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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In the vein of Field of Dreams Astronaut Farmer is about building the seemingly impossible. Thankfully in this case it’s simply a rocket in the barn not a ballpark in a cornfield where ghosts of baseball heroes past can play the game. That is a bit far-fetched. Instead we meet Charles Farmer (Thornton) a man who was once on track to be an astronaut but was forced to leave NASA to save his family farm. He still wants to go into space however and so sets out to build a rocket inside his barn. By the time the movie starts the rocket is pretty much put together so we aren’t burdened with how he gets his supplies. All Charles needs now is 10 000 pounds of fuel which shoots up a big red flag with the government--a government that now considers Charles a threat--while the media look at him as a big story. But no matter the odds nothing can deter Charles from his dream to break through the atmosphere and orbit the earth. It’s refreshing to see Thornton as a loving father who wants to inspire his kids rather than make them go get him another beer. Of course Charles Farmer isn’t all sweetness and light—he’s an obvious eccentric whose obsession to launch into space effects the entire family—and it’s definitely a role right up Thornton’s alley. Virginia Madsen does an admirable job as the loving and supportive wife who nonetheless puts her foot down when things get out of hand while Bruce Dern plays the grizzled but equally supportive father-in-law. There’s also a supportive lawyer played by Tim Blake Nelson. In fact besides the big evil NASA chief (J.K. Simmons) and two bungling FBI agents (Mark Polish and Jon Gries) everyone supports Charles in his crazy dream. How could he fail? From the writing-directing team of Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork) Astronaut Farmer is pure old-school—an unassuming throwback to those feel-good movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In fact Thornton told Hollywood.com he considers this his “Jimmy Stewart” movie. While the Polish brothers based Charles Farmer on their own eccentric father and obviously harbor their own boyhood dreams of being an astronaut the guys still follow a nice and simple formula finding some good actors to carry it out and adding cool visual effects when they can. Yes the more cynical moviegoer may look at Astronaut Farmer as completely improbable and trite. But those willing to be taken back to a simpler time--when movies were about walking out triumphant--should find watching Astronaut Farmer a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Tom Hanks stars as the charming but fiendishly eccentric Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III Ph.D.--a Southern gentleman and expert thief who masterminds a casino heist with a motley crew of goofy crooks. Setting up operations at the boarding house of the widowed Baptist-loving sassy Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall) Dorr convinces the older lady that he requires her cellar for his Renaissance-period music ensemble to practice. The band is in actuality his criminal team which plans to use the space to dig a tunnel into a riverboat casino and rob its safe. But with this oddball crew comprised of the hip-hop stylin' Gawain (Marlon Wayans) a janitor at the casino; ex-hippie and Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferer Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons); The General (Tzi Ma) a stoic chain smoking tunneling pro; and Lump (Ryan Hurst) an ex-football player whose brains are in short order problems are bound to arise. God-fearing Southern woman Mrs. Munson is initially charmed (after all they're not playing that "hippity-hoppity" music as she calls it) but once she catches wind of their scheme the dastardly characters must find a way to dispose of her. But how?
Stepping in the shoes of the great Guinness who played an almost Phantom of the Opera version of the English gallant Hanks creates an over-the-top Southerner who's part William Faulkner part Colonel Sanders. An eloquent Edgar Allen Poe-quoting dandy Hanks wears antebellum all-white and speaks with antiquated turns of phrase that are supposed to be alternately appealing and anachronistically funny. Supposed to be. Though under the direction of Joel Coen who can wring an effortless inspired verbose Kentucky character out of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou? Hanks' oddities are obvious at every turn. The performance is strained--right down to his goofy laugh--and unlike Guinness we never feel Dorr's underlying evil the element that made the original character so deliciously funny. This is a darkly comic character Hanks manages to make cute. The rest of the crew fares little better with the talented Wayans resting on easy "bust a cap in yo' ass" ghetto humor and Simmons' suffering one too many unfunny times from a bout with IBS (since when did the Coens resort to bathroom humor?). Hall is the saving grace here from back-talking her charges with gusto to giving a hilarious speech about the depraved elements of "hippity-hoppity music" to mistaking Dorr's dubious title of Ph.D. as "like Elmer Fudd?" she's a terrific comic foil. Too bad the cast didn't have enough stimulating material to bounce off her.
The Coen brothers usually work expertly with caricatures carefully balancing cartoonish madcap with people we actually care about. From Nicolas Cage's brilliant Hy in Raising Arizona to Jeff Bridges's pot-smoking The Dude in The Big Lebowski to Clooney in the aforementioned O Brother they're the masters of broad. Here however they make a misstep in both casting Hanks (Billy Bob Thornton would have been more appropriate) and to a larger extent messing with a movie that didn't need messing. The original 1955 version (directed by Alexander Mackendrick and also starring Peter Sellers) is darker than the Coens' take which relies more on slapstick and lunacy. Nevertheless the picture is technically gorgeous with cinematographer Roger Deakins creating a perfectly sunny Southern town mixed with a gothic underbelly of doom and tuned to an enlivened Gospel music score. And there are funny bits for sure played out in that precise unique Coen rhythm but given their past and potential genius the Coens are certainly capable of better. The Ladykillers lacks what we've come to know them for--a killer comic instinct.
Top Story: Angelina and Billy Bob Make It Official
Time to throw away those blood-filled amulets. Yes, the passionate but brief marriage between Oscar-winning Angelina Jolie, 27, and Billy Bob Thornton, 47, is officially a done deal. Reuters reports court documents were filed Tuesday by Jolie on the grounds of "irreconcilable differences" and uncontested. It was Thornton's fifth marriage and Jolie's second. Jolie's lawyers told Reuters the couple had reached an agreement over support and visitation rights for their adopted Cambodian son Maddox but she declined to reveal details.
Garner Takes a Break
In coping with her recent split with husband Scott Foley, Alias star Jennifer Garner took a much-needed hiatus in Hawaii and also visited her parents in West Virginia. In an interview to air Thursday on Access Hollywood, The Associated Press reports Garner told Pat O'Brien, "I have such great girlfriends, and I was able to go away with them to Hawaii for almost a week and I went home to my parents in West Virginia for a week, so I had a nice time away."
Harrison Ford Gets a Walk of Fame Star…Again
Harrison Ford will get a star on the famed Hollywood Walk of Fame Friday, even though he thought he had already received one. It turns out the other star belongs to a silent screen actor of the same name, who got the star in 1960. Ford was selected in 1984 to get a star but never responded. "Sometimes that happens with the nominations,'' Ana Martinez-Holler of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce told City News. "They'll change publicists, they'll change management, and aren't aware they had already been approved.'' The mistake came when Ford took the word of someone who informed him--incorrectly--that the other Ford's star was his, Martinez-Holler said. Whew. Glad they got it all straightened out.
Reeves Set to Make Millions Off Matrix Sequels
Exactly how much will Matrix star Keanu Reeves be making with the two Matrix sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions? Good question. Variety reports the intricate back-end deal Reeves made in 1999 when he agreed to do the sequels--which included not only box office sales but DVD, video game, TV sales and ancillaries--could net the actor anywhere from $90 million to near $200 million, depending on the final estimates. His friends must be saying, "Dinner's on Keanu!"
More on Jackson's Legal Woes
The latest suit to enter the courtroom against Michael Jackson could be the singer's most costly, as details of his personal life may be revealed. Reuters reports a lawsuit brought by Jackson's former financial advisor, Myung-Ho Lee, and his firm Union Finance and Investment Corp., claims the onetime King of Pop is broke, having squandered his fortune in "bizarre" ways while egged on by a string of "charlatans." They are seeking $12 million for alleged breach of contract and fraud. Jackson has counter-sued, claiming that his trusted advisor--whom he called "Lawyer Lee"--and Union Finance stole millions from him and destroyed records to cover up their misdeeds, Reuters reports.
P. Diddy Joins Fight Against NY Drug Law
Sean "P. Diddy" Combs stood up with rap mogul Russell Simmons and U.S. housing secretary Andrew Cuomo to call for a repeal of New York's strict Rockefeller drug laws, AP reports. The laws, passed in the 1970s, can subject first-time offenders to 15 years to life in prison if convicted of selling as little as 2 ounces or possessing as little as 4 ounces of a controlled substance. Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature have been unable to agree on how to reform or repeal them, AP reports.
Kelly Will Join Ozzy Onstage
Kelly Osbourne will team up with dad Ozzy later this year on a U.K. concert tour, Ozzy's first British gig in eight years, AP reports. "I couldn't be happier about doing my own dates in the UK and having Kelly on the bill with me," Ozzy said on the Web Site, www.ozzynet.com. "I decided that this would be a great opportunity to bring my full stage show over to rock the UK."
Role Call: Jovovich's Ultraviolet
Milla Jovovich has signed with Screen Gems to reprise her role in the Resident Evil sequel as well as to play the title character in Ultraviolet, a futuristic vampire tale. Variety reports the film is about a tough woman who finds herself the protector of a 9-year-old boy targeted for death. Backdrop is a civil war in the late 21st century between humans and a subculture turned into vampires.