1 million contract, while the man with the lowest votes will be sent packing. WWE's Spike TV prime-time show RAW, meanwhile, will be searching for WWE women wrestlers in the RAW Diva Search with a much less substantial prize: a yearlong contract and $250,000 purse.