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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Well, the good news is that the live auditions are finally over. The bad news is that about 100 innocent souls who spent weeks (months?) riding the high of their first audition, thinking they had real, megastar-worthy talent, will have their dreams squashed and never be seen nor nor heard from again. Glass half full! For the sake of full disclosure, I must say that I attended X Factor bootcamp last year, and can confirm that it's a hot, bloody mess. It's the judges and some publicists and a few (lucky?) reporters sitting in a giant auditorium for 16 hours, as countless stressed beyond belief singers belt out R&B hits in the bathrooms, in the hallways, just everywhere. It's like the final moments before opening night of a Lima, Ohio high school musical on meth. There's crying, there's panic, there's judges needing to take a million breaks. It's also kind of boring, because hearing 120 auditions in one day is a lot. Anyway, let's put the Simon Cowell "that's enough" hand up on my rambling and do this thing.
The episode opened up with an at-home montage of the singers that will probably end up making it to the judges' house round, because why would they waste our time? 17-year-old Willie Jones was feeling the nerves in Shreveport, Louisiana, as was 18-year old rocker chick Jennel Garcia in Rochester, Mass. "It's time to grow up," she said. Totally! X Factor bootcamp auditions are right up there with going to college, realizing that boys aren't very nice after you sleep with them, and buying your first car. We all go through it.
We also saw 39-year-old Vino Allen, who I think took the subway to Miami, in New York, and the Cali bros from Emblem3 surfing in Huntington Beach. That's some X Factor juxtaposition for you. Then there was the adorable gay Jason Brock, sexy vocal coach Tara Simon, next-Whitney candidate Diamond White, InTENsity survivor Arin Ray, and bullying victim/ugly-cry aficionado Jillian Jensen. "It's your time now," Jillian's mom ugly-cried. "Do it!"
That's what's so sad about this — each and every one of these contestants, at least the ones under 30, think it's "their time." Because they're young, they're innocent, they haven't been exposed to the gentle indifference of the universe just yet. For many of them, today will be that day — the day they discover that life is chaos, and no matter how much they pray, God simply does not care if they win — even if they were bullied in high school, or share a room with 27 siblings. The world is not the delicious oyster described by their pre-recession-era parents, it's more like a rancid salad prawn that you just have to tolerate. First you have to accept the crappy-ass prawn, then you can go on an existential quest to find meaning and order within the prawn. Did that metaphor make sense? No, it did not. Either way, I hate seeing devastated people on TV. Then why do you recap a singing competition show, you ask? Because I'm trying to sort out my prawn, that's why.
Anywho, the cattle arrived in Miami, and we were treated to a montage of sexy youngsters gettin' their tan on at their luxury resort. Suspiciously, the morbidly obese wheelchair-bound pastor was not included in this shot. Hmmm. Once inside the arena, we were told that half of the contestants would go home by the end of the night. There were currently 120, so in case you're not into the maths, that means 60 dreams would be broken that day.
Next: People sing, people go home. CeCe Frey wins best bitch-face.
First up was 13-year-old cutie pie Diamond White. She sang "I Have Nothing" by Whitney Houston, and my new favorite person ever CeCe Frey looked like she wanted to cut a b***h. It was that good. 21-year-old single mom Paige Thomas admitted that she was afraid to follow that act. But alas, she did't have to. We breezed through probably 50 auditions, and again were only given approximately three seconds with Sister C, who I still think sound pretty good. But according to Britney Spears' face, I am wrong:
We saw a few more rando auditions before the infectiously enthusiastic Jason Brock killed it again, which briefly thawed my icy hard heart. Ditto for middle schooler Carly Rose Sonenclar, who really freaked out that (I'm sorry) AWFUL little girl who sang "Tomorrow" last week. You know, the one with the pigtails and the pink and the sparkles and the alcoholism in ten years.
22-year-old Jessica Espinoza, who wowed the judges with her version of Pink's "Nobody Knows" during the live auditions, was clearly very nervous — and Demi Lovato wasn't helping. "You are one of the only people in this competition that I remembered their first and last name," Demi announced. ("F*** you," replied everybody else.) Pressure! Jessica sang that Whitney/Mariah song from the 1998 animated flick The Prince of Egypt, and this time judges' reactions were less enthusiastic: Britney made her signature stink face, and Demi claimed to be disappointed. "She wasn't as good as I remember," Demi whispered to her cohorts. Ouch! This just goes to show, yet again, that the wrong song choice can ruin everything.
Jennel Garcia, who I still think is our front-runner, showed up on stage wearing what I think was the same fringe-tastic, totally age-inappropriate outfit from her first audition. Her second audition was great, if a bit oversexed. "Crazy sex appeal," said the judges. They were right — I mean, just look at Simon's face:
Also, to get a sense of how the female competition felt about her performance, please see HBIC CeCe Frey:
Next up was Josh Krajcik Vino Allen, who sang beautifully and wowed everyone but Britney. Then we were treated to a montage of sadness, as Johnny Maxwell forgot his lyrics, Jordyn Foley — the "Annie" reject — sang horrifically, and Manny Acosta just blew it. Same goes for Trevor Moran, the fresh-faced youngster who sang "I'm Sexy and I Know It" last week. Aw. I expected great things for him.
But wait, it gets worse: A 12-year-old boy forgot the lyrics and melody to "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and just totally broke down, and the cameras followed him for an insanely insensitive amount of time. "My nerves took over," he said as he stood there, petrified. "I want my mom," he later cried offstage. Oh my God, this is totally the Rachel Crow-cident of 2012. He should probably go to Jillian Jensen for some advice, as every kid he goes to school with will see this, and kids are jerks.
On a lighter note, Emblem3 were confident to the point of laughing at every boy band that went before them, and then they had the nads to come out and sing their take on the freaking Goo Goo Dolls, who just so happen to be one of the worst bands of all time. Demi LOVED their performance, and Simon said that "the guy in the hat" was by far the best singer. Bet he's feeling pretty good about himself tonight. Before Tara Simon hit the stage, we were shown this weird clip of her dancing on a pole and just generally trying to be sexy, and then she showed up wearing a completely unflattering leopard-print dress. She writhed around on stage and vamped her way through "Somebody to Love" and Britney and Demi were... not impressed:
Finally, it came time for what's going to end up being the big, bodacious bootcamp battle of 2012: Paige Thomas versus the aforementioned CeCe Frey. Both girls picked Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," but one was significantly more confident in her abilities than the other. "This is my jam, and I'm going to go out there and work it," said CeCe. "The pressure just makes me perform that much better." It's on! From my perspective, Paige — who went first — struggled a little with the high notes, but it was still a good audition. "The only thing that could potentially get in her way is a comparison to another performer who looks similar," mused L.A. Reid.
That's so funny! Because, conveniently, here she comes — CeCe, whose confidence on a scale from one to ten was at a 25 (her words), came out and proudly announced that she too would be singing Whitney. "OOOOOHHHHH" said everybody. Sing-off! CeCe ultimately sang it better, in my opinion. Her voice had more... texture to it, and she didn't falter at all on the high notes. "One of you actually nailed it," Simon said. He never told us which one, but CeCe had an inkling. "I'm about to bring the CeCe thunder here at bootcamp," she said. Okay.
Then, unceremoniously, it was time for cuts. They played the Requiem For a Dream song while the judges made their choices, which shows you exactly what kind of show X Factor is — a modern-day incarnation of the theatre of the absurd. X Factor cuts are heroin-addict levels of serious. So they split the contestants into three groups, and you know the rejects knew they were doomed as soon as they saw that they were with the kid who forgot the lyrics to "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and cried. The first group had Jennel, Jason Brock, Diamond White, and Paige Thomas, so you knew they would be safe. Simon did his usual "it's bad news" schtick, but I don't even think they fell for it. So 2002, Simon. Group B had Jessica Espinoza, and also that "Annie" girl, so it was a no. Britney was crying, "I'm Sexy and I Know It" Trevor Moran was crying, and it sucked. It always sucks. But X Factor would never end on a bad note (hah), so out came Group C, with CeCe Frey, the morbidly obese guy (Freddie Combs), Johnny Maxwell, Tara Simon and Jillian Jensen. They all went through, and the world would remain their oyster for at least another day.
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[PHOTO CREDIT: FOX]
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.