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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Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.
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.
An expose by editors at In Touch Weekly claimed the Two And A Half Men star had been spotted sneaking into the apartment block of lingerie model Angelina Tracy wearing a disguise - including a false moustache.
But the star's spokesman Stan Rosenfield insists Tracy is not Sheen's mistress - she's the sister of someone he is helping as part of his 12 step rehab recovery program.
Rosenfield tells TVGuide.com, "The woman in question is the sister of one of Sheen's campmates, and Sheen was only responding to a 12th step call."
The rep explains the reason for the disguise: "Since Sheen knew he was being followed and how this would look, he wore the moustache in a tongue and cheek disguise gesture."
Sheen entered a rehabilitation centre in February (10) as a "preventative measure" following his Christmas Day (25Dec09) arrest for allegedly attacking his wife. Sheen has pleaded not guilty to third-degree assault, menacing, and criminal mischief and will stand trial in July (10).
Top Story: Case Against Phil Spector Delayed
Detectives in Los Angeles will not be ready to present a case against music producer Phil Spector at his scheduled court date next week, The Associated Press reports. Spector, 62, was arrested for investigation of murder after the body of actress Lana Clarkson was found in the entrance hall of his mansion in suburban Alhambra, Calif., on Feb. 3. In an Esquire magazine interview last month, Spector implied Clarkson may have shot herself, but sheriff's investigators have discounted suicide as a possible cause of death. Spector, whose "wall of sound" recording technique transformed 1960s pop music, is free on $1 million bail.
Enough Exposure for Cameron Diaz
Cameron Diaz believes she already has enough exposure. City News Service reports her attorneys will appear in a Santa Monica, Calif., courtroom today to request certain details be kept private in her suit against photographer John Rutter, whom the actress is suing to stop the release of photos taken during a modeling shoot. Rutter claims Diaz signed a release for the photos, one he says is a topless shot. He says he has verbally agreed not to sell the photos, which are being held in a safe deposit box until the outcome of the injunction hearing that begins Aug. 18.
Fox Searchlight Expands Beckham
Banking on the recognition of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl co-star Kiera Knightley, Fox Searchlight will further expand its soccer drama Bend It Like Beckham, releasing it wide for the first time. Fox Searchlight distribution president Steve Gilula told Variety it seemed like a good idea to capitalize on Knightley's newfound fame and the film's continued popularity. "Our screen count kept going down, but our screen averages have held real well," Gilula said. "We were hearing that the awareness of the film kept rising, but the movie wasn't playing anywhere." Beckham, which co-stars Parminder Nagra, reached the box office Top 10 in May with just 555 play dates, and through Sunday had earned $26.3 million domestically.
Law and Order, CSI Top Ratings
Reruns of Law and Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation beat out a crop of new shows in the Neilsen ratings for the week of July 21-27 in the summer battle for TV domination, the AP reports. NBC won the week, averaging 7.7 million viewers followed by CBS ( 7.4 million); ABC (5.8 million); Fox (5.6 million); UPN (2.8 million); the WB (2.3 million); and Pax TV (820,000). The top 10 shows were: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation CBS; Law & Order, NBC; Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NBC; Without a Trace, CBS; Law & Order, NBC; Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; CSI: Miami, CBS; 60 Minutes, CBS; The King of Queens, CBS; Law & Order: SVU, NBC.
Prinze Jr. Inks MTV Deal
Freddie Prinze Jr. has inked a development deal with MTV to develop and co-write a teen movie comedy for the cable network. Prinze will write the project with his writing partner Conrad Jackson, with Stan Rogow (The Lizzie McGuire Movie) set to executive produce. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the untitled TV movie revolves around a group of teenagers trying to throw a prom, takes a comedic look at how the graduation ceremony is changing with the increasing cultural diversity of the typical student body.
Heavy D Drops 135 Pounds
Rapper-turned-actor Heavy D, whose real name is Dwight Myers, says he's dropped 135 pounds in the last year but said the loss wasn't prompted by health concerns, the AP reports. "I went on a couple auditions and one director was kind enough to say, 'Look, you would've had this part but you're not fitting, you're stifling yourself,'" he told the Television Critics Association last week. But the rapper, who earned three Grammy nominations and scored a hit with "We Got Our Own Thang" with Heavy D and the Boyz, said he has no plans to change his name. "There's a lot of checks involved with 'Heavy D,'so that name stays." Heavy D plays a mechanic in the planned show The Tracy Morgan Show for NBC.
Ja Rule Feuding With 50 Cent
Ja Rule says his feud with fellow New York rapper 50 Cent is the real deal. "We just don't like each other," he told AP Radio during a trip to South Africa. "You have a lot of artists (who think) a good beef will help their record sales. I think that's fickle." Ja Rule, whose latest album is The Last Temptation, says rappers like 50 Cent are just pretending to live a certain lifestyle. "I'm here, and I'm 'in the club popping the bub,'" he said. "That's what I do."
Role Call: Hawn in Bride and Joy, Leto Joins Alexander
MGM is in negotiations to option the Washington Post article Bride and Joy: Guiding Mom Down the Aisle as a starring vehicle for Goldie Hawn. That project, based on an article written by Francesca Segre that appeared in the Sept. 30 edition of the Post, centers on a newly engaged couple from different backgrounds trying to plan and execute a New Year's Eve wedding. Hawn would also produce the project through her Cosmic Entertainment banner ... Jared Leto is the latest thesp to join the cast of the Oliver Stone-directed epic Alexander for Intermedia and Warner Bros. Leto will play Alexander's top general and lifelong companion. Hephaistion. The film already stars Colin Farrell as Alexander, with Angelina Jolie as his mother and Anthony Hopkins as the general and future pharaoh Ptolemy.
Let's hear it for the old guy who in this movie comes off sexier than his buff young accomplice (Dermot Mulroney). OK the old guy happens to be the gracefully aging icon Paul Newman -- as a feisty heistmeister who dodges a long prison sentence and then teams up with his equally conniving rest-home nurse (Linda Fiorentino) on a bank job gone wrong. "Where the Money Is" is breezy suspenseful and as much a love story as anything else -- if you call mentoring a new life in crime a kind of love. The mission-improbable caper is no more or less entertaining than a "Rockford Files" rerun but the film's swerving joyride takes its real thrills from the great escape that Fiorentino's Bonnie Parker makes from a dead-end life in the married lane.
Newman still hasn't lost it and as Henry Manning he doesn't miss any nuances in the edgy balance between streetwise wariness and amiable rapport with his sultry new colleague. The steam-powered Fiorentino has forged her career by making danger look casual and this is her most alluring work since "The Last Seduction" added another zero to her salary. Her chemistry with Newman a flirty twist on the idea of honor among thieves is really what makes this movie worth seeing. Mulroney is serviceable as the dim but lovable hubby a supporting role that's more foil than fully etched character.
We can all thank director Marek Kanievska for deciding not to have the May-December duo end up in the sack and leaving them simply professional cohorts. The director's admirable sense of comic timing works all the better by not letting the laughs get in the way of his leads' exploration of their characters -- although there's no denying the limits of this frothy genre. Perhaps Kanievska's greatest feat here is allowing Newman to retain his dignity in close-up.