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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For an episode called "The Genoa Tip," there wasn't much mention of the top-secret operation that gets the whole newsroom in trouble. But there was still plenty of drama to go around, which was all wrapped up by a solemn country song.
This wasn't a good week for Maggie, but then again, it almost never is. She decides to creepily track down Erica, the girl who posted her Sex and the City-fueled tirade online, by finding her on Foursquare. Maggie and Sloan confront Erica in a laundromat in Queens, which is not weird or stalkery at all. Erica is understandably freaked out, but then gets excited as she recognizes Maggie from her video and starts asking her questions. Sloan offers to tweet about Erica's SATC fanfiction if she takes the video down.
Despite the tweet, Erica does not take the video down, and instead decides to blog about the laundromat showdown. Lisa finally sees Maggie's recorded outburst, and subjects her to the scariest hug of all time. Calm but noticeably upset, Lisa accuses Maggie of setting her up with Jim because she knew things would never get serious between them.
After losing her boyfriend and her best friend, Maggie sets her sights on Africa. She gets the go-ahead from Mac to travel to Uganda for a story, but we already know that doesn't end up going too well. Poor Maggie.
Feeling Under the Weather
We got a little more of Will McAvoy's backstory in this episode. This is a man who took the anchor desk for the first time on 9/11 and promised his audience that he wasn't going anywhere. Ten years later, he has to watch two other people cover the anniversary of that day and read the words that he wrote for them. The audience no longer trusts him like they used to, and he craves their approval. He's so ashamed that he tells the staff that he took himself off the 9/11 coverage, just to save face (although no one believes him).
When it's reported that an American was targeted and killed by a drone strike in Yemen, Mac and Charlie want Will to go on air and demand that the administration release the memorandum authorizing the strike. Will doesn't want to alienate his audience even more by looking like he's defending a terrorist, but the argument is interrupted by a phone call from Neal. He attended an Occupy Wall Street rally and was arrested. Will goes to bail Neal out of jail and basically throws a little hissy fit at a police officer. The officer asks him "Are you feeling alright?" like any sane person would, and Will replies "Yeah, I just had the flu for a while."
Swing Votes and Lobbyists
Don has been following the case of Troy Davis, a black man who was convicted of killing a white cop in Georgia. Davis has been in prison for 20 years and is soon to be executed unless he receives clemency. Don believes there is reasonable doubt in his case and wants Will to cover the story, but Will refuses.
Don gets more desperate as he hears from a source that the Georgia parole board has been lobbied and the swing vote is now voting against clemency. He wants to report on the development but doesn't have his source on the record. He briefly considers threatening to reveal his source's name, but knows that's going too far. That night, Don receives a report that Davis was executed.
Like the Headsail on a Boat
Jerry gives Mac the full details of Operation Genoa that he heard from Cyrus. Two soldiers were held in a village in Pakistan, and the Marines sent in to rescue them used sarin gas on civilians. Mac thinks the story is ridiculous and couldn't possibly be true, but Jerry spends the rest of the episode trying to contact Gunnery Sergeant Eric Sweeney. Once he finally gets him on the phone, Eric confirms to Jerry and Mac that Genoa was real and that American troops did indeed use sarin gas on civilians. Mac and Jerry look at each other in shock, and then Willie Nelson finally stops singing (seriously, that song went on forever).
Jim finally gets on the Romney campaign bus, courtesy of a reporter named Hallie. Fun fact: that's Meryl Streep's daughter! He also receives a breakup email from Lisa and ignores Maggie's call about Africa.
Why is Sorkin under the impression that all women love Sex and the City?
Will reads online hate about himself during his own broadcast. Pull yourself together, man.
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Overshadowed by the mighty NYCC this past weekend was another New York celebration of movies: the Hamptons International Film Festival. In recent years, HIFF has been an early step in the rise to notoriety of films like the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and Golden Globe-winning The Wrestler. This year's HIFF offered a slew of promising films, winning a variety of awards. Below is a complete list of HIFF's award-winning films for 2011.
AUDIENCE AWARD NARRATIVE
The Artist, directed by Michael Hazanavicius
AUDIENCE AWARD DOCUMENTARY
Hard Times: Lost on Long Island, directed by Marc Levin
AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER FOR BEST SHORT
Two's a Crowd, directed by Jim Isler and Tom Isler
NARRATIVE JURY WINNER
The Fairy, directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy
DOCUMENTARY JURY WINNER
Laura, directed by Fellipe Barbosa
SHORT DOCUMENTARY JURY WINNER
The Strange Ones, directed by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein
THE KODAK AWARD FOR BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Without, directed by Mark Jackson
THE WOUTER BARENDRECHT PIONEERING VISION AWARD
Without, directed by Mark Jackson
THE VICTOR RABINOWITZ AND JOANNE GRANT AWARD FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
You've Been Trumped, directed by Anthony Baxter
THE ALFRED P. SLOAN FOUNDATION FEATURE FILM PRIZE
Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, directed by Anne Howell and Lisa Robinson
THE BRIZZOLARA FAMILY FOUNDATION AWARD FOR A FILM OF CONFLICT AND RESOLUTION
The Bully Project, directed by Lee Hirsch
In addition to the outstanding films, the Hamptons International Film Festival also recognizes actors and actresses in a category called Breakthrough Performance Recipients. 2011's winners include:
Emily Browning for her performance in Sleeping Beauty
Alexander Skarsgard for his performance in Melancholia
Stine Fischer Christiansen for her performance in Cracks in the Shell
Ezra Miller for his performance in Another Happy Day
Shailene Woodley for her performance in The Descendants
Anton Yelchin for his performance in Like Crazy
Hugh Jackman will join Jeon Ji-Hyunand and Li Bingbing in director Wayne Wang's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the trades report.
While local media called his role the male lead, Jackman's publicist told The Hollywood Reporter that "at this point in time, he is doing an unbilled cameo."
This would be Jackman's first project in China, adding him to a growing list of Hollywood stars who are heading East to work in the world's fastest-growing movie market. Kevin Spacey recently joined Chinese film Inseparable.
The English-language Snow Flower is an adaptation of Lisa See's novel about love between two women and the rigid codes that govern their friendship in 19th century China. Wendi Murdoch, wife of Rupert Murdoch, and Florence Sloan, wife of MGM chairman Harry Sloan, are co-producing.
Shooting began this week in Hengdian studios in Zhejiang province.
Zhang Ziyi was originally due to star in the film and serve as co-producer, but the actress dropped out last month.
Wang is best-known for directing Smoke and Blue in the Face.
A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.