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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Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
Bookies Bet on Quick End to Lopez-Anthony Marriage
British bookmakers offered odds of 3-1 Monday that singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and her new husband, singer Marc Anthony, would divorce by the end of the year, Reuters reports. The fact that Lopez, 33, has already been through two short-lived marriages, as well as having broken off her A-list celebrity engagement to actor Ben Affleck, bookmakers are also offering 10 to 1 odds that "J-Lo marries more than eight times in her life, beating Elizabeth Taylor," a bookie spokesman said. Anthony, after getting a quickie divorce in the Dominican Republic a week ago from his wife of four years, married Lopez over the weekend in a small ceremony at Lopez's Beverly Hills home.
Hasselhoff Arrested for Intoxication
Actor David Hasselhoff was arrested over the weekend in Los Angeles on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, The Associated Press reports. The former Baywatch star was arrested late Saturday night on Ventura Boulevard in the Encino section of the San Fernando Valley, police confirmed. He was released the next morning. No further details were immediately available. In 2002, Hasselhoff checked himself into the Betty Ford Center for alcoholism treatment.
MTV Eyes Diaz, Muniz Series
Cameron Diaz and Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz are among the celebrities whose shows are vying for slots on MTV's lineup next season, Reuters reports. Diaz's project, known as Trippin', involves her and famous friends like Drew Barrymore traveling to faraway lands to spotlight environmental issues. Muniz's is Granted, in which he'll help viewers live out their fantasies. The music cable network has ordered 10 pilots for consideration for the 2004-05 season.
"Mini-Me" Wants an Annulment
Verne Troyer, best known as Mini-Me from the Austin Powers film series, is seeking an annulment from a model who claims she is married to the diminutive actor, Reuters reports. Troyer's attorney said his client filed papers Feb. 23 seeking to annul Genevieve Gallen's marriage claims, which he said are fabricated and financially motivated. "There is no valid marriage. That's why we're asking for an annulment," Troyer's lawyer told Reuters. It was widely reported last summer that Gallen and Troyer, 35, were engaged, with some gossip accounts saying they later broke off their relationship. It is not clear on what grounds Gallen was asserting the marriage to Troyer, Reuters reports.
Halle Berry's Ex-Hubby Wants Spousal Support
Halle Berry's estranged husband, R&B singer Eric Benet, filed papers last week in Los Angeles Superior Court challenging their prenuptial agreement and seeking spousal support, Reuters reports. According to documents posted on the Web site thesmokinggun.com, Benet, 33, is asking the 37-year-old Oscar winner to shell out for his legal bills and spousal support. The two wed in January 2001 and have no children. Berry filed for divorce from Benet, her second husband, in April of this year, citing irreconcilable differences. But in a recent appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Berry told the host Benet had been unfaithful to her and was being treated for sexual addiction. Berry's previous marriage to Cleveland Indians outfielder David Justice ended in divorce in 1996.
Midnight Oil Frontman Could Move Into Political Arena
Peter Garrett, frontman for the defunct Australian rock band Midnight Oil, could run in the next federal election. Garrett has become the highest profile candidate for the Labor Party seat of Kingsford Smith in Sydney, Australia, since Laurie Brereton announced last week he would retire at the next election, which could come as early as August 7. Garrett, a leading environmentalist and longtime political activist, has served as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and has served on the international board of environmental group Greenpeace. Midnight Oil's can you find out what year that was? protest song about Aboriginal land rights, "Beds Are Burning," became a hit around the world.
Role Call: Ferrell in Talladega Nights, Warner Nabs Rule of Four
Columbia has paid close to $4 million for the pitch Talladega Nights, a comedy set in the world of professional stock car racing, starring Will Ferrell and directed by Adam McKay. Ferrell and McKay will also serve as co-writers and executive producers on the project, which is aiming for a summer 2006 release with production set to begin next year … Warner Bros., meanwhile, has bought screen rights to Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's novel The Rule of Four, about four Princeton brainiacs who have cracked secrets behind the 15th century manuscript Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The text contains embedded codes that reveal the whereabouts of a fabled buried Roman treasure, but when the students get close, murders start occurring on campus.
Guylaine Cadorette contributed to this report.