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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With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.
A complete list of 44th Annual Grammy Award winners, announced Wednesday night:
Record of the Year: Walk On, U2
Rap Album: Stankonia, OutKast
Song of the Year: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys
Album of the Year: O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Various Artists
Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal: "Elevation," U2
New Artist: Alicia Keys
Country Collaboration with Vocals: "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen and Pat Enright (The Soggy Bottom Boys), from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
Female Pop Vocal Performance: "I'm Like a Bird," Nelly Furtado
R&B Album: Songs in A Minor, Alicia Keys
Rock Song: "Drops of Jupiter," Charlie Colin, Rob Hotchkiss, Pat Monahan, Jimmy Stafford and Scott Underwood (Train)
Pop Collaboration with Vocals: "Lady Marmalade," Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink
Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal: "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," U2
Rock Album: "All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2
Male Pop Vocal Performance: "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," James Taylor
Pop Instrumental Performance: "Reptile," Eric Clapton
Dance Recording: "All For You," Janet Jackson
Pop Instrumental Album: No Substitutions--Live in Osaka, Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather
Pop Vocal Album: Lovers Rock, Sade
Traditional Pop Vocal Album: Songs I Heard, Harry Connick Jr.
Female Rock Vocal Performance: "Get Right With God," Lucinda Williams
Male Rock Vocal Performance: "Dig In," Lenny Kravitz
Hard Rock Vocal: "Crawling," Linkin Park
Metal Performance: "Schism," Tool
Rock Instrumental Performance: "Dirty Mind," Jeff Beck
Alternative Music Album: Parachutes, Coldplay
Female R&B Vocal Performance: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys
Male R&B Vocal Performance: "U Remind Me," Usher
R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "Survivor," Destiny's Child
R&B Song: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys (Alicia Keys)
Traditional R&B Album: "At Last," Gladys Knight
Rap Solo Performance: "Get Ur Freak On," Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
Rap Performance by a Duo or Group: "Ms. Jackson," OutKast
Rap/Sung Collaboration: "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," Eve Featuring Gwen Stefani
Female Country Vocal Performance: "Shine," Dolly Parton
Male Country Vocal Performance: "O Death," Ralph Stanley, from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "The Lucky One," Alison Krauss + Union Station
Country Instrumental Performance: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Earl Scruggs, Glen Duncan, Randy Scruggs, Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Gary Scruggs, Albert Lee, Paul Shaffer, Jerry Douglas and Leon Russell
Country Song: "The Lucky One," Robert Lee Castleman (Alison Krauss + Union Station)
Country Album: Timeless--Hank Williams Tribute, Various Artists
Bluegrass Album: New Favorite, Alison Krauss + Union Station
Contemporary Jazz Album: M2, Marcus Miller
Jazz Vocal Album: The Calling, Dianne Reeves
Jazz Instrumental Solo: "Chan's Song," Michael Brecker
Jazz Instrumental Album: This Is What I Do, Sonny Rollins
Large Jazz Ensemble Album: Homage To Count Basie, Bob Mintzer Big Band
Latin Jazz Album: Nocturne, Charlie Haden
Rock Gospel Album: Solo, DC Talk
Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album: CeCe Winans, CeCe Winans
Southern, Country or Bluegrass Album: Bill & Gloria Gaither Present A Billy Graham Music Homecoming, Bill and Gloria Gaither and The Homecoming Friends
Traditional Soul Gospel Album: Spirit of the Century, The Blind Boys of Alabama
Contemporary Soul Gospel Album: The Experience, Yolanda Adams
Gospel Choir or Chorus Album: Love Is Live!, LFT Church Choir, Hezekiah Walker, choir director
Latin Pop Album: La Musica De Baldemar Huerta, Freddy Fender
Latin Rock/Alternative Album: Embrace the Chaos, Ozomatli
Traditional Tropical Latin Album: Dejame Entrar, Carlos Vives
Salsa Album: Encore, Robert Blades
Merengue Album: Yo Por Ti, Olga Tanon
Mexican/Mexican-American Album: En Vivo ... El Hombre y Su Musica, Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos del Norte
Tejano Album: Nadie Como Tu, Solido
Traditional Blues Album: Do You Get the Blues?, Jimmie Vaughan
Contemporary Blues Album: Nothing Personal, Delbert McClinton
Traditional Folk Album: Down From the Mountain, Various Artists
Contemporary Folk Album: Love and Theft, Bob Dylan
Native American Music Album: Bless the People--Harmonized Peyote Songs, Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike
Reggae Album: Halfway Tree, Damian Marley
World Music Album: Full Circle/Carnegie Hall 2000, Ravi Shankar
Polka Album: Gone Polka, Jimmy Sturr
Musical Album for Children: Elmo and the Orchestra, Sesame Street Characters
Spoken Word Album for Children: Mama Don't Allow, Tom Chapin
Spoken Word Album: Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Quincy Jones
Spoken Comedy Album: Napalm and Silly Putty, George Carlin
Musical Show Album: The Producers, Original Broadway Cast with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, lyricist and composer Mel Brooks
Compilation Soundtrack Album For a Motion Picture, Television or other Visual Media: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Various Artists
Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or other Visual Media: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, composer Tan Dun
Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media: "Boss of Me," (They Might Be Giants from Malcolm in the Middle), songwriters They Might Be Giants
Instrumental Composition: "Cast Away (End Credits)," Alan Silvestri (Alan Silvestri)
Instrumental Arrangement: "Claude Debussy 'Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum' from Children's Corner," Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer (Bela Fleck with Joshua Bell and Gary Hoffmann)
Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s): "Drops of Jupiter," Paul Buckmaster (Train)
Recording Package: "Amnesiac (Special Limited Edition)" (Radiohead)
Boxed Recording Package: "Brain in a Box--The Science Fiction Collection," (Various Artists)
Album Notes: (tie) Richard Pryor ... And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992), (Richard Pryor); Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000 The Journey Of Chris Strachwitz, (Various Artists)
Historical Album: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, (Billie Holiday)
Engineered Album, Non-Classical: The Look of Love, (Diana Krall)
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical: T Bone Burnett
Remixed of the Year, Non-Classical: Deep Dish, "Thank You (Deep Dish Vocal Remix)" (Dido)
Engineered Album, Classical: Bernstein (Arr. Brohn & Corigliano): West Side Story Suite (Lonely Town; Make Our Garden Grow, Etc.) (Joshua Bell)
Producer Of The Year, Classical: Manfred Eicher
Classical Album: Berlioz: Les Troyens, James Mallinson, producer
Orchestral Performance: "Boulez Conducts Varese (Ameriques; Arcana; Deserts; Ionisation)," Pierre Boulez (Chicago Sym. Orch.)
Opera Recording: "Berlioz: Les Troyens," Sir Colin Davis; Michelle De Young, Ben Heppner, Petra Lang, Peter Mattei, Stephen Milling, Sara Mingardo, Kenneth Tarver; James Mallinson, producer (Various Artists; London Sym. Orch.)
Choral Performance Award: "Bach: St. Matthew Passion," Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Arnold Schoenberg Chamber Orch. and Wiener Sangerknaben; Concentus Musicus Wien)
Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance: "Strauss Wind Concertos (Horn Concerto; Oboe Concerto, etc.)," Dale Clevenger, horn; Larry Combs, clarinet; Alex Klein, oboe; David McGill, bassoon; Daniel Barenboim, piano/conductor (Chicago Sym. Orch.)
Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra): "Britten Cello Suites (1-3)," Truls Mork, cello
Chamber Music Performance: "Haydn: The Complete String Quartets," The Angeles String Quartet
Small Ensemble Performance (with or without Conductor): "After Mozart (Raskatov, Silvestrov, Schnittke, Etc.)," Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer, violin
Classical Vocal Performance: "Dreams & Fables--Gluck Italian Arias (Tremo Fra' Dubbi Miei; Di Questa Cetra in Seno, etc.)," Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo soprano
Classical Contemporary Composition: "Rouse: Concert De Gaudi for Guitar and Orch.," Christopher Rouse, composer
Classical Crossover Album: Perpetual Motion (Scarlatti, Bach, Debussy, Chopin, etc.) Bela Fleck, banjo (Joshua Bell, violin; Evelyn Glennie, marimba; Gary Hoffman, cello; Edgar Meyer, bass and piano; Chris Thile, mandolin; John Williams, guitar)
Short Form Music Video: "Weapon of Choice," Fatboy Slim featuring Bootsy Collins
Long Form Music Video: "Recording the Producers--A Musical Romp With Mel Brooks," Mel Brooks (with Various Artists including Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick)
New Age Album: A Day Without Rain, Enya
Steven Soderbergh's crime-drama "The Limey" and Alexander Payne's high school satire "Election" led the pack of (relatively) low-budget, high-expectation projects as nominations were announced Wednesday for the 15th Annual Independent Spirit Awards, honoring, yes, indie film.
"The Limey" and "Election" received a field-best five nominations each. Hollywood blockbusters such as "Toy Story 2" and "The Green Mile" received zippo. (They're not indies.)
With the studio heavyweights excluded, a variety of films that failed to garner tremendous box office during the 1999 film season found redemption as the Spirit nominations were handed down. David Lynch's "The Straight Story", a simple yet powerful film about an aging man's trek across country on his lawn mower, earned four nominations. Kimberly Peirce's controversial "Boys Don't Cry" also received four nods -- including ones for best lead actress (Hilary Swank) and best supporting female (Chloe Sevigny).
The five films slated to do battle in the main best-picture event are: Payne's "Election," Soderbergh's "The Limey," Lynch's "The Straight Story," Allison Anders and Kurt Voss' "Sugar Town", and Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune".
Awards will be handed out in Santa Monica on March 25 -- the day before the Oscars. The Spirits are sponsored by the Independent Feature Project/West.
The following is the complete list of nominations for the 15th annual IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards:
BEST FEATURE "Election" "The Straight Story" "The Limey" "Cookie's Fortune" "Sugar Town"
BEST FEMALE LEAD Diane Lane, "Walk on the Moon" Janet McTeer, "Tumbleweeds" Hilary Swank, "Boys Don't Cry" Susan Traylor, "Valerie Flake" Reese Witherspoon, "Election"
BEST MALE LEAD John Cusack, "Being John Malkovich" Richard Farnsworth, "The Straight Story" Terence Stamp, "The Limey" David Strathairn, "Limbo" Noble Willingham, "The Corndog Man"
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE Barbara Barrie, "Judy Berlin" Vanessa Martinez, "Limbo" Sarah Polley, "Go" Chloe Sevigny, "Boys Don't Cry" Jean Smart, "Guinevere"
BEST SUPPORTING MALE Charles S. Dutton, "Cookie's Fortune" Luis Guzman, "The Limey" Terrence Howard, "The Best Man" Clark Gregg, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" Steve Zahn, "Happy, Texas"
BEST DIRECTOR Alexander Payne, "Election" Harmony Korine, "julien donkey-boy" Steven Soderbergh, "The Limey" David Lynch, "The Straight Story" Doug Liman, "Go"
BEST SCREENPLAY Kevin Smith, "Dogma" Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, "Election" Audrey Wells, "Guinevere" Lem Dobbs, "The Limey" James Merendino, "SLC Punk!"
BEST FIRST FEATURE ($500,000-plus budget) "Being John Malkovich" "Three Seasons" "Boys Don't Cry" "Twin Falls Idaho" "Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl"
BEST FIRST FEATURE (less than $500,000 budget) "The Blair Witch Project" "La Ciudad" "Compensation" "Judy Berlin" "Treasure Island"
BEST DEBUT PERFORMANCE Kimberly J. Brown, "Tumbleweeds" Jessica Campbell, "Election" Jade Gordon, "Sugar Town" Toby Smith, "Drylongso" Chris Stafford, "Edge of Seventeen"
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY Tod Williams, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" Charlie Kaufman, "Being John Malkovich" Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen, "Boys Don't Cry" Anne Rapp, "Cookie's Fortune" John Roach and Mary Sweeney, "The Straight Story"
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHER M. David Mullen, "Twin Falls Idaho" Lisa Rinzler, "Three Seasons" Anthony Dod Mantle, "julien donkey-boy" Jeffrey Seckendorf, "Judy Berlin" Harlan Bosmajian, "La Ciudad"
BEST FOREIGN FILM "All About My Mother" (Spain) "Run Lola Run" (Germany) "My Son the Fanatic" (England) "Topsy-Turvy" (England) "Rosetta" (Belgium-France)
DLJ DIRECT TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD (for documentaries) Owsley Brown, "Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles" Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan, "On the Ropes" Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson, "Well Founded Fear" Rory Kennedy, "American Hollow"
MOVADO SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD (for new directors) Dan Clark, "The Item" Julian Goldberger, "Trans" Lisanne Skyler, "Getting to Know You" Cauleen Smith, "Drylongso"
MOTOROLA PRODUCERS AWARD Pam Koffler, "I'm Losing You" and "Office Killer" Eva Kolodner, "Boys Don't Cry" and "Hide and Seek" Paul Mezey, "La Ciudad" Christine Walker, "Backroads" and "Homo Heights"